The world we want

The United Nations is betting heavily on the internet as a forum for global participation in the world’s development agenda post-2015, that is, the new agenda that will set the course for the world’s development actions once the Millenium Development Goals have reached their expiry date in 2015.

This time, the idea is that citizens like me and you from all over the world participate in a global conversation on shaping the new development goals. For this, the UN has created the Global Survey for a better World, an opinion poll where people can vote for their priorities from a list of development issues. They have also created a site called The World We Want, a discussion forum to promote a global conversation on the new development agenda.

This UN initiative is without a doubt an interesting take on citizen participation in the global governance agenda. It remains to see, however, if this can promote a true global participation, and if this grassroot participation translates into real results when the agenda is finally set.

The answer, the emperor’s new clothes or exaggeration?

The internet and more specifically online social media have been, in recent years, increasingly held up as the world’s great leveller, allowing people to gain access to information, communicate, participate and discuss in ways and on a scale that had hitherto never been thought possible. We often hear commentators speak of geographical and socio-economic lines being crossed, new and diverse relationships and communities being formed, and even political and civic empowerment being felt by those who otherwise live their lives as marginalised members of their society, all through social media. As Ananda Mitra and Tamara Witschge put it ‘The Internet is seen as a new discursive space that allows groups normally silenced in traditional media to ‘voice themselves and thus become visible and make their presence felt’ (Reclaiming the Media, Pg. 130).

All of this is undeniably impressive and no one would dare argue against the great leaps in connectivity and access to information that these tools have made. Indeed over the years, whilst these credentials and the incredible (perhaps literally) potential of social media for reaching out and connecting people have been trumpeted by the mainstream media and commentators, so politicians, governments, development agencies, businesses, even the British Queen, have leapt on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, in order to gain access to the limitless, open, engaged and powerful community that has been promised.

But does that community really exist, at least as the open, pluralistic, democratic space that is painted? Does social media really facilitate the forms and levels of dialogue and participation that are so often attributed to it, or is it just a case of the emperors new clothes?  Continue reading

Voting, the shock of the old

On Monday this week over 87% of those who had registered to vote in Kenya stood in queues at polling stations for up to 12 hours in the baking heat to assert their democratic right.  I walked around the corner from my house and my jaw dropped at the sight of the queues which stretched in both directions as far as I could see. It was an emotional moment.  I am not Kenyan but I have lived here long enough to see how just the thought of democracy catalyses participation.  I have also lived in Britain long enough to see how it is treated with apathy and derision.

A glance at the people in the queue was interesting not least for the demographic spread but also for the number of people glaring intently at their phones, often with tiny in-ear headphones.  Mobile penetration in Kenya has risen exponentially in the last 5 years – 74% of Kenyans, 3 in 4 people, have a mobile phone.  This in a country where the vast majority of people live on less than $2 a day. Data penetration is growing all the time – mobile data subscriptions account for 98% of all internet users.  The mobile phone is clearly a mighty tool in the pocket of your average Kenyan.

At the last election in 2007/2008 it was used as a platform to turn people against each other.  I remember receiving ‘hate’ messages which had clearly been sent in bulk.  Now the hate messages have been replaced by everyone urging “chagua peace” – “choose peace”.  A message which is not lost on most of the ordinary Kenyans going about their business.  As the count goes on and whispers of irregularities and technical ‘failures’ and possible ‘hacking’ surface, the option to choose peace appears to be wearing thin.

Technology was to be the saviour of this election – biometric registration kits, electronic transmission direct to the electoral commission headquarters, instant provisional results beamed across all tv and radio networks.  Instead returning officers were brought by all means of transportation from all 290 consitutencies with a confirmation of a manual count as the technology was left gathering dust in the polling centres. Kenyans were sold a pup.  By taking out the potential for malfeasance by reducing the human contact with the ballot, we forgot the important role human interaction plays in this process or what Michael Krona referred to in his lecture as the “significance of human participation”.  Seduced as we are by the obvious advantage of technology to help rule out human error, we forgot the essentially participatory nature at the heart of democracy. Continue reading

Twitter is the new kissing babies

In just a few days time 14 million people in my adopted home of Kenya will go to the polls.  These elections are remarkable on a number of levels: they are the first polls since independence in which Kenyans can vote for a number of elected officers from President to Women’s Representative; they are the first under a new constitution which offers more devolved power sharing and they are the first to have national televised debates.  For those in Western democracies the latter is nothing new.  To the average Kenyan this is a milestone in the democratic process and a sign of how far governance has evolved. For the first time all 8 presidential candidates faced questioning from moderators and members of the public on the same platform.

A boy watches the first presidential debate on a giant screen erected in a city park in Nairobi

Good governance is measured by a level of transparency and accountability. Advances in technology and social media participation particularly in the developing world are often seen as a crucial tool in extending democratic space, increasing transparency and promoting accountability. However the corollary of this argument is that there becomes what Lievrouw refers to as a blurring of the distinction between the ‘material’ and ‘symbolic’ use of the technology.  Put another way, “use of new media might in fact constitute movements and actions in themselves” (Lievrouw 2011: 157). Are we in danger then of assuming that the deployment of social media platforms in election campaigns or as part of social movements are by definition relevant because they are innovative? Is the impact and significance of ‘old media’ in the form of a television debate for example,  neatly juxtaposed with our embrace of ‘technological determinism’?

Continue reading