Making Budgets work for Gender Equality in Ethiopia

This article was originally published on the GPSA Knowledge Platform by Lucia Nass

Despite strong legal frameworks for gender equality, Ethiopian women still have a lot of catching up to do. They occupy a low status in society and their developmental outcomes are still well below those of men. Ethiopia has started to support Gender Responsive Budging (GRB), but is this creating the desired effect on gender equality?

The Ethiopia Social Accountability Program phase 2 (ESAP2) introduced GRB tool in almost a quarter of Ethiopia’s 1000 districts across five public services: education, health, water, agriculture, and rural roads. We guided over 110 local organizations to help communities assess the standards and budgets of basic services they received, prioritize necessary improvement, engage in dialogue with service providers and local government, and realize the agreed reforms.

Initially, very few CSOs chose to work with the GRB tool because it provided limited implementation guidelines and also gender expertise was not well developed among the CSOs. The ESAP team invited an Ethiopian gender consultant and engaged with CSOs, communities, and government gender experts in an action research process to make a new GRB tool that would work for social accountability at local government level.

CSOs start with identifying and mobilizing local gender and budget expertise, which can support the social accountability process. In Ethiopia, this usually involves the Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office; the Financial Transparency and Accountability expert; and experts from the sector offices. They also timed social accountability activities to the budget cycle, so that citizens can influence budget decisions and review. Before conducting gender analysis, awareness is raised among service providers on the government’s gender policies for service delivery. Then gender analysis of service access and benefits is facilitated where community members are involved in comparing the impact of basic services on women to that of men. Citizens and service providers are then brought together to discuss local budgets and set priorities for gender equitable spending on public services. This leads to prioritization of spending on improvements that promote gender equality. Citizens subsequently monitor that service improvements indeed benefit women and men as agreed during the budget discussions.

Interestingly, the CSOs had already completed a full cycle of the SA process before the new GRB tool was introduced. Focusing on the same services, the communities’ priorities changed. All six pilots show that new issues were prioritised. In Debre Markos town, GRB highlighted sexual harassment of school girls. The community had already identified the need of a fence to protect students from residents who could wander into the school yard at any time. The gender analysis highlighted the negative impact of drinking houses in terms of the harassment of school girls by their customers. The issue was raised during the interface meeting, and local authorities subsequently moved the drinking houses to the other end of town.

Pilots encountered secondary schools with no separate toilets for boys and girls, and agricultural extension services that focus solely on crops grown by men. Ethiopia’s basic services may on paper appear gender neutral, but in practice they are not. Gender analysis can demonstrate how service delivery that is seemingly “gender neutral” does in fact perpetuate gender bias. We learned how to integrate gender analysis with each step of a social accountability process at local government level. Our GRB tool brings abstract gender policies to life for men and women, service providers and district officials.

We hope that our work will inspire SA practitioners to develop GRB for local government budgets. This publication explains how we developed the tool and gives more detail to the results achieved for gender equality in basic service access and benefits.

Engaging government differently: social audits and service delivery

This video tells us about a success story of the first Collaborative Social Audit in South Africa in 3 informal settlements in Wattville, Ekurhuleni Gauteng, South Africa.

 

In 2016, Albert Van Zyl of the International Budget Partnership (IBP) wrote the following blog on social audits in South Africa:

Are Social Audits Soft on Government?

In contrast to campaigns that are more inherently confrontational, social audits invest heavily in unpacking and decoding government budget policy and processes. They often start by examining official documents to understand what service delivery commitments the government has made and what viable counter proposals might look like. This is not to say that social audits can’t form part of larger campaigns that use a variety of tactics to get the government to respond. But this engagement is firmly rooted in the facts and figures that the government itself releases in official documents.

None of this makes social audits “soft” on government, it is simply a different style of getting and holding the attention of government so as to engage on an issue of importance. Most participants felt that social audits embody a style of advocacy worth preserving. They pointed out the power of social audit fundamentals, such as community ownership as well as using evidence and official commitments to engage with government. Given that this advocacy approach is based on a deep understanding of budgets and policies, social audits can in some cases actually be harder on government — and should certainly be harder to ignore.

