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This is a guest post by Daniella Ben-Attar (@dbenattar) who consults for international development agencies, NGOs and corporations on areas relating to youth participation, governance, municipal capacity building, ICT4D and peace building.

by Daniella Ben-Attar

Youth in Mali with local authorities.

Youth in Mali with local authorities.

ICTs are increasingly being looked to as holding great promise for improving participatory governance and citizen engagement. Mobile phones have been a game-changer in this sphere, with nearly seven billion mobile-cellular subscriptions worldwide, including 89% penetration in the developing world. Youth are at the center of these developments, both as drivers and consumers of technological innovation.  This is particularly true in developing countries where the young generation is leading the way in the usage of technology to overcome social, political and economic exclusion to begin driving positive change in their communities. The largest cohort in history, youth aged 15-24 number more than 1.2 billion worldwide, with an estimated 87% living in developing countries.  They are almost twice as networked as the global population as a whole, with the ICT age gap more pronounced in least developed countries where young people are often three times more likely to be online than the general population.

The combination of the “youth bulge” and “mobile miracle” has great potential to enable new responses to the longstanding challenge of youth engagement in governance across the developing world. Young citizens are utilizing simple mobile technology to innovate new platforms, tools and mechanisms aiming to amplify their voices and influence government. Youth are being proactive to play a greater role in governance through mobile-based communication avenues, user-generated information, tools tracking government accountability, anti-corruption platforms, crowd-sourcing and more. This is a dramatic shift from the days when the only way to gain the attention of a government official was through slow and cumbersome bureaucratic processes and official meetings in government offices.

A Growing Youth-Local Government Disconnect

Ironically, the impact of these efforts appears to be more pronounced at the national level than at the local level of government. Indeed, ICTs seem to be strengthening communications between youth and central government instead of enhancing connections with the closest level of governance where young citizens can be resources for community development. Applications and innovations in cooperation with government that address local issues have largely been the product of national government bodies. Most youth-led initiatives have not been successful in securing local government partnership, limiting impact. A communications gap has widened between young citizens and their local governments, which are often staffed by individuals with far less digital experience than their youthful constituents. As a result, youth and their local leaders often seem to be speaking in different languages through different media.  Local government deficits in capacity and resources continue to exist as barriers, as well as the need for sensitization to youth engagement as a priority outcome of adopting and shaping ICT-enabled practices.

Most young people using technology as a way to influence governance will tell you a similar story. When expressing themselves through social media outlets and ICT-enabled mechanisms, it is usually the national political figures that are more attuned and responsive. Local leaders are far behind their national counterparts in ICT capacity and usage. National ministers and officials often use Twitter accounts, blogs, SMS and websites to engage with their citizens, who by default are largely young. While this is a positive development, it also elicits frustration from young people who feel that their voices are ignored or unheard by elder leaders at the local level where chances are greatest for tangible impact in their day-to-day lives.

President Kagame of Rwanda is a stark example.  Youth have described how the president directly interacted with young citizens via Twitter and addressed concerns relating to many issues, from police violence towards youth to business ideas for urban tourism.  No such possibilities existed for these same youth to approach the local authority with these locally-based needs.  Even more significant, Kagame merged the national ministries of Youth and ICT in 2012 and appointed a Minister of Youth and ICT.  This is a groundbreaking move both in terms of ICT and youth, with youth ministries commonly grouped with sports or culture. However, these extraordinary national developments are not reflected in the policy and practice of local government in Rwanda.

Digital mapping initiatives have been in the spotlight as a new youth-driven tool drawing attention to local issues often overlooked by government officials.  While communities are benefitting from these processes, youth leaders report that these maps often do not gain the attention of city hall. For example, Kenyan NGO Map Kibera has seen its maps utilized by national ministry committees, better equipped with the capacity and mindset to absorb digital data, while city council has not been responsive to ICT-based approaches. Young leaders in Kandy City, Sri Lanka are working to bridge the “youth-local government ICT gap” which they have identified as a major barrier in engaging youth in local development. These young leaders are training municipal officials in computer skills and creating new ICT platforms for citizen-local government interaction as part of a UN-HABITAT supported youth-led training and education program run by YES – City of Youth.

Building Local Government Capacity for ICT & Youth Engagement

Partnership with local government is viewed by stakeholders as a key missing ingredient in enabling governance technology applications to have tangible results at the community level. The importance of “closing the engagement loop” and early local government buy-in is emphasized time and again by stakeholders in the field as a vital lesson learned through pilot programs. Youth organizations like Youth Agenda and Sisi ni Amani have achieved successful governance results by engaging local leaders as partners from the preliminary stages, highlighting the benefits they can gain through mobile solutions that increase civic engagement, enhance service delivery, fight corruption and bridge between local government and citizens.

Bridging the youth-local government gap will require sensitizing local officials and encouraging them to see the advantages of “listening” to youth ICT platforms, to bring them to where the majority of youth are voicing their opinions, and enable them to take responsive actions. National governments should be encouraged to help local governments be better equipped to address youthful concerns at the local level through capacity building for both youth engagement and ICT4G.  This can be supported by integrating local ICT components in national ICT plans, or increased “decentralization” and integration of both youth and ICT strategies, bolstered by budgetary allocations and devolution of authority. When seeking to utilize ICT to deliver positive governance outcomes for young people, “local gov” must be part of the “ICT4Gov” equation.

This blog post draws on findings from a UN-HABITAT Report entitled “ICT, Urban Governance and Youth” co-authored by Daniella Ben-Attar and Tim Campbell.

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Here’s a recap of my panel talk at the Engineers Without Borders, Canada, Annual Policy Forum. (A summary of the wider discussions on Open Government and Community and Economic Development at the Forum is here)

Slide01Open data are having some impact as seen in 4 key areas (according to what I heard at July’s International Open Government Data Conference). These are:

  • economic growth/entrepreneurship
  • transparency, accountability and governance
  • improved resource allocation and provision of services
  • connecting data dots and telling stories the public needs to know

Open data should be part of the public’s right to information, not a service that government can decide whether to provide or not. Open government should include open attitudes, open ways of being, not only open data and use of technology. It should be inclusive and seek to engage those who do not normally participate, as well as those who are already active. It should go further than data about public services and also encompass those aspects that may be uncomfortable and politically charged.

