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Posts Tagged ‘citizen’

policy forum

This past Monday I had the opportunity to join Engineers without Borders (EWB) in Calgary, Canada, at their Annual Policy Forum on Global Development to discuss “How can open government contribute to community and economic development?”

Morning panels covered some examples of open government initiatives from Finland, Ghana and Canada. In the afternoon we heard about some of the challenges with open data, open government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Table discussions followed both of the panels. The group was a mix of Canadian and African government representatives, people from organizations and groups working in different countries on open government and open data initiatives, and young people who are connected with EWB. The session was under Chatham House Rule in order to encourage frank conversation.

Drawing from such documents as the Open Government Partnership’s Open Government Declaration, Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson’s “The New Ambiguity of “Open Government,” Beth Noveck’s What’s in a Name? Open Gov and Good Gov and Nathaniel Heller, A Working Definition of ‘Open Government’, the following definition of Open Government was used to frame the discussions.

EWB Definition of Open Government

Below (in a very-much-longer-than-you-are-supposed-to-write-in-a-blogpost summary) are the highlights and points I found interesting and useful as related to Open Development, Open Data, Open Government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)

1.  Participation thresholds need to be as low as possible for people to participate and engage in open government or open data initiatives. You need to understand well what engagement tools are most useful or comfortable for different groups. In some places, to engage the public you can use tools such as etherpad, wiki platforms, google docs, open tools and online collaboration spaces. In other places and with other populations, regardless of what country, you may be more successful with face-to-face methods or with traditional media like television and radio, but these need to be enhanced with different types of feedback methods like phone calls or surveys or going house to house so that your information is not only traveling one way. Community organizing skills are key to this work, regardless of whether the tools are digital or not.

2.  Literacy remains a huge challenge hindering access to information and citizen engagement in holding government accountable in many countries. This is why face-to-face engagement is important, as well as radio and more popular or broad-based communication channels. One participant asked “how can you make open government a rural, rather than an urban only, phenomenon?” This question resonated for participants from all countries.

3.  Language is still a critical issue. Language poses a big challenge for these kinds of initiatives, from the grassroots level to the global level, within and among countries, for citizens, governments, and anyone trying to share or collect data or information. It was noted that all the countries who have published data to IATI are publishing in English. All the IATI Standards are in English, as is the entire support system for IATI. As one participant noted, this begs the question of who the information in IATI is actually designed for and serving, and who are the expected users of it. Open data initiatives should consider the implications of language they publish in, both politically and practically.

4.  Open data can serve to empower the already empowered. As one speaker noted, “the idea that everyone has the potential to make use of open data is simply not true.” Access to digital infrastructure and educational resource may be missing, meaning that many do not have the ability to access, interpret or use data for their own purposes. Governments can also manipulate data and selectively release data that serves their own interests. Some questioned government motives, citing the example of a government that released “data” saying its unemployment rate was 10% when “everyone knew this to be false, and people grumbled but we did not feel empowered to challenge that statement.” Concern was expressed over the lack of an independent body or commission in some countries to oversee open data and open government processes. Some did not trust the government bodies who were currently in charge of collecting and opening information, saying that due to politics, they would never release any information that made their party or their government look bad.

5.  Privacy rights can be exploited if data is opened without data protection laws and effort to build capacity around how to make certain data anonymous. Citizens may also not be aware of what rights are being violated, so this should also be addressed.

6.  Too much open data discussion takes place without a power analysis, as one participant commented, making some of the ideas around open data and open government somewhat naïve. “Those who have the greatest stake will be the most determined to push their point of view and to make sure it prevails.”

7.  Open data needs to become open data 2.0. According to one participant, open data is still mostly one-way information delivery. In some cases there isn’t even any delivery – information is opened on a portal but no one knows it’s there or what it refers to or why it would be useful. When will open data, open government and open aid become more of a dialogue? When will data be released that answers questions that citizens have rather than the government deciding what it will release? The importance of working with community groups to strengthen their capacity to ask questions and build critical consciousness to question the data was emphasized. A counter point was that government is not necessarily there to start collecting information or creating data sets according to public demand. Governments collect certain data to help them function.

