The future of Zimbabwe hangs on a knife edge this morning, as it seems to have done for the past week (or the past few years, depending on your perspective). Like many people with an interest in the country, and like many others with friends or relatives living and working there, I've been closely following events on TV and online. International news sites such as the BBC have been as good as ever, but I've also been spending increasing amounts of time on local sites which, I feel, often give a 'truer', more personal sense of what's going on. One of the best sites for this has been Kubatana.net Back in the summer of 2006 I was fortunate to spend three weeks in Zimbabwe working with them. A local NGO seeking to promote human rights and good governance, Kubatana were the very first users of FrontlineSMS when it launched back in 2005, starting a trend which has seen the software used for similar activities in a number of other countries around the world. In their own words, FrontlineSMS finally opened up the possibilities for text messaging in their work, and I knew they had plans to use it during the 2008 elections. This is what they've been doing.
In addition to their SMS election line (promoted on their home page, above), they have been running a "What would you like a free Zimbabwe to look like?" initiative. Zimbabweans have been incredibly responsive, with many people saying that the question gave them hope in uncertain times. According to Kubatana:
It's also been a real learning experience for us, reminding us that ordinary Zimbabweans have a wealth of good ideas to contribute, and our political and civic leadership must work on building a more participatory environment
A combination of SMS and email were used in the initiative, with text messages such as "Kubatana! No senate results as at 5.20 pm. What changes do YOU want in a free Zim? Lets inspire each other. Want to know what others say? SMS us your email addr" sent out to their mobile subscriber lists. FrontlineSMS was used to blast the messages out, and then used collect responses which were then distributed via an electronic newsletter and on the Kubatana Community Blog (see below).
According to Kubatana, "Without FrontlineSMS we would not have been able to process the volume of responses we have received, and we would not have been able to establish a two-way SMS communications service in the way that we have".
In the event of a Presidential run-off, Kubatana plan to produce a broadsheet with the feedback they've received from Zimbabweans in order to remind them what each other wanted, and to inspire them to go out and vote (again). After the election, they hope to produce a booklet with a page on some of these ideas and include an editor's comment, a cartoon or even a set of postcards carrying the most unique, original and practical ideas.
Unlike the Nigerian elections, where FrontlineSMS was used as a monitoring tool, in Zimbabwe it has been effectively used to mobilise and inform civil society during and after the election process. In both cases, the real success story has been the NGOs themselves - NMEM in Nigeria and Kubatana in Zimbabwe - who have both demonstrated the power of mobile technology in civil society initiatives, and what can be done when the right tools make it into the hands that need them the most.