Does Credibility Matter?

Despite being firmly rooted in evidence, not everyone gives social audits the respect they are due. Parts of the South African government have chosen to question the validity of audit findings and quibble about the rigor of the data collection and analysis. Civil society organizations have sometimes responded by tightening up these aspects of their social audits. In other cases, such as with Equal Education’s school sanitation audit, CSOs have appointed highly regarded independent observers to vouch for the rigor of the process.

Yet, as one participant pointed out, “legitimacy does not guarantee accountability.” Ultimately these challenges by government are motivated less by a concern for scientific rigor, and are more about wriggling out of the tough questions asked about how well officials are doing their jobs. Independent observers and solid methods may make it harder for the government to dismiss the findings of social audits, but they do not guarantee accountability. For that CSOs need to use other tactics, like generating media coverage and mobilizing popular support.

Who Sets the Agenda for a Social Audit?

The questions of who decides which issue to focus on is a crucial one because community ownership is such essential part of a social audit. At the same time, social audits are so information and knowledge intensive that focusing on a single issue often makes them more effective. In the first few social audits conducted in South Africa, membership based organizations, like the SJC and Equal Education, used social audits as part of ongoing campaigns where the agenda had already been set. This made it easy to decide on the issue and get the relevant communities’ commitment.

More recent social audits, like that conducted by Ndifuna Ukwazi in Wolwerivier, brought in an external organization to assist the community with the social audit. This made the agenda question a lot more difficult to deal with. Facilitating organizations know focusing on a single issue increases the impact of a social audit, but communities are faced with such a myriad of service delivery problems and interest groups that it can be hard to agree on a single issue.

This poses some interesting questions about how social audits can be replicated across South Africa. The situation where external organizations help communities to conduct social audits seems almost necessary for them to become more widespread.  But can effective social audits only be conducted as part of campaigns with well-developed agendas? Or can they be adapted to help new campaigns refine their agendas?

“How do we bring about a social audit revolution?”

One participant in the workshop posed this very question. The excitement over social audits has spread rapidly among South African civil society, and also in government and the donor community. This has resulted in numerous requests for social audit training. But, as many participants warned, social audits are not a silver bullet for solving all of South Africa’s service delivery issues and they don’t lend themselves to a one-size-fits-all approach. Where a service delivery problem is caused by insufficient budget rather than poor implementation, for example, a social audit may not be the best way to proceed.

The SJC, NU, Planact, and Equal Education have done an admirable job of promoting the practice in South Africa, choosing slow steady growth in the number of audits and organizations conducting them over letting a thousand flowers bloom. They have also created a social audit guide and formed a Social Audit Network to support such new initiatives. This network is now planning to coordinate the growing body of experienced social audit practitioners to ensure that new auditors have access to old hands.

Social audits are a powerful tool. But knowing how and when to use them, and understanding their underlying principles, are key to their effectiveness. While they may not always be the quickest way to prompt the government to respond, the kind of changes they stand to deliver could well be revolutionary.

This blog post was originally published on the IBP website

PSAM Social Accountability Conference 2018

Exploring what it takes to enhance social accountability practice.

The conference theme aims to interrogate the challenges of working in the social accountability field and specifically the elements which allow for successful social accountability practice, where practitioners are able to enhance the interaction between the state and the public. The conference will explore the manner in which social accountability practice is impacted by context, by power, by the ecosystem of actors within the sector and by actors we may consider outside of the ecosystem.

Download the conference PROGRAMME

You can link to a livestream of the plenary presentations and panels on the 11th and 12th September here

Summary of events to be livestreamed during the PSAM Social Accountability Conference 2018

Key lessons from the Webinar Series

If you were lucky enough to join us for our first webinar series, you would not be surprised that there were a number of lessons that emerged from each country case study. If you did not join us, see the recordings below.

