The democracy of technology

Decentralisation aims to bring ICT services to everyone in Uganda

Dorothy Okello

Uganda’s decentralisation policy has led to the development of wireless broadband services in all of the country’s districts. Cooperation between the government, NGOs, businesses and individuals will be essential to give everyone equal access to ICTs.

National ICT policies provide guidance on how a country promotes the development of the information and communications sector. Ideally, these policies ensure that everyone in the country benefits from a strong and competitive ICT sector. In practice, however, implementation can be slow. Some areas end up being better served than others, resulting in the so-called ‘digital divide’, as seen in many ACP countries today.

Unfortunately, it is often rural areas that are left without access to communications technology. In Uganda, where 80% of the population lives in rural areas and is dependent on agriculture, policy makers decided to address the specific problems of disproportionate access in a number of policy documents. The country developed a separate Rural Communications Development Policy (RCDP), and made special provisions for remote communities in its national ICT policy. And, in 1997, the Communications Act gave the Uganda Communications Commission the mandate to establish a Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF) to ensure delivery of ICTs to underserved communities.

RCDF works closely with individual districts, and their lower administrative units, who provide support for the implementation and monitoring of the RCDP. Local authorities play an important role in Ugandan administration since the devolution of power was adopted into the country’s 1995 constitution. The rationale behind decentralisation was that local and community governments could provide more efficient services if they were given the responsibility for finance, legislation, planning and human resource management in their area. After all, local governments should be able to monitor the delivery of services better than a distant central authority. Also, since local politicians are directly elected by people in their community, local citizens have more direct involvement in how they are governed.

Customer Service

Evidence of the effectiveness of decentralisation remains inconclusive, however. For instance, more work still needs to be done to improve access to agricultural extension and advisory services. District authorities often find it difficult to budget for the all the operational expenses involved in such activities, but they also lack feedback from farmers who often do not have the capacity to articulate their demands.

In general though, decentralisation has made it easier to implement the RCDP, with discernible results. All district towns (existing before 2008) are now covered by a wireless broadband network, and all districts have at least one secondary school with the required ICT infrastructure to meet the needs of the country’s secondary school curriculum. Initially, the RCDP implementation strategy focused on developing services in places where they are likely to be sustainable, typically at the district headquarters, while making provision for the promotion of ICT awareness to the outlying areas in preparation for any future expansion.

Although the districts are responsible for the implementation of ICT policy in their area, it is more usually the private sector – telecommunications, postal, information technology and broadcasting companies – that carries out the work. Uganda’s ICT policy promotes private sector-led development, so businesses are involved in many of the country’s communication projects. These include the National Backbone Initiative, RCDF and the Rural Electrification Programme, which also has components for improving ICT infrastructure.

As the new networks have expanded, many companies have developed related services for their customers. Farmers, in particular, are proving to be an increasingly important consumer group. The country now has a number of SMS-based market and agricultural information services to help producers find the best prices for their crops and develop links with related industries.

Universal

The overall objective of Uganda’s ICT policies, and of the current RCDF in particular, is to ensure that the new communication services support the country’s development goals. This means not only introducing technology to all parts of the country, but to make sure that every citizen, whether male or female, has equal access.

Gender is widely recognised as a critical factor in determining who uses ICTs, and it will be a major challenge to successfully implement equitable policies in an environment where females are still using ICTs far less than males. To address this, Uganda’s ICT policies stress the need to address the issue of women’s access to technology. The National ICT Policy, for example, has 14 objectives, one of which specifically ensures that gender is included in the country’s information and communication programmes.

The strategies take into account the information needs and interests of both men and women, and they develop mechanisms for increasing women’s access to information, especially in rural areas. Another important aspect of introducing gender awareness into new policies is that they attempt to use non-discriminative language, and ultimately aim to ensure equal participation in all aspects of ICT development.

As part of their strategy to involve as many parts of society as possible, the government has involved local NGOs to help them achieve universal access. One such organisation, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) has been working since 2000 to raise awareness of the benefits of ICTs for development. Initially set up to strengthen the use of technology among women and women’s organisations, the NGO also advocates for gender sensitive ICT policies to ensure that males and females in Uganda have the same opportunities to benefit from ICTs.

Aware that affordable and equitable access to information remains a particular challenge in rural areas, WOUGNET’s advocacy programme addresses two key areas: influencing gender and ICT policy processes, and documenting projects, activities and experiences (the latter is done using the gender evaluation methodology (GEM) developed by the Association for Progressive Communications). This has led to the publication of briefing papers and articles in a variety of areas, including e-agriculture, mobile activism and the use of ICTs in preventing violence against women and girls.

