News Column

ICT Is a Vital Tool in Human Development

August 26, 2014

Alex O. Awiti

The 2014 Human Development Report reveals that overall progress in human well-being is slowing down. This is as measured by the Human Development Index, which is a composite index of life expectancy, years of schooling and income. The lowest regional HDI value, 0.502, is for Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the 2014 HDR, 72 per cent or 585 million Africans live in conditions characterised by overlapping or converging deprivations in living standards, health and education.

Invariably, Africa's poor have limited livelihood choices and limited access to basic services. More importantly, they lack informed political participation. Moreover, even when Africa's poor escape from poverty, they are often one misfortune away from poverty.

As is characteristic of most UN and World Bank reports, they are long on recommendations for reform. The 2014 HDR urges African countries to "ensure that economic growth is employment-intensive, while paying special attention to the quality and security of the jobs created". Furthermore, the report urges countries to move their economies from reliance on agriculture to industry and services.

What I find interesting about the 2014 HDR is the perception of citizens on delivery of public service and trust in government. For example, only 51 per cent of Kenyans are satisfied with policies and programmes on poverty alleviation.

Less than 60 per cent of Kenyans are satisfied with the quality of health care. Similarly, only 69 per cent of Kenyans are happy with the quality of education. I single out poverty alleviation, education and health because we spend an awful amount of taxpayers' money on these programmes.

Moreover, I have always argued that the ultimate determinant of Kenya's rise is not mineral ore or hydrocarbon resources but the quality of our human capital - how wholesome our body and mind is.

Kenya's agitation of a new constitutional order was motivated by a desire to negotiate a new social contract between citizens and their government, and to restore trust in government.

But four years after the promulgation of the new constitution, only 60 per cent of Kenyans do not trust the national government. In my view, trust in government by citizens is likely to decline further, especially in the absence of tangible and verifiable evidence.

Trust is at the heart of citizens' perception of good government. As we all know, trust is easy to erode and slow to rebuild. Overall, diminishing trust in government is harmful. It leads invariably to: weakened legitimacy of public institutions; heightened risk of social policy failure; and, decline in human well-being.

Across the world, and here at home, citizens are demanding more from government. At the same time, they expect government to be small or lean and stay agile and responsive. Essentially, citizens are demanding "smart" government.

In our part of the world, core government priorities comprise: security, delivery of social services, social cohesion, transparency and accountability. Effective delivery on these priorities contributes in a large measure to how much trust citizens have in their government.

In the age of affordable and ubiquitous technology, government can leverage the power of information and communication technologies to deliver effective service and rebuild trust and confidence among the citizens.

Accountable government matters, especially in an intensely digital world in which technology enables access to public data and tracking service delivery.

By harnessing ICT, government can re-constitute trust through multiple platforms such as open data and e-government, empowering citizens to have access to online services and civic participation using social media.

The challenges of terrorism, crime, climate change, urbanisation, unemployment, poor education standards, road safety, land degradation, hunger and malnutrition, maternal and child health and devolution require inter-sectoral coordination and inter-agency collaboration and action.

As currently constituted, government is ill-prepared to deal with complex interconnected policy challenges. With e-government, freedom of information, open data, free press and civil society, we can pioneer innovative pathways for broad consultation, consensus-building and data-driven government. Such an approach could usher a new era of government coordination in strategic planning, budgeting and prudent management of public resources.

E-government can help citizens hold government accountable and promote equitable access to public services. Open data, freedom of information and a free press can disrupt traditional monopoly of information, limit discretion by public officials, increase transparency and reduce the risk of corruption.

If deployed judiciously, ICT can improve public accountability, enhance service delivery, improve delivery of human development objectives and restore citizens' trust in government.

Dr Awiti is the director of the East African Institute and assistant professor at Aga Khan University

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Source: AllAfrica

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