Here are some of the key points presented from the following Webinars:

–  Zambia Governance Forum (ZGF) from Zambia

Southern African Parliamentary Trust (SAPST) from Zimbabwe

United Purpose from Mozambique

Policy Forum from Tanzania

 

Is Open Data Working for Women in Africa?

Open data has the potential to change politics, economies and societies for the better by giving people more opportunities to engage in the decisions that affect their lives. But to reach the full potential of open data, it must be available to and used by all. Yet, across the globe — and in Africa in particular — there is a significant data gap.

This report — Is open data working for women in Africa — maps the current state of open data for women across Africa, with insights from country-specific research in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda and South Africa with additional data from a survey of experts in 12 countries across the continent.

Our findings show that, despite the potential for open data to empower people, it has so far changed little for women living in Africa.

Key findings

  • There is a closed data culture in Africa — Most countries lack an open culture and have legislation and processes that are not gender-responsive. Institutional resistance to disclosing data means few countries have open data policies and initiatives at the national level. In addition, gender equality legislation and policies are incomplete and failing to reduce gender inequalities. And overall, Africa lacks the cross-organisational collaboration needed to strengthen the open data movement.
  • There are barriers preventing women from using the data that is available — Cultural and social realities create additional challenges for women to engage with data and participate in the technology sector. 1GB of mobile data in Africa costs, on average, 10% of average monthly income. This high cost keeps women, who generally earn less than men, offline. Moreover, time poverty, the gender pay gap and unpaid labour create economic obstacles for women to engage with digital technology.
  • Key datasets to support the advocacy objectives of women’s groups are missing — Data on budget, health and crime are largely absent as open data. Nearly all datasets in sub-Saharan Africa (373 out of 375) are closed, and sex-disaggregated data, when available online, is often not published as open data. There are few open data policies to support opening up of key datasets and even when they do exist, they largely remain in draft form. With little investment in open data initiatives, good data management practices or for implementing Right To Information (RTI) reforms, improvement is unlikely.
  • There is no strong base of research on women’s access and use of open data — There is lack of funding, little collaboration and few open data champions. Women’s groups, digital rights groups and gender experts rarely collaborate on open data and gender issues. To overcome this barrier, multi-stakeholder collaborations are essential to develop effective solutions.

Download the report to explore the findings and recommendations in full.

When Not to Call a Spade a Spade: The Importance of Quiet Anti-Corruption Initiatives

Originally written by Sabina Robillard with Louino Robillard and posted here

Corruption is a complex adaptive system – it does not stay still while being attacked, but rather evolves to survive in the face of new constraints and barriers.

Many anti-corruption campaigns aim to target corruption directly and publicly. They are clear in their mission and have project titles that include the words “anti-corruption.” This directness is important in many respects, but being so visible makes it easy for people in power to applaud these initiatives in public – and to avoid them, or even undermine them, in private. By the time the project reports are written, the systems that facilitate corruption will have shifted, adapted, and survived.

So there is an argument to be made for combatting corruption quietly – through projects that no one would recognize as being anti-corruption. These projects serve as Trojan horses to help anti-corruption measures slip past gatekeepers and power brokers, and perhaps stand a greater chance of surviving and planting the seeds of change.

In late 2016, Louino ‘Robi’ Robillard was not expecting to embark on an anti-corruption campaign. Robi is a community organizer from Cite Soleil, which is Haiti’s largest ghetto. Because of decades of gang activity in the area, Cite Soleil has been marginalized economically and socially by the rest of Haitian society, resulting in widespread poverty and stigma.

An informal ceasefire that began in 2016 provided a window for civil society in Cite Soleil to take on initiatives that would be more challenging in times of active conflict. A youth club in Cite Soleil called FACHaiti decided they wanted to build a library to provide a much-needed community space for young people to read. They approached Robi for help with fundraising, but Robi pushed them to first pitch their idea to residents of Cite Soleil – the vast majority of whom lived on less than 2 US dollars a day – and see what they would contribute. They called the initiative Konbit Bibliyotèk Site Solèy.

