While the growth of the Internet and access to technology has spread around the world, they have failed to be a silver bullet remedy to governance issues that plague developing nations and often prevent their citizens from economic advancement.
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A new World Bank Report released Wednesday finds the advent of the Internet and spread of mobile phone use has not increased citizen empowerment and improved government accountability. Consistent, organized access to basic services like a functioning energy grid, trash collection, filing taxes and voting, which are frequently lacking in developing countries, have not been affected.
“There was the hope that technology would provide additional incentive to make massive improvement. Unfortunately, this is where we actually see the biggest disappointment,” says Deepak Mishra, co-director of the World Development Report 2016 at the World Bank and co-author of the report. “We were expecting much more benefit than what we found.”
Mishra says that the Internet’s “digital dividends” – the positive outcome of spreading access to technology – were lacking when it comes to their effect on citizen’s ability to influence the action of their governments.
“[Technology has] not solved two of the most difficult governance problems: how to improve service provider management and how to increase citizen voice. A significant gap remains between technology and institutions, and where public sector accountability is low, digital technologies often help control rather than empower citizens,” the Digital Dividends report finds. “These trends persist, not because of digital technologies, but in spite of them.”
Even though an average of eight in 10 people in developing countries own a mobile phone and the number is rising, having this technology at their fingertips hasn’t produced a sizable incentive for their governments to improve services. The Internet does allow citizens to organize en masse, as seen during the 2011 Arab Spring protests, but those grassroots efforts don’t necessarily produce more achievable results than were possible before the Internet.
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Mishra says that social media generally plays a role in protests surrounding one particular event, say a government corruption scandal where the public calls for a minister to resign. But for day-to-day problems experienced in developing countries, technology has failed to provide a platform for protests to produce change.
“When it comes to mundane things in life – when I don’t have electricity in my house, when the teachers in my kid’s school don’t show up one time, hospitals don’t have drugs – we don’t see massive protests and moments induced by technology to drive those and improve those,” Mishra says. “But that’s what actually the real service delivery is. It’s not about just coming together to protest on one thing, but are you doing it for mundane things? So far we haven’t seen successful cases of people’s ability to mobilize using Twitter or Facebook and social media, and to be able to bring those kinds of changes.”
Access to jobs and higher economic growth in the Internet age have also failed to meet expectations, even though the number of Internet users worldwide has tripled since 2005. Only 31 percent of people in developing countries had access to the Internet in 2014, in contrast to 80 percent of people in high-income countries. Only 15 percent of people in the world can afford access to broadband Internet and there are significant adoption gaps for those living in rural areas.
The World Bank report found that if a government is already responsive to citizen complaints, technology is likely to boost the public’s ability to effect change. But it can also reinforce negative aspects of government, “including giving governments more capacity for surveillance and control.”
Vivek Ramkumar, director of international advocacy and Open Budget Initiative at the International Budget Partnership, focuses on how governments can increase accountability and transparency. He says technology can play an important role in getting information in the hands of citizens and the Internet has allowed governments to publish documents like budgets more easily.
“On the other hand, when it comes to improving of government accountability, technology has been much more limited in what it has managed to actually achieve,” Ramkumar says. “So although social media does provide the ability for grassroots activists to organize themselves to know what’s happening, … in terms of same types of change we have not certainly seen that technology has helped improved government accountability.”
Ramkumar, who conducts research on government transparency around the world, says governments used to explain the lack of available public documents as a logistical problem. Officials would argue they didn’t have a mechanism to disseminate large documents like a budget, but the Internet has now made it easy for governments to post material for download by their citizens.
But Ramkumar says technology has not magically made it less challenging for citizens to hold their governments accountable for basic services they are required to provide.
“If traditional accountability channels relied on grassroots mobilizations or taking issues before relevant government oversight bodies, whether they are the anti-corruption agencies, the audit agencies, parliament, those still require the same strategies and the same sets of obstacles that always existed. Technology has not necessarily empowered citizens to make that easier,” he says. “Even when governments are well meaning and wish to put out information in the public domain, the fact that many people do not have access to high speed Internet is a challenge.”