May 2006

e-Governance for the poor

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Even the most marginalised and neglected groups would be significantly impacted by the potential challenge of the digital age. As such, it is widely acknowledged now that new ICTs have the wherewithal to provide a unique opportunity to improve the status of the poor and achieve the Millennium Development Goals

The dramatic advancement of Information and  Communication Technologies (ICTs) in recent years has  provided all nations of the world and all segments of a society with huge potential benefits in many fields. The effective utilisation of these benefits has become one of the most crucial aspects of competitive strategy for a nation. New technology itself represents only potential, and in order to exploit this potential, an institutional change and a significant government support is indispensable.

Unwillingness of Chinese government The Chinese

The challenge of the digital age will have significant impacts potentially even on the most marginalized and neglected groups. It is being widely argued now that new ICTs can provide a unique opportunity to improve the status of the poor and achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The Geneva

Declaration of Principles of the World Summit of the Information Society expressed the “common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life.”  Especially, there are high expectations from the potential benefits of e-Government and e-Governance as effective tools to empower each segment of the society, even the poorest of the poor.

e-Government is usually defined as the use of Information and Communication Technologies to provide better government services. This definition usually refers to more efficient, more transparent and potentially two-way information flow between the government and citizens. But the fact is that in most of the cases e-Government is not more than digitalisation of the operational functions of the government.  However, we argue that the deployment of ICT can provide even more benefits. On one hand, it can make some structural and governance reforms possible, and can lead to a more decentralised government structure. On the other hand, the decentralisation can make a higher level of involvement of the public in numerous phases of the governance possible.

In many cases the terms ‘e-Government’ and ‘e-Governance’ are synonymous. However, we argue that there are significant differences between the two terms. Moreover, some believe that the realisation of e-Government is the necessary first step, which can then be followed by the implementation of G-governance. However, we argue that the two can, and should, be implemented in parallel. As the Global e-Government Readiness Report says the role of government has to be reoriented and redefined from “that of managerial authority to that of leadership in a multi-centred government, the culture of governance needs to change from being bureaucratic to participatory from authoritative to accountable, from being monopolistic to being competitive and innovative, from being closed to being participatory, from being autocratic to democratic, and from being exclusive to inclusive”. e-Governance is socially inclusive governance with the  promise of good governance and effective participation and inclusion of citizens.

Obstacles and usage of ICTs
Despite the potential benefits and opportunities, the development and adoption of e-Governance in the developing countries is currently very limited. According to the OECD, “The barriers to greater online citizen engagement …are cultural, organisational and constitutional, not technological. Overcoming these challenges will require greater efforts to raise awareness and capacity both within government and among citizens.”

The main obstacle is that, on one hand, in many cases governments are unwilling to initiate the necessary structural reforms since these could empower people and lead to the decline in the authority of the establishment. The information is power, and those who control the information can have stronger authority and political power.

On the other hand, there is a lack of trust in political institutions regarding the poor, who feel  that their governments have always neglected them and that even these newly available services would not really change their status. One of the main reasons of this distrust is that so  far mainly the poor have been bearing the brunt of administrative inefficiency and  corruption. e-Governance is a new opportunity provided for governments to explain and  demonstrate their legitimacy and to  reach out to the poorest of the poor. It can decrease the highlevel of information asymmetry and provide the new channels to access the information.  Moreover, it can be said that if people feel that their participation can make a difference, they  tend to participate more actively. Furthermore, the successful implementation of  e-Governance can demonstrate the benefits of ICTs to the citizens, promote further  applications and decrease the digital divide.

e-Governance services for the poor

Creation of pro-poor services means that customer-oriented services have to be provided with  public values to the rural communities. In the process of designing services for the poor, the  approach should be demand-oriented instead of supplydriven. The public value is the key  factor that makes a project successful and can encourage the poor to use the services provided.  The United Nations report defines the public value as “value created by  government through provision of services, the passing of laws and regulations and other  actions”. “Only the public can determine what is truly of value to society”. The more people  consider the given information valuable, the higher the public value will be. Moreover, the  report adds, “The value is determined by people’s preferences, expressed through a variety of  means and refracted through the decisions of elected politician.” However, even in  democracies the poor could hardly have any chances to express their needs and preferences. Successful projects from the perspective of the poor can be defined as being when the vast  majority of the targeted population uses the provided services; the services resulted in some level of empowerment (economic, social, legal, political, etc.); and these benefits are sustainable. Any of these factors cannot be achieved unless public value is delivered to the  poor. The main public values being listed include financial benefits, time efficiency, better  quality service delivery to the poor, improved legal status, and new, previously unavailable services.

