Ten Years of Aid Transparency – Fulfilling the Dream of Accra

originally published By Owen Barder, Vice President at the Center for Global Development, Director for Europe and a senior fellow, and Gary Forster, Chief Executive Officer, Publish What You Fund

 

Aid and development transparency has come a long way in ten years. In this, the first of a two-part blog series, we look back at the origins of the aid transparency movement. We reflect on the original vision of those who conceived the idea, and the journey to date including some of the successes achieved along the way.

We would like to start with a huge thank you to all of the incredible technocrats, bureaucrats, big thinkers and hard workers who contributed to the design, launch and initial success of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and to the broader aid transparency movement. If we’ve missed you out or misinterpreted your role please forgive us and know that we’ll be forever grateful for what you all, together, achieved, and continue to achieve.

Championing aid transparency

The landmark agreement on aid effectiveness, in Paris in 2005, acknowledged that foreign assistance is far more effective when it backs a developing country’s own priorities, uses country systems, focuses on results, and is accountable to the local population. A small but vocal group of reformers, mainly in the UK, began to point out that none of this was possible unless everyone could see what happens to aid. Judith Randel and Tony German, the founders of Development Initiatives (DI), were among the earliest people to highlight this, long before it became widely accepted.

It soon became clear that there could be a broad coalition for aid transparency. Champions included those who wanted to build support for aid in donor countries, because citizens would trust aid more if they could see where it went; those who believed that governments and parliaments needed more information about aid to manage their public services efficiently with scarce resources; those who believed the aid system was wasteful or corrupt, who wanted to use the sunlight of transparency to disinfect; those who believed that the costs of coordination and planning were being driven up by the lack of easily accessible information for donors and others in the aid industry; and those who believed that with more information, evidence and analysis could make aid work better.

Many of the most vocal activists were deeply frustrated that developing country governments and their people get so little information about what was being done in their country. There was a huge amount of evidence from decades of work in aid effectiveness about the impact of aid at best having less impact than it should or could be, and at worst undermining the very institution and process that really will cause change. There was also a constant stream of examples about wasteful duplication and overlap, because nobody knew where aid was being spent and for what purpose – ranging from water points in Tanzania to vaccinations in Indonesia

All these different views converged on the same goal: to get as much information about aid as possible published, in a way that all these different constituencies could use. But how could we do that without giving priority to one or other of these views, and so risk splintering the coalition?

 

The open data standard

That was partly what led us to the open data standard. Our idea was that information should be published once, minimising the burden on donors, and then used in many different ways for all these multiple purposes, all of which were valid. We wanted transparency to be agnostic about how the information would be used. If donors were asked to provide information for particular constituencies for particular purposes, they would have too much power to decide who and what should get precedence; but an open data format would make the same information easily available to everyone, without having to justify themselves to governments.

 

The road to Accra

The Accra meeting in 2008 was the obvious time to launch an initiative. It was the next in the series of meetings on aid effectiveness, and an emerging theme for the meeting was that “ownership” had to mean more than government. The meeting in Accra promoted the view that for aid to be effective, it had to address the priorities of, and be accountable to, the citizens and civil society of the countries to which it was given. And we argued that this was possible only if those citizens had access to information about how that aid was being used.

Looking back on the big aid effectiveness agreements, you could say that Rome was largely about efficiency, Paris was largely about value for money and Accra was about power. But it is difficult to persuade those who have power to share it with those who do not. Our aim was to smuggle in transparency as a technical-sounding change with longer-term implications for the balance of power in aid. It is difficult to argue against aid transparency: there are few publicly-defensible reasons to keep aid information hard to find and impossible to make much sense of.

We all knew that aid transparency would not, by itself, make aid better, still less reduce poverty or change the balance of power; but we all believed it could catalyse wider changes that would.

Publish What You Fund, founded by Martin Tisne,emerged mainly from a group if people from a variety of different backgrounds, all of whom saw aid transparency as a means to an end. The arrival of Karin Christiansen brought a fresh dose of energy born from years of working with ODI in Ministries of Finance on aid flows and budgets, coupled with newly learnt campaigning skills from ONE.

The team at DI was already immersed in development data, the team at DFID was looking for something specific to announce in Accra that would make a real difference to country ownership and aid effectiveness, and began initial advocacy and technical work on the open data standard that would become IATI.

As the rain beat down on a corrugated iron roof during the rainy season in Addis Ababa, Owen produced a first draft of a declaration to be made in Accra, and worked with colleagues at DFID and DI to refine the details and get donors onside. Romilly Greenhill, then at DFID, stewarded the draft through the UK government and she and DFID colleagues then worked tirelessly to build support from other donors. DFID deserves considerable credit for their leadership across the aid sector to build the coalition for aid transparency. Karin galvanised developing countries, civil society and open government campaigners.

The idea was enthusiastically embraced, at a memorable sundown meeting on the beach in Accra, and then in the halls and communiqué of the formal conference.

 

Turning the vision into reality

Once the open standard had been endorsed in Accra, the hard work began of giving substance to the commitment, and continuing to broaden support. A huge part of the vision, energy and technical know-how was provided by the heroic efforts of Simon Parrish, who had joined DI from DFID’s information systems team. Simon died far too young in 2016; but even then it was clear what a difference he had personally made to the world. None of this would have happened without his kindness, his common sense way of deploying his expertise, his integrity and his patience.

 

Our vision was an open data standard, easy to access, free to use, that would underpin any conversation about aid. There would be a single version of the truth, shared between governments, civil society and citizens. A bit like accounting standards, the aid information standard would vastly reduce the costs of collecting, publishing and using information about aid. The information costs that made it hard for aid to be accountable, coordinated, complementary, and efficient would be swept away as more and more of the international development community adopted IATI. Or so we hoped.

 

Ten years on

A huge amount of progress has indeed been made over the last ten years. The establishment of the original, agreed IATI Standard provided a foundation on which organisations could publish a range of aid and development data. Publication rates have increased with more than 800 organisations publishing data on IATI by July 2018, encompassing more than one million activities. Organisations have adapted their internal systems to track and report on the necessary budget and activity-related information and have reported better internal communications and clearer understanding of their own success (or otherwise) in achieving project objectives.

As the advocacy organisation for aid and development transparency, in October 2011, Publish What You Fund piloted the Aid Transparency Assessment to assess ‘what good transparency looks like?’ among major bi-lateral aid and development donors, namely information that is detailed, timely, comprehensive and comparable. This was later developed into the aid transparency index. The launch of our fifth Index in June 2018 illustrated just how far we’ve come with 93% of the 45 donor organisations featured in the Index now publishing in the IATI Standard. Of these organisations, 50% publish their aid data monthly, up from 25% in 2016.

