Democracy 2.0 could be on its way to Kitwe, Zambia

Elections in Kitwe have been peaceful and fair since Zambia became a multiparty democracy in 1991. But Moses Mwansa, a community leader, thinks his hometown can do better than peaceful and fair.

Mwansa is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of communication between the leaders of Kitwe and the half million citizens who elect them. Too many projects “are decided on by politicians without the input from the people in the community,” Mwansa said.

If potential voters don’t think candidates know what’s important to them, they may be more likely to stay home. Mwansa figures a more active dialogue between leaders and voters could result in better voter turnout and more responsive government in Kitwe, Zambia’s second-largest city.

Here’s where technology comes in.

Mwansa traveled 6,800 kilometers to Ghana in May to attend a TechCamp at Ashesi University. This TechCamp brought leaders in the tech field together with young African leaders like Mwansa to share low-cost, easy-to-implement tools for those working in election-related fields.

Mwansa teamed up with Tomáš Rákos, a former journalist from the Czech Republic who is now with Democracy 2.1, a project that aims to change the way communities make decisions. The group does this by making it easier to survey voters on what they think and what they want.

Moses Mwansa smiling at TechCamp in Ghana (State Dept.)
Moses Mwansa at TechCamp in Ghana (State Dept.)

This kind of targeted polling is crucial to Mwansa. He wants to figure out how to reach Kitwe’s two densely populated low-income areas, as well as the smaller middle-income and higher-income areas. He knows these communities have different needs, but he is just not sure what they are.

Over three days, Mwansa and Rákos developed a two-year plan to survey Kitwe’s population and provide that data to nongovernmental organizations and the city’s government. Those results can help push resources back into the community and guide the city’s decisionmaking.

The plan is designed with Kitwe in mind, but Mwansa thinks other cities in Zambia and throughout the continent will be able to use it.

As ambitious as this sounds, Rákos explained to Mwansa ways in which similar polling projects had successfully raised funding from stakeholders such as nongovernmental organizations and local government. In the case of Kitwe, he suggested that the copper mining companies that supply Zambia’s largest export could be a potential source of funding.

The most expensive part of the project is executing the survey. That will require trained information gatherers conducting surveys face to face. The hardest part of the project is designing the survey itself. “Ninety percent of the overall endeavor is in the research planning,” Rákos explained.

In the second year, Mwansa’s plan would introduce participatory budgeting. Like other kinds of direct democracy, participatory budgeting allows citizens to decide how public money is spent. That can range from items on a school sports budget to a large city’s operating budget. Cities as varied as Entebbe, Uganda, and Chicago have successfully used the technique.

“Participatory budgeting would be a good way of making politicians do projects that the community wants,” said Mwansa. “It would be the voice of the people themselves.”