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About the Author

Wouter Dijkstra
ICT4Development researcher (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Personal: Wouter Dijkstra is a Social Scientist, interested in the use of new and old media to strengthen public debate and mechanisms of accountability in Africa. With degrees in both Anthropology and New Media and an extensive background in Africa he is based firmly in contemporary theory but even more in practical reality. In 2009 he went to Uganda together with the ICT4Uganda research group, guided by Dr Geert Lovink. He finished research on the power of talk-radio and the emergence of mobile telephony in Uganda. Based on this research he coined the term ICT4Accountability. This is still an ongoing research. At this moment he is working for TRAC to set up platforms for public debate in east-Africa, through the use of mobile telephony and FM radio. This organization is currently in a startup phase.

Post

Accountability starts with countability

Published 14th July 2010 - 12 comments - 7239 views -

In Uganda, even at the peoples parliament of Ekimeeza, where intellectuals are supposed to be gathered, there is a substantial lack of numbers, statistics and measurable facts. People have not mastered advanced counting and have no logical perception of values and numbers. 2000 – 500 = a big problem for a lot of people. So how can they fully understand the bigger picture of the situation they are in? When they are presented with a series of numbers, for instance the amount of money coming in to the country through development aid or the amount of tax money spent on government housing, there are very few who can comprehend what is meant by 400 million dollars or 700.000 Euro.

Without these countable facts, arguments may easily turn into subjective accusations. The first Ekimeeza I visited was about the constituency development fund, a rather unfortunate name for a grand of 10 million shillings (€ 3600) a year. It was perceived by most of the participants as a fund that should build the roads or start up business in the districts. That this money was not even enough to pay for the fuel used by an MP’s car was only mentioned by a visiting MP, later in the Ekimeeza. A substantial amount of people were angry at MP’s for not bringing change with their 10 million shillings and accused them of using the money for personal gain. Although this is in certain cases definitely true, the discussion lost its context because of the inability of participants to place these numbers in the wider picture.

Even well educated speakers have problems backing up their arguments with quantative data. Numbers which they want to apply in their speech are often times incomprehensible and missing accuracy. One man, an economist, who in the last Ekimeeza discussion on employment came up with numerical data, repeatedly had the argument right but the numbers wrong. Instead of 320.000 government employed people he talked about the 3200 employed. Instead of 31 million people he kept talking about just thirty one people, just if the numbers were of minor importance. This was the only participant at the Ekimeeza who took the opportunity of pointing out statistics. Even though he often made some big miscalculations, it made the discussion more understandable and the debate much more interesting. In all parts of Ugandan society there is a great lack of solid data. This makes society vulnerable to insinuations, lies, corruption, insecurity and so on. Countability is therefore an essential part of accountability.

By using numbers, claims can be strengthened and depersonalized by comprehensible, transparent and true numbers. An important issue within this practice of (ac)countability is visualization of data. With rows of numbers people cannot be convinced. They lack the capacity to place the numbers in a context and will therefore not be interested. To make the numbers potent, they should be visualized in a comprehensible way.  Required are graphs, examples and recognizable symbols. ‘41%’ might not be understandable to a great number of people, However if you visualize this by drawing a pie chart, the number becomes real. Research should look into culture specific ways to clarify neccasary information to citizens in order to arm them with knowlege that enables them to hold leaders accountable.

Which of these 2 images could feed a more serious debate? Which of these 2 images could actually help in creating a transparent system of democracy in which citizens have the power to demand good governance? What if you lived in Kenya and would only know (or comprehend) the right image? 

Picture of povertyDistribution of income, kenya


Category: Politics | Tags: africa, africa, democracy, data,


Comments

  • Liisa Leeve on 14th July 2010:

    Your post is really interesting because I’ve never really realised how the lack of education can really hinder progress in a very fundamental way when even decision makers haven’t received the education needed to make educated decisions.

    And I think what you say is true even in the most educated coutries in that it’s hard to grasp the magnitude of things (say, the number of people affected with HIV, malaria or how poor are the poorest of the world) when the data is presented in numbers.


  • Andrea Arzaba on 14th July 2010:

    I neevr thought about this issue, and this is the first time I actually hear about this missundertsnading of numbers. This is very serious.

    I do think that the second image is more powerful at a first look, but then the right one says much more about the maginitude of the problem.

    Thank you for your post!


  • Andrea Arzaba on 14th July 2010:

    Sorry:

    * never

    * misunderstanding

    * magnitude

    I was writing very quickly!


  • Helena Goldon on 14th July 2010:

    Vicious circle of lack of education.
    Indeed I came across that problem in Uganda many times. The currency ($1000 is 2.27 million Ugandan shillings) isn’t making things any easier!


  • Hussam Hussein on 14th July 2010:

    Helena, completely agree.. I wss in Uganda last year and I noted the same thing..


  • Helena Goldon on 15th July 2010:

    Wouter, I believe introducing transparency in Uganda is, once again, question of political willingness.
    On the other hand, when you think of the existent tools that could help in making data available to the public - a year ago I came across statistics which shown that only 200 thousand citizens in the 33 million Uganda population has access to the internet, it seems so difficult to provide the public with the information.


  • Wouter Dijkstra on 15th July 2010:

    Hi Helena, giving transparency has been the responsibility of people in power for a long time. This obviously is giving mayor problems in Africa and other parts of the world. Transparency should be given by independent watchdogs, there is no use in waiting for governments to provide transparency, esspecially when this government is build on patronage and corruption. On your other remark about internet I would like to suggest reading my post on ICT4D 2.0 and the power of radio:

    http://development.thinkaboutit.eu/think3/post/ict4d_2.0_less_internet_more_radio/

    Are you in Uganda now?


  • Helena Goldon on 15th July 2010:

    I wouldn’t say Wouter that the watchdogs in Uganda are that capable of introducing any transparency. If it was so, I believe there would be far more activities going on on the ground - what do you think?

    I am not in UG now, but will be going soon - are you?


  • Hieke van der Vaart on 28th July 2010:

    Hi Wouter, agreed, numbers are important, but then the next issue: how to count?

    This post tackles that issue, have you read it?

    http://development.thinkaboutit.eu/index.php/think3/post/why_i_dont_trust_statistics/


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