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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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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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courtesy of bioweb.uwlax.edu

One of the best things about the Great Tshirt Debate has been the variety of voices and perspectives that are weighing in.  This one potentially misguided project was able to catalyze a huge discussion on the nature of ‘aid’.  Once again the power of social media to engage people in debate and dialogue was demonstrated.

There are a lot of angles to follow up on from last week’s blow up. There’s a lot to unpack and it goes much deeper than a conversation about t-shirts.  One thread I find particularly interesting is the use of social media and ICTs (information and communication technologies) for bringing greater accountability and generating input and dialogue around ideas for aid and development.

Christopher FabianOwen Barder and @Morealtitude wrote about this specifically in relation to the Tshirt Debate; and Duncan GreeneOwen Barder, Aidwatch,  Tim Ogden, and others in a broader debate about accountability, aid and development. Certainly there are many posts and discussions out there on this topic.

Some things that stand out for me in the aftermath of the tshirt discussion:

Broadening perspectives.

It’s easy to forget that we all mean something different when we use the terms ‘aid’ and ‘development.’ There is a big difference between emergency aid and longer-term development.  And there are countless theories and approaches and understandings of both of those terms  (Alanna Shaikh and Talesfromthehood have both written on that).  This was really apparent throughout the discussion last week and in the on-going commentary.

I’m still trying to sort out in my own mind the difference between the various aid and development theories, the perspectives of the ‘aid bloggers’ that I follow, and the frameworks of other people who were involved in the Tshirt Debate. People’s views are intimately linked with cultural, political, economic and religious worldviews, and varying levels of snark (which I have to say can be very intimidating) making it even more interesting.  Before Twitter and the blogosphere, I certainly didn’t have daily exposure and access to such an array of thoughts.  Score one for social media.

The elephant in the room.

All this access to all these perspectives and on-line debate and open participation is great for me. And for you. Because we read English and have access to the internet.

But there is a really big elephant in the room.  One that was lurking on the global conference call hosted by Mobile Active on April 30 and that is still standing around quietly as the discussions continue.  I’m talking about the voices and perspectives of the people that the 1millionshirts project was aimed at helping.

I would bet money that some of those voices would have said “I want a tshirt.”

There are a lot of possible outcomes when ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘donors’ actually talk to each other.  Like donors wanting to give t-shirts and people wanting to receive them.  Then what?  Most of those involved in aid and development and work with local economies can and have listed a myriad of reasons why handouts are not a good idea, but most also believe in listening to voices of ‘beneficiaries.’   It seems paternalistic to say that NGOs or businesspeople know best what people need.  What will happen when more donors and beneficiaries are using social media to talk to one another?  And what if NGOs or governments or business people trying to improve ‘developing country’ economies don’t agree?  Then what?  That’s going to be pretty interesting. For a taste of this can of worms, read this post and related comments.

Development education.

This brings me to thinking about the educational processes that contribute to good development results.  Around the world, people have been presented with hand-out and silver bullet ideas around development and aid for a long time. Donors need to be educated about effective aid and development, but communities do also.  People have been trained to gravitate towards one-off donations and charity mentalities, and need to learn why that isn’t actually very helpful in the long term. They’ve been taught that there is a silver bullet we just need to find. People have also been trained to take hand outs and see themselves as victims and need to re-learn how to take the reins and do for themselves.  This is true everywhere – people look for the easy way out. Consider how many people in the US for example prefer to get plastic surgery or take miracle diet pills and medications over adopting healthier lifestyles involving a good diet and exercise.  Complicated situations require integrated approaches and often need cultural shifts and behavior changes.  Those take time and effort and are hard to explain.  How does social media impact on or shift this in terms of aid and development, and in which direction is it shifting?

Barriers to social media participation.

Both #1millionshirts and Kiva were held up to a huge amount of scrutiny online via social media.  But again, who was scrutinizing, and who had access to the tools and means to participate in these widespread discussions?  It was not the people getting loans from Kiva or the eventual t-shirt wearers.  It was donors and ‘experts’.  I would hope that there are plenty of discussions happening about Kiva programs at local levels, in person, in meetings and in local media or newspapers. But these don’t normally make their way to the internet.