 

The next challenge

Although publishing timely data is, of course, to be applauded, it is not enough in itself. To be of value, it also needs to be comprehensive and cover all aspects of aid and development projects, including, but not limited to, financial and performance-related data.

The aid and development effectiveness movement has had an uphill struggle in recent years, and this has made the context for transparency in this area more challenging. To help fulfil development needs and ambitious global objectives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and an estimated global aid and development finance gap of $2.5 trillion, now more than ever, more and better aid and development finance is required. This is especially true at a time when some donors’ budgets are being reduced.

One of the chief highlights of the 2018 Index was the strong performance of development finance institutions (DFIs): with the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) taking the top spot and DFIs dominating the ‘very good’ category overall, underscoring that organisations operating with different business models can still do so transparently. Nevertheless, the involvement of a growing number of diverse aid and development actors, including DFIs and others from the private and humanitarian sectors, presents a transparency challenge.

Publish What You Fund, therefore, continues to urge organisations – in the private and public sectors – to share detailed, timely, comprehensive and comparable data so this can happen. Only when the missing pieces of the data transparency jigsaw are provided can open data be used and transformed into the life-changing first step required to make aid and development activities more effective and hold organisations and donors to account for significant and lasting change.

We applaud the fact that unprecedented amounts of timely, open and comparable data are now made available by most major international donors. But it is only when this information is accessed and put to use by donors, government representatives and civil society, will the original promise of the aid and development transparency movement be truly fulfilled.

Short-Changed: How the IMF’s tax policies are failing women

Originally published here

In recent years the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral institutions have placed an increased emphasis on gender inequality and the need to address it. This trend has peaked since the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed by the international community in 2015. Yet so far, its approach has been largely instrumental, promoting gender equality as a vehicle for achieving increased economic growth, and proposing simplistic solutions like facilitating women’s access to paid jobs. The IMF – like other institutions – has failed to acknowledge that the macroeconomic and tax policy advice it gives to countries reflects and reinforces patriarchal power structures, entrenching, rather than transforming, gender inequality.

Macroeconomic policies, such as taxation, can play a central role in transforming gendered power relations and challenging patriarchal structures and institutions, by facilitating systematic investments in public services, infrastructure and social protection. This should form part of wider strategies to meet national, regional and global commitments on women and girls’ rights, including tackling economic inequality and violence, and the financing of wider development.

Gender responsive tax and expenditure policies should be at the heart of the IMF’s efforts to tackle gender inequality, but they currently are not. In its 2018 publication, How to Operationalize Gender Issues in Country Work, the IMF has recognised for the first time that its macroeconomic policy advice may have ‘differential gender impact[s]… that could exacerbate gender inequality’. However it has not yet effectively systematised the process of investigating the gendered impacts of its policy advice at country level. The guidance note doesn’t mention tax as an area where there are differential impacts, nor has it put forward any guidance on what the alternative policy advice might resemble.

Macroeconomic policies, including taxation and spending, are neither gender neutral nor apolitical. In fact, decisions around how resources are raised, managed and allocated are inherently gendered and political. This is both in terms of who makes the decisions and the ways they impact upon particular countries and groups of women and girls within those countries. In this way, tax is a profoundly feminist issue.

This briefing argues that the IMF must urgently analyse the differentiated impacts of its tax policy advice on men and women, particularly women living in poverty. We believe the IMF should switch its focus away from largely regressive indirect taxes, such as

Value-Added Tax (VAT), towards more progressive taxes that are directly linked to income and wealth, such as Personal Income Tax (PIT), Corporate Income Tax (CIT), Capital Gains Tax (CGT) and Property Tax.

If the IMF was to make its tax policy advice consistent with an objective to reduce gender inequality, then advice should be grounded in evidence for taxes which will be gender-just and progressive and play the most meaningful role in redistributing wealth to ensure the rights of all women and girls are fulfilled. Progressive taxes ensure that individuals as well as businesses with higher incomes pay a higher share of their income or profits in tax. Because gender discrimination means that women generally earn less than men and have less profitable and productive enterprises, a progressive system of taxation would prevent women on low incomes from being locked into, or pushed further into, poverty because of heavy tax payments. It would also support the fulfilment of their wider social and economic rights by funding quality, gender responsive public services, infrastructure and social protection.

Summary recommendations to the IMF and national governments

  1. The IMF and national governments should contribute towards the creation of an enabling macroeconomic environment for women’s rights by adopting an evidence-based comprehensive approach to defining, identifying and addressing how its taxation and wider policy advice impacts upon different groups of women.
  2. Minimise and mitigate the regressive impacts of indirect taxes such as VAT and taxes on the informal economy, and commit to pursuing a progressive, gender-just approach to tax that effectively redistributes wealth and contributes to the achievement of women’s rights by taxing those with the most ability to pay.
  3. Commit to ensuring that tax revenue is allocated and spent in order to meet global commitments on women’s rights, including women’s economic rights and ending violence against women and girls, and that this is done in a way that is democratic, transparent and accountable.

Who are ‘the people’? – Making citizen participation models work for poor and marginalised groups

Authored by  on the 17th Sep 2018

Citizen participation in local governance

Many countries are now embracing participatory local governance models – various forms of state decision-making processes that mandate local representatives to include and consult with citizens. These provisions are increasingly enshrined in policy and law, as many countries pursue ambitious decentralisation agendas. They can take a wide variety of forms, such as:

  • public consultations on local development plans
  • town hall forums to share information or receive inputs during annual budget-making
  • open local government meetings that permit citizen observation and Q&A sessions
  • allowing civil society representatives to shadow financial audits of government offices or projects.

Barriers to participating effectively

This trend shows enormous promise, and is a celebrated success of proponents of inclusive governance practices. However, most of these citizen participation opportunities involve at least some notable barriers to entry. Participating effectively in these spaces may require:

  • overcoming social norms around the public role of women, minorities, and youth
  • defying class hierarchies
  • understanding complex local government processes
  • finding free time to prepare for and attend meetings
  • taking risks to challenge public leaders.

These factors make it more likely that citizens with greater resources, privilege, and social status are more likely to dominate these spaces.

The will of the people?

The views and priorities articulated in citizen participation spaces are often interpreted as the voice of ‘the people’ and this is a problem. Development priorities requested by citizens become ‘people’s plans’, and financial allocations advocated by citizen groups become ‘people’s budgets’. But in many cases, these might be better labelled ‘the plans of dominant class people’ or ‘men’s budgets’.

The questions we must address are: who is speaking for ‘the people’ in participatory governance models, and whose views are standing in for the views of ‘the public’?

These questions were central to the study tour CARE Bangladesh hosted in July, on the JATRA project funded by the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA), for 25 participants from 12 countries in the Local Governance Initiative and Network (LOGIN).