In Cite Soleil, development projects have long been used as a vehicle for corruption and money-laundering. Projects are often routed through politicians, fixers (called abolochos), and gangsters, each of whom takes a cut from projects to fund illicit activities. This is common knowledge in Cite Soleil, making residents skeptical of most projects. In order to help Cite Soleil’s residents overcome their distrust of development projects – even local ones – Robi proposed a campaign of total transparency. Each donation – no matter how large or small – would be photographed and posted on the Konbit Bibliyotèk Site Solèy Facebook page. Then, every Sunday, the money and books would be counted in public at the community radio station and posted on Facebook. Anyone was welcome to supervise the weekly count and compare it with the photographs posted of donations. The campaign became wildly popular, and within the first six weeks, over a thousand people in Cite Soleil had contributed.

 

 

It became clear very soon that this approach was having a greater effect than just building trust in a library campaign: it was changing people’s expectations about transparency in Cite Soleil. Robi’s first hint that this simple project could have an effect on endemic local corruption was when he began getting phone calls from powerful people, saying they would contribute to the campaign if only Konbit Bibliyotèk would stop that pesky habit of making donations public. Several politicians were even more clear, complaining that their constituents had begun to ask them why they weren’t being as transparent with their funds as the library project was being.

But the volunteers stayed firm in their principles – refusing anonymous donations and continuing to publish weekly reports. The project – and by extension, the volunteers – was protected by its innocuousness. If this had been an overt anti-corruption initiative, politicians and gang leaders would have felt threatened, which would be justification enough for them to shut down the project. A ceasefire doesn’t apply to hitmen, any of whom could have been paid $50 to kill an anti-corruption campaigner and make it look like a robbery. But this wasn’t an anti-corruption campaign. This was “just” an innocent project to build a community library. The social media postings were “just” a way to better advertise the generous contribution they were making. Those in power were not the target of the initiative, they were “just” one of thousands of donors. The project may have annoyed or even frustrated people in power, but it was never seen as threatening. It was too subtle, too quiet.

The power of the project also lay in its popularity: with thousands of residents of Cite Soleil having already made donations, there was a sense of widespread ownership that was not to be taken lightly, even by those in power. No one wanted to be seen standing in the way of the library. So eventually, one by one, Cite Soleil’s power brokers fell in line. Politicians, businessmen, abolochos, and eventually even gang leaders agreed to take pictures with their donations and have them posted.

This may seem insignificant to the outside observer. Just because powerful people were posting photos of their donations to a community cause, that did not mean they weren’t still pocketing funds from any number of other projects. But ending corruption requires more than a changing of laws and protocols – it requires changing social norms. And in Cite Soleil, people were getting a taste of transparency, and they were beginning to feel like they deserved it.

The project continues to this day. Over sixteen months since the project began, more than 4,000 individual donors have contributed to the project. Construction of the library is beginning, and the same principles of transparency are being exercised with expenditures as they were with donations. Receipts are collected and posted onto a website once a month for everyone to see; to provide access to Cite Soleil’s large illiterate population, a monthly video called a “visual expense report” is published to Facebook.

Changing the social norms around corruption and transparency takes time. And the social experiment of Konbit Bibliyotèk has been able to continue for this long because its leaders managed to avoid making enemies in a place where death is cheap. They are making change quietly and slowly, not calling attention to the project’s potential to fight corruption. They, and the initiative, may survive long enough to move the needle on social norms around transparency and accountability in public projects in Cite Soleil.

Understanding the economic cost of corruption in Kenya

Originally published in The Conversation, written by Odongo Kodongo

Kenya is perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. It ranked 143 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s 2017 corruption perception index. The only African countries that scored worse – among them Somalia, South Sudan, Libya, Eritrea, Burundi, and Zimbabwe – were either politically unstable or in conflict.

