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Presentation delivered at the Institute for African Development, Cornell University, September 2nd, 1999

Electronic governance and commercial development in Africa: the grass roots perspective.

Margaret Grieco,
Professor of Organisation and Development Management,
The Business School University of North London
Senior Visiting Fellow,
Institute for African Development,
Cornell University
Web site:
Len Holmes,
Senior Lecturer Organisation and Employment Studies,
University of North London (at time of presentation)


This presentation explores the emergence of the concept of 'governance' and speculates on the opportunities provided by new electronic technologies for the development of more participatory forms of governance than those experienced in the past. The presentation identifies the possibilities for direct democracy and the greater use of client/user feedback in the shaping of governance structures. Governance - the collective management of resources and order - is not simply a matter of the relationship between a national society and its government: in the contemporary world, the international institutions have become, de facto, part of the governance structure of developing countries and electronic feedback systems can be utilised by the grassroots of developing countries to influence and shape the 'governance' of the international institutions. The presentation draws attention to the transparency and global visibility enhancing characteristics of the new information technologies: the behaviour of all strata of society are rendered more transparent with the instant auditing capabilities of the technology. Enhanced transparency enables the grassroots to better monitor the behaviour of its leaders and such information equity has consequences for empowerment and consequently economic position. The electronic technologies which are increasingly used for global trade and commerce and increasingly vital to the economic welfare of all societies have clear consequences for social and political bargaining within states which have historically experienced restricted access to information at the level of the grassroots.

1. The emergence of 'governance' in the vocabulary of the international institutions.
'Governance' is a term which is increasingly found in the policy documents of the international institutions. It is a term which is equally distrusted by many in the countries which have high levels of engagement with the international institutions and agencies. To understand the current use of the term, it is necessary to look at the history of the World Bank which developed under express prohibitions in respect of taking an active hand in the politics of the countries that it operated within. The analysis which assumed that the activities of the World Bank could ever be purely technical and have no political content was a highly nave one - as any experienced political theorist would rapidly confirm. Over the course of time and particularly in respect of gender politics, the term 'empowerment ' began to take hold and provide a toned down vocabulary for addressing political issues.

In the wake of the term 'empowerment', 'governance' has appeared as a term which permits the international agencies to engage with the politics of recipient countries without challenging head on the political prohibition installed in their charters and constitutions. 'Governance' has come to be used to mean 'the equitable or poverty reducing use of collective resources'. The requirement to display practices of good governance, a clearly political agenda, has been smuggled into the international institutional requirements for project grants and loans.

This concept of 'governance' links with current discussions on 'social capital' and 'civil society' (see World Bank social capital home page). At the heart of the social capital and civil society policy discourse currently playing in the international institutions is the notion that extensive and generalised relationships of trust are critical to society's effective economic functioning and that such relationships of trust are more prevalent where populations are actively involved in and are members of a proliferation of voluntary associations. This view of the relationship between social capital and civil society, it should be noted, is a highly ethnocentric one: the kinship structures of Africa studied in great depth by the classical anthropologists, and from which we get our key social capital term 'generalised net exchange', have been disregarded in this hot new social analysis climate.

The new 'governance' discourse clearly requires adjustment. In her presentation to the Institute for African Development and in this seminar series, Professor N'dri T. Assie-Lumumba drew our attention to the way in which the blame for the failure of past expert advice has been loaded onto Africa by the international agencies with little reflexivity on the part of these agencies about their own role in such failures. The 'governance' movement with its focus on 'own management of resources' is viewed from her perspective as simply another movement in the same direction. 'Good governance' discipline, as presently practiced, ignores the constraints faced by developing countries.

In this presentation, while understanding why such views have come to be held, we wish to point up some of the opportunities that the 'governance' movement offers. Firstly, despite the havoc undoubtedly wreaked by colonialism on Africa, many distinctive African social capital structures are still in place and could be used in a good governance model. Secondly, new electronic technologies currently being used by the international agencies and emerging rapidly in Africa provide opportunities for the transparency of governance structures at local, national and international levels. In seeking 'good governance' the stress should be on transparency and accountability in the context of such transparency: good governance is not simply a technical matter of outcome, lower levels of poverty, but is also a matter of process, the poor must have the opportunity to participate in policy. Transparency can substitute in many respects for the social capital structures of history: social capital structures were the mechanisms and screens for determining and enforcing reliable behaviour in a world of information which was highly imperfect. The greater the ability to independently ascertain the accuracy of information or the reliability of a partner for transaction (economic, social or political) the less important social capital structures are. In the new information age, it is auditing protocols and structures that are critical. This is not to argue that new forms of social capital and new forms of civil society will not develop upon the basis of this new transparency: indeed, we have already seen the development of electronic advocacy and electronic politics in many developing country locations.

