Sipendi siasa or Governance Woes in East Africa

Today’s post comes to you from a very different part of the world and different part of academia. Ruth Carlitz is a graduate student at UCLA in Political Science and is in the early stages of her dissertation on governance and technology in East Africa. She’s also an East Africa rockstar, having lived there for a few years before graduate school, and continues to work with several on-the-ground development and governance projects in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. I had the pleasure of visiting Ruth while she was living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and she has had the good fortune to return several times since. She keeps me updated, so I thought she could update you all a bit, too, about what she is doing in that part of the world. Tomorrow, back to your regularly scheduled programming…  –EKF

As I stepped up to the customs counter in Dar Es Salaam, I put on a big smile, hoping that that my passable Swahili – and the fact that I wasn’t on an overpriced safari – would prompt someone to waive the $100 entry visa. I was only there for a few days, after all.

“Nasoma sayansi ya siasa!” I cheerily explained [I study political science].

“Sipendi siasa,” the paunchy, tired-looking customs official gruffly replied [I hate politics].

One hundred dollars later, I reflected on how his response gets at the heart of what I had been studying in Uganda and Tanzania this summer, and what I plan to explore further in my dissertation – namely, the promotion of ‘good governance’ by non-governmental actors.

While any number of factors has led to the decreasing popularity of traditional foreign aid, more and more development folks are focusing on governance reform.[1] The development community is coming around to the idea that poverty is largely a function of poor institutions and hence, reforming those institutions is the key to poverty reduction. Strategic interests may still rule the day, with governance reforms providing a fig leaf. However, I’m still curious to know what – if any – impact they are having.

I spent the past few months looking at how governance aid initiatives play out on the ground. In particular, I’m interested in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to promote government accountability in East Africa. How do rising access to mobile phones, and less dramatic, but still noteworthy, increases in Internet access and innovation interact with governance and governance aid.

Over the past few months, I have been working with the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative (ATTI). ATTI supports organizations in Africa that encourage citizens to use technology to hold their leaders accountable by providing access to credible public information, influence, and stewardship of resources. I have been documenting the experience of two ATTI-supported projects in Uganda in order to identify and understand motivation for and barriers to participation. Understanding who participates in these initiatives has important implications for their ultimate impact on accountability, particularly in East Africa, where politics has long been characterized by clientelism and catering to special interests. For instance, if these new initiatives only ‘empower’ the usual suspects (people who are already participating actively – typically urban, educated, middle-class men) they may fail to realize their goals of making government more accountable to the broader public.

My preliminary analysis shows that there are indeed major barriers to participation in these new initiatives, some of which pertain to technology access, and others having to do with politics. Given that I study sayansi ya siasa [political science] rather that sayansi ya kompyuta [computer science], I’ll focus on the latter.

In many cases, it seems that the main barrier to participation is that potential users just don’t see the point. Like my friend the customs official, they would prefer to avoid politics. Why engage with a government that has been historically unresponsive to the needs of ordinary citizens? Why take time and money to do something with no guarantee of improving anything? Beyond such pragmatism, the ‘voiceless’ to whom such initiatives aim to give voice may have good reasons for staying silent in regimes with histories of restricting free speech.

Development practitioners and scholars, myself included, often expect people to jump at any chance to improve their lot, since the challenges they face are so pressing. This ignores the fact that people have their own strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing with hardship—be it poverty or corruption—and may not be so eager to change them.

My time with these organizations has underscored the importance of meeting people where they are – understanding why people do what they do, and how new solutions can be integrated into their existing ways of working. Organizations like ATTI, CIPESA and Twaweza are making a conscious effort to do this, but it remains a challenge.


[1] For a discussion of recent shifts in foreign aid delivery see: Simone Dietrich and Joseph Wright, “Foreign Aid Delivery and Democratic Consolidation in Africa,” Unpublished Manuscript. (2012): 1–40; Richard Nielsen and Daniel Nielson, “Triage for Democracy: Selection Effects in Governance Aid,” Prepared for Presentation at the Department of Government, College of William & Mary, 5 February 2010. (February 1, 2010): 1–41; S Claessens, D Cassimon, and B Van Campenhout, “Evidence on Changes in Aid Allocation Criteria,” The World Bank Economic Review 23, no. 2 (July 24, 2009): 185–208.

Related: Marc F. Bellemare writes about intrahousehold allocation of mobile phones. It matters who gets the phone depending on what your goals are!

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Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

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