Establishing pro-poor and gender equitable citizen forums

The analysis and mapping process, described in the first blog in this series, is used to categorise hamlets and neighbourhoods into three categories: primary elites, secondary elites, and excluded or marginalised areas. CARE facilitates the creation of a citizen forum in each union, made up of representatives of poor households and vulnerable groups, half of whom are women.

Citizen forum members are nominated from each of the areas identified in the third category of communities – those who are not from primary or secondary elite areas. These communities are most often landless and dependent on large land-holders for temporary labour opportunities. They are often characterised by being in more remote locations, having fewer and worse roads, longer distances to travel to schools and health facilities, and poorer sanitation.

Representatives from these areas rarely run for office or win elections, resulting in their under-representation in decision-making spaces. However, CARE has worked in many of these areas progressively for more than 10 years, especially investing in ‘natural leaders’ from among poor households and women’s solidarity groups, building up a cadre of socially-aware and publicly active citizens prepared to take on roles in the citizen forums. In this sense, JATRA’s citizen forums benefit from long-term investment in social capital among marginalised groups.

Using citizen forums to make law a reality

The citizen forums are then supported by CARE to play a critical role in preparing poor and marginalised communities to claim their rights and maximise the participation spaces available to them. Many of these opportunities were established by the country’s 2009 Local Government Act, which decentralised more planning and decision-making to the lowest level of elected government and created a legal framework for citizen voice and public transparency.

Among other provisions, the Local Government Act 2009 mandates local councils to hold two rounds of public planning and budgeting meetings in each fiscal year (in each ward): the first to consult community members on local priorities, and the second later in the year to share a progress update on implementation and expenditure. The act also requires local councils to include members of the public in each of their mandated sectoral standing committees, with quotas for women, which have a role in planning and overseeing key local services.

Citizen forums in action

Since the enactment of the law, CARE Bangladesh has focused on helping poor and marginalised citizens to make the most of the provisions of the law. Throughout the programme cycle, the citizen forum became a central vehicle for this.

CARE trained citizen forum members on the act, its provisions, and the various ways local governments are required to consult with, include, and respond to citizens.

We also trained citizen forums on the process for Bangladesh’s annual planning and budgeting cycle: how much money local governments receive for which purposes and how to analyse the best opportunities for influence.

Citizen forum members then work with their home communities to prepare for public budget meetings, to foster interest, to build confidence by explaining government processes, and to help communities plan their shared priorities and select their spokespersons.

Making strategies, solving problems, ensuring accountability

In the JATRA project, CARE then supported citizen forum members to prepare for and take up seats reserved for the public on prominent local government committees. This means they have a say in strategy-making and problem-solving on issues related to health, education, local sanitation, nutrition, women’s rights, disaster risk reduction, and more.

CARE also trained citizen forums to conduct social audits, run community score card processes, and participate in Union Parishad evaluations. During social audits, the forum establishes a social audit committee of poor citizens and guides this committee through a structured review of an unsatisfactory public infrastructure project.

These social audits have resulted in greater accountability measures for contractors, the commitment of additional funds to upgrade facilities, and creative solutions for persistent problems like annual flooding in important public places.

Community score cards are used by citizen forums to assess the effective allocation and use of annual local council budgets, grading the use of the budget against the plan and against the Union’s sectoral priorities. After consulting with their home communities, citizen forum members participate in the Union Parishad annual evaluation and give a red, yellow, or green rating for each councillor on their performance against a set of key indicators. Councillors strive to improve their ratings, and can be seen deliberately taking actions to improve year on year.

Participation of marginalised groups

The work of the citizen forums has stimulated broad participation from people from poor households and from women in annual planning and budgeting meetings.

Prior to the project these meetings were either not happening at all or achieving close to the legal minimum of 5% of citizens attending. By the end of the project more than 12% of the total voting population of each area were attending these public meetings, with the increase being driven by greater interest from marginalised communities and poor women. Although many women in rural Bangladesh claimed that attending meetings related to the local government’s budget is a man’s responsibility, by the end of the project nearly half (49.6%) of the attendees of open budget meetings in the project area were women.

Demonstrable influence of marginalised groups

Since the projects began, representatives of poor households and neighbourhoods have put forward a significant number of well-developed and well-evidenced proposals to local government, many of which have been funded and implemented.

By 2017, 56% of the demands or issues raised at public budgeting meetings in the project area came from people from poor and excluded communities, 20% of which were placed by poor and marginalised women.

Changing long-standing social norms

Through their work, citizen forum members develop regular face-to-face relationships with elected representatives and local elites, a rarity for anyone from their communities. During the study tour, one long-serving Union Parishad chairman directly credited his local citizen forum for upending the class-based social norms that were preventing people from their communities from approaching and making demands of their local governments.

Community members from poor areas now feel they have allies with access to government and are more willing to approach their Union Parishad members directly or with the support of their citizen forum. Local leaders are increasingly receiving feedback from typically-overlooked constituents and have begun to recognise this group as an organised political force that they must be accountable to.

The new visibility and consolidated voice of the poor is shifting Bangladesh’s elite-driven politics and centring the voices and priorities of previously-excluded people. CARE has found that citizen forums are an effective vehicle for pro-poor and gender equitable participatory local governance when they are:

  • specifically designed to be representative of their own particularly marginalised areas and groups
  • supported to become experts on local government processes in their areas
  • promoted to seize citizen participation opportunities themselves
  • focus on mobilising, organizing, and building the skills of their own communities

The voice of ‘the people’ is then amplified from those at the margins.

Original publication can be accessed here

Learning to learn

By Rachel Mwila originally published in the Zambian Governance Foundation August 2018 Newsletter

How do you know you are learning? Should organizations learn? How do organizations learn? These are some thought provoking questions about learning that we were faced with at a Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) workshop for the Social Accountability Monitoring (SAM) community recently organized by the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM).

 

Learning is revolutionary and dynamic thus there is always something to learn. Individuals and organizations should never stop learning as learning allows growth, improvement of quality of work and services. It is important that as organization continue to implement their work learning should also be documented and incorporated. However, why learn? Organizations need to learn more than ever as they confront mounting forces such as intensifying competition, advances in technology and shifts in customer preferences. Peter Senge in the Fifth Discipline wrote, learning organizations are “ organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expensive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together”.

 

Learning cannot happen independent of implementation thus the need for the creation of a Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) framework. The purpose of having a MEL framework is for knowledge generation, tracking progress, accountability and sharing information. However, this is only possible if organizations ensure that their organization culture and Theories of Change support learning. Management in organizations should also create space for learning; this can be done through having open reflection for all members of staff. MEL must be aligned to the goals of the organization and integrated throughout the entire programming circle with clear divisions of labour. To implement MEL organizations should also ensure that data collected is controlled for quality assurance that ensures accuracy, credibility and supports decision making in the organization. There is need to create the demand for MEL in organizations. This can be done through ensuring that senior management buy into the ideal of MEL and ensure resources are allocated to it. There is also need to ensure that MEL is clearly included in funding proposals to ensure it is allocated resources. Organizations can also create MEL champions who can spearhead and oversee all activities related to MEL and ensure that it is practiced in the organization. Organizations can also create or join learning communities and evaluation associations.