2. Electronic governance: breaking preconceptions of the relationship between poverty and technology
In developing good governance structures within Africa there is a need to break the existing preconceptions about the relationship between poverty and technology: the almost universal assumption of the educated is that the poor can not make use of technology. Yet in the Kalahari desert of southern Africa illiterate bushmen are currently using a hand held, solar powered, satellite linked computer technology for purposes of environmental management: the Cybertracker developed in South Africa has a set of icons which the bushmen activate in the counting of the animal life. It also has an etch a sketch function which enables the bushmen to draw objects other than the defined icons and to transmit these objects through the satellite link to a reception centre.

Precisely the same technology which is already operating in Africa could be used to summon emergency vehicles such as ambulances or to schedule collective journeys by summoning a hired bus or vehicle to a village for marketing and commercial purposes. Similarly, such technologies can be used in transmitting the social and political wishes of villages and communities to central, regional or international governance agencies. The ability to directly express a wish or view immediately and globally outside of a literacy framework is now available: it has neither been adequately conceptualised or utilised by those very international agencies seeking to promote good governance.

This discussion introduces the concept of 'oculacy': in the new information age our ability to rapidly transmit and receive the visual image and to track the spatial location of that image opens up checks on authenticity and abilities to audit beyond imagination a decade ago. The ability to combine the immediate transmission of a visual image with aural or audio enhancement from any location no matter the state of its existing infrastructure opens up the prospect of new policy processes and protocols. In the past, the grassroots did not have the capability of transmitting its view or perspective on the world directly and immediately onto the global stage. The distributed character of the new technology - a message can be launched from any and every venue to any and every other - has received little policy focus in terms of improving upon governance structures but the development of electronic advocacy through grassroots and international agency channels as a matter of technical practice begins to raise the policy question ( ).

The international agencies and governments have begun to develop client feed back systems which in many ways reflect the organisation of the consumer and client feed back systems that were their precursors. The issue now is how these client or citizen feed back systems can be better developed to assist in the policy process. In effect, the suggestion here is that electronic client feed back systems used within the global governance structure of the international agencies can make substantial contributions to the development of social capital and civic society. It provides a channel for the development and articulation of views and interests, a channel which can provide safety measures such as anonymity in societies where challenge places the challenger in considerable danger. The development of such systems can already be found within the political web sites which have formed in the context of Malaysian politics ( ).

International agencies such as the World Bank have both the technology and the institutional option of including all levels of clients in their policy process even from the most remote locations. The Bank has developed a complex system with a variety of levels of access to shared cyber-spaces where Bank staff and others from remote locations interact around projects and policies. There is the need for a discussion about how much more open a process this could become and the extent to which technologies which promoted participation through oculacy could open this process up.

Similarly, there is an imperative upon international agencies seeking to promote good governance to assist in developing auditing protocols and procedures which increase both the transparency of government options and actions and the transparency of international agency options and actions to the population at large. Good governance is a product of openness and not of closed bargaining which denies affected populations the information equity necessary to evaluation and subsequently challenge to correct misbehaviour if necessary. Transparency can through new technologies be imposed upon authority or constructed authorities: the behaviour of elites becomes visible and challengeable within this mode. There is then a need for discussion about the boundaries of confidentiality in the interaction between an international agency and a government which the technology raises: can international agencies be complicit in bargaining which is withheld from the majority of a national society and a society that is severely impacted by the consequences of that bargaining? The technical possibility of extensive consultation and extensive communication through new information technologies raises new moral issues. The electronic governance options of the international agencies require a thorough consideration of the design of knowledge management and consultation systems: the development of appropriate systems for input into such de facto electronic governance systems is a matter of urgency.

