If Your Government Fails, Can You Create a New One With Your Phone?

How citizens are using technology to fill in for weak states.

Myanmar is opening up politically, and among the first, largest civil society campaigns is a social movement organized over Facebook for cheaper cellphone calling plans. Syria has been locked in civil war for almost two years; despite the strife--or because of it--cellphone subscriptions have taken off. In Nairobi's largest slum, a local initiative to digitally map the muddy streets, open sewers, and infrastructure needs has bloomed into a network of community groups that deliberate over development priorities and then collect taxes to spend on those priorities.

Wherever governments are in crisis, in transition, or in absentia, people are using digital media to try to improve their condition, to build new organizations, and to craft new institutional arrangements. Technology is, in a way, enabling new kinds of states.

It is out of vogue in Washington to refer to failed states. But regardless of the term, there are an unfortunate number of places where governments have ceased to function, creating openings for these new institutional arrangements to flourish. Indeed, state failure doesn't always take the form of a catastrophic and complete collapse in government. States can fail at particular moments, such as during a natural disaster or an election. States can also fail in particular domains, such as in tax collection.

Information technologies like cellphones and the Internet are generating small acts of self-governance in a wide range of domains and in surprising places.

Sometimes even governments-in-exile find cohesion online. Libya's transitional government formed online a month before most leaders were able to even get on the ground. Syria's government-in-waiting started haggling online as soon as protesters took to the streets in Damascus. There are no clear examples of states that have been totally "born digital," but there are many examples of people using digital media to provide governance.

Almost everyone can connect to almost everyone else these days -- cellphone penetration in most countries is upwards of 80 percent. So when the modern state fails in one or more ways, people go online, check in with family and friends, and make new plans.

Most of the world gets its news from various forms of state-run news agencies. But citizen journalists pop up whenever the state-run media is so corrupt that it can't provide a reasonable public service. Indeed, before the Arab Spring, the best investigative journalism in Tunisia and Egypt was only found online, and those exposés on corruption and abuse did much to undermine the regime. Even China's ruling Communist Party has trouble controlling its bloggers and Weibo users, especially on topics like corruption and pollution. When street shootouts between warring Mexican drug cartels made cities like Monterrey inhospitable, citizens developed their own emergency notification networks with Twitter. Urban governments failed to provide public warning systems, so citizens created their own public communication system over digital media.

Almost every country in the world now has a digitally enabled election monitoring initiative of some kind. Such initiatives are rarely able to cover an entire country in a systematic way, and they often need the backing of funding and skills from neutral outsiders like the NDI. But even the most humble projects to map voting irregularities, video the voting process, or crowd source the poll station results helped expose and document electoral fraud.


There is lots of technology at work in places we don't usually look. But is it really providing governance? It is not so much that the smartphones have taken over government, but that people are using information technology to do quick institutional repairs.

Just because a development project uses social media in some way doesn't guarantee good governance. But when states fail to deliver governance goods, communities increasingly will step up, digitally. This shouldn't be surprising, given how much excitement there is around the prospect that e-government will significantly improve the capacity of even rich governments to deliver services. However, what we're talking about here is about more than service delivery: it is about the capacity of communities to set rules, stick to them, and sanction the people who break the rules. A sovereign state is one that can implement and enforce policies. When states don't have these capacities, a growing number of communities use digital media to not only provide services, but to do so in a way that amounts to the implementation and enforcement of new policies.

Digital media can strengthen social cohesion to such a degree that when regular government structures break down, strong social ties can substitute. In other words, if the state is strong but the society weak, information technologies can do a lot to facilitate new forms of governance.

The real innovations in technology-enabled governance goods are in the domains of finance and health. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, banking institutions have failed to provide financial security or the benefits of organized banking to the poor. This stems from a lack of interest in serving the poor as a customer base, but also from a regulatory failure on the part of governments. These days, wherever financial institutions have failed whole communities, cellphones support complex networks of private lending and community banking initiatives.

Presented by

Philip N. Howard

Philip N. Howard is a professor at the University of Washington and the School of Public Policy at the Central European University. He is currently writing Pax Technica, a book about the future of global information politics for Yale University Press.

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