 

Additionally, for organizations to learn they must be able to document their work and practice good knowledge management. Knowledge Management (KM) focuses on the various management processes that facilitate finding, identifying, capturing, creating, storing, sustaining, applying, sharing and renewing knowledge to improve an organisation’s performance. Organizations need to adopt an adaptive way of thinking and working especially those working in the social accountability sector given that the sector is constantly changing. The adaptive strategies mean responding to change, lessons and adjusting plans/methods in order to be effective. This simply means organizations need to ensure that they are able to document their work so as not to lose sight of where they are coming from and where they wish to be. Actively managing knowledge can help organizations increase their chances of success by facilitating decision-making, building learning environments by making learning routine and stimulating cultural change and innovation.

 

By proactively implementing KM systems, organizations can rewrite the old saying “change is inevitable, growth is optional” to “change is inevitable, growth is intentional”. (Smith and Lumba, 2008).

 

DO MULTISTAKEHOLDER INITIATIVES DELIVER ON ACCOUNTABILITY?

Originally posted by BY THE INTERNATIONAL BUDGET PARTNERSHIP on MAY 03, 2018

A number of multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have brought together governments, civil society organizations (CSOs), and private sector firms to hash out a variety of difficult governance issues. Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency work to encourage transparency and accountability reforms in a rapidly expanding number of countries around the world.

But while the breadth of these MSIs is inarguable, how deep do reforms really go? What tangible changes are they driving at the country level? These are some of the questions that Dr. Brandon Brockmyer of the Accountability Research Center has been investigating. We recently spoke to Brandon about his research.

IBP: Can you give us a quick outline of your findings in terms of the effectiveness of MSIs?

Brandon: Overall, what I found is that global MSIs are quite good at encouraging participating governments to proactively disclose information about their activities and performance, even in cases where governments are disclosing this information for the first time. However, MSIs are notably lesseffective at encouraging participating governments to become more responsive to requests from citizens for information that they are not already publishing. This allows governments to retain control of the agenda, deciding what information to disclose.

MSIs help to improve proactive government transparency when two core conditions are in place: First, nongovernmental actors (i.e., civil society and the private sector) must be treated as full and equal partners in MSI decision making and implementation. Second, participating civil society organizations must have the technical expertise to steer disclosure in the right direction, as well as the resources to regularly attend meetings.

IBP: One of the interesting findings is that it seems MSIs are quite effective at advancing transparency, but broader improvements to accountability so far have been more elusive.

Brandon: Currently, global MSIs are designed to tackle transparency directly, while most of these initiatives address accountability only indirectly. This approach seems to assume that there is a straightforward, linear relationship between the two. I think my research findings support a more general consensus emerging in the field that transparency gains alone are unlikely to drive gains in accountability. Disclosed information needs translation, aggregation, benchmarks, and simplification to be useful to potential users. Demands for greater accountability require collective action that can be difficult to organize, especially given that civil society groups vary across regions, sectors, and funding levels and often have different priorities when advocating for government action. And even if these groups can come together to make coherent demands, citizen voice alone may not be an effective channel for changing the incentives of public sector actors, or for gaining greater influence over public resource allocation.

If global MSIs want to tackle the challenge of accountability more directly, their activities probably need to be more purposefully embedded within existing national pro-accountability coalitions. I think this could be done in several ways:

  1. Pro-reform actors—national and local civil society groups, government reformers, and international NGOs that are already invested in the MSI approach—could expand processes for civil society consultation and participation beyond political and economic centers.
  2. National MSI agendas need to be customized so that they resonate with broader civic and social constituencies.
  3. Since MSIs are voluntary, reformers need to petition independent audit institutions, ombudsmen, courts, and legislatures to monitor and support compliance with MSI guidelines and respond with inquiries and sanctions when problems are uncovered through these processes.
  4. If MSIs succeed in facilitating disclosure, newly released information needs to be embedded into existing channels of public discourse and decision making.

IBP: Many of IBP’s civil society partners are also trying to push their governments to improve transparency and accountability. Did you find any evidence where CSOs were able to use MSIs to advance their agendas?

Brandon: Yes, but it really depends on the specific agenda. CSOs that are already working toward greater government transparency will often find natural allies in the government and private sector by engaging with global MSIs. In these cases, MSIs offer a powerful way to advance their agendas. However, for those CSOs that value transparency primarily as a tool for advancing a broader social or environmental agenda, participation in a global MSI may be a costly distraction. In fact, I found that participating governments sometimes use MSIs to “openwash”— that is, to project a public image of transparency and accountability, while maintaining questionable practices.

IBP: IBP engages with initiatives like OGP and GIFT, particularly at the global level, while at the same time supporting many local CSOs at the national and local level. What insights do you have about bridging these big global movements with the nitty-gritty challenges that CSOs face on the ground?

Brandon: I think it’s critical that CSOs considering engaging with global MSIs have a realistic sense for how MSI activities and outputs might fit into their own broader reform strategies. Conversely, it’s equally important that global MSI architects work to tailor activities and outputs to fit the needs of pro-reform actors in participating countries.

IBP is well placed to inform both sides of this equation. IBP can educate CSOs about how global MSIs work, so the CSOs can make informed decisions about whether to get involved. If CSOs decide to participate, IBP can also serve as an invaluable resource for effective strategies and tactics for using global MSI processes to achieve their domestic goals. Simultaneously, IBP can use its influence within these global initiatives to advocate from a CSO perspective for MSI membership rules, events, and training opportunities are optimally geared toward producing the types of transparency and civic participation that CSOs identify as critical for their broader reform strategies to work. Nevertheless, it’s also important to remember that the reform process is likely to unfold somewhat differently across various contexts. As a result, IBP can guide MSIs toward offering participating members a more useful toolkit, but MSIs must still avoid being overly prescriptive.

Admittedly, this is a tough balance to strike. But by embracing the fact that not every global MSI will be a good fit in every context, IBP can help global MSIs improve their credibility, and help national and local CSOs avoid pointless opportunity costs.

“These materials were developed by the International Budget Partnership. IBP has given us permission to use the materials solely for noncommercial, educational purposes.” Original article can be found here https://www.internationalbudget.org/2018/05/multistakeholder-initiatives-accountability/?utm_source=Master+List&utm_campaign=5213845fc0-03_15_2018_IBP_Newsletter_English_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_5799ba65dd-5213845fc0-221019005

Going viral: what social media activists need to know

Originally posted on The Conversation by author Shahla Ghobadi, University of Manchester on the 17th of July 2018

File 20180712 27039 rcq2a.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Sign displaying the #metoo and #timesup message at the Women’s March in San Francisco in January, 2018.
Shutterstock/SundryPhotography

 

Inspiring stories of social activism, such as the Civil Rights movement and the fight against climate change, abound in history. And it is generally thought that the new social media era has helped cases of activism to succeed. But our research has revealed some major threats, which activists need to understand if they are to be successful in getting their message across to the masses.

