“Information is Oxygen of Democracy”- Quote from World Press Freedom Day 2006

Slumbering aspirations for democracy have been rapidly reawakened among disenfranchised citizens around the globe as an inadvertent act by the former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali only 6 years ago planted a critical seed of change that eventually lead to a key contributing factor of the “Jasmine Revolution” with rippling effects throughout the region. What was this mysterious act and why does it matter for development policy?  

The seemingly innocent act was the insistence by the former regime to host the second leg of the United Nations World Summit for an Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia, pro memoria a process initiated by Switzerland 2 years earlier with the first leg of the summit held in Geneva. The theme under discussion - what is the role of the witnessed information and communication revolution through Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) contributing to an inclusive, people-centered and development-oriented Information Society. In other words, how can traditional and emerging ICTs - such as interactive radio, mobile phones and the Internet - facilitate economic, social (and between the lines in Tunisia) political transformation throughout the developing word. Highly controversial at the time as I witnessed first-hand how the state-controlled media censored the Swiss president Samuel Schmid’s speech during his passionate defense for the respect of human rights and the freedom of expression within a Information Society the secret police muzzled domestic human-rights groups.

Remarkably only 6 years later, those seeds of change planted during the WSIS in Tunis blossomed during the Jasmine Revolution with profound regional implication. The connection - it is a well documented fact that the continuous proliferation of and access to various ICTs (including Internet-based Services such as Facebook and Twitter) constituted a key contributing factor to facilitate the witnessed political transformation.

So what is the relevance of this extraordinary tale for development policy and practitioners?

For starters, during 23 years of autocratic ruling in Tunisia, arguably no other factor has catalyzed change more rapidly and profoundly as the enhanced access to information and communication tools which amplified information and communication processes. More concretely speaking, existing and often state-controlled communication channels were diversified through the convergence between various ICTs (including radio, fax, mobile phones and the Internet) enabling citizens in all parts of the country to become more empowered through a) accessing impartial information, b) obtaining innovative possibilities for sustained coordination and mobilization and c) sustaining a collective pressure to bring about the desired changes more swiftly.

It is true that the facilitating role of ICTs and new media in protests have been previously witnessed in Iran and to a certain extend in Burma. What makes this tale of ICT-enhanced transformation so noteworthy in Tunisia is that it actually succeeded. Thus, democratic aspirations by the people for increased transparency and accountability can truly be awakened and even amplified through the facilitating role of ICTs, begging the question for development policy makers how to best consider this driving development factor within their future interventions.

However (and very importantly), there is an important caveat - ICTs alone will not automatically lead to desired transformations. Technologies are, after all, only a means to an end. It is the power and collective will of the people through participatory communication processes that changes fabrics of societies. Undoubtedly, this process can be facilitated and amplified through the use of various ICTs, but for more sustainable results, a systemic approach including the following factors deserves close attention by development practitioners.

Firstly, the global community needs to continuously assist developing countries in their efforts to transform the “digital divide” into a “digital provide”. Systematic efforts to enhance connectivity, accessibility and affordability to ICTs are needed, particular in rural areas covering the 70% of 1.4 billion poor and marginalized people living in rural areas (IFAD’s Rural Poverty Report 2011).

Secondly, a holistic and complimentary approach to increasing connectivity is recommended, suggesting the “7 C’s approach”. The 7 C’s approach refers to looking beyond infrastructure and hardware when applying ICTs to address issues of Capacity Development (Training and Maintenance), Content (particularly local languages), Convergence (choosing appropriate technologies for the appropriate context while particularly looking at a mix between new and traditional ICTs), Communication (embed ICTs within “communication for development” approaches to foster inclusion participation and ownership), Community (focus particularly on rural areas where the digital disconnect is the largest), Context (foster enabling policy frameworks and multi-stakeholder partnerships including with the private sector) and Conservation (e-waste and extractive metals). Seemingly trivial, in the words of former Czech President Vaclav Havel, “some things are worth repeating”.

Thirdly, efforts need to be strengthened to support free, pluralistic and independent media environments in order to cultivate participatory information and communication channels that can be enhanced through the proliferation of new information and communication technologies (ICTs).  

Fourthly, the utilization of ICTs needs to be embedded within ongoing social and political change processes and development activities to empower citizens. In particular, ICTs should be linked more systematically established “democratization”, “communication for developmentand Voice & empowerment” approaches while particularly focusing on developing capacities of implementing agencies and local partners.

Fifth and lastly, a medium to longer-term time approach beyond “revolutions” is called for. Sustainable efforts to nurture ICT-enabled communication and information systems (including a vibrant media sector) are a key to ensure a more participatory democratic system. If information is the oxygen of democracies, its steady flow should be ensured not only during times of crisis.

In conclusion, there are existing development policy frameworks addressing ICTs for Development issues such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (Goal 8) and the WSIS targets (ironically) agreed in Tunisia. These targets can be reached but require a political will with the suggested focus presented (5 recommendations above). Dramatic events in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated that democratic seeds of change can start blossoming and even regionally flourishing as ICT-facilitated access to unfiltered information will steadily increase to enable all segments of populations to circumvent controls to learn the truth about their leaders for more social accountability. Technology’s reach often exceeds humanities grasp, but this case clearly shows, that through the strategic use of technologies, grasping for more freedom has never been so close within humanity's collective reach. Why not consider ICTs and ICT-enhanced communication for empowerment effort as a fertilizer to enable further regional and global blossoming?