eParticipation in Lesotho - An Important Reminder

9. December 2008 – 17:28 by Julia Glidden

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.

  1. One Response to “eParticipation in Lesotho - An Important Reminder”

  2. By Evika on Dec 12, 2008

    Just some feedback from international organizations onn this important issue of strenghtening democracy via ICT in Africa.

    According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s Strategy .‘legislatures in most African countries remain fairly weak and marginalised….parliaments should ‘create better access for the people … perhaps taking parliamentary hearings to the people, especially for key national issues.’

    In December 2005, the Pan African Parliament adopted a resolution that invited African assemblies to strengthen inter-parliamentary cooperation, especially through information and communication technologies, for improving coordination of information exchange, capacity building and collaborative development.

    At the International Conference “Africa Parliamentary Knowledge Network – Building together Open and Learning Parliaments in Africa”, from Egypt, 4 and 5 June 2008, it was highlighted that e-democracy is not about finding technical solutions to make Parliaments’ work more efficient and effective but about making them more transparent and open to society. ICT should be seen as a tool to enhance the dialogue and interaction between parliaments and their electorate. Speakers stressed that implementing e-democracy is very challenging since it implies a change in the mindset of parliamentarians and staff in parliaments and a complete re-organization of parliamentary work. The need to promote at a continental level the training and capacity building of members of parliaments and parliamentary staff in the area of legislation, information, research, documentation and technologies was amply recognized.

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