This poor showing shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kenya has been plagued by a long list of corruption scandals. One of the more infamous was the Goldenberg heist which occurred in the 1990s during then President Daniel Moi’s tenure. The government was found to have subsidised exports of gold far beyond standard arrangements by paying a company called Goldenberg International 35% more in Kenyan shillings than their foreign currency earnings.

More recently, in 2014 millions of dollars were misappropriated from funds that were secured by the government through a Eurobond, which is an international loan that was secured from foreign investors. A second Eurobond was secured in 2018 and questions have been raised here as well.

Yet, the looting of public coffers is more commonly reported in recent times and the amounts involved are growing. During May and June 2018, reports about grand corruption have dominated Kenyan news. This haemorrhaging of public funds will do enormous damage to the country’s already struggling economy.

The scourge of corruption in Kenya must be urgently addressed otherwise it could be bring the economy to its knees. As things stand, Kenya is already struggling to pay its debts.

The economic cost of corruption

The role of human capital on economic growth has long been established. So when human capital takes a hit the impact is also felt on economic development and growth.

Let’s take Kenya’s National Youth Service as an example of a public organisation where corruption is believed to be rife. In 2015, approximately USD$17 million was stolen from its coffers by a network of companies that supplied goods and service at inflated prices.

And this year billions of shillings earmarked for the service were embezzled by a shadowy network of dubious service providers.

This money was all earmarked for youth vocational training. The theft not only jeopardises the country’s short-term skills provision objectives: it also portends irredeemable long-term opportunity costs.

Corruption compromises people’s futures and their development. It also costs a fortune. Rampant corruption will drain any economy of the resources needed for projects like infrastructure development.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the misuse of funds from the Kenya government’s 2014 Eurobond, which was believed to be Africa’s largest such issuance at the time.

Reports indicate that some of the money may not have been deposited into the national Treasury. In economic parlance, this would qualify as an illicit financial “outflow”: an illegal cross-border movement of money or capital. The illegal transfer of funds out of African countries is a recognised constraint on the continent’s economic development because it denies local populations the use of that money for national development.

The Global Financial Integrity report estimates that from 2005 to 2014 Africa lost between USD$36 billion and USD$69 billion in illicit financial flows. This represents about 74% of all financing required (approximately USD$93 billion per year) to develop infrastructure to service Africa’s growth needs.

In Kenya’s case, the Eurobond swindle was more than just a missed opportunity to expand the country’s inadequate and dilapidated infrastructure. It also led to a sovereign rating downgrade on the basis of its increasing inability to service ballooning public debt.

A sovereign rating is a measure of a country’s creditworthiness. And a downgrade signals that the country has not optimally invested money borrowed on capital projects, such as infrastructure. Capital projects typically increase national income and better a country’s ability to repay its debts.

Finding solutions

Given these observations, what measures can Kenya take to stem the debilitating theft of public resources?

First, a national ethos that inculcates the value of work as the only means to wealth accumulation must be built. A possible way of achieving this is for education policy makers to emphasise social ethics as a compulsory subject right from primary school all the way up to the university.

Second, Kenya’s legal system must make corruption expensive and unattractive for perpetrators by the imposition of stiff fines, and mandatory jail sentences. Another step in the right direction would be to grant both the auditor general and the ethics and anti-corruption commission prosecutorial powers.

Third, the law could be reviewed to ensure that those convicted of economic crimes suffer lasting embarrassment and the greatest possible financial loss. To achieve this, all the proceeds from corruption must be repossessed by the state and channelled back to public use. Convicts would then be barred from holding public office or doing business for several years after their release.

Fourth, strict standards of ethical conduct could be imposed for anyone seeking public office. This would entail full disclosure on the sources of campaign funds, public declarations of wealth and lifestyle audits, and enforcement of voter bribery legislation.

Fifth, the national fight against poverty, ignorance and disease must be intensified to improve quality of life, and empower citizens to perform their civic duties, such as the choice of legislative representatives, in a more meaningful way.

Finally, it would be worthwhile for the national public prosecutor to sign treaties with “tax haven” countries to block or repatriate illicit financial outflows from Kenya.