Slide04

Opening data is only a first step – and there are still big gaps. ‘Open’ does not automatically mean accessible, useful, relevant or accountable. Although new ICTs offer huge potential, focusing too much on technologies and data can marginalize a range of voices from the current discussion about (and implementation of) open government initiatives and processes. Much about these processes is currently top down and focused at the international and national levels, or sometimes district level. Community level data would be a huge step towards local accountability work

Slide06We can address the gaps. First we need to understand, acknowledge and design for the barriers and/or challenges in each particular environment, including the barriers of ICT access for some groups; e.g:

  • lack of connectivity and electricity
  • cost of devices, cost of connection
  • lack of time and resources to participate
  • low education levels, low capacity to interpret data
  • power and culture, apathy, lack of incentives and motivation, lack of interest and/or fatalism, disempowerment
  • poor capacity and/or lack of interest by duty bearers/governments (or particular individuals within government) to respond to citizen demand for services or transparency/accountability

We also need to support:

  • consultations with and engagement of citizens in different places, different sectors, economic levels, etc., from the very beginning of the open government process
  • better understanding of what is important to citizens and communities
  • generation of awareness and demand, better local ownership, expectations of responsive government
  • champions within local and national government, strengthened capacity and motivation to collect and share data; strengthened coordination
  • space for dialogue and discussion among citizens, communities, civil society organizations and governments

Slide10Government responsiveness matters. A lot. So when working in open government we need to ensure that if there are ways to input and report, that there is also responsiveness, willingness on government side and the right attitude(s) or it will not succeed.

Open Data/Open Government portals are not enough. I’ve heard that donors know more about the open government portal in Kenya than Kenyan NGOs, Kenyan media and Kenyan citizens.  It’s important to work with skilled intermediaries, infomediaries and civil society organizations who have a transparency mandate to achieve bigger picture, social motivation, large-scale awareness and education, and help create demand from public. But these intermediaries need to strive to be as objective and unbiased as possible. If there is no response to citizen demand, the initiative is sunk. You may either go back to nothing, increase apathy, or find people using less peaceful approaches.

Great tech examples exist! But…. how to learn from them, adapt them or combine them to address the aforementioned barriers? Initiatives like Huduma, U-Report, I Paid a Bribe have gotten great press. We heard from Ugandan colleagues at the Open Knowledge Festival that people will use SMS and pay for it when the information they get is relevant; but we still need to think about who is being left out or marginalized and how to engage them.

Slide08We need to also consider age-old (well, 1970s) communication for development (C4D) and ‘educación popular’ approaches. New ICT tools can be added to these in some cases as well. For example, integrating SMS or call-in options make it possible for radio stations to interact more dynamically with listeners. Tools like FrontlineSMS Radio allow tracking, measuring and visualization of listener feedback.  The development of ‘critical consciousness’ and critical thinking should be a key part of these processes.

Existing successful social accountability tools, like community scorecardsparticipatory budget advocacysocial auditsparticipatory videoparticipatory theater and community mapping have all been used successfully in accountability and governance work and may be more appropriate tools in some cases than Internet and mobile apps to generate citizen engagement around open data.

Combining new ICTs with these well-established approaches can help take open data offline and bring community knowledge and opinions online, so that open data is not strictly a top-down thing and so that community knowledge and processes can be aggregated, added to or connected back to open data sets and more widely shared via the Internet (keeping in mind a community’s right also to not have their data shared).

A smart combination of information and communication tools – whether Internet, mobile apps, posters, print media, murals, song, drama, face-to-face, radio, video, comics, community bulletin boards, open community fora or others – and a bottom-up, consultative, ‘educación popular’ approach to open data could help open data reach a wider group of citizens and equip them not only with information but with a variety of channels through which to participate more broadly in the definition of the right questions to ask and a wider skill set to use open data to question power and push for more accountability and positive social change. Involved and engaged media or “data journalists” can help to bring information to the public and stimulate a culture of more transparency and accountability. Responsiveness and engagement of government and opportunities for open dialogue and discussion among various actors in a society are also key. Community organizing will remain a core aspect of successful civic participation and accountability efforts.

[Photo credits: (1) Phone charging in a community with limited electricity, photo by youth working with the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) program in Senegal; (2) Youth training session during YETAM project Cameroon, photo by me (3) Gaps in open data and open government work, diagram by Liza Douglas, Plan International USA; (4) Local government authority and communities during discussions in Cameroon, photo by me; (5) Youth making a map of their community in Cameroon, photo by Ernest Kunbega]

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OK Festival is in full swing here in Helsinki, and if today is anything like the past two days, it will be full of information and exchange on everything “open.”

A number of us have been working hard to pull together the Open Development Stream, which started yesterday and which followed very nicely on Tuesday’s fantastic series of panels on Transparency and Accountability (with a heavy focus on the Open Government Partnership and Open Data) and the Open Data Journalism and Visualization streams.

Here’s a quick Storify summary of yesterday’s last Open Development session “Taking it Local: 10 ways to make ‘open’ relevant in low resource or marginalized contexts,” It was moderated by Soren Gigler from the World Bank’s Innovation for Governance Team and included superb group of panelists:  David RodriguezMichael Gurstein, Huy Eng, Philip Thigo, and Barbara Birungi.

For the session, my colleagues David and Max Rodriguez from Plan El Salvador did some really great short videos around transparency, internet access, connectivity and related topics and how they are perceived and lived out in rural communities where they are working.

This first video with Marco Rodriguez (he’s also on Twitter), the Sub-Secretary of Transparency for the Government of El Salvador, is just a small example of some of the realities around “open” and accessibility, and the challenges of engaging every day people in some of the initiatives we are talking about here at OK Festival. (Not to mention it and the other videos with Marco and others have a number of fantastic metaphors and soundbites!)

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Where are the spaces for dialogue on good governance? (Image from a workshop on youth participatory governance, April 2011)

As I mentioned in my ‘governance is *so* not boring’ post, I am recently back from an internal workshop where some 20 colleagues from across the organization where I work (Plan) pulled together some basic elements for a global program strategy on Youth, Citizenship and Governance.

One of the key elements that we talked about was the importance of information literacy in citizenship and governance work, including at the level of governments, duty bearers and decision makers and of course at the level of citizens — in our case, especially children and young people. Information literacy is defined by the University of Idaho as “the ability to identify what information is needed, understand how the information is organized, identify the best sources of information for a given need, locate those sources, evaluate the sources critically, and share that information”. (I can hear my librarian friends cheering right now, as they’ve been working on this for years).

Openness as an attitude came up as something that’s important all around for good governance. This doesn’t only mean ‘open’ as a technological specification for data, but rather openness as an entire approach and attitude towards governance, citizen participation and the nature of relationships and interactions in the spaces where citizens and government overlap. We were able to link our work up very well with the concepts of open development, open government and open data; all of which can contribute to better transparency, accountability and governance and which require information literacy and a number of other skills and capacities in order to take advantage of.

My practitioner colleagues said over and over at the meeting ‘we don’t have access to the information we need to do better governance work.’ I was left wondering how those of us working at various levels, including the field of ICT4D and related, can do a better job of supporting access to information, and what are the technology and non-technology tools and approaches that work best. There is still a huge gap between the community- and district-level governance work that my colleagues are working on with children, youth and communities and the big on-line data sets that are part of open data and open government. Both very important, but there really needs to be a stronger link between the two so that they can feed into each other to achieve better governance. Once again – the questions ‘open for who? and open for what?‘ come in, as well as the need for a two-way (multi-way?) information flow.

