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Celebrating the small steps

Ory Okolloh gave a remarkable speech a month ago at the Digital Citizen Indaba at Grahamstown, South Africa, explaining the reasons she and a collaborator formed Mzalendo, a website dedicated to encouraging transparency of the Kenyan Parliament.

I’d assumed that the project was an attempt to give Kenya a service like They Work for You in the UK, a project which tracks debates and votes in the Houses of Commons and Lords. What I hadn’t realized was the extent to which the Kenyan parliament is opaque to citizens. Ory offers some lovely examples of how hard it is to find out who your parliamentarians are and what they’re doing:

– When the Kenyan Parliament put up a website, it included biographical information on MPs. This led constituents to find out that MPs often didn’t have the educational background they’d campaigned on, leading to embarrasing questions: “Mr. MP, how are you qualified to represent me if you didn’t complete secondary school?” The Parliament responded by taking down the site and replacing it with a message that’s been up for months, claiming the site is being updated. (Andy Carvin’s got a great story on the incident.)

– The hansard – the verbatim report from parliamentary debates – is extremely difficult to obtain. To get it as a private citizen, you need to find the government printing office, pay a large sum, and wait for the office to work through their backlog of requests – the current wait is three years.

– Private citizens can attend parliamentary debates, but they can’t make recordings or take paper notes. Journalists are allowed to take notes on debates, but quite often, they don’t cover the parliament as closely as some Kenyan citizens would like.

So Ory and her partner set up Mzalendo, hoping that by collecting the information they were able to about parliamentarians and their debates and votes, they’d be able to encourage citizens to keep a closer eye on their MPs, and encourage MPs to start volunteering information about their work.

Ory’s now reporting their first victory – a small step, but an exciting one nonetheless – Kenyan MP Ukur Yattani has started answering constituent questions on his MP page on the site. His first post corrected information about his educational qualifications, but subsequent exchanges have gotten into substantive questions about gunfire between Ethiopian “bandits” and Kenyan police in Forole.

The honorable MP has been rewarded for his online candor with positive comments from Kenyans at home and in the diaspora – let’s hope this is enough to keep him writing online, and encourage other MPs to join him. And big congratulations are due to Ory and Mzalendo for creating a space to make these sorts of exchanges possible. Let’s hope this project grows and is echoed in countries across the continent soon.