It has a been a number of years since mobile phone penetration rates began turning heads in development circles. Kenya, perhaps the most referenced country in regards to this statistic, reached 80% last year, which is still considered a low estimate by some. While this has brought significant cultural and economic changes, its supposed biggest dividend, transparency and better governance, has yet to be demonstrated for any sustained period. Making good on that promise is possible, but will require critical research approaches to identify and discover effective applications.
There has been a distinct tendency to speak about the potential of information and communications technology (ICT) in abstract and at length without qualifying the means by which it will effectuate this change. As one Foreign Policy article reflected, “the leapfrog effect was in every speech of every single economist talking about Africa for the last ten years”. The common approach across academic and policy circles seems to have been to assume that because mobiles proliferated with little intervention, so would their policy applications. This has generally been reflected both in the literature and what initiatives have been supported.
One such general analysis of the effect of mobile phones on governance accepts the beneficial attributes of mobiles to then conclude, “ICT, as seen in many developed countries, also facilitates a freer flow of information between government and citizens and opens up for opportunities for citizens to participate more directly in influencing decisions that effect them.” It represents a running tendency to affirm ICT’s potential without thoroughly parsing the mechanisms by which ICT, and specifically mobile phones, will precipitate better governance. This is both indicative and a result of this tendency of researchers, funding institutions, and policy makers to focus on its potential and existing models.
Kenya’s Missing Governance Revolution
Kenya, which has consistently been among the developing countries with highest mobile penetration rates illustrates the cause for experimental research. In 2002, the Communication Authority of Kenya recorded 1,325,222 mobile users, or about 4% of the population. Just ten years later, that number had grown over 2200% to 30,731,754 in 2012, equivalent to about 72% of the population using mobile phones. As a result many successful programs have emerged, such as M-PESA, which has made financial inclusion possible wherever someone has a mobile signal and allowing Kenyan’s to check their passport application status via SMS.
While very positive in their own right, in the relatively open civil society that Kenya has, an observer would also expect the success of mobile phones to also have fulfilled the promised dividends of transparency and better governance. However, leveraging the successive rounds of the Afrobarometer survey as a longitudinal index, the data is unconvincing.
Source: Afrobarometer data, Kenya
The underlying story in the Afrobarometer data is that Kenyans’ feelings about the frequency of officials being involved in corruption have not changed much since 2002. Looking specifically at the aggregate trend, the curve is marginally convex. In other words, based on these data, the trend in Kenya is headed towards a stabilization of perceived corruption, but at the moment, rates continue to grow, including between the most recent survey rounds. Looking at the broader picture, as seen in Figure 2, a country’s mobile phone endowment has very little impact on recent changes in corruption. (This remains true when limiting analysis to poorer countries.
It should be noted that stabilization may be itself a positive sign, and can represent what some researchers have found: mobile phone penetration and coverage do correlate with lower perceived corruption.
Source: World Bank; CIA World Factbook; Transparency International
However, the reality is we know very little about how and why that occurs, and moreover, this appears nothing like the sort of revolutions that have been promoted in policy and white papers. The ICT revolution and leapfrog effect have simply not reached the issue of governance in Kenya, and this holds true for many poor countries.
Theory Versus Practice
The field standard model for how mobiles can improve governance raises the idea of a social contract being violated by public officials. It assumes their illegal activity goes unpunished primarily because these crimes and relevant specifics are hidden from constituents or otherwise obscured. By continuation, without demonstrable proof about the activities of public officials and institutions, enforcing the social contract from the ballot box is a dubious endeavor. In theory, mobile phones possess the necessary potential to gather and distribute the information directly to constituents, allowing them to eventually punish or reward politicians with their votes.
The BungeSMS program attempted to leverage this and consisted of a hotline where citizens could articulate their concerns to their own Parliamentary representative, who, in turn, was expected to read and respond to those messages. It was spoken of favorably by groups like USAID and the World Bank and had international financial backing. Despite such support, BungeSMS did not remain active for more than a year, succumbing to a developed pattern known as pilot-then-die syndrome. So where do BungeSMS and similar programs go wrong?
ICT researcher, Richard Heeks, highlights that as “technology is conceived as an objective and rational entity, not as something that incorporates particular political and cultural values.” In developing countries, this is very problematic: as another scholar shows, in many cases, what international policy circles define as corruption has often been an integral part of popular legitimacy of politicians. While political liberalization has occurred in many African nations, legitimacy norms and cultural values remain incredibly relevant when considering who gets votes and who is on the receiving end of public scrutiny.
In other words, there is a world of unexplored nuance between sending and receiving information via SMS and triggering political change. This wide gap in the research continues to prevent the creation of mobile phone platforms and programs that are indeed capable of leveraging usage rates to directly reform and improve institutions.
What is Needed
Cash transfers, a policy tool that has been nothing short of revolutionary in development, was not developed overnight, rather it was and continues to be propelled by a massive body of intense randomized study. Thanks to that dedication, objectively successful transfer programs are no longer the goal, and instead policy researchers and their funding institutions are looking at how to become more efficient.
ICT for development has not received anywhere near as much experimental attention or research funding, but in countries like Kenya, those opportunities for rigorous and contextualized study are still there and riper than ever. Continuing to develop successful policies will require examining various dimensions of how mobile messaging can interact with legitimacy and governance. To list a few: What is their impact in multi-party versus single-party states? Should messages be framed positively or negatively? Are they most effective when coming from the government or private entities?
Experimental studies have the capability of answering those questions and more. Some of the seeds of that effort have begun to appear, several of which can be found at Evidence in Governance and Politics’s webpage. Building on those projects and answering these questions will open new avenues to design programs that can eventually bring to bear more transparent and better governance. To that end, the prioritization of ICT innovation by a few funding institutions, like Making All Voices Count, represent a significant step forward. However, many slow-to-move policy advocates, funder institutions, and researchers would do well to consider that the seemingly effortless manner in which mobile phones proliferated across Kenya and other African nations will not lead to equally effortless political transformation.
After decades of positive thinking about ICT’s potential to improve governance, it is time to finally invest in innovative research that can realize that transformation. Dialogue needs to shift away from past (and mostly defunct) programs towards the extant need for rigorous experimental exploration of the subject. By accepting that challenge, the potential for transparency and better governance may yet be realized and be nothing short of revolutionary.