We talked about how social accountability tools like community scorecards, social audits, budget tracking and monitoring, and participatory budgeting can be an important way for engaging marginalized and excluded populations in governance work outside of more formal channels (eg, elections, law courts, planning and auditing of public expenditure). Social accountability tools and processes allow people to more directly participate in the accountability process and make themselves heard rather than leaving accountability in the hands of the government or relying only on formal mechanisms. During our workshop, we watched the International Budget Partnership’s video ‘It’s our money, where has it gone‘ on using social accountability tools in Kenya. (Long, but very worth watching)

Following the video I explained open data in a nutshell by asking people to imagine that the budget information that the community had to get via their district officials was available online and could be accessed without going through the district officer. It was a good opportunity to think about the potential of open data and open government and how they can fit in with social accountability work.

The video highlights the very real dangers that can be present when working on transparency and accountability. Since in our case we are working with children and youth, we need to be especially aware of potential risks involved in transparency, accountability and good governance work, because this kind of work raises questions and aims to shift power and politics and resources. We need to be very sure that we are not somehow pushing our own agenda through children and youth, or handing them a hot potato that we don’t want to take on as adults or organizations, or even unintentionally putting them at risk because we haven’t fully thought through a project or initiative. We need to be sure that we are conducting thorough, participatory and shared risk assessments together with children and youth and establishing mechanisms and ways of mitigating risks, or making decisions on what to pursue and what to leave for others. Child protection, our own responsibilities as duty bearers, and the notion of ‘do no harm’ are massively important to bring in here.

We spent time talking about what we need to do as an institution to support good governance, and emphasized that openness and good governance is a key element of institutions, INGOs, local NGOs and CBOs who want to be credible in this space.  Organizations that are working with communities to push for local and/or national government transparency and accountability should expect that these same demands will be turned around to them, and the same questions asked of government and decision-makers will be asked of them. Taking those steps internally towards openness, accountability and good governance is critical. When working with youth associations and children’s groups, this is also a point for strengthening so that openness, transparency, accountability, positive leadership and other capacities, capabilities and skills are enhanced. If local associations replicate the bad governance practices that they are trying to change, then things are really not advancing much.

Successful governance work addresses multiple sides of the governance issue. Working only with citizens can create a demand that outstrips government interest, capacity or responsiveness and lead to apathy, frustration and/or conflict. So it’s really important to work with duty bearers and decision makers as well as with children and youth and their communities, and with other non-state adult actors, such as parents, teachers, community leaders and the media; to help create an environment for better governance. In addition, it’s important to understand the  incentives and disincentives that shape the behaviors of different service providers, for example teachers and health care workers.

As my colleague Wale Osofisan from our UK office pointed out today after I shared these videos on governance work: “It is not enough to get the students and communities to monitor absenteeism without really examining the root causes of the problem from the point of view of the teachers and doctors. For example, in the DRC health care workers at PHCs particularly in the rural areas don’t get their salaries paid on time – sometimes for 6 months. Hence, they are forced to abandon their official duty posts and find alternative ways of earning an income either working informally for a private clinic which pays them or they engage in other economic activities. Same goes for the teachers. Thus, civil society interventions also need to focus on the problems encountered in the supply side of the equation… This is quite a challenge because it would require tackling the perverse politics of service delivery in many developing countries and NGOs always find it very uncomfortable to engage in such terrain.”

Good governance work uses existing spaces for collaboration and dialogue among the various actors or creates new space if none exists. It builds skills and capacities in both citizens and government officials. Children and youth, for example, need to have capacities to work effectively together, organize, prioritize, influence, use media and new communication technologies, access information and interpret/analyze it, and to develop partnerships and networks. Decision-makers need to strengthen capacities to engage with children and young people, to hear, respond, follow up and provide feedback. Government institutions need to have the attitudes as well as the resources to be more responsive to citizens’ needs and rights. Government employees, as mentioned above, need to also have the space to share what makes it difficult for them to do their jobs.

We did some group work around the 3 key actors in our citizenship and governance work: the State, children and young people, and other non-state adult actors. I participated in the group that looked at the changes that would need to happen at the level of the State and was again reminded how this work requires so much more than accountability mechanisms, new ICT tools and data. We talked about what would motivate a State to have an open information policy. What is in it for elected officials? How can State actors be motivated to change their attitudes to one of more openness and accountability? Can citizens push the State to be more open? Is international donor or political pressure the only motivator that has been successful so far in most countries? If a State is not governing well, what are the common root causes? If openness is an attitude, what motivates a State and its different bodies to be open? External pressure and citizen demand are one thing, but what about addressing other factors that prohibit good governance?

Linking and promoting collaboration between and among children’s and youth groups was noted as another key piece of citizenship and governance work with young people. This can be supported at a face-to-face level but also needs to happen from the local to the global level, so that young people can connect and share common agendas and experiences both ‘horizontally and vertically.’ The web is a key tool here for taking local issues to the global level and back down again to community level. A question in my mind here was how INGOs can do a better job of linking youth and governance work that they are supporting at local levels with the external social and political environment so that they are not happening in parallel or in a vacuum. Another was whether we are thinking enough about broader social and political movements as related to major events or changes happening in a country or globally (eg, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Rio+20) and our role and position and purpose there. And what about on-line organizing and activism and ‘direct democracy’ as more young people access on-line networks and activism happens in virtual spaces?

We discussed quite a lot about how supporting overall behavior changes and public opinion are critical to creating an environment that supports public accountability and openness and gets these on the agenda. It’s also important to change attitudes with relation to how children and young people are perceived so that adults and decision-makers will listen to them and take their opinions and claims into consideration. Programs that engage children and youth and showcase their capacities and abilities can help decision-makers and other non-state adults to see that the younger generation does have valid points, opinions and ideas for positive change.

And lastly, there is the importance of ensuring that staff are well versed in local political contexts and how government systems work. Without a strong and nuanced understanding of the local context, local power dynamics, local political and local cultural contexts, and how children and young people and other excluded groups are viewed, programs may be over ambitious, wrong-headed, create dangerous conflict, set back governance and accountability work, or put children and young people in harm’s way. The complexity of this kind of work combined with the complexity of the various settings mean that a clear theory of change is needed to guide efforts and expressly address the specific changes that are sought so that initiatives can be well-designed, implemented, monitored and evaluated, and so that there is a better chance of a good impact.

Related posts:

Young citizens: youth, and participatory governance in Africa

A practitioner’s discussion on social accountability and youth participatory governance

Governance is *so* not boring

Does ‘openness’ enhance development?

New technology and good governance

ICTs, social media, local government and youth-led social audits

Digital mapping and governance: the stories behind the maps

What would an International CSO Governance revolution look like?

Resources:

IIED’s Participatory Learning and Action Journal: Young Citizens: Youth and participatory governance in Africa

Plan UK’s Governance Learning Guide

Technology for Transparency network

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I’ve been told that mention of the term ‘governance’ makes people want to immediately roll over and fall asleep, and that I’m a big weirdo for being interested in it. But I promise you governance is *so* not boring! (I’m also fairly sure that whatever my teacher droned on about as I slept through my ‘Government’ class senior year of high school was not ‘governance’.)

