Cape Verde’s Big Win

Last week it was announced that former Cape Verde president Pedro Pires won the $5 million Mo Ibrahim prize for exceptional African leadership. As the citation explains, Cape Verde is among the smallest countries in Africa, poorest in natural resources, and yet managed to move its population of 500,000 forward much faster and much further than many other countries that shared similar (or presumably stronger) attributes. The key to their success? Openness.

The Cape Verde story is an exciting one, one which proves that not all democratic success must come from violent revolutions nor from pervasive protests. I first encountered the Cape Verde success story at the CONSEGI conference in Brasila in 2010, but the seeds were planted many years before that. In 2004, Brasil’s IT organization SERPRO announced:

The African islands of Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe will have approximately one month from now, telecenters structured for digital inclusion in Brazil. The initiative is the National Institute of Information Technology (ITI, the Civil House), the Foreign Ministry, Serpro and private companies such as Globo, Brazil Telecom and Politec.

The two countries will receive a total of 22 computers – 11 each – that run on Linux and several other open source programs like Open Office and Gimp image editor. The program implementation of telecenters also provides technical training for Africans to learn to support on free software. According to the CEO of ITI, Sergio Amadeu, the project will foster the creation of a Digital Solidarity Fund, which will help poor countries to insert themselves in the tech world.

Four years later, Cape Verde was part of this report at CONSEGI in 2008:

The experience of Cape Verde drew attention to the interconnection of 10 islands that make up the country. The African nation is already involved in the unification of government services, whose ultimate goal is the House of the Citizen. The project will provide a unique service for all services provided by the state.

Two years after that, I heard first-hand the reports of that and other projects based on open source software. The job is not easy, and there are definitely challenges, but Cape Verde has fully embraced the concept of democratic participation, and they have built a architecture of open government and open systems based on open source software. It is an exciting validation of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus hypothesis, which is that when technology can lower the barriers to participation, more people become more positively engaged and more productive. Cape Verde has done this, not alone by any means, but with partners like Brazil, who are themselves true leaders in open source and open government.

Cape Verde deserves great credit for all that they have done. As does the open source community, which has yet again helped to make the impossible possible.