The organisation carries out much of its advocacy work in its role as secretariat of the Uganda Women's Caucus on ICT (UWCI), a coalition of organisations and individuals interested in gender and ICT issues. As well as strengthening the skills of other gender activists, UCWI highlights the main issues during meetings with policy makers, and promotes the need to integrate ICTs into more general gender policies.

One success of note was the development of the Girl Child Project that came from discussions between UCWI and the Uganda Communications Commission. The project builds the ICT skills of young males and females, and encourages them, as consumers, to request and demand improvements to their local technology services. By stimulating demand, people will make more use the new infrastructure, which is necessary to maintain the efficient and effective development of the country’s communications sector.

The awareness raising works both ways, however, as WOUGNET also helps policy makers, media professionals and ICT experts understand and articulate gender issues in their work. This expertise puts the organisation in an ideal position to assess the implementation of ICT policies, and has surveyed the gender aspects of the country’s Rural Communications Development Fund.

Regular review

A major strength of WOUGNET’s approach is in the practical use of ICT tools throughout its advocacy work. As part of the global campaign, Take Back the Tech, the organisation arranged a local action encouraging Ugandans to use SMS to speak out on violence against women. The activities helped to develop strategies aimed at ending violence against women and girls, paying particular attention to ICT policies and interventions. This, and many other gender-related issues, are promoted through the organisation’s website, social networking tools and mainstream media. For example, the national television channel broadcast a news item about a national strategy workshop, and showed how activists are using ICTs to fight violence against women.

ICTs play an important role in another project, Enhancing Income Growth between Small and Micro Women Entrepreneurs in Uganda, which works with 150 female entrepreneurs in the Apac, Ibanda and Mukono districts. WOUGNET is also the national partner for the Strengthening Women’s Strategic use of Information and Communication Technologies to Combat Violence against Women and Girls regional project. This initiative is aimed at helping women participants feel more comfortable with using technology, and demonstrating the opportunities it can offer, such as increased freedom, while also addressing concerns about privacy and security.

Through this work, people living in rural areas develop the skills to use ICTs to present their opinions on matters that interest them. In a good governance project, for example, local authorities can publish information on budgets and expected activities. People in the community can monitor these activities, and use SMS or voice calls to provide feedback and report issues of concern.

WOUGNET encourages this kind of local involvement and promotes it through various online and print publications. The organisation also gathers SMS messages, as in the case of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign, and collects them into reports that are then submitted to policy makers. With this information, along with details gathered from other sources and research projects, the ministries can continue to monitor and identify gender and equity gaps in ICT use, and adapt their policies accordingly.

It can be difficult, however, for people to see change as a result of their country's policies, but in Uganda the benefits are already obvious. A competitive telecommunications sector means relatively low-cost cell phones are widely available, while the cost of calling and sending SMSes is affordable for many people. All that remains is to make sure that all these services and opportunities afforded by the technology are available to everyone, regardless of where they live, male or female.

Uganda decentralisation

According to the country’s 1997 Local Government Act, the devolution of powers, functions and responsibilities to local governments would:

  • ‘transfer real power to the districts, thereby reducing the workload of the remote and under-resourced central government officials;
  • bring political and administrative control over services to the point that they can actually be delivered, thereby improving accountability and effectiveness and promoting people’s ownership of programs and projects executed in their districts;
  • free local managers from central government constraints and, as a long-term goal, allow them to develop organizational structures tailored to local circumstances;
  • improve financial accountability and responsibility by establishing a clear link between payment of taxes and provision of services they finance; and
  • improve the capacity of local councils to plan, finance, and manage the delivery of services to their constituents.’

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Dorothy Okello is the coordinator of the Women of Uganda Network - WOUGNET

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Related links

Ugandan Ministry of Information and Communications Technology
Established in 2006, the MoICT coordinates the policy, laws and regulation for the information and communications sector in Uganda.

Uganda Communications Commission
The UCC was set up in 1997 after the liberalisation of the communications industry in Uganda. The UCC oversees licensing, regulation and infrastructure development.

Gender Evaluation Methodology
GEM outlines methodologies and resources for evaluating whether ICT initiatives lead to an improvement in women’s lives, and in broader gender relations in society.

FIT-Uganda market information service
FIT-Uganda provides agricultural market information on the web and via SMS.

CELAC agricultural advisory services
The Collecting and Exchanging of Local Agriculture Content project sends monthly SMS messages with agricultural advice to farmers, in the English, Luganda and Luo languages.

23 May 2011

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)