If you get excited about the concepts of ‘open’ or ‘transparent’ or ‘accountable’ or ‘sustainable’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘politics’ then you need to also get pumped about ‘governance’ because it includes elements of all of the above.

I am just back from a week-long workshop where, based on our different practical and strategic and thematic experiences, internal and external evaluations and reviews of good practice, videos and documents from other organizations, input from children and youth in several countries (and with the support of a fantastic facilitator), several of us from different Plan offices worked to define the basic elements for a global program strategy on Youth, Citizenship and Governance (to be completed over the next several months).

At the workshop, we got a copy of A Governance Learning Guide, which I’m finding very useful and am summarizing below.

Why is governance important?

Our focus is on children and youth, but many of the reasons that governance is important for them extend to governance overall.

From Plan UK’s Governance Learning Guide, chapter 1.

So what exactly do we mean by the term “governance”? 

In our case, we link governance work with our child-centered community approach (a rights-based approach) and in this particular strategy, we will be focusing on the processes by which the state exercises power, and the relationships between the state and citizens. We have separate yet related strands of work around child and youth participation in our internal governance structures (here’s one example), effectiveness of our institutional governance overall (see this discussion on International CSO governance, for example), and the participation of children and youth in high level decision-making fora.

Our concept of governance for the youth, citizenship and governance strategy is based on the following governance concepts*:

Accountability and responsiveness.  This includes formal government accountability as well as citizen-led accountability. Opportunities for children and youth to participate in formal accountability processes are often limited due to their age — they cannot participate in elections, for example. Citizen-led accountability can open new opportunities for children, youth and other more marginalized groups to hold those in power more accountable.

‘People no longer rely on governments alone to improve governance. All over the world we are seeing experiments in ‘participatory governance’. People and organisations are grasping the opportunities offered by decentralisation and other reform processes to demand more of a say in the public policy and budget processes that affect them. These ways of holding the state to account are often called ‘social accountability’. Examples include participatory budgeting, monitoring electoral processes, using online and mobile technology, and citizen evaluation of public services. These forms of citizen engagement and social accountability are particularly promising for young people, who often face challenges in getting their voices heard in formal policy and governance processes.’ (from the call for submissions for the Participatory Learning and Action Journal (PLA) special issue on Young Citizens: youth and participatory governance in Africa, published in December, 2011)

Accountability is also linked with openness and sharing of information such as local government budgets and plans (this is also referred to as ‘transparency’). Responsiveness, in our case, refers to ‘the extent to which service providers and decision makers listen, meet and respond to the needs and concerns of young people.’ Responsiveness includes the willingness of those in power to engage seriously with young people and a government’s commitment to ‘be responsive’ to the issues raised by citizens, including children and young people. Responsiveness entails also the administrative and financial capacity to respond concretely to a population’s needs, rights and input.

Voice and participation.  This refers to the capacity of young people to speak, be heard and connect to others. Voice is one of the most important means for young people to participate. Within the concept of ‘voice’ we also consider voice strategies for raising and amplifying voices, capacity to use voice in a variety of ways to bring about change, space to exercise the raising of voices, and voice as a means to participate and exercise citizenship rights. (We consider that every child has citizenship rights, not only those who hold citizenship in a particular country). It’s also important to qualify the use of the term participation. In the case of young people’s participation in governance, we are not referring to the participatory methods that we commonly use in program planning or evaluation (we are also not discounting these at all – these are critical for good development processes!). In governance work, we are rather taking it further to refer to the meaningful inclusion of children and young people in decision-making processes.  

Power and politics. These are key in governance work. It is essential to be aware of and understand politics and power dynamics so that children and young people (and other oft-excluded groups) are not overlooked, manipulated, intimidated or disempowered.

Image captured from Plan UK’s Governance Learning Guide, chapter 2 page 14.

A key question here is what children and young people are participating in, and what for. Another important question is where are children and young people participating? Is it in special events or spaces designated just for them or are they participating in adult spaces? How does the place and space where children and young people are participating impact on their ability to influence decisions?

It’s important to note the 4 types of power that are typically considered in power analyses (from VeneKlasen, 2007): power over (domination or control), power within (self-worth), power to (individual ability to act, agency) and power with (collective action, working together). These need to be analyzed and understood, including their social, cultural and historical factors that create and sustain different power dynamics in different situations and spaces.

Capacity. We refer here to the capacity of both decision-makers and young people. Decision makers need to have the ability to perform their duties and ensure services are delivered. This, in our case, includes the abilities of decision makers to interact, engage and listen to children and young people and to take them seriously and to be responsive (see above) to their views, needs and rights. Young people also need to have the capacity to hold decision makers to account and to express their concerns and their views, including the views of other children and young people who may be excluded and marginalized from the decision making process or from participating fully. Information literacy and the capacity to access, interpret and analyze information is a critical skill for children and young people.

Interactions between children and young people and decision makers. These spaces encompass critical aspects of participation, power and politics. An example of a space for interaction would be where children and young people, local government and school leaders come together to discuss budget plans and available resources for school infrastructure. These spaces are shaped by a number of factors, including social, economic, cultural ones. They are also not free of personal agendas, desires, intentions and prejudices. It’s critical to remember this in governance work – ‘tools’ and ‘mechanisms’ are not enough. (ICT4Governance and Tech for Transparency friends, I’m looking at you! Though I think most of us see this point as ‘beating a dead horse’ by now.)

From Chapter 2 of the Governance Learning Guide by Plan UK

*Summarized from Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of Plan UK’s extremely useful and easily downloadable A Governance Learning Guide. The guide also has a number of practical use cases on different governance initiatives as well as an extensive section on additional resources.

Here’s a follow-up post (since governance is so clearly *not* boring and I’m sure there is high demand for more!) called 15 thoughts on good governance programming with youth.


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This is a guest post from Jamie Lundine, who has been collaborating with Plan Kenya to support digital mapping and governance programming in Kwale and Mathare. The original was published on Jamie’s blog, titled Information with an Impact. See part 1 of this series here: Digital Mapping and Governance: the Stories behind the Maps.

Mapping a school near Ukunda, Kwale County

Creating information is easy. Through mobile phones, GPS devices, computers (and countless other gadgets) we are all leaving our digital footprints on the world (and the World Wide Web). Through the open data movement, we can begin to access more and more information on the health and wellbeing of the societies in which we live. We can create a myriad of information and display it using open source software such as Ushahidi, OpenStreetMap, WordPress, and countless other online platforms. But what is the value of this digital information? And what impact can it have on the world?

Youth Empowerment Through Arts and Media (YETAM) is project of Plan International which aims to create information that encourages positive transformation in communities. The project recognizes young people as important change agents who, despite their energy and ability to learn, are often marginalized and denied opportunities.  Within the YETAM project, Plan Kenya works with young people in Kwale County (on the Coast of Kenya) to inspire constructive action through arts and media – two important channels for engaging and motivating young people.

