In early 2015 in Uganda’s remote Kole district, a teacher at Baramindyang Primary School discovered that members of the local parent-teacher association (PTA) had embezzled some 700,000 Ugandan Shillings (about $225) from the school. Appalled, the teacher managed to get her hands on a photo of the meeting at which the embezzlers allegedly committed the theft. She then gathered parents and local leaders together for a meeting and threatened to show the picture to the police. In short order, the embezzlers handed the money back.
This happy ending was thanks to a programme run by the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET). The Kampala-based organisation, which has long been at the forefront of using technology to promote women’s rights, launched a programme in 2011 to train grassroots activists and local community members to use mobile phones, cameras and the Ushahidi mapping platform to report on corruption and other problems affecting the delivery of government services. The idea is that those newly empowered citizen activists will document on-the-ground examples of government failing to do its job, for example by taking pictures of an unfinished school or underequipped clinic. They can then transmit that evidence via SMS to Voluntary Social Accountability Committees (VSACs), groups of trusted, veteran community activists. It is then up to the committee members to figure out a strategy to take action around the problem. The Baramindyang teacher was a member of one of these committees. In that case, as in others, the digital evidence helped to drive a real-world campaign for change.
The project is being run in Kole and three other rural districts of northern Uganda, where most people are illiterate and unfamiliar with digital technology. WOUGNET also provides phones and cameras where necessary, and runs information centres where people can access the Internet. ‘Our training is basic,’ says programme manager Moses Owiny. ‘We show them step by step how to operate a camera, how to take quality pictures, how to delete, etc. All these things are quite phenomenal for them.’
Issues that the local activists identify are catalogued on an Ushahidi-driven map on WOUGNET’s website. Clicking around on it is like reading a news wire of important local issues. There’s certainly no shortage of these in a country rated as one of the world’s most corrupt by Transparency International. In another example in Kole last year, VSAC members took photos of a broken road culvert that local authorities were dragging their feet on repairing, and took the matter to the district government. ‘When there [were] further delays, community members blocked the road in a peaceful demonstration, leading to immediate action taken to repair and replace the broken culvert,’ wrote a local VSAC member.
Elsewhere, committees supported by WOUGNET have pressured government officials into providing funds to open a new health centre in Aloni parish, arresting five health workers in Amuru district for negligence and forcing a sloppy contractor to finish a road which, because a batch of drainage culverts had not been installed, had flooded so badly that it prevented merchants from getting to market and forced students to wade through water to get to school. That road is now passable for pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles.
Providing information on problems is a good start, but to actually get results real-world organising is crucial, says Dr. Loren Treisman, the Executive of Indigo Trust, a UK-based grant-maker that has provided funding to WOUGNET. ‘Because so many people have mobile phones, it’s a great tool in terms of scale, cost and speed for getting and giving people information,’ she says. ‘But tech is just a tool, not a panacea. It will only work if there’s a programme in place. You need people doing work offline – holding meetings, organising marches, building trust with government officials. You need to integrate the tech into real-world work.’
Owiny acknowledges that the programme has faced resistance from some local leaders who feel ‘witch-hunted’. In response, he says, ‘We try to let them know that this is joint work for the betterment of the community they serve.’
Beyond specific local campaigns, WOUGNET is hoping that its digital training efforts will have a broader, long-lasting impact. ‘The level of empowerment has significantly gone up,’ says Owiny. ‘No one can easily steal and get away with it. More community members now understand their rights than before.’
- Revealing information is not enough – change requires a real-world campaign driven by that information. Technology should be harnessed as an enabling tool and integrated with on-the-ground community coordination, such as holding meetings, organising marches, etc.
- Fighting corruption does not have to involve official action, as demonstrated by how local villagers forced embezzlers to return stolen money by threatening them with digital evidence.
- Training grassroots activists to report on corruption and failed government service delivery is key to capturing local issues.
- Building trusting relationships with local leaders and government officials, while also providing them with training on how to respond to citizens’ issues, is key to ensuring that issues are resolved.