Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Active with the activists

45 minutes outside Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, nearly 100 attendees, from NGOs, community media, academics, activists, social workers and government officials, are at the second MekongICT camp.  People have come from Thailand, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka; from outside the region there are community-based ICT proponents from the US, Canada, and New Zealand.

My key note covered Government 2.0 and Civil Information Society – why it is important, examples of government 2.0 around the world, and how to move forward.  Coming from a high trust, transparent democracy in New Zealand, I was filled with admiration for activists working in these Mekong countries who have none of the tools that we take for granted - such as Freedom of Information legislation or consultative democracy.

One question that I was asked – “what incentives can be put in place for countries like ours, where government is closed and we cannot get information?” – gave me food for thought.  Apart from anger that people with power, in positions of authority and leadership, do not accept their responsibilities to serve the people who they lead, I could only come up with one answer - find an individual government official who wants to make a difference. If  "Law is the Operating System of Democracy", how do you lead your life without a reliable operating system?

The ideas emerging so far include protecting your information when operating as an NGO, and activism through citizen journalism.There are teams building community radio stations with parts that you used to be able to buy from Dick Smiths and Radio Shack before they put them all away in the drawers at the back and sold you glossy end products. Another group are creating a wifi mesh network to connect communities peer to peer communities.  Along the hall, I am at a workshop designing SMS systems for supporting farmers - "for people in the world that need it most, the only way to access the power of ICT is through SMS.

I keep thinking "Agitprop" without even knowing if that is a word with currency in the 21st century - it meant a lot in 1970. Wikipedia tells me that it is term from Bolshevist Russia, that had negative connotations in the west. It seems to fit well with what is happening here - communities helping each other to help themselves.  Billy Bragg would be proud of them:

Jumble sales are organised and pamphlets have been posted
Even after closing time there's still parties to be hosted
You can be active with the activists
Or sleep in with the sleepers
While you're waiting for the great leap forward


  1. Hi Laurence, good to read this, and kudos for citing Billy Bragg's great song. I was going to say that many of the countries that you listed people coming from at this event actually do have a Freedom of Information Act, but then I looked at your slides and saw you knew this. I couldn't see a reference at the end of your slides for the bar chart on slide 23 though - the UN e-participation index. Any chance you could post the link to that in a comment here?

    Also, in terms of what civil society can cite to politicians to motivate them, and help them understand why to introduce FOI laws, I discussed with NGOs in Cambodia the issue of attracting foreign investment. Companies like to invest where there is certainty about the regulatory environment. Greater transparency can help with this, reducing the risk of arbitrary government/court decisions that can cost companies lots of money and probably also reducing the risk that they're ask to pay corrupt people bribes for permits.

    You're right too about law being the operating system of democracy, but I think every country, even with good FOI laws, can demonstrate that a belief in rationality and the rule of law will only get you so far. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that when politicians' interests (party political or genuine belief in what is good for the country rather than self-interest necessarily) conflict with what rational, even-handed application of the rule of law requires, sometimes 'perverse' results occur.