Al Kags

Interest of Gov’t same as Interests of the people?


Blog Post #1 from the Open Africa Summit, Zanzibar

I write this on the flight back to Nairobi from Zanzibar’s Melia Hotel (the subject of its very own blog post later), where I attended one day of the Open Africa Summit. The Summit, brought to one room from all over the world some of the most active change agents in the Open Data Space in Africa – Amadou Mahtar Ba, Justin Arenstein (both of the Africa Media Initiative), Alex B Howard of O’Reilly Media, Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza and Jay Bhalla of the Open Institute.

There were representatives from the donor community, including, Josh Goldstein, Edward Anderson and Craig Hammer from the World Bank Institute in Washington DC as well as Mendi Njojo from Hivos

This particular blog post is the result of something that occurred to me as the Tanzanian Deputy Minister for Justice, Ms. Angela Kairuki, I was speaking, while Opening the Summit. Speaking about the value of Open Data, she mentioned that they were beneficial to the “interests of the government and the interests of the people.”

That triggered something. It is a phrase that I have heard on many, many occasions in the time that I have worked with governments – particularly in Africa. I was left to think: Are the interests of government the same as the interests of the people? If so, why use the phrase? If not, then what are the interests of government and how would they differ from the interests of the people

I have much to think about on this.

And then Alex Howard, went on to give me more to think about. Amending the American Magna Carta, he proposed the phrase to be, “government of the people, by the people, for the people and with the people.”

The point that he was making (and in his presentation he made many other important points) is that one of the ideals that many of us in the Open Government movement aspire to is one where the government becomes open enough to not only improve services, but also to create opportunities for the people to help each other. Or, I add, to manage their services themselves.

What if, for example, citizens were tasked to police the matatus in Nairobi? The Matatu is known to be a general road hog, whizzing from one end of the city to the other, on all possible lanes and the side walks, leaving pedestrians scampering for their lives at zebra crossings, irate drivers and whole chapters of broken laws. So what if the citizen was given the job of policing the matatu?

What if the citizen took a photo of the offending matatu as it flew by on a side walk during rush hour and emailed the photo to the police – and as a result the driver was fined or arrested? What if a certain number of different photos caused a matatu a certain number of demerits and there was an agreed number of demerits that caused the matatu’s road licence to be cancelled – or maybe cause the matatu’s insurance premiums to double?

Of course such a programme has its problems. One thing is for sure, we would have a citizenry that would feel powerful, in control because they would then be part of government.

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