I’m recently back from Electech Afghanistan, an NDI-hosted elections and technology conference in Kabul. The event brought together senior officials from government, civil society, the private sector, and the international community to discuss applications of digital technologies to enhance transparency and participation in the election process.
Ahead of the Presidential elections in April 2014, the Afghan public lacks confidence in the government’s ability to run a credible election and this is diminishing participation and prospects for stability and democratic development. Afganistan is, of course, a supremely insecure environment with low rates of literacy throughout the population.
Participants identified ways that technology could improve participation and confidence by helping election authorities in administration, improving how political parties compete, increasing citizen’s participation, and enabling civil society organizations to observe more effectively, all while allowing journalists such as Pajhwok News to publicly share results and analysis. Discussion focused on the changing nature of political participation mediated by technology.
From Broadcast to Mobile and Social
Broadcast television like Tolo News as well as national and community radio such as Salam Watandar, for instance, are the most widely accessible technologies and are still seen as the most important public communication channels. However, it’s increasingly clear that mobile technology will play a key role in the 2014 elections. Due to low literacy rates and cultural norms, voice-based mobile technologies such as interactive voice response (IVR), rather than text-based SMS was seen as the most promising tool for engaging the public. Afghan Star, one of the most-watched shows, utilizes IVR to allow citizens to access content and participate in voting. The use of social media, particularly Facebook, is rapidly increasing particularly among younger people in urban areas, but is not exclusive to that group. There were a number of senior political leaders present at the event that use Facebook to engage with the public, which is a growing trend with national leaders, including Hamid Karzai.
In addition, there is currently a focus on technology innovation in Afghanistan as demonstrated by a $5 million challenge led by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, the DEWAE Program, to promote mobile Government applications. There is also an Afghanistan Social Media Summit, Paiwand, taking place on Sept 22-23 and growing competition in the mobile money products market in the country.
While the barriers to building public confidence are many, political actors, technologists and entrepreneurs from across Afghanistan are eager to find new and impactful ways for digital technologies to enhance transparency and citizen participation.