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Democracy: Eyes on Parliaments

Current Affairs

Democracy: Eyes on Parliaments

When it comes to learning about parliamentary debates, MPs and political processes, there is a huge information gap at the centre of Africa’s electoral democracies. Tom Jackson reports on some of the websites trying to bridge the divide and make politicians more accountable.

Over the last few decades, many African countries have transitioned from one-party states and military dictatorships to electoral rule. From north to south and east to west, Africa looks very different today compared to 30 years ago. However, despite this apparent shift, the extent to which the continent has truly democratised is heavily contested.   

According to the Mo Ibrahim Index, Mauritius is the only fully democratic African country; and a 2014 Afrobarometer survey found that while popular demand for democracy is rising, just 43% of Africans consider the country they live in to actually be democratic.

There is a range of factors underlying this disaffection, but one of them is the perceived distance between citizens and their lawmakers. And at the heart of this is a lack of access to information.

It is difficult to know who MPs are, follow their actions in parliament, and engage with parliamentary debate, creating an alienated and disengaged public.

In an attempt to bridge this gap, a number of websites have recently sprung up across the continent.

Kenya’s Mzalendo.com, which means “patriot” in Swahili, was set up in 2005 and is one of the first such sites. Among other things, the site contains profiles on MPs including their contact details, lists information about spending by Constituency Development Funds (CDF), and keeps an archive of parliamentary debate transcripts. It also features scorecards of different MPs’ performances and recently launched The People’s Shujaaz Awards to celebrate parliamentarians who have excelled.

In South Africa, the People’s Assembly website at pa.org.za provides a similar service in offering information on representatives as well as blog posts and articles about the functioning of parliament. Meanwhile, Odekro.org in Ghana publishes accessible and easily searchable parliamentary debate transcripts as well as details about parliament, political committees and MPs.
All three of these sites are funded by the UK-based Indigo Trust and NGO mySociety, which believe these hubs could be the first step towards greater transparency and engagement.

“While these sites are unlikely to lead to greater accountability in and of themselves, access to this critical information is an important first step,” says Loren Treisman of the Indigo Trust.

“Sometimes even a few watchful eyes are enough to change MPs’ behaviour.”

Previously, the basic information now listed online was virtually impossible for many people to access, and as Paul Lenz, chief operations officer at mySociety, explains: “Sites such as Mzalendo not only open up this information so that it can be easily accessed and searched by anyone with access to the internet, they also make it clear to the politicians themselves that whatever they say or do will be readily open to public scrutiny.”

Indeed, according to Jessica Muslila, who runs Mzalendo, these websites have already had some demonstrable impacts. During Kenya’s 2013 election, for instance, Muslila says that Mzalendo proved a “great equaliser” by providing information on political aspirants and became an established alternative to the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC), whose site kept going down due to too much traffic. In this time, Mzalendo grew significantly in legitimacy and popularity, both amongst the public and politicians.

“Over the campaign period, incumbent parliamentarians who knew they had a good track record in the House were quick to cite their performance as compiled by Mzalendo,” says Muslila.

“Voters in some parts of Kenya used Mzalendo’s data on the incumbent politicians to determine how to vote. In one part of Kenya, where seats are shared out based on clans, incumbent politicians’ records on Mzalendo informed which seats they were assigned to vie for.”

Rashaad Alli, the monitoring and projects manager of the People’s Assembly website, believes the South African site could be similarly effective and notes the current lack of political accountability in the country.

“MPs in South Africa do not need to make themselves accessible as they are responsible to their party only,” he says, referring to the country’s system of party list proportional representation. “No one is tracking their constituency work, which the parliament assigns large amounts of time to. Nor can the public access the attendance records of MPs.”

He believes that this has left ordinary citizens feeling disaffected. “[South Africans] feel disempowered and that they are too weak to make any impact,” says Alli. “They are disengaged and have outsourced their agency to interest groups.” By increasing access to information, he is hopeful that the People’s Assembly website can “grow a sense of MP accountability to the electorate”, begin to re-engage voters, and rebuild those links between citizens and their leaders.

Logging on to democracy
Despite some impressive early steps, the impact of these sites has thus far been relatively small. Mzalendo receives between 20,000 to 28,000 unique visitors a month, 65% of whom are in the 18-34 age group, while the People’s Assembly averages 12,000 unique visitors a month. Those involved say these numbers are steadily improving, but point out that growing audiences is not easy.

“Apathy and perceptions about parliament and elected office bearers are a challenge,” says Alli. “Illiteracy, language and access to technology are other factors. There is a digital divide in this country, though there is almost 100% saturation for cell phone access.”

Musila cites similar issues regarding Mzalendo’s progress. “Internet penetration and data absorption is still largely focused on the top 5 to 7 cities,” she says. “The majority of the population still has feature phones and cannot interact with our site via SMS. Though the number of smartphone users is fast rising as it is seen as a status symbol, most users don’t have much money to surf the net on their phone and visit our site frequently.”

As well as finding ways around this problem, Musila says Mzalendo is also currently embarking on a clever push to engage more politicians and their supporters. “Our current campaign is a guerrilla marketing tactic to get parliamentarians who have been nominated reaching out to their supporters to vote for them and also interact with us,” she says. “The campaign is also driving supporters of parliamentarians not nominated to scrutinise their records on Mzalendo.”

Ghana’s Odekro project faces hurdles in increasing its profile and audience too, but the project leader Emmanuel Okyere explains that obtaining accurate information has also proven to be a challenge at times.

“When we started the site, Parliament was not interested in collaborating with us, and giving us access to soft copies of the documents we wanted,” he says. “We had an incident when an MP threatened to sue us for putting information about her on Odekro that included inaccuracies. We pointed out to her that the data came from the official parliamentary website, and worked with her to correct the inaccuracies.”

Odekro, along with its counterparts across the continent, will inevitably face various challenges as they grow in stature and establish their place in the political environment. But these sites all report growing traction, and those running them express an unyielding belief that their initiatives will prove beneficial to their countries’ political landscapes in the long term. Democracy, after all, is not just about periodic elections, but engagement, representation and accountability, and many hope that these humble websites are a small but significant step in the right direction. As Okyere says: “This is huge for democracy.”

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