8.  Intermediaries working on open government should be careful of real or perceived bias. Non-profits have their own agendas, and ‘open data’ and ‘open information’ is not immune to being interpreted in non-objective ways. Those working on civic engagement initiatives need to be careful that they are not biased in their support for citizen initiatives. One presenter who works on a platform that encourages citizens to be involved in petitioning new laws for contemplation in Parliament said “Our software is open source so that anyone can set up a similar process to compete with us if they feel we are biased towards one or another type of agenda.”

9.  Technology-based engagement tools change who is participating. Whether in Finland, Canada, Ghana or Malawi, it’s critical to think about reaching those who are not active already online, those who are not the typical early adopters. To reach a broader public, one speaker noted “We are going to remote places, doing events in smaller towns and cities to see how people want to influence and take part in this. Making sure the website is accessible and understandable.”

10. Technological platforms are modifying how political parties and democratic processes operate. This may or may not be a good thing. Normally priorities arise and are discussed within political parties. Will people now bypass the party process and use ‘direct democracy’ channels if they are passionate about an issue but do not want to enter into negotiation around it? Will this weaken political processes or longer standing democratic processes? One speaker considered this change to be positive. People are not happy with being able to vote every 4 years and they want opportunities to participate in between elections cycles and direct voice in how priorities are decided. Others questioned whether bypassing official processes can lead to less participation and more apathy overall on national issues. Some questioned whether within fairly long-standing democracies, open data will have any real impact, considering existing levels of apathy and the lack of political participation.

11. Strong information, statistical, monitoring and evaluation systems are critical for open data and open government processes and to ensure more effective management of development results. This is still a challenge for some countries that need to review their mechanisms and improve their tools and processes for data collection and dissemination. If there is no data, or no current data, there is not much point in opening it. In addition, there are capacity and technical competency challenges within institutions in some countries. One participant mentioned a lack of current government geological information about gold and oil deposits that weakens government capacity to negotiate with the private sector extraction industry and ensure partnerships and earnings will contribute to national development. In addition more evidence is needed on the impact, use, and outcomes of open data. At the moment it’s quite difficult to say with any real authority what the outcomes and impact of open data and open government have been.

12. IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) needs more partners. Government representatives noted that they are opening their data, but they can only open the data they possess. In order for data on aid to be useful, more data is needed, especially that of NGOs who are implementing programs. Not many NGOs have published their information to the IATI standard at this point. “The really interesting thing will be when we can start mashing up and mapping out the different kinds of information,” as one speaker noted, “for example, this is the goal of the Open Aid Partnership. It will involve combining information from the donor, development indicators from the World Bank, and country information, and this will open up amazing possibilities once this is all geo-coded.” There are reporting challenges related to IATI and open government data, however, because at times countries and NGOs do not see the benefits of reporting – it feels like just one more top-down administrative burden. There are also issues with donor governments reporting their committed intentions and amounts, recipient governments reporting back, and communications with citizens on both sides (donor and recipient countries). One example that was reported to be enjoying some success was the multi-donor budget support initiative in Ghana, where development partners and government work together to establish development indicators and commitments. If the government delivers on the indicators, the development partners will then provide them with the funding. Development partners can also earmark funding to particular areas if there is government agreement.

13. We need more accountability towards ‘beneficiaries’.Currently many of these initiatives are perceived as being focused on donors and donor publics. As one participant noted, “the interesting thing is less about government and more about getting regular people involved in these processes. When you engage the public you’ll engage government leaders in thinking they will need to change to respond to what citizens are asking for.” Another noted that the essential issue is the link between transparency/accountability and citizens and their own governments. In addition, as one participant asked, “How can you strengthen capacity among citizens to ask the right questions about the data that’s being opened?” For example, citizens may ask about the number of schools being built, but not ask about the quality of education being provided. Public education was a strong focus of discussions around citizen engagement during the policy forum.