Concerns in the Eastern Cape education budget

PSAM education researcher, Siyabulela Fobosi, has released his budget analysis for the Eastern Cape Education department 2018. Here he outlines some of the key concerns in the province’s budget for education.

What is of concern is that the planning and budgeting of R57 billion for fee-free higher education comes with the baseline reduction to the basic education budget. For example, Programme 6 (Infrastructure Development) of the ECDoE decreased by 10%, in nominal terms, from R1.7 billion in 2017/18 to R1.5 billion in 2018/19. In real terms, the allocation to this Programme decreased by 13% to R1.4 billion.  The reason for this decline is due to the reduction in the funding for two conditional grants, namely Education Infrastructure Grant and Maths Science and Technology Grant. This reduction will delay the completion of currently existing infrastructure projects such as hostels, special schools and Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centres.

The reduction in budget for infrastructure is concerning, considering the interdependence of the basic and higher education sectors. One would expect government to ensure massive investment in basic education, so that learners progress well to the higher education. The high fees in universities are not the only reason why many of the learners from the poor schools cannot access higher education. It is also due to the inequalities in the early years of schooling. It remains a challenge for most learners in South Africa, to pass matric well and obtain a qualification in higher education, especially in the context where learners are repeating Grade 3 and 4.

The lack of adequate appropriate infrastructure in schools does adversely impacts on progress towards ensuring equitable access to education and resources. It is particularly disconcerting to note the reductions to important programmes such as the Infrastructure Development which will undoubtedly result in the delay of school infrastructure projects in a province already showing high rates of under-delivery. This reduction is unfavorable for the progressive realisation of the rights of learners to quality basic education. In order to ensure that the budget allocated for infrastructure delivery, the Department must improve the management and monitoring of expenditure. It is high time that the ECDoE, assisted by the Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature, addresses failures in school infrastructure provisioning.  Given the funding constraint and overriding economic context – it is imperative for the ECDoE to ensure the efficient, prudent utilisation of limited resources to ensure optimal delivery of a range of education services.

Given the funding constraint and overriding economic context – it is imperative for the ECDoE to ensure the efficient, prudent utilisation of limited resources to ensure optimal delivery of a range of education services.

Confronting Partisanship and Divisions in Kenya

Written by Kimani Njogu, originally published as part of a series of essays: Examining Civil Society Legitimacy

Kenya is often lauded for promulgating one of the world’s most liberal constitutions. Passed on August 27, 2010, it radically devolves power to county governments, ensures the separation of powers, and entrenches a progressive bill of rights. This would have been impossible without the work of robust, courageous, and independent civil society organizations (CSOs). Civic actors first laid down their recommendations for constitutional reform in the document “Kenya Tuitakayo” (The Kenya We Want), which became a crucial resource for the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission. After former president Daniel Arap Moi asked at a public rally what “Wanjiku”—a common name, meant to refer to ordinary Kenyans—could possibly know about constitution-making, civil society appropriated the term, popularized it, and turned it into an organizing symbol for the constitutional reform process.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the legitimacy of Kenya’s civil society stemmed from its engagement with key issues that all citizens cared about. Following the liberalization of political space, CSOs undertook extensive civic education on basic rights and how public sector corruption affects citizens’ access to health, food, shelter, and education. They provided a link between citizens’ daily lives and the people who occupied leadership positions in government. Faith-based organizations offered sanctuary to those targeted by the state and used their platforms to speak about the need for political change.

Yet over the past ten years, the political climate has changed. A number of politicians have publicly questioned the legitimacy of CSOs, especially those engaged in governance and human rights. Some have referred to civil society as “evil society,” a label used to rationalize new restrictions on civic space. These attacks have their roots in the 2007–2008 electoral crisis. In the aftermath of the violence, CSOs worked closely with public institutions and international agencies to collect evidence against those suspected of having orchestrated unrest. When the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted several senior political leaders, the latter used ethnic identity and nationalism to mobilize their followers to fight back. State functionaries accused CSOs of working with foreigners to undermine the sovereignty of the nation. Although the ICC later dropped the cases, the “foreign agent” label stuck. It has undermined CSOs’ relationship with the wider population and weakened their claims to legitimacy. Political elites’ incessant instrumentalization of ethnic identity has further exacerbated the problem. They have tried to paint civil society as ethnically biased in order to erode public trust in their positions. As a result, it has become harder for civic actors carry out their work.