I don’t know Kiva’s programs well, but I would also hope that Kiva staff and/or partners, for example, are listening to that local input and using it to improve their programs on the ground to make them more useful to participants.  And I would hope that those discussions take place within a longer term education, training and relationship building process as with many NGOs.  This kind of input from and dialogue with program participants is every bit as important for adapting and improving programs and initiatives, and maybe more important, than all the public discussions on the internet…. as long as it’s being listened to and responded to, and as long as local offices are taking these messages up the chain within the organization, and as long as local offices also are being listened to and carry weight within the organization. What might be the role of social media there to move those offline discussions further within organizations and to educate, inform and engage the broader public and ensure that responses and changes are forthcoming and everyone learns from it?

There are still huge barriers to social media participation for many people in communities all over the world… not having electricity, computers, smart phones and internet, to start with. There are also barriers like language, literacy, age and gender based discrimination, hierarchies and cultural norms that limit participation in general by particular groups in discussions and decision making.  When working face-to-face, good organizations are in tune with the barriers and find ways to gather input from those typically left out of the discussion.  How can organizations use what they know about engaging more marginalized populations and apply it to a more creative use of social media to ensure that all voices are heard?  What resources and ICT tools would be needed to do that effectively?

Offline to Online to Offline

And how could more of the discussions that happen on the ground with communities, when programs are being designed, implemented, evaluated and re-designed; be shared in the open by those who are involved – whether participants, local bloggers, citizen journalists, NGO workers or others?  And how can the debates happening online make their way back to communities that are not connected? It would be amazing if more program staff and community workers were blogging and sharing their work and their challenges and accomplishments.  And if more organizational decision makers were listening to what their community workers or other staff who are blogging and tweeting are saying. And if more people participating in programs could share their viewpoints via the internet.  This would be useful to the global commons and would also help the fields of aid and development to improve.

How can we support more communities to have access to social media and ICTs as tools to participate more broadly? And how can community members be the owners and drivers of this discussion and input. How can we help bring voices from the grassroots to a broader public and also bring these broader public debates back to communities.  How can the access, language, literacy and cultural barriers be addressed?  There are some programs out there doing this, for example Global Voices Rising, MIT’s Department of Play at the Center for Future Civic Media, and the Maneno platform, but we really need more of it.

Youth.

I think as connectivity becomes less of a challenge, we will see the younger generation claiming spaces in this way. More organizations should be working to engage more young people in the development process and supporting them to access ICTs and social media.  When a consultation with children and youth was done after the Haiti earthquakes, for example, young people did not say that they wanted hand outs.  They said that they wanted to participate. They wanted to play a stronger role in the recovery and the reconstruction.  They said they wanted education, a voice in how things were to be done, decentralization.

Staff that I’ve worked with on youth and ICT programs in several countries have said that ICTs and community media are excellent tools for engaging youth in the development process and maintaining their interest, for supporting youth-led research and collecting opinions about community processes.  With advances in technology, these voices can reach a much broader and public audience and can be pulled into donor communications as well as used as input in the resource and problem analysis, program design,  program monitoring and evaluation processes.  Youth can access information previously unavailable to them which broadens their own views and helps in their education processes. They can also contribute information and images of themselves and their communities to the online pool of resources so that they are portraying themselves to the world in their own image as opposed to being shown by and through the eyes of outsiders.

In addition to the Tshirt Debate stirring up questions about good donorship, I really hope it stirs up the debate about the value of more local ‘beneficiary’ voices in aid and development discussions, and that it fuels more efforts to use, adapt, and develop social media tools and ICTs to support these voices to join the debate.

What about you?  What do you think?

Related posts on Wait… What?

Children and young people’s vision for a new Haiti

It’s not a black and white photo

Meeting in the Middle

Mind the gap

Putting Cumbana on the map: with ethics


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