Canada should lend its e-government expertise to the developing world

In war-torn regions of the world, deploying new technology is a challenge — to say the least. These countries usually have to start from scratch, rebuilding basic infrastructure as well as government institutions. E-government is not usually at the top of citizens’ priority lists.

But perhaps

it should be. Rebuilding infrastructure is time-consuming and costly, and even dangerous in areas that are still volatile. In Afghanistan, for example, the nearest landline connection is in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, so laying cable would obviously not be an easy task. E-government is a step in the right direction, but how can the needs of these countries be met?

Some would argue there are more critical issues to address in post-conflict areas than e-government. Most of these countries, however, are rebuilding their governments from the ground up, so it makes sense to introduce the basic building blocks of e-government right from the start. It’s an opportunity to build efficiency and transparency into government processes, perhaps giving a new government a boost in the credibility department by providing more accountability to its citizens.

Often, the push for e-government comes from international organizations, which provide funding for such initiatives. For example, the European Union and the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo worked with Ottawa-based FreeBalance to deploy a financial management system to manage and report on budget, expenditures and treasury management.

The project, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and its Swedish counterpart, SIDA, was later expanded to include all of Kosovo’s government departments. The system was also deployed in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor) to record all government-related financial transactions, including those with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and donor nations.

Afghanistan is in the process of rebuilding after 23 years of war and the end of the Taliban regime. However, the country is far from stable; rival warlords, sporadic violence, landmines and divisions over the constitution stand in the way of development. Despite these obstacles, the UN is turning to IT to rebuild a government administration. The UN Development Programme has launched a project to train 1,800 people in basic computer skills, with a focus on civil service and local government staff. It’s also bringing the Internet and e-mail to Afghanistan’s public institutions to link up the provincial capitals with Kabul. And Afghans are embracing technology, according to international reports. They’re installing wireless connections, setting up Internet cafes and buying mobile phones. Civil servants can now send notice of a new regulation to the provinces with the click of a mouse, something that used to take weeks.

Then there’s Iraq. Even there, where bombings and kidnappings are common occurrences, e-government is starting to make inroads. Italy recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Iraq to develop e-government initiatives for Iraq’s public administration, claiming it will help bring democracy to the former dictatorship. Initially, it will create an intranet to connect all government institutions. Once telecommunications structures have been built or repaired, it will help develop other e-government projects, such as the digitization of accounts and an electronic public records system.

Canada is known more for its peacekeeping efforts than its military prowess. We’re also known for our strength in e-government. This is an area where our expertise could make a difference in the reconstruction of war-torn countries — where computers, instead of guns, are the weapons of choice.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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