Hugo Fraga and Dr. Brigham Daniels, J. Ruben Clark Law School
In many parts of the world, the accountability of public agencies to citizens is limited. Graft, corruption, and mismanagement are a way of life. Citizens have few ways to influence official decisions. Many times, the fundamental problem is information. Citizens are not well informed about the services and government policies that directly impact their lives. They also have few ways to convey information about their preferences for policy.
In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the problems of governance that are common around the world find a particular manifestation that harms local people, one that makes the park less secure. Thousands of tourists visit the park from all over the world each year, spending $600 each for a permit to visit with the endangered mountain gorillas. Particularly in a country as poor as Uganda, the fees collected by the park is a significant amount of revenue. Formally, 20 percent of the revenue generated by gate entrance fees and 5 percent of gorilla permits are allocated to development projects in the communities that live on the edge of the forest. This project is intended to boost the wellbeing of residents and decrease the demand on resources inside the park.
Last year, we began establishing a mobile phone platform that ensures people living near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest are informed about local services and have the ability to share their preferences for policy. With better information and communication, residents would also be better empowered to shape and hold local officials accountable for delivering the benefits associated with revenue sharing arrangements. This year, we finished establishing the mobile phone platform, expanded the scope of the platform (and incidentally the scope of the research) to the communities that border Bwindi’s sister park, Mgahinga Gorrilla National Park, and tested a prototype platform in communities around Kampala, the capital of Uganda. This paper reports on the findings of these three accomplishments and discusses the further plans for the project.
Last year we gathered thousands of phone numbers from residents living in communities that border Bwindi. This year, we input those numbers into an online SMS open source software program called FrontlineSMS. This took several days and the help of several individuals, most notably: Mark, Immaculate and Katherine. After inputting the names and numbers gathered last year, we explored FrontlineSMS, running various tests to acquaint ourselves with the software. FrontlineSMS works like an email interface; it includes an inbox, an outbox and a contacts list. By clicking on the “create message” icon, one write a message and select a contact for which the message is intended; by clicking on the “send” icon, one can then send that message. Within seconds, one’s message is sent. One then can receive replies to the message. These show up in the inbox. We discovered that FrontlineSMS is more reliable when no more than ten contacts are selected. Hence, the information we wish to communicate the villagers surrounding Bwindi will be sent in batches of ten. Furthermore we discovered that messages must be kept as concise as possible, otherwise there may be fragments of the message that are not sent.
As mentioned, last year we collected numbers only in and around Bwindi. Because of the Ugandan Wildlife Authorities earnest willingness to cooperate, we decided to expand the scope of the project by expanding the SMS platform to communities surrounding Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Mgahinga lies less than three hours from Bwindi and, as Bwindi’s sister park, not only shares the same management but the same problems. Many of the communities in and around of Mgahinga have no way of sharing their opinions regarding park policies, including those policies that affect revenue sharing. We visited all thirteen of the communities Mgahinga and collected on less than twenty contacts in each community. These were then added to our FrontlineSMS contact list, and in the coming year will be included in the messages we send to our Bwindi contacts. The gathering of this information could not have been done without the help and expertise of Ishmael and Zack, park rangers who were generous enough to translate our English and share their GPS.
Before testing the platform on our contacts, we decided to run a test platform on fifty random locals in Kampala. These were asked if they would participate in a SMS survey later that day. Their names and numbers were added to a prototype platform, and messages were sent to them asking whether they were pleased with Kampala’s recent efforts to improve waste management. Thirty percent of the contacts responded, a figure that gives us great confidence as we go on with our project in Bwindi and Mgahinga. This accomplishment could not have been done without the supervision of Mark and the fortitude of Tara. I thank them for their help.
As one can tell by this report, it was a busy summer. We moved this project far further than we anticipated. But there remains much more to be done. In the coming months, we will begin to use the SMS platform to communicate information to villagers surrounding Bwindi and Mgahinga. Their replies will form the data needed to test our hypothesis. Moreover, we hope it supplies the parks with a helpful tool for communicating valuable information to the surrounding villages.