Social activism refers to a broad range of activities which are beneficial to society or particular interest groups. Social activists operate in groups to voice, educate and agitate for change, targeting global crises.

Take, for example, environmental groups such as Greenpeace which aim to curb climate change by targeting governments and major manufacturers with poor environmental records. Or the anti-sweatshop movement, which started with a group of activists in the 19th century organising boycotts aimed at improving the conditions of workers in manufacturing places with low wages, poor working conditions and child labour.

Online social activism

These days the voices of dissent have increasingly been carried via the evolving medium of the internet. From #Metoo, #TimesUp and #WeStrike to #NeverAgain and #BlackLivesMatter, social activists wield the power of the internet to pressure powerful organisations.

The group 350.org, for example, is made up of climate change activists. The group uses online campaigns and grassroots organising to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects. Its aim is to get society moving closer to clean energy solutions that work for all.

Online activism allows activists to organise events with high levels of engagement, focus and network strength. On the one hand, researchers suggest that the anonymity offered by online communication provides the possibility of expressing the views of marginalised minority groups that might otherwise be punished or sanctioned. Online activities reinforce collective identity by reducing attention to differences that exist within the group (such as education, social class, and ethnicity).

The online threats

But other research argues that while this modern form of activism may increase participation in online activities, it might merely create the impression of activism. Or it may even have negative consequences, such as creating social stereotypes including those about feminists and environmentalists or getting social activists arrested as is the case in authoritarian countries.

The aim of our research was to develop insights that would obtain better outcomes from online activism, targeting some of society’s most important issues. During our study, we collected data from three YouTube cases of online activism. Our findings suggest that online activism delivers a temporary shock to the organisational elites, help organise collective actions and amplify the conditions for movements to form.

The elites fight back

But these initial outcomes provoke the elites into action, resulting in counter measures – such as increased surveillance to track activists. For example, some governmental authorities intensified internet filtering, blocked access to several websites and decreased the speed of the internet connection to slow down social activism. These measures prompted self-censorship among activists and a loss of interest among the public in relation to the cause and contributed to the ultimate decline of social activism over time.

Our study challenged the optimistic hype around online activism in enabling grassroots social movements by suggesting there is a complex relationship between activists and those groups they are targeting, which makes the outcomes very difficult to predict. As different parties with different interests intervene, they either encourage or inhibit activism.

While encouraging actions can take the form of support (such as the thousands of women around the world who posted on social media sharing their stories under #metoo), inhibiting actions may come in the form of information asymmetry (strategies such as filtering and surveillance) from elites.

Inhibiting strategies are not limited to authoritarian organisations. Senior managers may also monitor email correspondence of staff, set up structures and hierarchies for access to organisational information, and use information provided by secretive companies to check the status of their employees (for example, blacklisting workers perceived as trouble-makers).

Less emotion and more strategic patience

Online activists should understand that the dynamics of reaching collective action might not necessarily be the result of critical thinking, lifelong learning or other dimensions of civic engagement. Journalist Nicholas Kristoff has talked about how the anti-sweatshop movement “risks harming the impoverished workers it is hoping to help” by causing mass job redundancies. Similarly, our main message is that online activism could prompt reactions that will result in unintended and long lasting consequences for the activists involved.

A common and frequently used approach that risks these types of consequences is to share emotive information through social media. While this is used to inform and capture people’s attention and mobilise as many people as possible, our study suggests that more thought should be put into the consequences of information sharing and what information is most appropriate to be shared.

Activists may need to spend more time and energy to create and share information that is less emotive and help people learn about the underlying causes of problem. For example, the activism videos we have researched and commonly see on the internet are essentially reactive and emotive.

The ConversationInstead of focusing on the problem and the need for change, activists can share information that explains why and how the current situation has been created and what can be learned for the future. Online activism in such manner can gradually lead to the development of people who are capable of generating new knowledge and wisdom to respond to changing social environments. However, that requires strategic patience and that is often a scarce resource among activists desperate for change.

Shahla Ghobadi, Assistant Professor, Software, Design, Social Activism, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Opening Government in a Time of Illiberal Democracy

Originally posted by Author Joe Powell on the 12th of JULY 2018.

“The era of liberal democracy is over.” Just a few years ago, this statement would have been hubristic. Today, however, those words from newly re-elected Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speak to a global context where democracy and openness are under attack. Human rights abuses, challenges to the basic rule of law and long-standing institutions, and declining civic space have become the norm in many countries. It no longer surprises us when countries like Hungary slide backwards, or when their leaders take pride in eroding hard-won democratic gains. Hungary is one of the only countries to join and then leave the Open Government Partnership (OGP) since it first launched seven years ago.

Despite these worrying trends, bright spots do exist where courageous reformers, from government officials to individual citizens, are taking a stand. Citizen movements in countries like South Korea and Armenia have bravely pushed for change, removing from power leaders who were seen as, at best, tolerant of corruption. Now is the time for citizens to push back on authoritarianism and show the strength of a fairer, more equal, more inclusive system of governance.

In one week, OGP hosts its fifth Global Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia. This is a critical public moment for heads of state and ministers to speak out and join forces. For too long, a strong coalition of leaders and ministers promoting the values of democracy and citizen-centric governance have been missing from the world stage. Too many politicians have shied away from making this case, with some notable exceptions: Mauricio Macri, Justin Trudeau, and more recently, Jacinda Ardern, Emmanuel Macron, Cyril Ramaphosa and Moon Jae-in. These leaders coming to democracy’s defense span the political spectrum, but share common values, including a belief in the rights of citizens to have an ongoing say in how their country is run. Now they need support from a broader, more diverse coalition to take head-on the argument that unravelling institutions and shredding a democratic legacy is the only way to deliver change. It should no longer be the case that the false choices presented by strongmen – between development and democracy, or inclusion and jobs – go unchallenged.

To accomplish this goal, we will need more than mere words. The Georgia Summit must be about action, including in the draft new policy commitments on open government that many national and local leaders are bringing to Tbilisi. The onus is on us to share innovations that help change the status quo and bring citizens and government closer together. This should happen in traditionally neglected areas of public policy that are now the cause of much of the distrust people have in their governments, such as public procurement – the number one corruption risk in most countries. Open contracting is a way to stop cozy inside deals between favoured contractors and political allies, and open up government-generated business to more competition. This open data approach can potentially save governments significant amounts of public money. In the case of Ukraine’s procurement system ProZorro, over US$1 billion has been saved since the system was introduced in 2006 for all government contracts, and the country has also embraced its linked citizen monitoring platform, DoZorro.