3. Getting to grips with corruption: the benefits of transparency.
Currently discussions of corruption in Africa have surfaced as explicit tasks for development agency attention and action (see World Bank anti-corruption home page). In practice, the flight of capital from Africa has for a long time stood as a measure of problems within the trust and social capital system of the continent.

At one level, those who have accumulated substantial wealth within the African continent are uneasy about the likelihood of this wealth being alienated and so transfer resources to external and 'safer' locations. At another level, wealth is frequently transferred out of Africa because it has been accumulated in a corrupt fashion. Such wealth is often transferred under conditions of secrecy, a secrecy which is possible because of the behaviour of the receiving institutions of the first world - most particularly the international banks.

The auditing capabilities of the new technology can do much to reveal where resources have been drained off from donor projects, government income or other related activities. Indeed, the recent round of exposure of corruption in Russia owes its emergence to patterns revealed by an intelligent audit of the location and distribution of international assistance.

Historically the evidence of corruption lay in identification through conspicuous indicators such as the conspicuous spending of the official or his/ her household and would require an act of social challenge for its resolution. Transparency through intelligent auditing procedures, as opposed to relying on conspicuous indicators, opens up paths for better and more equitable governance. And given the insistence on poverty reduction as the mark of good governance, it is difficult to imagine that this characteristic of the new technology will remain neglected for much longer (

4. E-commerce: a global business practice.
So far we have concentrated upon the importance of the new information forms for good governance, however, the technology used for delivering such political and social organisation also has a very important economic face ( ). Exactly the same technologies use in the development of consultation systems can be used as a path for economic development ( E-trading ( is already a major commercial feature of the developing world, most particularly Asia (

Within Africa, there has already been pathbreaking activity in respect of e-forms ( ). There has been a proliferation of web sites marketing African goods which enable the customer to purchase goods on line: in addition, the development of e-malls which collect together the web sites of a range of traders has begun to take hold ( ).

Such forms open up the prospect of community businesses which enable women to gain greater bargaining power in the economic exchange despite their heavily constricted mobility. The development agencies, after a slow start, have begun to wake up to the opportunities that the e-form can offer the poor ( ). African governments, unlike some of the governments of the pacific area, have not yet seen the light. However, the benefits that e-servicing and e-scheduling offer resource poor states should not be underestimated and commercial agencies have begun to see the potential market with Plessey Malawi moving precisely into this area of activity.

E-forms can be used not only for servicing and scheduling the activities of populations which are poorly served by existing infrastructure ( )and enable them to connect with global markets but can also be used for technical development and training and skilling. A clear discussion of the potential of e-forms in terms of skill transference, transformation and capacity building has still to take place. But when it does it is important that the oculacy capabilities of the new technology remain clearly in view throughout the policy and skill building process.

5. Conclusion: technology a tool for the grassroots.
In concluding, we wish to place three key topics on the agenda for further discussion; these are:

Disintermediation refers to the capability of the technology to remove brokers from social and economic action and enable direct communication and trade between parties. The grass roots can now articulate their own agenda on a global stage and in the presence of international agencies without the need of experts as intermediaries. This competence will have an impact for the internal bargaining structures of Africa.

Asynchronicity indicates round the clock access to key information sources and the ability to undertake activities without the tight coupling of the schedules of the communicating parties. At a practical level it means that grass root messages can enter institutions through virtual means outside of regular business hours so that the negative impact of differences in time zones on the bargaining power of the poor is reduced.

Oculacy refers to the opportunities to communicate through forms other than literacy: a very important issue when the equation of poverty with illiteracy remains so strong in a modern world. Freire (1972) in his powerful analysis of the path to literacy stressed the importance of the relevance of the message being communicated if knowledge was to be acquired. The prospect of oculacy, and in the path of Freire, raises new pedagogic questions - one of which is certainly whether the price of participation requires the burden and investment of coding experience (learning) as opposed to direct communication.

For the technology to do its work in generating equity, it is necessary for the international agencies and governments to undertake significant policy activity in organising ready community access to the technology. It is in the character of satellite based communication that the expensive equipment is orbital and must necessarily traverse the space above poor nations: the development of solar powered hand held equipment greatly reduces the communication costs to low income areas. Good governance can develop upon this fortuitous patterning of resources: the question is will it?


Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin

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