Scenario in rural China

Reportedly, the number of riots and mass protests is increasing in rural China to 74,000  incidents in 2004 from about 10,000 from a decade earlier. The main trigger of these protests  is the anger over the failures of the political system, land seizures, increasing corruption of officials, pollution and unpaid wages. In many of these recent riots, ICT made  possible for previously isolated rural communities to organise networks, contact each other, spread the word among organisers and protesters and coordinate tactics and slogans.  Moreover, through the means of ICTs rural communities are able to inform the other actors of  civil society, such as NGOs and press, more quickly about the human rights abuses as the  result of deployment of the police in many cases. This example illustrates well how ICTs can  enhance formation of new structures within the society and can result in empowerment even  though the government does not necessarily support these changes.

The promise of higher wages and better job opportunities encouraged many Chinese rural  farmers to migrate to the big cities and searching for employment there. However, since their legal status is not always clear they become the subject to numerous legal and financial abuses. In order to help improve their status, the Chinese government set up a long-distance online interview system, especially for migrant rural workers, with additional employment  information, network training and legal aid. This effort provides face-to-face communication between possible employee and job seekers through the Internet and video system. The system  is aiming to reduce the costs and risks of job-hunting, while providing assistance for  employees alike.

The quality of the information delivered has crucial importance in order to ensure the success of the projects. However, before creating and delivering the information, governments must  realise the real needs of the poor. The fulfilment of these needs cannot be achieved without the involvement of would-be beneficiaries and those who are the nearest to the people (local  government, NGOs, civil society) at each step of the way from policy-making to implementation.

ICT in Kenya

In Kenya, the ICT policy-making process was based on the multi-stakeholder approach. Although the country has lacked the strong political leadership regarding the deployment of ICTs for many years, the civil society has been lobbying for the advancement of ICTs. Later,  the government recognised that the involvement of affected stakeholders is a promising and
appropriate response to the complexity of policy development. As a result of this, now, the government is trying to gather information from as many sources as possible to bring the  most important actors together and facilitate debate.

The Kenyan government has successfully realised that instead of the responsibility and  decision of the government, the policy-making should be an outcome of intensive and continuous discussion, debate and negotiations through multistakeholder partnership.  Empowering the poor cannot be achieved without facilitating their active participation  through the bottom-up approach. As Macintosh et al argues in this new approach, citizens  would evolve from just consumers into producers of policy.

Singapore — Citizens as producers of policy

The main message of the site is that “Your opinion counts” and “Play a part in shaping  national policies”. In the site, citizens are encouraged to give their views on national issues  and policies and share ideas through numerous channels. For instance, ministries and  government agencies post consultation papers on draft legislations and citizens have to chance  to make feedbacks. These feedbacks are going directly to the agencies concerned.

Moreover, through e-Poll, the government agencies regularly call for recommendations in  various issues. The Local Transport Authority, for instance, has been seeking the citizens’ view to name stations along the subway and bus line. The National Environment Agency has  been interested in the views and perceptions towards hawker centres and wet markets. However, merely ensuring the existence of these services is not sufficient alone to launch a  successful project. On one hand,would-be beneficiaries must be informed as to how they can profit from these services. On the other hand, these services must be accessible to all citizens,  regardless of social status, race, sex, religion or any other individual characteristic. Unless the  universal access is ensured, only the “information have-ones” would be able to participate actively in policy and decisionmaking.

Successful PPP — e-Mitra in Rajasthan

e-Mitra is a successful case of public-private partnership, which brought a citizen-centred new  e-Governance model. The project put special emphasis on strengthening the demand side  of e- Governance. e-Mitra has been perceived as a product and it has been marketed  accordingly. In order to increase the awareness of the public, e-Mitra stalls appeared in fairs in  rural areas, and roadshows and publicity campaigns were organised. As a result of these  efforts, the community became more involved and active in governance issues.

Status improvement and empowerment of the poor

The resulting benefits of e-Governance include the improvement of the status of the poor  through access to information and interactive communication. The empowerment is the  expansion of assets and capabilities of people to participate in, negotiate with, influence,  control, and hold accountable the institutions, which affect their lives. In reality, informed  citizens are better equipped to take advantage of opportunities, access services, exercise their  rights, and hold the state and nonstate actors accountable. e-Governance can provide  participation opportunities for the poor in policy and decision-making and development/ economic opportunities affecting their life, which is critical to ensure that the usage of limited  public resources builds on local knowledge and priorities, and brings about commitment to change. e-Governance is a paradigm shift that can help overcome the powerlessness, defencelessness and voicelessness of the poor, lead to an improvement in their the status and  result in their empowerment on a sustainable basis.

Telecenters in rural Malaysia

The Titian Digital project in Malaysia is targeting the rural communities in the area to  enhance their interaction with government agencies, subject-matter experts and other  communities through telecenters. The project aims to bridge the digital divide and contribute  to inclusion of rural citizens in governance issues. Furthermore, it is expectedthat telecenters  would become one of the main channels for the ministry to communicate with the  communities and vice versa.

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