Liberia: A Journalist, a Blackboard, Some Chalk and Open Government.

002 (6)By Julio Urdenata, Global Integrity. This is the second entry in the “No Hash Tag blog series: Low-Tech Approaches to Open Government and Transparency” and was originally published on the Global Integrity blog.

He is widely read and respected; yet he does not work for any media company.

He doesn’t even use a Twitter account, nor is he active on any other social media platform: chalk and a blackboard are the tools he uses to provide information to citizens about their government.

Alfred Sirleaf is Liberia’s top journalist.

His “Daily Talk” chalkboard, displayed at a busy intersection at Tubman Square (one of the busiest in the African country’s capital of Monrovia), is curated from the dozens of newspapers Sirleaf buys every morning. Once he has made his choice of news, he meticulously writes them on the billboard.

“I try to write it really clear and simple so people can read it from far away, even if they are driving by,” Sirleaf said in an interview with The New York Times in 2006.

Sirleaf’s efforts to bring government information to Liberians have been noticed by the Accountability Lab, a global non-profit based, like us, at the OpenGov Hub.

With funding from their “Accountapreneurship Fund”– a facility to support people with creative ideas for promoting accountability in difficult places — the NGO is supporting a project that, through several billboards curated by Sirleaf, will provide information on how to navigate government services, such as how to start a business or how to get a passport.

“These processes are mapped and then put up on the chalk boards in regular intervals by Alfred, who is brilliant at communicating with Liberians in their vernacular and in a way they understand (through language, illustrations and photos),” said Blair Glencorse, founder of the Accountability Lab, who is presently working in Monrovia with Sirleaf. “The goal is to help citizens better understand what they can expect from government (their rights) and what role they need to play (their responsibilities).”

In contemporary Liberia, low-tech approaches like Sirleaf’s seems to be the best way to reach the widest audience, Glencorse said.

“Internet penetration is increasing rapidly (currently around 10% in a country of 4.11 million) but it is still expensive and slow,” he added. “The chalk boards we are working with are at key intersections where thousands of people pass each day — on some of the busiest days we estimate that 8,000-10,000 people read them. Even the most popular websites in Liberia get nowhere near that sort of traffic.”

The new billboards are expected to be installed within a month, Glencorse said, adding that several government agencies are collaborating in this effort.

“We are coordinating with various ministries (the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, the Ministry of Public Works, among others) and with citizens to understand what information to provide to the public.”

The ultimate goal is to bring the notion of citizenship and empowerment to average Liberians.

“We expect the change to be that citizens better understand how to engage with government constructively and to better understand where processes may be going wrong,” Glencorse added. “From the government perspective, we expect this to help the relevant ministries disseminate the right kind of information in understandable ways to the population.”

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Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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