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Open Government through Open Elections in Uganda

I learned a bit about UgandaWatch 2011, a project that is working to enable a fair election in Uganda, and reached out to Heather Kashner, the Resident Director for the National Democratic Institute in Uganda, to learn more. What follows is our exchange, I hope you enjoy and consider checking out the Ugandawatch 2011 website to see how to help.

Q. Heather, I very impressed with your background, what prompted you to join NDI and why did you choose to work in Uganda?
A. Thanks! Ten years ago, I was lucky enough to meet and become friends with former NDIer, Tom Melia through my work in US politics. NDI needed someone to work with political parties in Kosovo at about the same time that I was finished with the 2000 campaign cycle. Tom encouraged me to apply and within 2 months I landed in Prishtine. I thought I would work with NDI in Kosovo for 6 months to a year. Four years later and I was sobbing as I left. It was one of the best professional experiences of my life and it wasn’t long before I returned to the NDI fold in Washington. I traveled to Uganda before the 2005 elections and was hooked. The people, the politics, and the opportunities for change drew me in. When the US Agency for International Development launched a new democracy assistance initiative in Uganda, I jumped at the chance to lead the project for NDI.

Q. Ugandawatch 2011 looks incredible, how long did it take to create?
A. The concept of Ugandawatch began in 2009. At that time, crowd sourcing sites for elections exclusively presented incident reports. These are really important, but can present a skewed picture of the quality of an election because reports focus on the negative. Ugandawatch through this and the next several versions hopes to provide a more comprehensive look at an elections quality by providing crowd, media, and long-term trained observer data on the same site. NDI and DEMGroup found Mt. Batten, the developer, in March 2010. The first version of the site went up in June to try to capture citizen reports of voter registration. Over 400 people texted in with only word of mouth and free media advertising.

Q. I see this uses SMS, is that primary means of tech in Uganda today?
A. SMS has become a huge tool to exchange information between citizens and now between information providers. Google, the Grameen Foundation, the Gates Foundation, NDI and others are all exploring ways to use SMS to exchange information with citizens on democracy, health, agriculture, corruption, and the list goes on. SMS really started to explode in mid-2009. There are about 11 million cell phones in use in Uganda. It’s important to keep in mind that most of those phones and users are low tech. This is not smart phone country yet.

Q. What level of election corruption has Uganda seen in the past? What r u doing, in conjunction with this tech, to keep election fair?
A. Ugandan elections have in the past been marred with corruption, violence, and fraud on Election Day. The unknown extent of that fraud and its impact on election results prevented the Ugandan Supreme Court from overturning election results and calling new elections at Presidential level in the past. Several Parliamentary elections were overturned. NDI has been partnered with the Ugandan group, the Democracy Monitoring Group (DEMGroup). Our assistance is to DEMGroup focuses on developing their skills and techniques to assess the quality of elections, inform Ugandans about how the process is going, and deter fraud. In this election DEMGroup has deployed 22 people to observe the registration process, 215 long-term observers to observe the nominations and campaigns, and will deploy 6000 observers to observe election day. DEMGroup is also working on new statistical processes to analyze the voter register and potentially to verify election results.

Q. How will you determine success with Uganda Watch 2011? When does the election occur?
A. Election Day is February 18, 2011. Obviously, participation is the first metric. If we have high participation it will be a partial success because it will mean that Ugandans are eager to protect their rights and their votes. Of course, knowing is only half the battle. If reports to Ugandawatch contribute to solving real problems and protecting the rights of citizens because DEMGroup or the authorities are able to intervene that will be a huge success. DEMGroup has regular interaction with the Electoral Commission and can interact with the police to try to respond to citizen concerns.

Q. How can people from outside Uganda help you in reaching your goals?
A. It’s important for Ugandan’s to know that the world is interested in their success. Help spread the message and drive traffic to the site. There are many big news stories on the continent this year, many of them related to security and stability. If outsiders take an interest in ugandwatch2011.org and the Ugandan elections in general, it demonstrates that we are interested in stopping problems before they get to a crisis. If you believe that more watchers has a deterrent impact, then supply more watchers!

Originally posted on Government in The Lab.

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