Grace Cramer is a first-year International Development student from England. She is an editor at SAIS Perspectives.

Who would not want a pay rise of a third of their salary? Many policemen across Afghanistan were delighted to find that their salaries appeared to have risen significantly after being paid through M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer service. In fact, the technology had merely prevented their superiors skimming their wages as they normally did (Munford, 2010). Mobile telephony in the region had brought not just better connection, but greater transparency too.  

What is perhaps more extraordinary is the power of the convergence in technology that is taking place between countries in terms of technologies. Technology Information Communications Technology (ICT) has expanded dramatically in the developing world in recent years. Almost 70% of the poorest fifth of the global population now owns a mobile phone and in 2015, 2.5 billion people in developing countries were using mobile devices to connect to the Internet (Mishra 2016; GSMA Intelligence 2016). This is expected to increase to 3.8 billion by 2020 (GSMA Intelligence 2016).

This has created many opportunities for the development sector to leverage ICT to enhance growth and social outcomes, and information technology is now being used in every aspect of development. One of the newest and most promising uses of ICT is in the field of governance.

In this article I will argue that, despite the significant challenges that arise with any new technology, these ICT initiatives have the potential to significantly augment transparency and accountability in developing countries, as many of the most successful initiatives are already doing.

In recent years, a whole range of technologies that promise to improve transparency and accountability in developing countries has emerged. Broadly these technologies fall into four broad categories:

1. ICT for Better Public Service Delivery

One of the most celebrated types of ICTs focuses on improving public service delivery. These initiatives leverage ICT to crowdsource information and complaints in real time about the delivery of public goods. They are often online platforms which leverage mapping software to highlight where issues exist through reports received online or via Short Message Service (SMS) (Gigler and Bailur 2016). For example, I Change My City is an online platform which collects real-time feedback on civic issues in six Indian cities. The platform aims to be a bridge between people and local government, helping citizens register complaints on a range of issues from garbage collection to street lighting.

2. ICT to Give Citizens a "Voice"

There are also technological initiatives that allow people to share their experiences and opinions with governments directly, leveraging a broad range of communications technology including SMS, social media and online reporting.  An example is UNICEF’s U-Report, a text-messaged based service designed to connect citizens with decision makers. U-Report highlights the issues that people care about through polls and information sharing. Politicians sign up for the service to monitor the opinions of their constituents.

3. ICT for Government Transparency

These types of initiatives are focused on increasing accountability by making government information available and accessible to citizens. They derive their success not only from sharing citizens’ views but also presenting understandable government data to ordinary citizens. While the previous types of initiatives rely on broad engagement, these projects instead are employed by a select group of users, often journalists or non-profits, as this type of data is “difficult for mass users to discern” (Fung et al. 2010). An example of this type of initiative is Budg-It, a platform which simplifies information about the Nigerian government’s budget and thus making it more accessible to regular Nigerians.

4. ICT Against Corruption and Fraud

The final category consists of initiatives using crowdsource data to shine a spotlight on deficiencies in governance, such as corruption or electoral fraud. While these projects require broad participation, the user base is smaller and more specialized. An example of this would be Ushahidi, a Kenyan start-up which uses its mapping software to monitor elections. The platform was created after the 2007 Kenyan elections to visually represent reports of riots and violence. Ushahidi’s software is available online and is open source, allowing organizations wishing to report on elections to customise it to fit their context (Mukuria 2016).


These initiatives have had some success. The World Bank notes that where this technology “addresses fairly straightforward information and monitoring problems” it is at its most successful (World Bank 2016). This explains the achievements of initiatives focused on public service delivery. For example, I Change My City saw 79% of their complaints resolved (I Change My City 2016). While not all platforms are as efficacious, the ones that excel demonstrate the potential of using technology in governance applications.

Initiatives which amplify citizens’ voices can also demonstrate large-scale uptake. For example, in Uganda, every member of the legislature has signed up to U-report (UNICEF 2015). However, despite this, Peixoto and Fox find a low government response rate despite U-report's popularity (2016).

Initiatives focused on the dissemination of information are more successful. While they face challenges in demonstrating impact, Budg-It was able to discern that its ‘Tracka’ tool was critical in the delivery of government projects worth 139 million naira ($70,000) in six Nigerian states in 2014 (ONE 2016).

Technologies that highlight corruption and electoral fraud have similar challenges when it comes to demonstrating impact. While there are some stellar performers, such as Ushahidi, whose platform reached 20 million people in 2016 , others have demonstrated medium to low uptake (Ushahidi 2016; Peixoto and Fox 2016). For example, anti-corruption site, I Paid A Bribe, despite an initially high uptake, saw traffic to the website slow, in part due to failure to demonstrate impact (Ramanna and Tahilyani 2012).

The Challenges

Much of the findings reflect that these technologies “often reinforce rather than replace existing accountability relationships between governments and citizens” (World Bank 2016). The literature suggests that a positive relationship with government is essential for public service delivery initiatives to succeed. Partnerships are, therefore, of the upmost importance but they cannot be forged by organizations alone. For these initiatives to be successful, citizens must be prepared to use the tools to pressure government. Yet often those who most suffer the effects of poor governance are those least concerned with holding the government to account (Kalathil 2015). Indeed, a report on Budg-It listed apathy and political clientelism as one of the strongest factors limiting its success (Onigbinde 2014).