Kenyan CSOs also have been tainted by the perception that they are partisan political actors. This perception is particularly damaging in a context of high ethnic polarization where oversight institutions are weak. During the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, the incumbent government accused some civil society actors of siding with particular opposition candidates and political parties. This perception stemmed from the fact that parts of civil society voiced their opposition to politicians who had previously been indicted for crimes against humanity by the ICC and who were viewed as intolerant to the civil liberties enshrined in the constitution.

Perceptions of partisanship have not only alienated some civil society stakeholders but also fostered ideological divisions within civil society. Of particular concern, for example, are tensions over electoral justice between development and peace-building groups on the one hand and human rights organizations on the other. Whereas the latter emphasize that electoral justice is essential for sustainable peace, the former have argued that in a highly polarized nation like Kenya, electoral justice can only be realized in a stable, calm, and nonviolent atmosphere. The fact that some human rights actors have used labels such as “peace-preneurs” to categorize organizations working to prevent election-related violence does not help build the legitimacy of the sector. Instead, divisions among CSOs only serve as fodder for attacks by the political elite.

In the current hostile political context, public officials have also exploited administrative rules to crack down on civil society. As a result, it has also become crucial for all organizations to ensure they are properly registered and meet all statutory requirements. In August 2017, for example, the NGO Coordination Board set out to deregister the Kenya Human Rights Commission. It also instructed the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to shut down the operations of the African Centre for Open Governance (Africog) for allegedly operating without a registration certificate. Individuals from the Kenya Revenue Authority raided Africog’s offices over clams of tax noncompliance. Although these allegations were later debunked through the judicial process, it is noteworthy that the state had launched the attack based on alleged noncompliance with legal and regulatory processes. Kenya has hundreds of community-based organizations that generally are viewed as highly legitimate because they are known by their immediate constituencies, from the household to the village. They speak the language of their communities and undertake activities viewed as local priorities. These organizations can easily lose their legitimacy if they are no longer viewed as accountable and transparent in their work.

Kenyan CSOs face a delicate balancing act as they try to build legitimacy while facing continuous attacks by the state. To survive, they should continue to demand accountability in the use of public resources by leaders and public officials. Internally, they ought to build governance and monitoring and evaluation systems that enhance their transparency and advance their mission. They also have to engage with the issues that directly affect their constituencies. When the state seeks to limit civic space, our stakeholders in the communities we serve ought to be our first line of defense.

Kimani Njogu is the director of Twaweza Communications (Nairobi), an arts, culture, and media institution committed to freedom of expression. Dr. Kimani is Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Legal Resources Foundation Trust and Content-Development Intellectual Property (CODE-IP) Trust. He is a recipient of the Ford Foundation Champion of Democracy Award and the Pan-African NOMA Award for Publishing in Africa.

Big data. Small data. Better data.

An interview with Nathaniel Heller, Results for Development. Originally published here

By now, I think we can all agree that we’ve reached the peak of big data, returned to base camp, washed our kit and started planning the next climb. For a short while, big data was presented as the solution to all our problems. The premise was simple — collect more data, make it look pretty, push it out and people would start using it to make decisions that would end poverty, expose corruption and reverse unsustainable exploitation of our environment.

But things didn’t work out that way. In the rush to deliver data to the people, the people forgot the people. Bigger didn’t mean better and data dashboards became graveyards filled with withering flowers.

