Posted 29 August, 2012 by Susannah Vila

The Magic Recipe for Using Tech to Build Democracy!!

Okay, the title of this post is tongue in cheek. Technology for democracy initiatives – aiming to hold governments accountable, strengthen civil society, or foster independent media –   vary wildly. Because of this variation, the recipe always calls for a different combination of ingredients.

That said, a Cambodian NGO called the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, or COMFREL, is an example of an initiative in a politically transitioning context that has done a good job of bringing a various ICT ingredients together to build a program focused on impact and not technology.

COMFREL (a hat tip, by the way, to our close partners Oxfam Novib for supporting this project and letting us know about it) started with the context, not the tech. Here are some of the things we know about Cambodia:

– Internet penetration is minimal: less than 5% of the population
– Mobile penetration is high and rising fast: There were 13 million mobile subscriptions as of 8 months ago (87% of the population)
– It is not an electoral democracy 

Here’s what we know about COMFREL’s goals for this initiative:

1. They want to work towards creating a more informed and more favorable climate for free and fair elections;
2. They want to try to create mechanisms for more citizen participation and government transparency and accountability between elections.

The contextual background informed how 1 paired its goals with the media components it chose:

Big goal Ingredient
Free and fair elections: Electoral Monitoring and Observation – Train and deploy observers
– Create and train on SMS coding system
– Carry out Parallel Vote Tabulation
– Use a UStream channel to broadcast weekly evaluations
– Cross post above content on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter
Free and fair elections: Voter Education & Awareness – Create a standalone website for voter engagement. By separating it from COMFREL the organization, it has more potential to be community owned
– Add a map for citizen reports that get verified by COMFREL staff members before being posted
– Create and disseminate picture books, pamphlets, TV and radio ads, website about the process
– Provide an on demand information hotline using Freedom Fone
– Android App that takes user directly to standalone website
-Youtube channel with how to videos
Transparency, accountability and citizen participation in post-election period: Accountability at local governance level Create Local Public Forums and task them with monitoring how well elected officials stick to promises
Transparency, accountability and citizen participation in post-election period: Accountability in Parliament Create and disseminate directory of all members of national assembly with information about voting records
Transparency, accountability and citizen participation in post-election period: Stronger voice for civil society Organize civil society into working groups, for example an Expert Committee on Election Reform, to advocate between elections

What stands out here are the clear pairings between audience, goal, and action. You want a target audience to get certain information, you figure how they’re getting information generally and you put your content onto that medium.  Simple!

Yes, they also threw UStream, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter into their work despite low web penetration, but the primary purpose of something like the UStream channel content is to attract international onlookers whose eyes should be on the proceedings as well.  And the social media channels are good for pushing that content out to more people.

Are we on our way to a speedy democratic transition in Cambodia? Not so much. But there may be cause for optimism: with this initiative, COMFREL has used a few different tactics to take small steps towards citizen engagement and even accountability despite lack of buy-in at the institutional level. Check out their site.

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