These projects are also liable to increase the digital divide. Unless carefully designed, technological initiatives favor those with easy access to technology – a group that tends to be more privileged already. For example, World Bank research on U-Report finds that “new users are more likely to be male, young, university educated, and wealthy—those already better off before the Internet’s advent” (2016).

Finally, many of these initiatives are poorly designed and implemented by donors and organizations. Often organizations do not spend enough time understanding the needs and motivations of the users (Fung et al. 2010). Wilson and de Lanerolle, reporting on the impact of these initiatives in Southern Africa, found that almost half of the organizations experienced uptake failure, in part because they did not trial their technology before release (2016).

Despite the challenges faced, successful examples highlight how these challenges can be overcome. In fact, I would ascribe many of the difficulties faced by these initiatives to the infancy of their field. Often the technology and models used are trailblazing and where they fail, they signal best practice to the initiatives that will follow them.

Instead, much of the reputation of these technologies could be improved by not overstating the impact they can have. I would reflect on the ethos of Ushahidi: “it’s only 10% technology and 90% people” (Mukuria 2016). ICT cannot replace the structures that are essential for good governance; it can only enhance them. Where these do not exist, technology is not a substitute. In fact, the most of the successful initiatives prove this. Ushahidi, I Change My City and BudgIt have all seen technology as a starting point and have put considerable work into building relationships. If organizations concentrate on three key lessons then these initiatives may still live up to their promise.

A. Partner Well

Much of the literature reveals that these initiatives cannot exist in isolation and that instead they should be embedded into existing networks. Peixoto and Fox emphasize the importance of working with government while Fung et al. highlight why media partnerships are necessary to further transparency. Halloran goes further describing how successful initiatives must connect the dots between multiple levels of governments and a range of other actors including NGOs, social movements and government reformers (2016).

B. Design with Care

If the technology is not well designed, particularly where the interface is not intuitive, uptake will remain low. Fung et al. recommend involving the local community in the design process and in this way, organizations can avoid privileging already favoured groups (2010). Indeed, Ushahidi countered the notion that ICT initiatives are inherently divisive, emphasizing that good design could actually help technology support the most marginalised. For their part, Ushahidi’s platforms work off desktop, smartphones and the most basic SMS to ensure inclusion is as broad as possible (Mukuria 2016).

C. Context is King

The environment these technologies operate in will inevitably impact on their success. Whether it is lack of infrastructure, limited government capacity or even a repressive regime, the initiative will suffer if the context is not taken into account. Kalathil recommends that organizations conduct context mapping that includes a detailed “political economic analysis” (2015). This is because the introduction of the technology will itself shape the context of a society.

A call to arms

Technology should not be seen as quick fix for transparency and accountability issues. Ushahidi reports that the set up for monitoring a single election will usually start one year or more in advance (Mukuria 2016). Yet the impacts can be considerable. A study found that Ushahidi’s electoral monitoring increased turn out in a Nigerian election by 8% (Were 2015). With time, careful design and strong partnerships, transparency and accountability initiatives leveraging ICT have the potential to make a measurable impact on governance worldwide.


Fung, A., Russon Gilman, H., and Shkabatur, J. 2010. Impact case studies from middle income and developing countries. London: Transparency and Accountability Initiative.

Gigler, B., and Bailur, S. 2016. Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap? Washington DC: World Bank.

GSMA Intelligence. 2016. The Mobile Economy 2016.

I Change My City. 2016. Statistics. Accessed November 27, 2016.

Kalathil, S. 2015. Transparency, Accountability and Technology. Washington DC: Plan International USA.

Halloran, B. 2016. “Accountability ecosystems: directions of accountability and points of engagement”. Research Briefing for Making All Voices Count, June 2016.

Mishra, D. 2016. “Have the digital revolution’s broader benefits fallen short for development?” Future Development, Brookings, January 28.

Mukuria, C. Interview by Grace Cramer. Skype call. Bologna,  November 29 2016.

Munford, M. 2010. “M-Paisa: Ending Afghan Corruption, one Text at a Time.” Tech Crunch, October 17.

ONE. 2016. Overcrowded primary school completed after citizens’ demand their allocated budget. Accessed November 24, 2016.

Onigbinde, O. 2014. “The Nigerian Budget: Using Creative Technology to Intersect Civic Engagement and Institutional Reform” Field Actions Science Reports Special Issue 11.

Ramanna, K. and Tahilyani, R. 2012. "I Paid a Bribe (Dot) Com". Harvard Business School Case 112-078, June 2012.

UNICEF. 2015. UNICEF’s U-Report social platform hits 1 million active users. Last modified July 16.

Were, D. 2015. “Using technology effectively to fight corruption.” Ushahidi blog, December 10.

Wilson, C. and de Lanerolle, I. 2016. “Test It and They Might Come: Improving the Uptake of Digital Tools in Transparency and Accountability Initiatives” in Opening Governance?  Edited by Edwards, D. and McGee, R., IDS Bulletin Vol 47 No. 1, January 1.

World Bank. 2016. “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends” Overview booklet. Washington, DC: World Bank.

The World Bank. 2016. World Bank Development Indicators. Accessed December 4, 2016.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Spizer, one of this year's photo contest winners. This photo was taken on the streets of Hargeisa, Somaliland, an autonomous region within Somalia. The shop in the picture sells soda and customers pay by dialing the merchants Zaad number (pictured above the girl in the black hijab) into their phone. Zaad is a mobile money system, which has been revolutionary in transforming commerce and finance throughout the region.