Civic Tech: Building More Transparent Societies in Developing Countries

Ilma Ibrišević


Our society is at a tipping point. Consequently, there is an urgent need for developing sustainable economic and social solutions for change.

This is where transparency comes in.

Transparency and accountability are important pillars of modern democracy. But they are not just fancy words. Transparency can increase voter turnout and civic engagement. Furthermore, by shining a light on financial flows, elections, and decision-making, opportunities for corruption are also reduced. And when corruption is reduced, economies are more likely to grow. The cumulative long-run effect of corruption on growth is that real per capita GDP decreased by around 17%, especially in countries with low investment rates and low-quality governance.

And curbing corruption has never been more important.

2019 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) reveals that a majority of countries are showing little to no improvement in tackling corruption.

The index ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to experts and business people. It uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean. More than two-thirds of countries score below 50 on this year’s CPI, with an average score of just 43.


The role of civic tech in developing countries

Corruption, slow economic growth, and low citizen engagement are not issues exclusive to developing countries, but they do suffer from them disproportionately. In developing countries, the overburdened systems, low financial resources, sudden influx of wealth and its unequal distribution, and disengaged governing institutions present prime opportunities for outright corruption.

Furthermore, corruption can have a negative effect on foreign investment, can stop small businesses from growing, can negatively impact the already vulnerable poor segments of the population, and more.

This is why communities in emerging economies can benefit immensely from the improved accountability and transparency that civic tech brings about.

For example, in Slovakia, corruption in public procurement has been a long-standing problem. However, in the past two decades, Slovakia has significantly curbed the problem through the:

  • introduction of e-procurement, in which dissemination of tenders, tender documents, the submission of bids and the publication of notification of awards is done publicly through a single portal;
  • the introduction of reverse auction mechanisms for procuring goods and services;
  • the mandatory publication of all public contracts on a centralized online government contract repository.

Those reforms have made it significantly easier for organizations and people outside the government to access public data about procurement. This data has increased organizational capacity and, in turn, the scope of oversight by the civil sector. Seeing that 57% of foreign bribery involves public procurement, this was a significant achievement.

Another success story can be found in India where the Karnataka District government has launched e-government software that allows farmers to apply for and receive compensation for crop damage without having to spend resources visiting the relevant offices – saving 7 million farmers 1.32 million working days in waiting time and Rs.806 million (ca. £8.9 million) in bribes to local officials in its first several years.


(Some) of the debates

However, while transparency is very important for curtailing corruption, it’s not a cure-all. A study showed that corruption is still present in procurement in Slovakia noting that:

“Transparency can only highlight the problem, and provide tools for oversight and investigation. Enforcement mechanisms, both formal and informal, must be brought to bear to sanction those whose transgressions are revealed by transparency-enabled oversight.”

Furthermore, it seems that investment in civic tech can actually be associated with increased corruption, even if the aim is doing the exact opposite. Numerous examples from Western Balkan countries also show that there are corruption risks associated with the manipulation of digital records and public service systems. For instance, there’s the case of police and public administration employees in Bosnia-Herzegovina who, following the introduction of an electronic citizen registration system, misused their access and forged data to sell false ID cards and passports. As this illustrates, instead of automatically being a tool to curb corruption, digital public services may also allow corruption to be concealed and can also play into the hands of corrupt officials.

Civic tech faces other challenges too. In order to truly foster change, civic tech tools need to reach a large number of users – which is hard to do given their nature.

Socioeconomic inequalities are also present. Since these inequalities permeate both access and usage of digital services, civic tech often fails to be the great “equalizer”. For example, 1GB of mobile data in Africa costs, on average, 10% of the average monthly income. This high cost keeps women, who generally earn less than men, offline.

Additionally, as innovation and implementation expertise lies almost exclusively with private firms, the civic tech vision risks being shaped by profit interest.

Finally, for underdeveloped countries facing issues of income inequality and illiteracy, even the simplest form of a tool to one individual can be complex to another. Civic tech platforms in such countries are failing because of the complexity and the low competencies of citizens.

How civic tech initiatives help change the game

Despite the challenges, civic tech continues to play an important role in empowering people to take action and transforming politics and democracy.

In Julien Carbonnell CIVIC-TECH: 100 Case studies tools and platforms for civic engagement” 2019, there seemed to be four ways to tackle with civic engagement issues:

  • digitalizing governments and equipping team organizers with more efficient tools
  • focusing on citizen’s autonomy in taking decisions and direct democracy empowerment tools, like daily vote application
  • working on data collection, analysis and visualization to bring better-understanding information to the people
  • supporting common goods, social causes and development initiatives in the most vulnerable communities

Entrepreneurship can really help tip the scales.

