Kenya: Citizen Watchdogs Go Online

Posted by: admin on Wed, 2011-03-30 15:57

Holding government officials accountable is the goal of a new project that solicits citizen reports via mobile phone. Through this Web-based public forum the government’s performance will be scrutinized – and, the hope is – improved.

By Dinfin Mulupi

Kenya – In a new forum here for citizen complaints, one recent report complains about inadequate medical care: “No medicine, no nurse at Nyamira Hospital. I am tired of this.”

Launched a month ago in test phase, the Web-based forum allows ordinary Kenyans to comment on the government’s success in performing basic functions. Using a mobile phone or computer, citizens can post comments which are then published on a public website. Called Huduma (which means “service” in Swahili), the platform solicits reports about government services in five areas: health, education, water, governance and infrastructure.

Connecting the Public to Public Servants

Huduma channels concerns, complaints and suggestions from citizens directly to service providers and policy makers. Philip Thigo of the Social Development Network (Sodnet), the NGO running the project, hopes Huduma will empower citizens to become activists. For many Kenyans, the act of questioning the government to anyone besides a neighbor is uncomfortable. Huduma provides citizens with an easily accessible outlet for voicing their concerns to a wider audience.

The multimedia, interactive platform receives citizen reports via SMS. Using Ushahidi technology, the website maps the reports and forwards them to the relevant organization. Huduma also monitors how long it takes for the particular organization to respond to the concerns raised.

Currently in the pilot phase, the platform is being tested in Lang’ata, Kisumu East, Murang’a and Bungoma counties. Eventually, the platform will be scaled up to all 47 counties after June 2011.

Thigo believes the platform could be useful not only to the public, but also to organizations, especially those that provide services.

“Authorities do not have credible feedback on how the public perceive their services,” said Thigo. “Some of them rely on their own officers for oversight, while others have suggestion boxes which are never opened.”

Thigo explains that Huduma is both a strategy and a tool. While it provides citizens with an outlet to voice their opinions, he hopes it will spark longer term discussions about government performance based on the evidence that surfaces on the platform. For instance, he says, it is very hard for Kenya’s parliamentarians to know what the citizens truly feel about their leadership.

“They hear rumors of how bad they are, but every time they go to their constituencies, they are heaped with praises of how good their leadership is,” says Thigo. “Citizens cannot tell them the truth to their faces. But they can do it on the Huduma platform.”

Sodnet, which runs projects to address “poverty and disempowerment” in Kenya, created the Huduma platform based on a budget-tracking tool it had developed earlier. The tool was designed to monitor and track the spending of government funds like the Ksh.14.2 billion “Constituency Development Fund”, which has been tainted by allegations of mismanagement.

Currently, officials at the Ministry of Water are under investigation after corruption charges were made by a citizen through the tool. But even with its successes, the Budget Tracking Tool had its flaws, and Huduma was developed to avoid these weaknesses.

“It created a power hierarchy – only the knowledgeable and informed citizen could engage with it,” says Thigo. “It did inform the public, but we cannot ascertain that the tool created new activists.”

Monitoring the Development Field

Through Huduma and its other initiatives, Sodnet is working to fill the gap between the development and technology worlds. According to Thigo, a lot of donor funding in Africa is channeled to the same location for the same projects. The effect of this is that some areas, like Nairobi’s Kibera informal settlements, are heavily donor funded.

“Heavy funding opens doors for corruption,” says Thigo. “A lot of duplication of projects is also a waste of resources.”

To counter this, Sodnet is compiling a database of all NGOs operating in Kenya and tracking their activities, demographics and connection with citizens.

“Most NGOs are reluctant to give out this information,” says Thigo. “We have resorted to dealing with organizations that fund them. If an NGO received funding for education, we want to know how many students they have offered scholarships to.”

Thigo believes civil society can play a critical role in the development agenda in Africa, but it has to reinvent its role and interaction with the public. With the launch of Huduma, Kenya is taking a step toward a more interactive and transparent public sector.

Additional info: SODNET website

Dinfin Mulupi is a business journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is currently the East Africa corresp for an online business paper based in Cape Town in South Africa.
Recent Articles by Dinfin

Challenging Kenya’s Powerful through Satire
Kibera Citizens Turn Reporters



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