Information in Kwale County

Kwale County is considered by Plan International to be a “hardship” area. Despite the presence of 5-star resorts, a private airport and high-end tourist destinations on Diani beach, the local communities in Kwale County lack access to basic services such as schools, health facilities and economic opportunities. Young people in the area are taking initiative and investigating the uneven distribution of resources and the inequities apparent within the public and private systems in Kwale County.

As one component of their work in Kwale, Plan Kenya is working with the three youth-led organizations to create space for young people to participate in their communities in a meaningful, productive way. There are different types of participation in local governance – often times government or other agencies invites youth to participate (“invited space”) as “youth representatives” but they are simply acting to fill a required place and are not considered  within the wider governance and community structures.

Youth representation can also be misleading as the Kwale Youth and Governance Coalition (KYGC) reports that “youth representatives” aren’t necessarily youth themselves – government legislation simply stipulates that there must be someone representing the youth – but there is no regulation that states that this person must be a youth themselves (they must only act on behalf of the youth). This leaves the system open to abuse (the same holds true for “women’s representative” – you can find a man acting on behalf of women in the position of women’s representative).  Plan Kenya and the young people we met are instead working to “create space” (as opposed to “a place”) for young people in community activism in Kwale County.

The 5 weeks we spent in Kwale were,the beginning of a process to support this on-going work in the broad area of “accountability” – this encompasses child rights, social accountability and eco-tourism. The process that began during the 5 weeks was the integration of digital mapping and social media to amplify voices of young people working on pressing concerns in the region.

To create the relevant stakeholders and solicit valuable feedback during the process of the YETAM work on digital mapping and new media, our last 3 days in Kwale were spent reviewing the work with the teams. On Thursday November 10th, we invited advisors from Plan Kwale, Plan Kenya Country Office, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and officers from the Constituency Development Fund to participate in a half-day of presentations and feedback on the work the young people had undertaken.

By far the work that generated the most debate in the room was the governance tracking by the KYGC. The team presented the Nuru ya Kwale blog which showcased 28 of the 100 + projects the youth had mapped during the field work. They classified the 28 projects according to various indicators – and for example documented that 23 of the projects had been completed, 1 was “in bad progress”, 2 were “in good progress” and 1 “stalled.”

The CDF officers (the Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer of the Matuga CDF committee in Kwale County) were concerned with the findings and questioned the methodology and outcome of the work.  They scrutinized some of the reports on the Nuru ya Kwale site and questioned for example, why Mkongani Secondary School was reported as a “bad” quality project. The officials wanted to know the methodology and indicators the team had used to reach their conclusions because according to the representatives of the CDF committee, the auditors gave the Mkongani Secondary School project a clean bill of health.

One important message for the youth based on feedback on their work was the need to clearly communicate the methodology used to undertake the documentation of projects (i.e. what are the indicators of a project in “bad” progress? how many people did you interview? Whose views did they represent?).

There is significant value in presenting balanced feedback that challenges the internal government (or NGO) audits – for example the data on Kenya Open Data documents that 100% of CDF money has been spent on the Jorori Water Project mentioned above, but a field visit, documented through photos and interviews with community members reveals that the project is stalled and left in disrepair. This is an important finding – the youth have now presented this to the relevant CDF committee. The committee members were responsive to the feedback and, despite turning the youth away from their offices the previous month, invited them to the CDF to get the relevant files to supplement some of the unknown or missing information (i.e. information that people on the ground at the project did not have access to, such as for example, who was the contractor on a specific project, and what was the project period).

Kwale youth with staff from Plan Kenya, officers from the CDFC and the local Youth Officer

Samuel Musyoki, Strategic Director of Plan Kenya who joined the presentations and reflections on November 10th and 11th, reported that:

“The good thing about this engagement is that it opened doors for the youth to get additional data which they needed to fill gaps in their entries. Interestingly, they had experienced challenges getting such data from the CDF. I sought to know form the CDFC and the County Youth Officer if they saw value in the data the youth were collecting and how they could use it.

The County Youth Officer was the most excited and has invited the youth to submit a business proposal to map Youth Groups in the entire county. The mapping would include capturing groups that have received the Youth Enterprise Fund; their location; how much they have received; enterprises they are engaged in; how much they have repaid; groups that have not paid back; etc. He said it will be an important tool to ensure accountability through naming and shaming defaulters.

The 5 weeks were of great value — talking to quite a number of the youth I could tell — they really appreciate the skill sets they have received-GIS mapping; blogging; video making and using the data to engage in evidence based advocacy. As I leave this morning they are developing action plans to move the work forward. I sought assurance from them that this will not end after the workshop. They had very clear vision and drive where they want to go and how they will work towards ensuring sustained engagement beyond the workshop.”

The impact of digital mapping and new media on social accountability is still an open question. Whether the social accountability work would have provoked similar feedback from duty bearers if presented in an offline platform (for example in a power point presentation) instead of as a dynamic-online platform is unknown.

The Matuga CDF officers were rather alarmed that the data were already online and exposed their work in an unfavourable light (in fairness, there were some well-executed projects as well). There is a definite need to question the use of new technology in governance work, and develop innovative methods for teasing out impact of open, online information channels in decision-making processes and how this is or isn’t amplifying existing accountability work.  There is definite potential in the work the young people are undertaking and the government officers consulted, from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and local CDF Committee (CDFC) stated that they were “impressed by the work of the youth”.

Within the community development systems and particularly the structure of devolved funding, there is a gap in terms of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) that the CDF committee to date has not been able to play effectively. As Samuel Musyoki stated the youth “could watch to ensure that public resources are well utilized to benefit the communities.” The Youth Officer even invited the youth to submit proposals for assistance in buying GPS gadgets and computers to strengthen this work.

Continuing the on and offline integration

As discussed, the work in Kwale on various issues is dynamic and evolving. The 5 weeks we spent with the teams were meant to provide initial trainings and support and to catalyse action that would be continued by the youth in the area, with support from Plan Kenya. Not only did we provide training to the young people, but Plan Kwale staff were also involved in the process and started documenting their work through the tools and techniques introduced by our team. With these skills, the Plan Kwale staff will support the on-going field mapping and new media work. We are also available to provide remote assistance with questions about strategies and technical challenges.

Some of the future activities include:

  • Holding a “leaders forum” during which the youth interact with a wider cross-section of stakeholders and share their work.
  • Continuing work on their various websites – updating the sites with results from social auditing work to be carried out throughout the last weeks of November, as well as digitizing previous information collected during historical social auditing.
  • Validating the data by revisiting some project sites and documenting projects that haven’t been done yet, gathering stories from some of the Project Management Committees, taking more photos, and potentially conducting surveys within the communities to get more representative views on project evaluations.
  • Each group also needs to develop a more structured advocacy strategy to direct their activities in these areas.
  • All teams expressed interest in developing proposals to submit to the Ministry of Youth Affairs, through the Youth Enterprise Fund and CDF Committee, based on the suggestion of potential funding for this process. Plan Kwale staff, as well as some of the Country Office advisers offered to support the youth in developing these proposals.
  • Most importantly, the teams want to consult the wider community in their respective areas to demonstrate the relevance of YETAM, including the skills they have gained, to the community stakeholders (beyond the relevant government authorities

The potential of new technologies, including digital mapping to promote accountability, is only as powerful as the offline systems into which it is integrated. Without offline engagement, existing community systems of trust and recognition will be threatened and thus undermine any online work. The youth must remain grounded within their existing work and use new technology to amplify their voices, build their network, share their stories and lessons and learn from and engage with others.