These citizen-centric approaches must also extend to modernizing public services in ways that tackle discontent over inequality of access to health, education, water and infrastructure services. Take Kaduna State in Nigeria, one of OGP’s local government participants, which is trying to improve its roads, schools and hospitals. By the government’s own admission, it has often over-spent and under-delivered on infrastructure projects. To address this, the Kaduna government launched the “Eyes and Ears” project, enlisting citizens to monitor government projects. Authorities can be notified through multiple channels –  social media and text messages – on the status of a project. This encourages all to push to deliver better results from infrastructure investments.

The lessons from Kaduna could apply in any context, from OECD countries where citizens expect more responsiveness and agility from their interactions with government, to low-income contexts where basic services are often lacking. Across the world, people want to be heard and influence how their tax money is spent.

These reforms show the potential of open government to save taxpayer money, improve schools and health clinics, and engage citizens in their own government. This approach is ultimately how trust can be rebuilt, and how grand challenges such as climate change and gender equality will be tackled. In this way, open government is not only about the values of democracy, openness, and civic space, but about helping governments deliver better results for their citizens. Now it is time for a new coalition, with members that share these values, to come together and ensure that open government delivers meaningful change to people’s lives. This is how we begin to end the cult of illiberal democracy.

Original article can be accessed on https://www.opengovpartnership.org/stories/opening-government-time-of-illiberal-democracy?utm_source=T%2FAI+Newsletter+List&utm_campaign=12791b7763-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_07_16_08_02_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1a5ff28f1e-12791b7763-431571137

COLLABORATING TO BUILD MORE EQUITABLE AND INCLUSIVE SOCIETIES: CIVIL SOCIETY BUDGET WORK IN EUROPE

Originally published by JEAN ROSS, CONSULTANT— JUN 27, 2018,

Over the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic growth in the role and capacity of civil society to provide oversight of and to influence decisions regarding the collection and expenditure of public funds through government budgets and broader fiscal processes. The International Budget Partnershipsupports a network of innovative, independent organizations that specialize in budget analysis and advocacy in over 100 countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the United States, the influential, non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides timely, credible, and accessible information on federal budget priorities and coordinates the State Priorities Partnership – an impactful network of 43 state-based, independent budget-focused organizations. Yet, to date there is no network of organizations focused on holding governments to account for public budgeting practices in Europe and only minimal participation of European organizations in the global movement for budget justice.

To address the European gap, IBP commissioned a scan to identify European civil society organizations engaged in the analysis of and/or advocacy around public budgets. Our initial research found a range of organizations that, to differing degrees, sought to engage policymakers, the media, and the public to broaden participation in, and influence the outcome of, debates over budget priorities. Our research also indicated that work around public budgets in Europe takes a range of forms, from policy advocacy rooted in a social justice tradition, such as Social Justice Ireland, to alternative budgets developed through broad-based coalitions, as in Italy’s Sbilanciamoci and Austria’s Wege aus der Krise, to independent think tanks, including Macedonia’s Center for Economic Analysis, to gender-focused efforts, such as the UK Women’s Budget Group and Austria’s Femmes Fiscal. Networks such as the European Anti-Poverty Network engage low-income individuals to advocate for “pro-poor” budget allocations that strengthen social safety nets. The initial scan also identified a wealth of activity around participatory budgeting, mostly at the local level, but extending to the national level in Portugal. As in many parts of the world, the participatory budgeting advocacy community was largely distinct from that of budget advocacy. Similarly, we identified a body of work on “open budgets” that largely functions independently of that on budget priorities. We also found that, despite the number of organizations engaged in budget work, few opportunities existed to share strategies and learn across and, often times, within countries.

Based on these findings, IBP invited leaders, practitioners, and thinkers from European civil society organizations to convene in Amsterdam in April 2018 to broaden our understanding of how these groups work to address fiscal accountability and to explore opportunities for future collaboration.

Specifically, the meeting sought to:

  • Reflect on the impact of broader social, economic, and political challenges and their implications for civil society organizations that seek to influence public budget priorities;
  • Share tactics, strategies, and best practices that civil society organizations deploy to make governments more transparent, equitable, and accountable;
  • Discuss what opportunities might exist for ongoing collaboration, knowledge sharing, and capacity building in Europe; and
  • Explore how the experience of European organizations could inform work in other parts of the world.

Representatives of two dozen civil society organizations from throughout Europe attended the meeting. For many participants, it was their first chance to reflect upon their role in working with public budgets to build more equitable and inclusive societies and to share strategies, tactics, and best practices with peers facing common and divergent challenges in pursuit of a common goal. Participating organizations brought a wide array of approaches and experiences and ranged from think tanks, such as Croatia’s Institute for Public Finance, to policy advocacy organizations, such as Social Justice Ireland, to Austria’s labor-affiliated AK Europa to academics with one foot in research and another in practice.

MEETING HIGHLIGHTS

Out of a day packed with rich, spirited, and wide-ranging conversation, a number of themes emerged:

  • Budgets as a tool for more equitable and inclusive societies. Most of the participating organizations approach public budgets as a tool for building more equitable and inclusive societies. For some organizations, this approach emerged out of the financial crisis as a response to fiscal rules that privileged austerity over public investment, including those imposed by the European Union. This focus, which includes a strong economic analysis, is similar to that of U.S. organizations, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and its State Priorities Partnership network, but stands in contrast to other parts of the world where budget work often involves a significant focus on transparency and public participation.
  • The rise of economic nationalism. The rightward turn of a number of governments, coupled with the rise of populist and nationalist movements, constrains the operating space for civil society in Europe as in the rest of the world. In many countries, conservative governments have promoted cuts to the social safety and/or labor, environmental, and other protections. The rightward turn has also forced organizations that traditionally relied on close relationships with sympathetic policymakers to devise new advocacy strategies.
  • Policy analysis in the service of advocacy. While research-focused organizations shared a commitment to fact-based, independent analysis, this work was generally closely tied to policy advocacy efforts. In some instances, organizations function as “think-do” tanks, while in others, advocacy occurred through allied coalitions or networks consisting of civil society organizations, labor unions, and social movements. In several countries, including Italy and Austria, coalitions develop alternative budgets that provide a policy blueprint and shared framework for advocacy.
  • Lack of financial support. Both the pre-meeting scan and meeting participants identified the lack of philanthropic and other financial support as a barrier to greater impact. Some organizations operate entirely, or primarily, with volunteer labor, while others had minimal, but inadequate, paid staff. Donor support was nominally more robust in the Balkans, due to European Union support. Think tanks affiliated with political parties enjoyed greater financial support, but few resources are available for nonpartisan, independent research and advocacy.
  • The absence of a cross-country platform for budget work. Currently, there is no network or platform where European organizations committed to making public budgets more equitable and inclusive can share experiences, strategize, and develop common approaches and campaigns. While some networks, such as the European Anti-Poverty Network and Civil Society Europe, exist these networks operate largely in isolation from other organizations that see budgets as a means for achieving similar aims. Moreover, organizations that focus on policy analysis and advocacy and broadening participation in budget debates have minimal, if any, overlap with those focused primarily on transparency.