14. Should citizens be consulted on everything? however, was one big question. The public at large may not understand the ramifications of its own deep misunderstandings on particular issues and may be inputting from a viewpoint that lacks scientific evidence or fact. “It’s one thing to have an opinion about whether your child should be able to drink energy drinks before age 16, it’s another to input about technical programs like the best policy for green energy,” commented one group.

15. Can citizens really have greater participation if government is still in control of data? was another big question. An example was given of an open consultative process that became unwieldy for a local government, which then shut down the consultation process and changed the nature of the documents to ‘administrative’ and therefore no longer open. Others asked why governments pat themselves on the back over being part of the Open Government Partnership yet they do not have Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) or they prosecute those who open data in alternative ways, such as Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz.

16. If citizens don’t get a response from government (or if they don’t like the response, or feel it’s biased or manipulated), apathy and cynicism will increase. It’s important to make sure that ‘open government’ is not just a box that gets ticked off, but rather a long-term change in mentality of those in power and deeper expectations and efforts by citizens for openness and participation in conversations of national importance.

The conclusion was that Open Government is somewhat of a paradox, rooted in aims that are not necessarily new. Open Government strives to enable leaders in their communities to create change and transform their lives and those of people in their communities. It is a complex process that involves many actors and multiple conflicting goals and interests. It’s also something new that we are all learning about and experimenting with, but we are very impatient to know what works and what the impact is. In the room, the feeling was one of ‘radical pragmatism,’ as one participant put it. Open Government is a big idea that represents a big change. It’s something that can transform communities at the global level and there is a great deal of hope and excitement around it. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the challenges associated with it in order to address them and move things forward.

I’ll do a follow up post with the points I made during the panel as this post is clearly way too too long already. Kudos if you are still reading, and a huge thanks to the organizers and participants in the EWB policy forum.

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The basic premise of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (referred to as the ‘CRC’) is that children are born with fundamental freedoms and the inherent rights of all human beings.

According to the CRC, the 4 main categories of rights that children have are survival, development, participation and protection. The CRC’s guiding principles help further shape the way that child rights should be interpreted. These are non-discrimination, the best interest of the child, right to life, survival and development, and respect for the views of the child.

Child protection concerns a child’s right not to be harmed and to protection from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.  It involves the duty of care placed on those that work with children or that come into contact with children.  It encompasses the responsibilities, measures, and activities that must be undertaken to safeguard children from both intentional and unintentional harm.

Child protection encompasses many different areas, such as juvenile justice systems and a child’s right not to be tried as an adult or incarcerated with adults; special care needed by unaccompanied children; protection from sexual exploitation and dangerous forms of child labor; prevention of trafficking and harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting; support for children in emergency and conflict situations; prevention of exploitation by the media; the right not to be abused or taken advantage of by family, caregivers or institutions; and so on.  This link gives an explanation of a protective environment, and this one offers an excellent broad overview of child protection.

Child protection policies and strategies create mechanisms to prevent any type of harm to a child.

Child protection in youth media programs

The organization where I work frames its efforts within the CRC.  Most of the programs that I focus on are related to child participation and child protection.  These two areas go hand in hand, because good participation initiatives need to take child protection into consideration, and good protection initiatives are only successful when children participate in designing them and in protecting themselves.  Children should both know what their rights are and take an active part in achieving them and in protecting themselves.

This week, for example, I’m at a workshop with a small group of colleagues, teachers and local partners from the Upper West Region of Ghana. We’re preparing for a youth arts and media project that they will implement in June. By the end of this facilitator workshop, we will have a localized training plan that fits the context of the community and the youth participants, and the facilitators will have learned some new media skills that they will train the youth on when the project starts.

As part of the facilitators’ training, we cover the CRC, going in depth on child participation and child protection.  There is always a certain tension between these two areas. We want to encourage children to participate to their fullest, yet both children and adults need to be aware of potential risks that participation can bring with it, and know how to mitigate and manage them.