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This is a guest post from Jamie Lundine, who has been collaborating with Plan Kenya to support digital mapping and governance programming in Kwale and Mathare.

Throughout October and November 2011, Plan Kwale worked through Map Kibera Trust with Jamie Lundine and Primoz Kovacic, and 4 young people from Kibera and Mathare, to conduct digital mapping exercises to support ongoing youth-led development processes in Kwale county. One of the important lessons learned through the Trust’s work in Kibera and Mathare is that the stories behind the mapping work are important for understanding the processes that contribute to a situation as represented on a map. To tell these stories and to complement the data collection and mapping work done by the youth in Kwale, the Map Kibera Trust team worked with the Kwale youth to set up platforms to share this information nationally and internationally. Sharing the important work being done in Kwale will hopefully bring greater visibility to the issues which may in the longer term lead to greater impact.

Sharing stories of local governance

To support their work on social accountability, the Kwale Youth and Governance Consortium (KYGC) mapped over 100 publicly and privately funded community-based projects. The projects were supported by the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), Local Area Development Fund (LATF), NGOs and private donors. As one channel of sharing this information, the Consortium set up a blog called Nuru ya Kwale (Light of Kwale). According to KYGC the blog “features and addresses issues concerning promotion of demystified participatory community involvement in the governance processes towards sustainable development. We therefore expect interactivity on issues accruing around social accountability.” This involves sharing evidence about various projects and stories from the community.

One example is the documentation of the Jorori Water project in Kwale; through the mapping work, the Governance team collected details of the constituency development fund (CDF) project. The funding allocated to upgrade the water supply for the community was 6,182,960 ksh (approximately 73,000.00 USD). From their research the KYGC identified that the Kenya Open Data site reported that the full funding amount has been spent.

A field visit to the site however revealed that project was incomplete and the community is still without a stable water supply, despite the fact that the funding has been “spent.”

Jorori Water Project, built using approximately 6.2 million shillings (73, 000.00 USD)

Read more about the questions the team raised in terms of the governance of CDF projects, including the detailed the project implementation process and some reflections on why the project stalled. This is information on community experiences (tacit information) that is well-known in a localized context but has not been documented and shared widely. New media tools, a blog in this case, provide free (if you have access to a computer and the internet) platforms for sharing this information with national and international audiences.

Addressing violence against children and child protection

Another blog was set up by the Kwale Young Journalists. The Young Journalists, registered in 2009, have been working with Plan Kwale on various projects, including Violence against Children campaigns. The group has been working to set up a community radio station in Kwale to report on children’s issues. Thus far, their application for a community radio frequency has encountered several challenges. New media provides an interim solution and will allow the team to share their stories and network with partners on a national and internal stage.

The Kwale Young Journalists worked with Jeff Mohammed, a young award-winning filmmaker from Mathare Valley. The YETAM project not only equips young people with skills, but through peer-learning establishes connections between young people working on community issues throughout Kenya. The programme also provides young people with life skills through experiential learning – Jeff reflects on his experience in Kwale and says:

Jeff and the Kwale Young Journalists shooting a scene from “The Enemy Within”

“My knowledge didn’t come from books and lecturers it came from interest, determination and persistence to know about filmmaking and this is what I was seeing in these Kwale youths. They numbered 12 and they were me. They are all in their twenties and all looking very energetic, they had the same spirit as mine and it was like looking at a mirror. I had to do the best I could to make sure that they grasp whatever I taught.”

Jeff worked with the Young Journalists on a short film called “the Enemy Within.” The film, shot with flip-cameras, tells the story of 12-year-old girl who is sold into indentured labour by her parents to earn money for her family. During the time she spends working, the young girl “falls prey of her employer (Mr.Mtie) who impregnates her when she is only 12 years old.” Jeff reflects that “early pregnancies are a norm in the rural Kwale area and what the young filmmakers wanted to do is to raise awareness to the people that its morally unacceptable to impregnate a very young girl, in Enemy Within the case didn’t go as far because the village chairman was bribed into silence and didn’t report the matter to higher authorities.” This is a common scenario in Kwale, and the young journalists plan to use the film in public screenings and debates as part of their advocacy work in the coming months.

Jeff and the Kwale Young Journalists shot the film in four days – they travelled to Penzamwenye, Kikoneni and also to Shimba Hills national park to shoot 7 scenes for the movie. Read more about Jeff’s reflections on working with the Kwale Young Journalists on his blog.

Sharing ecotourism resources

The Dzilaz ecotourism team – a group that encourages eco-cultural tourism in Samburu region of Kwale county — also integrated social media into their work. During the last week (November 8th-12th) the group set up a blog to market the community resources, services and products. They also plan to document eco-culture sites and the impact that eco-tourism can have on the community. As of November 10th, 2011 the Dzilaz team had already directed potential clients to their website and thus secured a booking through the information they had posted.

The importance of telling the stories behind the maps

One important component to mapping work is to tell the stories behind the map. The three groups in Kwale are working to build platforms to amplify their grassroots level work in order to share stories and lessons learned. The information documented on the various platforms will develop over time and contribute to a greater understanding of the processes at a local level where youth as young leaders can intervene to begin to change the dynamics of community development.

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Original published on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters site as part of a series of year-end reflection pieces.

An Egyptian anti-government protester holds a flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square earlier this year. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Waking one lazy Sunday morning and checking my Twitter feed, the first link I clicked on was a video of the Egyptian military beating unarmed protesters. The second was a series of Lego reconstructions of key moments in 2011, including the now-famous campus policeman pepper spraying unarmed student protesters in the face. It’s impossible to look back on 2011 without recalling the massive number of people who joined in worldwide protests to push for openness and inclusion – financial, political and social. No less memorable is the violence with which those protests were met.

As 2012 approaches, protesters across the world continue to occupy public spaces and fight for a voice in how things are run. They seek greater transparency, and new means of participating in social, financial and political life.

Many of 2011′s more horrifying and memorable images – captured on mobile phones, and generating global outrage and solidarity – involved systemic repression by the powers-that-be. Progress has been made in some countries, but sadly it’s not clear what the end result of the world’s uprisings will be.

Inclusion was not only a theme of large-scale world events, it was also key in aid and development. Organisations continued to push for adolescent girls’ inclusion in development initiatives and to emphasise that the most excluded and marginalised populations need to be reached in order to advance towards shared development objectives such as the millennium development goals. In June 2011, in a clear move forward on inclusion, the UN endorsed the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people, yet the world still has a very long way to go.