NEXT STEPS

There was broad agreement around the need for an ongoing platform for shared learning and strategizing. The assembled leaders quickly saw that the challenges they faced in their country work were shared by colleagues across Europe and that the impact of this work would be strengthened by continued dialogue. Areas for potential collaboration included:

  • Developing a “toolkit” of best practices in budget analysis, advocacy tactics, communications approaches, and strategy development.
  • Commissioning research on the role of the European Union’s fiscal rules in shaping domestic budgets and defining the space for civil society engagement.
  • Engaging in shared research around narrative development.
  • Conducting a more extensive mapping of organizations engaged in budget analysis and advocacy and reaching out to build a broader network.
  • Holding a budget academy that would build the capacity of a broader range organizations to participate in and advocate around budget policymaking.
  • Providing a place for shared learning and information exchange.
  • Building collaboration between researchers and social movements and non-expert CSOs.
  • Raising public awareness of the importance of budgets to active citizenship.
  • Developing an alternative EU budget.
  • Encouraging analysis of subnational budgets and sharing methodologies and approaches for doing so.
  • Engaging in joint fundraising efforts and outreach to donors to build financial support for increasing European civil society capacity for budget analysis and advocacy.

Several natural peer networks also emerged. Balkans’ based think tanks identified shared challenges related to their countries’ accession to the European Union, as well as similarities of budget culture. Organizations that develop alternative budget proposals also saw value in continued networking. The IBP agreed to provide initial support for continued collaboration.

To build on the interest expressed by meeting participation in continued engagement and shared learning, IBP is considering pursuing the following next steps:

  • Preparation and dissemination of materials from the meeting to ensure that European donors, as well as broader civil society in Europe is aware of budget work on the continent.
  • Exploring, in collaboration with participants and potential donors, a joint project on the impact of European Monetary Union (EMU) policies on the budgets of member states, specifically focusing on ways in which EMU rules increase or decrease fiscal space for progressive budget policies.
  • Looking for opportunities for mutual learning by involving meeting participants in the activities of international budget networks throughout the world.
  • Supporting greater collaboration among budget-focused organizations in sub-regions where there is strong interest in networking and a common budgeting system, such as in the Balkans.
  • Providing targeted assistance in response to requests generating in response to the meeting.

Budgets are at the center of the divergent visions of the role of government. Across Europe and throughout the world, civil society organizations have provided a counterweight to calls for austerity, advocating for budgets that reduce poverty, promote inclusion, and improve governance. This work has taken multiple forms ranging from nonpartisan analysis of national budgets to citizen engagement in local budget processes through participatory budgeting. The collective experiences represented at the European Civil Society Meeting, along with the collective experiences of IBP’s partners and allies throughout the rest of the world, demonstrate that when citizens and civil society have information, skills, and opportunities to participate in public budget processes they can promote real improvements in people’s lives.

“These materials were developed by the International Budget Partnership. IBP has given us permission to use the materials solely for noncommercial, educational purposes.”

Original article accessible on https://www.internationalbudget.org/2018/06/civil-society-budget-work-in-europe/?utm_source=T%2FAI+Newsletter+List&utm_campaign=3fe70d6ca5-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_07_09_10_16_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1a5ff28f1e-3fe70d6ca5-431571137

NGOs are adapting to closing space when they must push back

Originally published by Julian Oram & Deborah Doane on the 19th of December 2017, accessible on https://www.openglobalrights.org/ngos-are-adapting-to-closing-space-when-they-must-push-back/

Most development and funding organizations are adapting to shrinking space rather than challenging it, but is this trend inevitable? NGOs need to be aware that closing society civil space is a problem and stand up to the boundaries it enforces on their mission and outreach.

A healthy civil society has been at the center of many human rights achievements and related progress in the developing world over recent years: access to education, healthcare, environmental improvements, and debt relief, to name a few. A free and open civil society is critical to hold governments to account and to deliver on goals of better equality and poverty reduction. Yet in recent years, there has been an alarming rise in restrictions on civil society’s ability to operate, especially in developing countries. This is happening via a range of government measures, from constraints on freedom of assembly to imposing excessive red tape and limitations on NGOs receiving funding from foreign donors.

For international development funders, including INGOs, these restrictions can seriously impede their ability to support local organizations, undertake advocacy work, or even implement basic service delivery programs. But a survey and series of interviews undertaken in 2016 by the European Foundation Centre suggests that while international development and humanitarian funders and INGOs are aware that closing civil society space is a problem, many do not see this as a fundamental threat to their overall missions and actions. EFC did in-depth interviews with twenty-five organizations funding development and humanitarian work around the world, either as philanthropic foundations or as intermediary NGOs. Focusing on five countries in Africa and Asia—Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan and Sierra Leone—these discussions provided a diverse picture of how shrinking civil society freedoms are currently affecting their programs. Staff at these organizations testified that their own experiences are centered around the challenges presented by growing foreign funding restrictions, tighter reporting requirements, and bank de-risking.

 

This information is now part of a one-year collaboration between the EFC and the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS), which involved different types of funders and actors who participated in roundtables and interviews to devise effective, possible responses to reverse this worrying trend.  The final paper from this project is complemented by blogs from several experts, focusing on their particular responses to the closing space via alliance-building and engagement in country-specific contexts.

One the primary concerns highlighted by this collaboration is that many international philanthropic foundations and INGOs appear to be taking an “adaptation and mitigation” approach to constraints on civil society space. Only a small number of philanthropic development organisations engage in advocacy to challenge shrinking space; most do not. Instead, the “new normal” is simply to re-configure grant programs to ensure that they do not fall afoul of new national laws; others are changing organizational structures or reducing the scope of their work overall; or, they are limiting partnerships and maintaining a distance between the more outspoken spectrum of development and human rights actors. As a last resort, funders and INGOs are making the painful choice of pulling out of difficult operating environments altogether. When this happens, local civil society is left bereft of critical resources to do their work, resulting in a smaller, deflated and ultimately less effective civil society to underpin development.