Three child protection risks that we are focusing on with facilitators at this week’s workshop are:

  • Intentional or unintentional abuse by staff or local partners
  • Retaliation or harm to a child who appears in a media story or art piece on a sensitive issue
  • Retaliation or harm to a child who authors or creates media or arts on a sensitive issue

Internal child protection policies

To begin our sessions on child protection, my colleague Joyce covered our organizational Child Protection Policy, which clearly states our intention to protect children from harm and advises that we will take positive action to prevent child abusers from becoming involved with the organization.

Joyce explained that child abuse is never acceptable:

  • Child abuse in our case is defined as:  All forms of physical abuse, emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse and exploitation, neglect or negligent treatment, commercial or other exploitation of a child and includes any actions that result in actual or potential harm to a child.
  • Our child protection policy applies to staff at all levels, including board members, volunteers, community volunteers, supporters, consultants, contractors; partner organizations, local government people who have been brought into contact with children via our organization, visitors, donors, journalists, researchers and any other type of person or institution associated with us.
  • We recognize that child abuse may be a deliberate act or it may be failing to act to prevent harm. Child abuse consists of anything which individuals, institutions or processes do or fail to do, intentionally or unintentionally which harms a child or damages their prospect of safe and healthy development into adulthood.
  • We follow through on cases of child abuse to the fullest extent of the law.

Point three, unintentional abuse, refers to situations where someone has good intentions but their lack of planning, knowledge, foresight, or their recklessness puts children in harm’s way.  As Joyce explained, “It’s  like an excursion that is not well planned.”  The good intention is to take children out so that they could have some fun.  But if proper care is not taken to plan the trip and ensure children’s safety during the trip, then unintentional harm could be done. A child could be lost, a vehicle could be unsafe, a child could drown.  Though the good intention of the person planning this event is not in question — they wanted the children to have fun and enjoy themselves — if proper planning is not done and something happens that causes harm to a child, it is still considered child abuse.  Good intentions are not enough.

Here are some resources on institutional child protection standards and an excellent overview on minimum participation and protection standards when working with children and residential events.

Use of children’s images in the media

Since this is a youth arts and media project, we need to think about the use of children’s images and identities in the media: print, broadcast, radio, internet or visual arts. The CRC asserts that every child has the right to privacy, and this extends to the right not to have their image used for any purpose for which they have not given consent.

Key points related to the use of children’s images and working with children’s stories include:

  • If the person is below 18, you must seek the consent of the parents/guardians
  • Consent forms must be kept securely for future audit or proof purposes
  • A child’s real name should not be used in publication or broadcast unless they would benefit from increased self-esteem by seeing their name in print
  • The information given about the child should not allow their precise location to be identified (either directly or indirectly)
  • A story should not be published, with or without names or identities altered, if it could put a child, siblings or peers at risk
  • The best interest of the child comes above all else

Helping people see the implications

Expanding on the aspects above, Joyce offered ideas on how to discuss and ensure that children and adults that might portray others, or be portrayed in media, are aware of all the implications and potential risks:

  • Today’s media is global and can be accessed anywhere in the world through the internet.
  • When you talk to the media nowadays, you are talking to the world. The story may not reach everybody in every country, but you can be sure that it will reach further than you can imagine.
  • Ask yourself the following:
    • How would friends and family react if they saw the story, or found out that it had been published?
    • Think through who might be harmed.  Would the subject of the article, artwork or video be at risk of any harm if someone saw it?  Could this story or artwork put anyone in danger?
    • This story can stay documented for years. How would the person feel if their children were to read the story in a few years?
    • There is no guarantee that this story cannot be seen by people whom you do not want to know about it.  Help people thoroughly understand the implications of sharing their stories. This protects not only the subject of the story, but the person who is authoring the story.
    • Are there people we need to protect when telling our story? Friends that we need to protect?  What needs to be edited out so that nobody is implicated in the presentation of the work?

