The thin line between citizen agency and apathy when it comes to civic technology

It’s a sunny segue between afternoon and evening at Hive Colab on Kanjokya St, Kamwokya. Civic technology upstart Evidence and Methods Lab (EML) has just had a successful launch of their U.S Mission in Uganda supported project to visualize complex budget data into short, and terse social media ready videos and commentary.

They hope that citizens will be more informed about critical budgetary processes and will thus be able to hold the government to account.

It’s now time to walk the talk. I bundle along the team from EML together with the delegation from the U.S Mission to the ghettos of Kamwokya where a session to screen the 2-3 minute videos in a local video hall (locally known as kibanda) is slated.

The kibanda is not so far, in fact, it is less than 2km from where we had the launch. We tear through a gathering rush hour gridlock leading from the adjacent Bukoto street across Kira Rd over to the Kamwokya market adjoined to a ghetto just below it.

It’s not heartening to immediately realize how quickly the environment changes. On one side, organization and prosperity, and on the other side disorganization and sheer poverty. Stark contrasts separated by just a road. Mark you, this is in Kamwokya -- where all the day’s action happens -- 5 km northeast of Kampala central business district.

On arrival, about 20 seemingly unaware marauders and revellers in the video hall were interrupted to receive ‘good news’ from the organizers. If looks can be deceptive, this time perception met reality. As if forced to watch a boring TV advert, the revellers immediately protested to a point of near violence. Everything happened so fast that we were no longer sure if the liaison area councillor, a political head, had actually informed and mobilized his people of a planned civic engagement.

The urban poor and ghetto people are mad at the government and above all, are not interested in talking about it. They won’t hear anything of it.

Albeit the strong resentment towards the government, some people, a handful, were willing to listen out. But the general sentiment is that public expenditure is there for a usury profiteer government elite who are not beholden by any duties and requirements, so they think.

Atypical pitch from one of EML’s champions goes, “The language used in budget documents is peculiarly filled with jargon and builds an impenetrable system of information that even experts struggle to comprehend. In this way, asking for accountability by the citizens becomes nearly impossible.”

The organizers from EML then asked the crowd to watch two short videos on budget allocations to health and education sectors upon which questions could be asked and comments made. This exercise would be quick enough that normal ‘kibanda’ programming would resume almost immediately.

Despite the locals’ preyful ebullience, on sight of the U.S mission spokesperson, that monies should be raised and disbursed to village savings organizations, the discourse of the evening was insightful and intimate. The concerns raised earlier at the panel discussion during the launch resurfaced: to achieve a mass appeal, the videos would have to be translated into local languages such as luganda, which is the commonest dialect. Also, the audience noted that information shared in the video needed to be sector specific, village/town/area specific. They needed to know how much would be disbursed to their local hospital for example. These concerns were duly noted down. And they meant one thing; work, work, more work.

Earlier at the launch, Phil Dimon the U.S Mission spokesperson lauded EML for steering the role of informing the citizenry in simplified and accessible ways. He cited the theory of change that basically says that economic prosperity is a result of good governance; where citizens are informed and trust the government to act in their best interests.

There were three key takeaways at the panel discussion comprising of Associate Prof. Julius Kiiza (Makerere university), Richard Ssewakiryanga (Uganda NGO Forum), Margaret Kakande (MoFPED) and Joy Namunoga (Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda) moderated by journalist Raymond Mujuni (NBS).

Several issues stood out.

Uganda's economy

Uganda’s political economy consists of over 75% of the population living in rural areas. And if statistical figures are anything to go by, there are now 10 million living in poverty, compared to 6,6 million four years ago, according to the Uganda National Household Survey (UNHS) 2016/17. These macro issues drive the citizen apathy towards attempting to hold the government to account. They might most likely have more pressing issues, and Karl Marx said, rural peasants are rooted in the soil just like their crops.

This effectively creates a demand-supply mismatch, where citizen apathy is rewarded with the government that doesn’t care. Moreover, regressive laws that do not encourage declaration of information by the duty bearers.

The way forward is to keep the engagement towards the equilibrium where the supply side is fixed by amending or repealing the regressive laws as the demand side is fixed by improving the socio-economic stakes of the citizenry.

Budget data

The presentation of budget data in numerical and complex English language has only meant that more and more people are excluded from the budgetary process. While Uganda’s literacy levels could be at the highest in her history.

However, the citizen agency could potentially be at its lowest in years. It’s proper to note that they are disaggregated on different parameters that could bring about some discrepancies on what actually is on the ground. That is why it’s important to break down this budget data in widely spoken local languages.

The most important feedback from the local screening in Kamwokya was that the social media ready videos must be broken down into local languages.

Underutilized data

The Ministry of finance has troves of data on all sectors of the economy on their website. However, most of this data is not fully utilized let alone understood by the general republic. The critical importance of civil society budget advocacy society and communicators such as EML could potentially be a plus.

//a fable: the relationship between citizens reading budget reports vis a vis reading social media privacy policies. Is it the laziness?

As a point of reflection, what if the citizens are actually aware and interested in government programmes, and governments are more than willing to declare information to the public in more accessible ways?

Would the issues of citizen agency vis a vis citizen apathy be of any concern?

In this age where distraction is the order of the day, reading of any kind is a form of protest. For example, as Carnegie Mellon researchers found out, it would take an average American full 76 working days to read privacy policies they agreed to each year. I guess the order of magnitude wouldn’t be far different for an ordinary Ugandan.

Perhaps people are not avoiding to read out of laziness. They are several other dynamics.

At face value, social media users at least get value (interactions, connections) from their networks albeit not reading privacy policies, country's citizens on the other end do not get adequate services whether they read the budget or not, whether they call out the government or not.

Maybe the line between apathy and agency is about value received.

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