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Emancipating Citizen Voice

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Last week, I was in Istanbul, staying just off Taksim Square, as police were trying to disrupt protests denouncing a new Turkish law that allows the government to restrict internet rights. Sadly, it seems the Turkish government is not alone. Many governments around the world are trying to clamp down on the ability of their citizens to organise and mobilise era, restricting online freedoms and monitoring activity and dissent in ever-more sophisticated ways. Coupled with unequal access, these measures risk turning what should be an era of unbound citizen voice into an age of inequality and restrictions.

We live in a time of momentous change, particularly when it comes to communications. The internet and mobile revolutions hold great promise for people to connect, socialise and mobilise. They create unprecedented opportunities to hold governments to account by opening up official data and popular monitoring of service delivery (imagine TripAdvisor for public services), and facilitating forms of direct democracy that would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago.

The numbers behind the trends are staggering. Any day now there will be more active mobile phones on the planet than there are people; two billion of us already have mobile broadband subscriptions. All this holds huge potential for citizens. Way back in 2001, we saw text messages helping to mobilise mass protests against the President of the Philippines (who called his ousting the 'coup de text'). In 2007, ushahidi.org helped citizens monitor election violence in Kenya and, more recently, there was the amazing use of the internet and social media during the Arab Spring protests.

Yet amidst this euphoria there are still millions around the world who are not being heard or whose voice simply doesn't count. Indeed, the gap between the potential for amplified citizen voice and the reality of large numbers of restricted and marginalised voices seems to be increasing.

We know that in the developed world, new technologies and social media have not necessarily broadened participation, with a vocal minority dominating communication channels. But globally, the greatest barrier to citizen participation remains poverty. Around half the world's population lives on less than US $2.50 a day and one in four of us on this planet does not have access to electricity. The fact that there are more mobile phones than flushing toilets around the world may be a reminder of how prevalent new technologies have become but also a reminder that the lack of some basic old technologies severely limits the ability of many people to live full lives and exercise active citizenship.

The gap in connectivity is also palpable. Some three-quarters of people in the developed world have mobile internet connections, allowing them to access unfathomable amounts of information and connect with unfathomable numbers of people -- instantly. Yet, only 10% of Africans enjoy such access.

Worst of all, the voices of the poor do not even feature where they ought to. For example, in recent discussions about what will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they "expire" at the end of 2015, there were numerous public consultations -- many held in the nicest hotels in the most exotic locations -- but there were few opportunities for the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of such "development" to shape priorities. Examples such as the Participate Initiative (an attempt to collate the lessons of participatory exercises involving the poor) and My World 2015 (a large-scale survey) are rare examples of gathering citizen voice to inform global decision-making.

Here lies the challenge for those of us interested in promoting citizen voice around the world. We live in an era where it is easier and cheaper than ever before to communicate; yet it is also an era in which the barriers to equal participation are as significant as ever.

I am optimistic that we are at the cusp of a new era of citizen participation. History teaches us that it is futile for governments to curb people's freedoms. It is a question of when, not if, citizens rise up to challenge and often overthrow political systems in which their rights are curtailed. New technologies are making it easier to access information, connect with other like-minded people, and mobilise large numbers of people. Over time, the use of these technologies will close the gap between the potential for magnifying citizen voice, including marginalised groups, and today's reality of listening to the loud few. These technologies will provide innovative ways for citizens to make their voices heard and to hold those in power to account. It may not be instant, but communications technology will continue to help revolutionise citizen action and amplify citizen voices. In the end, people power will prevail -- in Taksim Square and beyond.

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. See www.civicus.org; follow @civicusSG.

 
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