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Government nods off online

Websites became part of the package of modernity in Afghan government ministries and departments after 2001. But the initial enthusiasm for maintaining them seems to have uniformly waned.
12.08.2012  |  Kabul
Stay-at-home president? Hamid Karzai clocked up thousands of air miles performing official duties, but not according to his website. The same applies to his recent speeches. (Photos: Rouyee)
Stay-at-home president? Hamid Karzai clocked up thousands of air miles performing official duties, but not according to his website. The same applies to his recent speeches. (Photos: Rouyee)

It is the mid-2000s and Kabul’s ministries are busily modernizing. Top officials are whisked round in sleek imported cars, fibreoptic cables relay grave communiqués, and a flock of new government websites appears amid efforts to highlight state activity. 

Then a few years later the website boom falters and time seems to slow or even freeze for many of the Internet portals. Visitors to the website of the Ministry of Information and Culture, for example, will find that the last update was eight months ago, with a posting about a seminar on monarchy and the path to democracy.

Websites of other state-sponsored organizations languished far longer. Despite the Olympic bronze medal won this month in London by taekwondo fighter Rohullah Nikpai, the homepage of the Afghan National Olympic Committee is still focussed on the Athens 2004 Games.

So what happened?

“Keeping a government website functional and up-to-date requires skilled employees who do not work for low wages,” says Abdul Mateen Samsoor, chief director of the E-Government Department of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, which created 125 similarly formatted websites for all ministries and government departments.

“IT specialists do not work for 200 dollars per month with a government institution, they work for 2,000 dollars [in the private sector]. No ministry is willing to pay that to someone to maintain their website,” Samsoor said.

Given the low wages paid to most workers in the state sector, it could make sense. All ministries were supplied with the same standardized website package free of charge and trained staff to run it for them. Maybe all the IT whiz kids did since move on to better paid jobs. But with the government reportedly spending 50 million dollars on building a new parliament building, surely key websites warrant a few thousand?

Leading from the top

“IT specialists work for 2,000 dollars. No ministry is willing to pay that to someone to maintain their website.”

The ministry websites can all be accessed via possibly the busiest state Internet portal, that of the President of Afghanistan, which has six main menus. One of the menus is titled The President’s Speeches, and does indeed contain some of Hamid Karzai’s speeches, only none more recent than the one he gave at last year’s Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul. 

Judging from the section titled “The President’s official visits,” Mr Karzai hasn’t actually been anywhere during his years in office. Not one trip is listed under the link which leads to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) site.

A further click on Visits on the MoFA website simply leads to an error message that reads 'Unhandled Exception'. Under the menu titled Government,The Constitution sub-tab is empty. 

Whims of IT fashion - and blunders

Some contents have remained largely untouched for months and sometimes years. Some sites fare better - the website of the Ministry of Borders, Tribal and Ethnic Affairs was last updated on May 12, 2012. But function and presentation still leaves much to be desired.

Governmental websites should have contents in three languages – Dari, Pashtu and English. Some websites have all three working, but ironically, the authority most responsible for inter-ethnic issues, the same Ministry of Border, Tribal and Ethnic Affairs, still has no Dari language version.

Some browsers like Mujtaba Hashimi stayed loyal to government websites in the hope of there being a genuine update and overhaul.

It doesn’t make much of an impression on members of the public who are familiar with worldwide web culture. Mujtaba Hashimi, an educated Kabuli who regularly visits government websites in search of new content, says he often finds only old material peppered with errors. 

“Governmental websites have many problems,” said Hashimi. “The major ones are spelling mistakes, not having up-to-date information, and inappropriate design and structure.

“Not having up-to-date information shows how active the owners of these websites are," he concludes. "If a government institution is not very active and if it has not done anything important, what should it report in its website?” 

The main contents of government websites include brief information about ministry activities. While websites run by non-governmental organizations provide useful archives of information, including contact details and user services, state websites are less obliging. Some seem more intent on highlighting the biographies of ministers and deputy ministers and news about these individuals' daily activities. And even these are often permanently 'Under construction'.

Dearth of users 

But beside the departure of many IT specialists from the ministries to lusher pastures, E-Government Department director Samsoor says the problem runs deeper. Using government websites and the Internet in general is simply not yet widespread enough in the country. “For this reason, government institutions have not paid much attention to using and updating them,” he concedes.

Others in the state sector say it’s all about the prevailing fashion. “Government institutions do not see a website as important, but having one has become a tradition nonetheless,” said an employee of the Ministry of Information and Culture, who wished to remain anonymous. “Nobody, however, cares about updating their website or uploading useful information on it. And websites where nothing works and where content is not updated are of no use to anybody.”