Why you should care

Because what you use to take selfies, others use to win presidencies.

In this limited series, OZY looks at leading-edge ideas from the fields of technology, healthcare and education that are emerging from different countries within Africa.

In Accra, Ghana’s capital, it’s easy to tell the start of election season. It’s not the glossy posters on the streets or the political ads on television that give it away — it’s all the text messages. Months before heading to the polls, Ghanaians start to receive friendly SMS from their government, reminding them how many ambulances they have bought that year — or from the opposition, explaining how many schools they would build if they were in power.

Mobile campaigning will likely be crucial in the upcoming November election in this West African country, because the political battlefield is inside people’s pockets. Dozens of mobile governance initiatives are popping up in the country, including GotToVote!, which helps people find nearby voting registration stations, and My Ghana Budget, which lets citizens navigate and understand their state’s budget. Phones are also being used to prevent electoral fraud. A study by the country’s Center for Democratic Development – Ghana found that on the day of the last election, a coalition of 4,000 independent election observers equipped with basic mobile phones reduced fraud by about 60 percent at the stations where they were deployed.

Ghana is certainly not the only African nation trying to use phones to strengthen democracy. But with 83 percent of the population using mobile phones — only second to South Africa — it’s certainly in the lead, says Christian Echle, media program director in Sub-Sahara Africa for the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. In the 2012 election, 8.5 percent of electoral colleges reported instances of fraud. Which is why this year, the electoral commission will be reintroducing — and expanding — the program they rolled out in the previous election using independent election observers with mobile phones.

Phones are also helping candidates win votes. When it comes to mobile campaigning, Ghana is way ahead of the U.S. Mobile advertising is extremely popular and, with little legislation to protect users’ privacy, Ghanaian political parties are trying to win votes one text at a time. After all, mobile communication is much more personal. “It feels very different to watch a TV ad than to get a personalized SMS signed by the president,” says Andrew Small, a London School of Economics graduate whose thesis focused on mobile governance in Ghana.

These initiatives also risk replicating the Western phenomenon of “clicktivism,” when it becomes easy to get involved, but it is hard to turn that into actual results.

But can phones really boost democracy? Or is it just the same old politics with a new name? Eben Nunoo, a Ghanaian TV journalist who has been studying civic participation, says that while we should be wary of “phones save the day” stories, mobile technology has definitely broadened participation in public debate. And copy-and-paste solutions aren’t likely to work. “Each initiative needs to adapt to the local reality,” says Small, pointing out the example of VOTO MOBILE, which carries polls in English as well as four other Ghanaian languages.

Last year´s campaign, #dumsormuststop, started as a mobile-led, civil activist initiative and became a movement that flooded the streets of Accra in protest against erratic power outages. If the country’s next election is more transparent and rigorous because of mobile technology, some experts say the system could be of immense help in other countries — starting with Uganda, which actually banned mobile phones from polling stations during the last disputed elections, angering opposition members and political activists. Or maybe in Kenya, which is going to choose a new president next year and suffers from lingering fear of fraud that led to postelectoral violence in 2007-2008.

Of course, like in any potential mobile revolution, there are caveats. For starters, this system is expensive. What’s more, mobile usage (especially smartphones) tends to be more widespread in urban areas, so polls or accountability systems may overrepresent urban, highly educated citizens and neglect the rural majority. And companies are still trying to find partners and figure out how to offer their services at a reasonable price for the long run. These initiatives also risk replicating the Western phenomenon of “clicktivism,” argues Echle, “when it becomes easy to get involved, but it is hard to turn that into actual results.”

But one thing is for sure, says Nunoo: A successful democracy needs to go where the people are. And Ghanaians are on their phones.

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