Over the last few years, there has been unprecedented focus on corruption and accountability across South Asia. Accountability movements have resulted in a variety of initiatives including special monitoring bodies, transparency laws, monitoring mechanisms, judicial reforms and refining government processes. These initiatives bring different understandings of problems and approaches, with varied strengths and weaknesses. Despite these differences, they are increasingly converging on the use of technology to augment a growing set of accountability strategies.
The availability of new devices, the power of the Internet, the reach of mobile phones, and citizen activism give us reason to believe that the use of technology has real promise in advancing the accountability agenda. Yet the claim of technology’s promise is not without its critics. The use of technology has created new avenues for corruption despite claiming to combat it. Technologies rolled out in the name of advancing citizenship also create avenues for greater surveillance and disenfranchisement. Many initiatives are not controversial, but their effectiveness is yet to be evaluated rigorously. Finally marginalized people, who need tools for accountability more than anyone else, have significantly lower levels of engagement with it. The promises and problems of technology’s relationship with accountability require closer examination.
This conference proposes to bring together people who are engaged in these questions as activists, officials, academics and innovators to examine how technology is currently being used for accountability projects and to build meaningful platforms for the future. It specifically seeks to bring together people with experience in accountability movements (with or without the use of technology), innovators and researchers in order to promote rich multidisciplinary conversation and to build new collaborations.
One of the most persistent criticisms of technology for democracy projects is that they focus heavily on the tools without paying attention to the complexity of their use and the fact that accountability is a political project steeped in power relations. In order to ensure that technical imagination goes hand in hand with a sophisticated understanding of the problems and strategies necessary to make technology a tool for progressive change, we propose to invite seasoned civil society activists and leaders from the government who have had a successful track record in managing positive change to meet individuals who are just beginning to consider technology as a response to the same problems. The conference will thus foster an exchange of ideas between innovators and experienced activists so that innovators can share their tools and experiences while also deepening their understanding of technology’s relevance and challenges for potential uses on the ground. In turn, experienced political, social and economic leaders will gain ideas on how elements of technology can be introduced into in their work. With this in mind, the conference format provides for opportunities to learn about technology projects, meet with platform creators, and participate in workshops to gain tools suitable for diverse campaign needs.
The conference will be based on four broad themes: (1) Citizen activism for free and fair elections (2) Combatting “last-mile” corruption in public services (3) Gender, technology and accountability and (4) Building safeguards around India’s Aadhar project.