Another central themein 2011 was openness. Whether it was the World Bank’s open data site, the Open Government Partnership (OGP), theInternational Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), the Busan high level forum on aid effectiveness, the increase in “fail faires“, or grassroots initiatives pushing for more transparency – in aid and government funding as well as political decision making – “open” was everywhere.

As yet, however, the trend hasn’t reached quite far enough, and it would be good if it expanded in 2012 to encompass banks and other private sector entities. Hopefully, openness can help to advance inclusion and itself become more inclusive. All this amazing, open data needs to be re-used and it needs to connect back with people who might not be technology or data experts, have an internet connection or speak one of the major languages.

I hope 2012 sees greater effort to support communities and local organisations to access and use open data. I also hope there will be more effort to understand what information communities and local groups need to improve their own situations and exact more accountability and better governance from aid agencies, governments, service providers and the private sector.

Along with inclusion and openness, authenticity was a key concept in 2011. I enjoyed seeing critiques of simplistic media pieces about “the poor” and “the excluded”. Lakota youth, for instance, responded in a video to a Forbes [should be ABC] piece about poverty and hardship on reservations, emphasising: “We’re more than that.”. The Forbes piece, headlined “If I was a poor black kid“, caused a huge stir and response. One close reading of simplistic mainstream journalism called out the author for habitually ignoring the complex, systemic causes of poverty and exclusion.

I look forward to hearing more voices in these debates in 2012, continued questioning of simplistic messages, and more authentic reporting. New media can help previously excluded people tell their own, unspun stories and comment on simplistic reporting about them elsewhere. I hope aid and development agencies will increasingly support this, not as a gimmick or marketing ploy, but as a core element of their work and a way to better understand and share the issues and opinions of the people they aim to support through their programmes.

My wish for 2012 is that the world makes serious gains in reducing social, political and financial exclusion, in advancing participatory and accountable governance, and in achieving a better distribution of power and resources. Hopefully, aid and development organisations will continue to make progress in understanding what inclusion, openness, and authenticity in the global landscape mean for the kinds of programmes they fund and support.


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If you have any sort of curiosity about how youth across sub-Saharan Africa

are engaged in social accountability and participatory governance, I suggest downloading and reading the PLA Special Issue 64 on Young citizens: youth and participatory governance in Africa.

[Update: In French now, too!]

PLA 64 goes in depth on the involvement of youth in governance, the particular challenges that youth face in this area and ways young people are overcoming marginalization to participate and make change. It talks through key theories related to good governance, social accountability and social audits and shows concrete examples of putting them into action.

‘Social accountability can be defined as an approach towards building accountability that relies on civic engagement, i.e. in which it is ordinary citizens and/or civil  society organisations who participate directly or indirectly in exacting accountability.  Mechanisms of social accountability can be initiated and supported by the state, citizens or both, but very often they are demand-driven and operate from the bottom-up. Source: Malena et al. (2004).’

Scenes were acted out during the write shop to express how young people might feel about participation and governance initiatives.

PLA 64 aims to share practices that avoid instrumentalizing children and youth or using them as puppets or tools in achieving organizational or political aims. The idea of ‘seeing like a young citizen’ was critical during the writing process, as were authentic examples of youth participation and leadership in good governance and social accountability processes.

‘…Young people in Africa are challenging the norms and structures that exclude them, engaging with the state and demanding accountability. This special issue describes how young people are exercising their right to participate and developing the knowledge, skills and confidence to affect to [sic] change. It explores methods of communication, appraisal, monitoring and research which are involving young people in decision-making spaces. It asks how can we re-shape how young people perceive and exercise citizenship? How can we redefine and deepen the links between young citizens and the state?

This issue demonstrates the persistence, passion and enthusiasm that youth bring to governance processes – and how they are driving change in creative and unexpected ways. It highlights how young Africans are addressing the documentation gap that surrounds youth and governance in Africa and enabling other participatory practitioners – young and old – to learn from their experiences.’

Topics covered in the edition include: youth as young citizens; digital mapping and governance; participatory video; youth poverty forums; youth capturing pastoralist knowledge for policy processes; youth and HIV/AIDS laws; children’s shadow parliaments; mentoring and role modeling to encourage girls’ participation; youth-led violence prevention; local governance work; and budget advocacy.

In addition to the articles by practitioners, researchers, and youth themselves, PLA 64 provides tips for trainers on how to carry out specific activities and programs, exploring expressions and forms of power in youth governance work, conducting a social audit, using a community scorecard as an alternative form of budget tracking when governments lack openness, games to play to engage children in budget monitoring, and conducting youth participatory situation analyses.

The journal closes out with a list of written resources to support youth and participatory governance work, events and training. It also provides links to online or technology enabled examples such as Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative, Daraja, the Technology for Transparency Network, and Twaweza.

PLA 64 offers an opportunity to broaden thinking and learn from youth and practitioners who are involved directly in good governance initiatives in East, West and Southern Africa. It is also a good reminder that although new technologies can enable, enhance or even transform accountability and governance efforts, there are many ways to work on accountability and good governance, and technology is not always the driving force behind this work.

*****

Background: A call for submissions to the PLA journal went out about a year ago. Submissions were then reviewed and ranked by an editorial team. Final authors selected were from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Lesotho, the US, the UK, Ghana, Germany, Cameroon, Somalia and Liberia. Authors attended a “write shop” organized by Plan UK, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in March to share different youth participatory governance initiatives, reflect on challenges and successes therein, gather tips on better writing, and write up final articles. I attended the write shop and a colleague and I have an article included on digital mapping and local governance work.

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Civil society has been working for years on participation, transparency, accountability and governance issues. Plenty of newer initiatives (small and large) look at new technologies as a core tool in this work. But are these groups talking and learning from each other? What good practices exist for using new technologies to improve transparency, accountability and governance? What are some considerations and frameworks for thinking about the role of new technologies in this area of work? What needs consideration under this broad theme of good governance?

Tuesday’s Technology Salon* in New York City focused on those issues, kicked off by our two discussants, Hapee de Groot from Hivos and Katrin Verclas from Mobile Active. Discussion ensued around the nuances of how, with whom, when, why, and  in conjunction with what do new technologies play a role in transparency, accountability and good governance.

Some of the key points brought up during the Salon**:

What is “good governance?”  The overall term could be divided into a number of core aspects, and so the discussion is a big one and it’s complicated. Aid transparency is only one small part of the overall topic of good governance.

The World Bank definition includes aspects of:

  • Participation of citizens in political processes, freedom of expression and  association, free media
  • Political stability and absence of violence
  • Government effectiveness in the delivery of services
  • Regulatory quality, rule of law
  • Control of corruption

There’s a need to look at governments and aid, but also to look at the private sector. Some commented that aid transparency is in vogue because donors can drive it but it’s perhaps not as important as some of the other aspects and it’s currently being overemphasized. There are plenty of projects using ICTs and mobiles in other areas of governance work.