While conciliatory actions aimed at respecting increased regulatory demands in order to maintain access to a country may seem sensible, our report suggests that they can do the reverse and in fact can harm development aims. Development organizations have had to accept that certain forms of intervention (often involving rights-based work) will not be politically tolerated by certain governments. In some countries funders/NGOs have had to restrict their operations to particular areas, and close down programs in sensitive regions. For example, since the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation in 2009, many resident NGOs ended their projects and advocacy activities related to human rights, free legal aid, election observation, human rights education, conflict resolution between ethnic groups, women’s and children’s rights and re-oriented their objectives towards development issues and capacity building.

Another extremely worrying aspect of the move to silence civil society advocacy is that, in some countries, NGO staff and local partners are increasingly subject to intimidation, harassment and violence. This is often either sanctioned by state security apparatus, or simply allowed to happen without fear of reprisal. One illustration of this is in Sierra Leone, where CSO activists have on several occasions been victims of death threats and attacks on property. No official statements from the government condemning the threats and attacks have been issued.

Advocates must find potential ways forward for more strategic, concerted cross-sector action and engagement from international funders and development and humanitarian actors. For example, coordinating international development funders’ responses in conjunction with those working on the front-line of human rights, or working through international platforms like the Sustainable Development Goals or the Open Government Partnership to defend the value of civil society space for development. Concrete actions for international funders or INGOs must create more effective support for a more diverse local civil society, with domestic philanthropic support to underpin it.

Potential ways to achieve this include more flexible grantmaking to assist less formalized activist groups and social movements, or investing in local philanthropic networks to ensure domestic backing. For example, some groups that can no longer work in mainland China continue to support programs in that country through Hong Kong-based offices, and there are cases where donors have allowed projects to ‘freeze’ when organizations were under threat, without budget implications. Local groups confronted with new threats and opportunities in relation to civic space also need the possibility to reorient funds as needed.

Leaving the defence of civil society space in developing countries to a handful of actors on the ground is unlikely to be sufficient. Of course, approaches will differ greatly from country to country and oppositional or advocacy measures may not always be the best way to approach the challenge of closing space. Appropriate strategic responses should be agreed jointly with domestic and international partners wherever possible.

The current trend is not an inevitable trajectory, but it could remain if granting organizations do not pay more attention to the issue of closing space and develop stronger responses, aside from merely adapting to the growing list of restrictions. Without an intensive effort to push back against closing space, development interventions will become progressively less effective at assisting those living in poverty.

Watch out or technology could be a ‘colonialism of a special kind

originally posted on the 3rd of May 2018 on https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/watch-out-or-technology-could-be-a-colonialism-of-a-special-kind

Unchecked and not scrutinised, technology could impose on the world a “colonialism of a special kind”, says University of Johannesburg Vice-Chancellor Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala.

Marwala was one of a panel of experts discussing “Racism in a Digital Age” at a 2 May event in Johannesburg hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in partnership with the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Harvard University Center for African Studies.

If technology is not examined for inherent racial bias, and if this is not corrected when found, it could impose Western hegemony on the rest of the world so insidiously as to be undetectable, Marwala said.

The dialogue particularly examined the way in which technology is rapidly changing the world, and technology’s increasingly prominent role in the political, criminal justice and social spheres. It also looked at the unintended consequences and complexities of technological change.

Technology can be used for good or bad purposes, and it is the choices society makes that will determine this, said Marwala.

Society needs to recognise that no particular future is inevitable, said Obenewa Amponsah, Executive Director of the Africa office of the Harvard University Center for African Studies. Amponsah is one of the inaugural group of Atlantic Fellows.

As long as people educate themselves on what can influence the way in which various futures might develop and “think outside our created boxes”, the future can be crafted to benefit everyone, said Amponsah.

Science, and especially genomics, is showing beyond doubt that race is a non-biological description of people, said Prof. Musa Mhlanga, head of the University of Cape Town’s Division of Chemical & Systems Biology in the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine.

However, even the study of human genomes – the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism – is inherently biased, he said. Of the more than 100 000 human genomes already sequenced, 90% are the genomes of people of European descent, 5% come from people of Asian descent and only 2% have come from people of African descent, he said. This is a disservice to science, because people of African descent have the oldest, and so richest, genetic diversity, he said.

Rasheedah Phillips, Managing Attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, US, and an Atlantic Fellow, said her practice mainly deals with the negative ways in which technology impacts on low-income people of colour in that city.

Black people, especially women, are “again and again” denied housing because any eviction notice filed remains online “forever”, whether or not the eviction was legally granted. Criminal records, also available online, have a similar effect, especially on men, Phillips said.

People from the global south need to create technology that serves their interests, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director at Equality Labs. The organisation aims to build South Asian-American communities centred on the values of South Asian caste and religion-oppressed migrants. Soundararajan is a Dalit – a member of the lowest of the Indian castes, deemed “untouchable”.

“Technology from the global north is being used to oppress the global south. We are exporting our technology talent to oppress ourselves,” she said. A large percentage of Silicon Valley employees are immigrants from India and the global south, for example.

(Image: NMF)

Obenewa Amponsah, Executive Director of the Harvard University Center for African Studies speaking during the “Racism in a Digital Age” dialogue. From left to right: Amponsah; University of Johannesburg Vice-Chancellor Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala; journalist and thought leader Toby Shapshak; Equality Labs Executive Director Thenmozhi Soundararajan; Community Legal Services Managing Attorney Rasheedah Phillips; and Prof. Musa Mhlanga, head of the University of Cape Town’s Division of Chemical & Systems Biology in the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine.

Marwala said his first real realisation of the depth of inherent bias in technology came when he decided to use online hospitality group Airbnb to book accommodation and discovered that the face-recognition algorithms it uses have not been “trained” to recognise African faces. Voice-recognition technology also does not recognise African accents, he said.

Technology needs to be designed multiculturally, Marwala said. Databases are acquiring biased information because of who designed them, he said.

Phillips said she is not calmed by the idea that technology should be “trained” via algorithms to better recognise all – and particularly “black” – features and accents. “If technology is better able to distinguish and surveil us, it is easier to mark us [as bad],” she said.

Journalist and recognised thought leader on African technology Toby Shapshak said innovative technologies are emerging from Africa. An example is the world’s largest mobile money network, M-Pesa. More than half of M-Pesa’s account holders live in Africa. People in Africa use technology to solve “real problems”, he said.

M-Pesa has, since its launch in Kenya and Tanzania in 2007, expanded to Afghanistan, South Africa, India, Romania and Albania.

Technology designed in the global south is often overlooked, said Mhlanga. The largest, most powerful facial recognition technology used in the world is not American-made – it was developed in China, he said. SenseTime makes artificial intelligence-powered surveillance software for China’s police and is one of the world’s most valuable start-ups in terms of market valuation.

Mhlanga said the large technology companies – Google, YouTube, Apple, Facebook and others – have an “unassailable lead” in the global economy, which is “a huge disadvantage” for people in the global south. However, these people can “take our knowledge and build technology that has unassailable advantages here”.