My colleagues at 21c and I have just returned from a fascinating trip to the Kingdom of Lesotho - a small landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. The purpose of the visit was to conduct a workshop on local democracy with government officials and to launch a landmark study on the implementation of local democracy in Lesotho.
Whilst I had never been to Lesotho before I did lecture in South Africa for many years, and had the tremendous opportunity to help lead an eGovernment Study Tour to the UK for Lesothan Ministers a little over a year ago. I am fairly well traveled, and do my best to stay on top of world trends in our field….. So there is very little excuse for me to have found myself surprised by reality on the ground - yet I must confess that I was.
During the Ministerial visit last year, we discussed the fact that Internet penetration in Lesotho was very low, that connections were slow, and that few citizens had access to computers…. We also discussed the relatively new advent of local government institutions and infrastures - and the challenges they face. (Local government was not introduced in Lesotho until 2005 and needs to balance a sometimes uneasy co-existence with the traditional Chieftan structure.)
So what was the cause for surprise you might well wonder….. Simply put: the surpise lay in the realisation that there really is nothing like seeing for oneself to truly understand the challenges and opportunites posed by technology in differing contexts. For starters, whilst I believed Lesothan government officials that communication with local Chiefs and Councillors was a major challenge - it was not until I had driven up into the mountais for over two hours and often off road that I really began to appreciate what this meant. More tellingly, it was not until I stayed in a lodge with no electricity for 20 hours that I understood how meaningless concepts like ‘wiring communities’ were in this context. Or until I visited a school with almost no books that I appreciated full limitations of eLearning….
All of these glaringly obvious observations and I must admit somewhat embarassing admissions are not in and of themselves important. Nor is the conclusion that wireless mobile communication is the only viable near-term option for promoting any type of meaningful eParticipation in this context.
But I can say, that seeing the first had challenges that committed advocates of democracy face in countries like Lesotho face reminded me once again how important it is to remember the building blocks and foundational basics when we talk about eParticipation - and to take care not to get carried away with the latest widget or gadget or whatever when we discuss re-engaging (or in the case of Lesotho engaging) the electorate.
PS For those of you who are interested in seeing for yourself, I can highly recommend the Malealea Lodge in Lesotho. It is surprisingly easy to get to and runs an impressive sustainable community development initiative. For those of you interested in helping the school children in Malealea, 21c is planning to start a not-for-profit foundation in the New Year that will aid the local school. Donations as small and simple as the pens and highlighters and notepads we all receive and distribute at conferences are very useful to classrooms without resources - and 21c commits to delivering all donations first-hand.