Here is an excellent resource on use of children’s images in the media, and a guide for journalists reporting on children, and guidelines for reporting on children in the context of HIV/AIDS.

Stories that cause unintentional harm

To illustrate some of the points above, we used 2 examples.  A New York Times/Nick Kristof article that identifies a child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who was raped and his opinion piece on why he believes that was OK, and a scenario where a film is made of a girl who reports that her mother beats her and doesn’t allow her to attend school.

General consensus from the group in our workshop on the New York Times case was that child protection and media guidelines were not followed, and that Kristof was reckless and unintentionally put the girl at risk.  Workshop participants felt that appropriate respect for the child was not shown. “The journalist would never be able to do that in the US”.  One participant exclaimed “So, he didn’t feel that any Congolese would ever be enlightened enough to access the story?”  It was recognized that “his intention was good, that people should know about these terrible crimes, but there is no need to share all the specifics.” Participants wondered whether this was in the best interest of the girl, and how she would feel in the future if someone she knew found the article.  “In our culture, this type of thing can be very stigmatizing.”  Participants asked why technology wasn’t used to cover the girls’ face and disguise her voice, or why she wasn’t filmed from behind to conceal her identity.  The conclusion was that this story could have been told in a way that protected the child and had equal impact on readers.  [Update: Laura over at Texas in Africa has a great post on Connectivity and Child Protection which comes to the same conclusions.  You can also find related posts from awhile back on Wronging Rights.]

In the second scenario, consensus was that the story could create difficulties for everyone involved.  One participant commented that the mother might get angry and beat the child even more.  Another said that it the whole village might feel betrayed by the child exposing the story. “When a child does something, people ask – from which village are you? From which house?  From which family?  Whatever you do to a member of the village you do to the whole village. This can cause a threat to the child by the whole village.  Those who give out the story, if they are known by the village, will also be at risk.”  Another issue was that the community might say that the children are given too much power. “They will wonder who is behind it and may not wish to work any longer with the organization that is supporting the project.”  It was suggested that if a story like this were filmed, it should show a resolution, a happy ending, so that it could be used as an example. “That way you can favor all who are involved.”  The group concluded that when topics are quite sensitive or individuals are implicated, the story should be altered to protect identity and the same situation could be brought out using simulations, song, theater or drawings.

As we are training children as citizen journalists in this project, case studies that highlight the potential risks and impact of a story are critical learning tools.

In conclusion….

Child protection needs to be considered whenever children are involved.  Adults and children need to be aware of potential risks and thoroughly discuss how to mitigate them. Mechanisms need to be in place to address any intentional or unintentional harm that could be caused to a child or children.  There are plenty of good resources around on how to do this, so there is really no excuse not to.

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The Child Rights Information Network provides excellent all around resources on child protection and child rights, and a list of over 1000 global resources on child rights

Keeping Children Safe offers a toolkit for developing your organization’s internal child protection policies

The International Federation of Journalists has created Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Issues Involving Children

Related posts on Wait… What?

Child protection, from emergency response to a sustainable mechanism

Children in emergencies: applying what we already know to the crisis in Haiti

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We’ve completed our first week of arts and media training with around 55 youth in Cumbana, a coastal community some 450 kms north of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.  If you ever tried to Google Cumbana, you’d find information about a photographer with the same last name or links to tourist hotels at the nearby beaches in Maxixe or Inhambane, and not much else.  We actually did this as part of our Tuesday session on Internet with the youth.  Googling New York was another story.  But why?

We turned it around to the youth. Why is there no information on Cumbana?  The conclusion was you only find things on internet that someone puts there, and  no one had bothered, no one had ever really uploaded anything about Cumbana.  And that meant that this group of youth has a big responsibility, because they are going to be the ones to put Cumbana on the map. Photo:  After Cumbana, the top Google search among our small population was, of course, Michael Jackson.

