Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo, is not a country known for its democratic practice or quality of governance, but a new project is working to improve this bleak reputation. The World Bank Institute’s (WBI) ICT4Gov team has implemented a new program that encourages citizen involvement in the government through cell phones. The World Bank estimates that approximately 47% of the population will be using cellular phones by the year 2013, and moved to take advantage of the mobile phone, which is currently one of the most reliable means of communication in the country.
The program uses mobile phones for four different purposes. First, they use geo-targeted SMS messaging to contact citizens with the date, time and location of participatory government budget meetings. The messages reach all phones receiving a signal from a particular tower. Second, at these meetings, citizens are able to vote on which proposed projects are most important to them, and they will submit their vote using their mobile device. Third, when a decision is reached, it is announced through mobile phones, allowing citizens to almost instantly see the results of the vote. Finally, mobile phones are being used to ask citizens how they feel about the projects being chosen.
This project clearly enables citizens to exercise greater involvement in the processes of the government, and makes the process more transparent and understandable to them. There is, however, one enormous looming concern with this project. What about those without a cell phone? More than 50% of the 70 million inhabitants of this country are without access to a mobile phone. They are left without a voice. This raises major concerns because it makes it more likely that the projects being chosen are not ones that will benefit those that are most in need, but rather those that are well enough off to afford access to a mobile phone in the first place. More must be done to engage those citizens that do not have mobile phones. How are they being included in this more “democratic” process of governance? How are their needs being addressed? This appears to be another well intended project with enormously detrimental hidden consequences, the process of democracy is moving forward with only a very small portion of the DRCs population.