More and more organizations are joining the civic tech movement. For example, in Nigeria, the Civic Hub has started Africa’s first accelerator for civic tech leaders, developers, social entrepreneurs, journalists and anyone seeking to build tools and solve social problems.

In Mozambique, for example, Fernanda Lobata, an entrepreneur from Mozambique who established The Eye of the Citizen, a platform that promotes the citizens’ rights and ensures government accountability. With the help of a smartphone and an app, people can easily become observers at the elections and contribute to the fairness of the process.

The Ushahidi platform was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election violence in 2008. They use the concept of crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability, serving as an initial model for what has now been coined as “activist mapping”. Ushahidi offers products that enable local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events.

1991 Civic Tech Center is located in Kyiv, Ukraine, and aims to inspire civic tech startups and communities with location, space, connections, acceleration programs, and events. The Center was opened on 8th December 2017 by SocialBoost, the Ukrainian tech NGO focused on impact projects in the field of open data, civic participation and e-governance, following a $480,000 grant from Luminate, the philanthropic investment organisation established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Luminate funds and supports innovative and courageous organisations and entrepreneurs around the world in the fields of Civic Empowerment, Data & Digital Rights, Financial Transparency, and Independent Media.
In CEE still, Prozorro is the official open data resource that offers free access to all public purchasing data on all tenders announced from July 31, 2016, in the Ukrainian language. It is a “hybrid model” e-procurement system where all data is stored in a central database (CDB). Each supplier and buyer can access all the data from one of multiple platforms, interfaces where they have been registered. Prozorro is an excellent example of the golden triangle of a partnership between the government, the private sector, and the civil sector.


GovChat is South Africa’s largest civic engagement platform accessible online and on any mobile handset. It provides a complaint management system for local governments, with an automated escalation process for unattended queries. It also enables citizens to rate and report public services and facilities.

Open Hluttaw, a recently-launched mobile application, allows users in Myanmar to search for MPs by township, party, house and committee. It promotes political accountability among citizens by offering an open database of information about the country’s 440 parliamentarians. The project involves tailored on-site capacity building and mentoring, as well as engagement with MPs at the state and regional level.

Voice of Kibera is a social reporting platform used to enhance resilience through community-led actions. It began as a way to give a collective, global voice to the residents of Africa’s largest slum in Nairobi, but has become the most authoritative dataset about the challenges faced by Kibera’s residents, the existing services and capacity (e.g. clinics, schools, water resources), and other relevant news and information about the area. Via a simple web-based reporting system, citizens of Kibera can report incidents, from security presence to health, education, and natural disasters.Ojoconmipisto is a journalist-run platform that tracks public spending in Guatemala, aiming to uncover government corruption and inefficiencies. Using reports and citizen complaints from the national procurement portal, they generate digital maps pinpointing state-awarded contracts, project status, personnel, and costs, to reveal inconsistencies between government reports and how taxpayer money is actually being spent.

Euro bills

I Paid A Bribe focuses on crowdsourced reports of corruption and bribery from India and all over the world. It is a unique initiative to tackle corruption by harnessing the collective energy of citizens. The site allows citizens to report all kinds of corruption (e.g. when getting a driver’s license, a birth certificate, being stopped by the police, or registering purchase of property). Citizens can report on nature, number, pattern, types, location, frequency and values of actual corrupt acts on this website. I Paid A Bribe then uses them to argue for improving governance systems and procedures, tightening law enforcement and regulation and thereby reducing the scope for corruption in obtaining services from the government.

In the Philippines, the government plans to use satellite images and pictures of major projects and upload them online so that citizens can participate in monitoring progress.

In Mexico, Laboratorio para la Ciudad is fostering civic innovation by reimagining platforms where government and civic society can collaborate differently and harness urban creativity. The lab applies creative methodologies to thinking about the challenges and the possibilities of Mexico City. Every experiment always includes input from both government and citizens, along with people from different ministries and industries. For example, they leveraged citizens, through open-source gamification, to complete a full map of the city’s bus system in just two weeks. Almost 700 teams of 3000 people traversed a distance equivalent to 1.4 times the circumference of the globe and taking up the equivalent of 400 mapping days.

In this article, we have touched on just a few examples of recent entrepreneurial initiatives dedicated to the promotion of transparency, accountability and good governance.

They are part of a much wider range of initiatives which aim to apply emerging innovation to citizen needs and improve the quality of policymaking and governance.

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