More data doesn’t equal more accountability. Data does not equal participation. Can mobile phones and other ICTs or social media reduce corruption? Can they drive new forms of participation? Can they hold power accountable in some ways? Yes, but there is no conclusive evidence that the use of new technology to deliver data down from governments to people or up from people to governments improves governance or accountability. The field of tech and governance suffers from ‘pilotitis’ just like the field of ICT4D. Some participants felt that of course open data doesn’t automatically equal accountability and it was never the idea to stop there. But at the same time, you can’t have accountability without open data and transparency. Opening the data is just the first step in a long road of reaching accountability and better governance.

Efficient vs transformational. Transactional efficiency within a system is one thing. Transformation is another. You can enhance an existing process from, say, writing on paper to calling on a landline to texting in information, thereby improving accuracy and speed. But there is something more which is the transformational side. What’s most interesting perhaps are those ways that ICTs can completely alter processes and systems. Again, there are a lot of promising examples but there is not much evidence of their impact at this point. One participant noted that current evidence seems to point toward the integration of mobiles (and other ICTs) into existing process as having a greater impact and quicker uptake within large, bureaucratic systems than disruptive use of new technologies. But the question remains – Are the systems good systems or should/could ICTs transform them to something totally different and better or can ICTs help do away with poorly working systems entirely, replacing them with something completely new?

Is open data just a big show? Some alluded to opaque transparency, where a government or another entity throws up a bunch of data and says “we are being open” but there is no realistic way to make sense of the data. Some felt that governments are signing onto open data pacts and partnerships as a fake show of transparency. These governments may say, “The data base is available. Go ahead and look at it.” But it costs a lot of money and high level skills to actually use the data. In addition, there is a need for regulatory frameworks and legislation around openness. Brazil was given as an example of a country that has joined the open government partnership, but as yet has no regulatory framework or freedom of information act, even though the country has a beautiful open government website. “Checks and balances are not inherent in the mobile phone. They need to be established in the legislation and then can be enhanced by mobile or other technology.” Open Data Hackathons can help turn data into information. The question of “what does open data actually mean?” came up also and the “cake test” was recommended as one way of defining “open”.

Is open data an extractive process?  Some at the Salon cautioned that the buzz around Open Data could be a bit false in some ways, and may be hyped up by private companies who want to make money off of nice data visualizations that they can sell to big donors or governments. The question was raised about how much data actually gets back to those people who provide it so that they can use it for their own purposes? The sense was that there’s nothing wrong with private companies helping make sense of data per se, but one could ask what the community who provided the data actually gets out of this process. Is it an extractive data mining process? And how much are communities benefiting from the process? How much are they involved? Mikel Maron wrote a great post yesterday on the link between open data and community empowerment – I highly recommend reading it for more on this.

Whose data? A related issue that wasn’t fully discussed at the Salon is: who does the information that is being “opened” actually belong to (in the case of household surveys, for example)? The government? The International NGO or multilateral agency who funds a project or research? The community? And what if a community doesn’t want its data to be open to the world – is anyone asking? What kind of consent is being granted? What are the privacy issues? And what if the government doesn’t want anyone to know the number of X people living in X place who fit X description? Whose decision is it to open data? What are the competing politics?

For example, what if an organization is working on an issue like HIV, cholera, violence or human trafficking. What if they want to crowd source information and publicly display it to work towards better transparency and improved service delivery, but the host government country denies the existence of the issue or situation? In one case I heard recently, the NGO wanted to work with government on better tracking and reporting so that treatment/resources could be allocated and services provided, but when the government found out about the project, they wanted control over the information and approval rights. Government went so far in another case as to pressure the mobile service provider who was partnering with the organization, and the mobile service provider dropped out of the project. These are good reminders that information is power and openness can be a big issue even in cases not initially identified as politically charged.

Privacy and security risks. The ubiquity of data can pose huge privacy and security concerns for activists, civil society and emerging democracies and some at the Salon felt this aspect is not being effectively addressed. Can there really be anonymous mobile data? Does the push/drive for more data jeopardize the political ambitions of certain groups (civil society that may be disliked by certain governments)? This can also be an issue for external donors supporting organizations in places like Syria or Iraq. Being open about local organizations that are receiving funding for democracy or governance work can cause problems (eg., they get shut down or people can be arrested or killed).

Can new ICTs weaken helpful traditional structures or systems?  Is new tech removing some middlemen who were an important part of culture or societal structure? Does it weaken some traditional structures that may actually be useful? The example of the US was given where a huge surge of people now engage directly with their congressperson via Twitter rather than via aggregation channels or other representatives. Can this actually paralyze political systems and make them less functional? Some countered, saying that Twitter is somewhat of a fad and over time this massive number of interactions will settle down, and in addition, not everyone gets involved on every issue all the time. Things will sort themselves out. Some asked if politicians would become afraid (someone – help!! there is a study on this issue that I can’t seem to locate) to make some of the secret deals that helped move agendas forward because they will be caught and so openness and transparency can actually paralyze them? In other words is it possible that transparency is not always a good thing in terms of government effectiveness? The example of paying Afghan police directly by mobile phone was given. This initiative apparently ended up failing because it cut decision makers who benefited from bribes out of the loop. Decoupling payments from power is potentially transformational, but how to actually implement these projects when they disrupt so much?

Does new technology create parallel structures? Are parallel structures good or bad? In an effort to bypass inefficient and/or unaccountable systems, in one case, private business owners started their own crime reporting and 911 system to respond and accompany victims to report to the police and follow up on incidents. Questions were raised whether this privatization of government roles was taking justice into ones’ own hands, forcing the government to be accountable, allowing it to shirk responsibilities, or providing a way for government to see an innovation and eventually take on a new and more effective system that had been tried and tested with private funds. This same issue can be seen with parallel emergency reporting systems and other similar uses of ICTs. It may be too early in the game to know what the eventual outcomes of these efforts will be and what the long term impact will be on governance. Or it may be that parallel systems work in some contexts and not in others.

***

The Salon could have gone for much longer but alas, we had to end. Dave Algoso covers some of the other ideas from the Salon in his post Technology for Transparency, Accountability and Governance, including how to approach and define the topic (top down vs bottom up? efficiency vs transformation?) and the importance of measuring impact.

Thanks to UNICEF and Chris Fabian for hosting the Salon. Thanks to Martin Tisne from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative for sparking the idea to choose this topic for the first Technology Salon in NYC, and thanks to Wayan Vota for inviting me to coordinate the series.

Contact me if you’d like to be on the invitation list for future Salons.

*The Technology Salon is sponsored by the UN Foundation’s Technology Partnership with the Vodafone Foundation as a way to increase the discussion and dissemination of information and communication technology’s role in expanding solutions to long-standing international development challenges. Technology Salons currently run in Washington DC (coordinated by@wayan_vota) and San Francisco, with New York City as the latest addition, coordinated by yours truly.

**The Salon runs by Chatham House Rules, so no attribution has been made in the above post.

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