Data designed for the living need to be centered around humans and the unique needs we all have. Results for Development (R4D) is an organisation that puts the users of data at the centre of all their efforts to achieve sustainable progress in health, education and nutrition. I spoke to Nathaniel Heller, Executive Vice President for Integrated Strategies at R4D to learn more about their user-centric approach to data and the importance of thinking ‘small’ when it comes to helping people make better use of data.

“There’s a mistaken belief that if we present people with pretty data, good decisions will happen,” said Nathaniel. “But data isn’t the only input into decision-making. You have to consider the capacity of the governments or organisations involved to carry out the task they’ve been given and what hurdles they have to overcome. The use of data in decision-making is much more nuanced than simply making more data available.”

R4D works with change agents to find long-lasting solutions. Focusing on identifying important and transformational data, R4D will only invest in data tools if there’s a strong case for it. “Sometimes it seems like there’s a data problem,” explained Nathaniel, “but once you start talking to people about what they need, you’ll see there’s another underlying issue that has nothing to do with the data.” It’s these underlying issues that R4D’s user-centric approach to problem solving uncovers.

To illustrate his point, Nathaniel told me about a current project that he’s particularly excited about. R4D spent about year poring over all different kinds of country-level agricultural data in several African countries to identify opportunities for agricultural transformation — the kind of macro shift that has the potential to lift tens of millions out of poverty and address nutritional needs. The initial idea was to create a dashboard and open up access to the data, assuming this would motivate national political leaders to embrace a push for change. But when R4D spotted an opportunity in the data (only a tiny percentage of smallholder farmers in Kenya use inorganic fertilizer), they decided to shift strategies.

In Kenya, getting the right fertiliser can be an expensive and time consuming effort for farmers. A half-day journey to the market might end with the purchase of the wrong fertilizer, or worse, a counterfeit product that does more harm than good. R4D and their partners at the Local Development Research Institute saw an opportunity to create a service that would help people locate the right fertiliser, for the right price, from a location within easy travelling distance.

MazaoPlus+, an SMS service for farmers (and its accompanying Android app used by field agents to onboard users) was built in just two weeks. More than 10,000 farmers have already subscribed to receive fertiliser advice via their phones. We have to wait until harvest time to see if the app has helped improve yields through improved access to fertilizer, but Nathaniel sees a great potential in this service, both in terms of the agricultural impact and potential for scaling up into something bigger.

Screenshot of dashboard page on the MazaoPlus+ platform.

“The Kenyan fertiliser SMS service is a good example of our methods where we emphasise fit-for-purpose principles when it comes to leveraging data; we often focus on the small data, not the big data,” said Nathaniel. “We thought it through first and built second; which is exactly how every project should go.”

Small data is a term that’s never been as popular as big data but it describes data that are presented in a volume and format that’s easy for humans to access and use. Whereas reams of big data can be collected and processed by artificial intelligence, small data is curated by humans for other humans. The personal touch of small data ensures the solutions being developed to improve education, healthcare and agricultural systems are meeting a real need and supporting change.

On their website, R4D speaks about “artificial solutions”, whereby resource-constrained governments find themselves forced to adopt data-for-development tools without adequate planning or data uptake strategies. I asked Nathaniel how these artificial solutions could be avoided. “When someone proposes a solution, you start by asking, ‘has anyone (other than the funder) asked for this?’” said Nathaniel. “If they say yes, good, but if not you need to dig deeper and ask more questions. Structured interviews with potential users provides lots of interesting feedback that will help you understand their needs and pain points, enabling you to determine if the root cause of their problems really is a data issue, or something else entirely.”

Talking and listening to your users to learn what they need is common sense but it’s always worth reminding ourselves why. As Nathaniel and R4D have shown, understanding the needs of people and developing a solution that’s tailored to them will always be more effective than taking a ‘store-bought’ solution and moulding it to their situation. After all, one-size-fits-all rarely fits anyone. When — and only when — data is identified as the true issue, every care must be taken to curate it and package it in ways that are accessible, usable and useful for the users. These are principles Vizzuality shares with R4D, so let’s think small when it comes to big data.