What does that mean?  Aside from producing arts and media to raise issues that affect them and engage their communities in jointly finding solutions, the youth will be the ones to define Cumbana.  As Lauren (the Peace Corps volunteer who’s been teaching at the school for the past 2 years) said:  “Did we find anything about you all in Cumbana now on the internet?  No.  When will there be something about Cumbana?  When you make the effort to put it there.”  Photo: Mobile phone connections are much more likely than computers in the near future, so we trained on internet also using mobiles.

Access to internet whether by laptop using mobile internet or directly on a phone is a huge hit with the kids, 75% of whom had never been online before.  Our 2 hour session could have gone on all day for all they cared. The idea of putting yourself on the map seems to have appeal in the same way that having a Facebook page does.  It’s about self publishing and creating an identity. Photo left: Anthony the local Peace Corps Volunteer supported with the internet and is working with the theater group.  Photo below: Lauren, Peace Corps Volunteer, is working with the multimedia group.

But as we are seeing more and more, citizen journalism has its downfalls (think Fort Hood).  So it was great to see the debates about ethics in journalism that also happened last week.  Jeremias from Radio Mozambique facilitated a great session. He was excited to be part of the workshop because, as he said, “I’m a journalist.  I want to groom more young people from right here in the community where I came from to follow in my profession, and this is a great chance for all of us.”

During Jeremias’ session on ethics, the kids hotly debated the question of whether you should show the face of someone caught stealing.  Many felt that this would punish the thief as well as protect the community. Jeremias countered, “In Mozambique, whose job is it to determine guilt or punishment? Eh?  It’s not the role of the journalist. It’s the role of the judicial system. Like it or not, that’s how it is.”  He talked about the basic rules in journalism to protect people, about divulging information and objectivity. “When you leave here, to do work out there in the community, you need to be sure to hear all sides.  You need to protect the good name of people.  This is our responsibility.  This is ethics.  You cannot condemn someone until the judicial system has determined that they are guilty.”

I sat there wishing every self-appointed citizen journalist followed those rules, and self-examining whether I always do.  But it also got me thinking about how when you are not in a free state, your judicial system is totally non functional, or there is corruption within the journalism profession or media houses, things are not nearly so clear.  Sometimes things need to be filmed to get something to happen, whether they’ve been proven or not.  What are the rules and ethics then?  (I’m sure I can Google this and find a debate!)

The youth were cautioned to leave aside sensationalism.  “Often wanting to be the first to get the news out makes us less careful as journalists” Jeremias said.  If we drop the bomb, we’re likely to see the next day that we are the ones being processed, accused of not being ethical.” Photo: Jeremias and a youth participant share ideas.

“The ethics of a journalist come from within us,” he said.  Sometimes even a journalist’s own employers may ask him do things that are not ethical.  Or others want a certain story to come out and they try to bribe a journalist.  This makes it really difficult to be a journalist. A journalist needs to have high and strong ethics and maintain objectivity,” he told the kids.

“So you see, journalist is under constant pressure. It’s REALLY easy to get a recorder, to make a story.  It’s more difficult to think through what the consequences of publishing that story might be.  As a journalist, your goal is not to get famous; it’s to transmit information, so get the idea of fame right out of your head.”

Jeremias is a wise man and we are really lucky to have him training our group of journalists.

Cumbana is the only secondary school (it covers to 10th grade) in the entire district, with 3 sessions a day, serving some 4000 students (if the teacher I asked is correct). The opportunity to participate in a program like YETAM is huge for students and teachers alike.  In addition to the journalist group, there is theater, music and dance, multimedia, and painting.  For the kids, it’s like a 2 week summer camp where they strengthen leadership skills, improve their studies, get organized to address community challenges facing youth, and think about careers outside of the norm.  For the teachers, it’s an opportunity to engage with students in a different way, to strengthen their teaching methodologies and improve their ICT skills.  For the partners, it’s an opportunity to give back to the community and, of course, to discover new talent for their professions.

Related posts:
On Girls and ICTs
Being a Girl in Cumbana
Is this map better than that map?

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