Who would have thought even five years ago that a New Zealand civics course and rocket programme, along with an Australian university initiative, could bring democracy to Sub-Saharan Africa?
Delegates at last week's symposium at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology were informed that southern hemisphere-generated technology now has the capability to deliver low-cost satellite coverage – and therefore crucial how-to civics education – to remote areas of any country.
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Launching from its Mahia site in New Zealand, Peter Beck's Rocket Lab has shown in the past 18 months that electron motor technology works. Not only can Rocket Lab deliver into low-orbit "sustainable" rockets that leave no space junk (re-entry disintegration is used to remove all parts), it can do it cost-efficiently for developing countries.
Swinburne's symposium featured a presentation detailing how "Ten lessons in democracy" can be accessed by any smartphone anywhere in the world. Created for the 2016 Somali elections, the course was developed by a New Zealander to upskill 275 Somali MPs and civil service workers in a country where education had largely been lost.
The brainchild of former Somali Minister of Communication Mohamed Ibrahim, these lessons were designed specifically for Somalia but are adaptable to any country.
As one of an international team of three, I acknowledged New Zealand universities' political science departments who suggested comparative government texts – and Swinburne University's Information Systems for the input of their Social Impact Research Group.
Led by Doctors Jason Sargent and Paul Scifleet, Swinburne has cooperated with Arizona, Melbourne and Jazeera universities to host yearly ICT for democratisation conferences aimed at securing Somalia's next one-person/one-vote election.
In 2015, I composed the "Somali School of Government" in six months after completing a postgraduate diploma in E-learning via Massey in 2014 – and a crash course in political science 101 that summer.
I was determined to design a course based on an unvarnished, multi-perspectived history of Somalia – including its unique contributions and setbacks. As well as plotted histories of parliamentary and liberal democracy.
The emphasis was on comparative government and good governance, with hypertexts to backgrounders on more difficult concepts. These included the seven different types of majorities, how social contracts can be renegotiated, best anti-corruption practices, plus the role of religious wisdom and Sharia law within secular achievements such as the church-and-state separation.
The International Parliamentary Union has a highly useful updated website with lots of updated information from around the world. For example, New Zealand's user-friendly online submission process makes us one of the most engaged liberal democracies.
Australia's compulsory voting system produces higher turnouts – 90 per cent plus– but we make only registration compulsory so we can detect levels of disaffection.
A recovering state with rural and urban areas, Somalia has 15 million inhabitants – and one million diaspora scattered around the world. Its tribal consciousness present unique challenges.
The second African state to achieve democracy in 1960, Somalia, like so many settler-colonial states, lapsed into a socialist autocracy. Dictatorship, foreign interventions and tribal divisions then tore its civic fabric apart.
While Somalia is unique, Swinburne is leading the way in providing a forum for all stakeholders to rebuild civil societies. The symposium featured worldwide contributions and discussions in an environment offering intellectual input, IT expertise and civic support.
IT link-ups included addresses by Mohamed Abdi Ware, President of the Somali state of Hirshabelle; professor of School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University Dr Katina Michael; and an in-person address by 2009 Australian of the Year and chairman of Africa Think Tank, Dr Berhan Ahmed, who said: "In the 21st century, the lion leader is not the big-man warrior, but one big enough to consult and, where necessary, apologise."
Of course, the lessons in democracy need further development – so far only the first lesson has been translated into Somali – but age-levelling it, using animations for easier understanding by the semi-literate, and podcast-able audios would make it more accessible.
An insightful presentation by Australian-Somali Samatar Ibrahim used research to show how civics via diffusion – one educated phone-owner in a village teaching two others and so on – can educate a nation.
Democracy is the only system capable of self-correction. But this depends on a high percentage of engagement. Although 125 out of 196 countries are currently democratic, the monitoring website Freedom House records many that have become less inclusive. Or dysfunctional.
While in Melbourne, I challenged those with the expertise to translate the lessons into Arabic – or their indigenous language. Imagine the effect of that on the region.
• Steve Liddle is a teacher and independent researcher based in Napier. Last year he taught at Bethlehem University, one of 17 on the West Bank.