Which Citizens? Which Services? Unpacking Demand for Improved Health, Education, Roads, Water etc

By Ruth Carlitz of the University of Gothenburg. Originally posted on the From Poverty to Power blog.

Clean water. Paved roads. Quality education. Election campaigns in poor countries typically promise such things, yet the reality on the ground often falls short. So, what do people do? Wait for five years and “throw the bums out” if they fail to deliver? For many people, the stakes are too high, and they may have well-grounded doubts about the ability of democracy to deliver anything other than a new set of bums. It’s worth asking, then, what other actions citizens take to improve their lives.

Building on Richard Batley and Claire Mcloughlin’s work on service characteristics as well as my own research on the politics of service delivery in East Africa, I’ve identified various factors affecting the likelihood that people will mobilize for improved public services. These include how frequently people experience (problems with) a given service, their ability to pay for private alternatives, and their expectations about the likelihood of improvements in response to their actions.

To better understand such dynamics, I’ve begun exploring data from the Local Governance Performance Index survey implemented in Malawi in 2016. The survey asked respondents what problems they faced with a range of issues related to service delivery. Those reporting problems were then asked if they turned to someone for help with the problem, who they turned to and why, whether and how the problem was resolved, and whether they were satisfied with the response.

Carlitz fig 1The figure depicts the main actors people turn to for help. In general people are most likely to turn to family members, friends or neighbors, followed by village leaders. Higher-level government officials are in a distant third place, despite the fact that they may hold much more sway when it comes to influencing outcomes on the ground.

Next, we can look at how demographics affect the likelihood of people turning to different actors. Wealthier respondents and those with more education are less likely to turn to friends and family, perhaps because they have the resources to solve problems on their own. This may also reflect their ability to exit the public system (e.g., going to a private clinic when the public health system falls short). On the other hand, such people are more likely to turn to other government officials, and to school officials – suggesting they may feel more empowered to approach authority figures. Gender also matters. Women are less likely to turn to village leaders or any other government officials but more likely to turn to school officials with their problems – perhaps because they are more involved in their children’s education. Finally, civic skills (having attended a community meeting in the past year) is positively associated with seeking assistance from all actors.

In neighboring Tanzania, recent survey data finds that nearly a quarter of all respondents took action to improve service delivery (education, health, or water) in 2015. The chart on the right unpacks what people meant by “taking Carlitz fig 2action.” Overall, Tanzanians were more likely to attend committee meetings than take any other action. We also see that people were generally more likely to raise issues in smaller group settings rather than more publicly (e.g., by calling in to the radio). Finally, note the low proportions of respondents who report tracking things like drug stockouts, teacher attendance, or water point functionality – suggesting that the focus of many citizen monitoring initiatives (report cards, etc.) may not jibe with people’s normal way of doing things.

When it comes to which citizens are taking action, we see similar results to Malawi. Specifically, civic skills are associated with increases in all forms of action-taking. Women on the other hand are less likely to take action across the board. Wealth matters, though only for actions related to education and health. Respondents who are more informed (listen to the radio more frequently) are also more likely to take actions of all kinds, though it is interesting to note that education levels do not demonstrate any relationship with action-taking. Finally, internal efficacy (belief in one’s own ability to make effective demands) is positively associated with actions related to all sectors, while external efficacy (expectations of government responsiveness to such demands) only seems to matter for water.

The paper I prepared for Twaweza’s recent Ideas & Evidence event digs into these relationships in greater detail. While preliminary, it highlights the importance of paying attention to the ways in which service delivery differs twaweza conferenceacross and within sectors. This is critical when it comes to supporting initiatives to enhance the efficacy of citizen engagement, which, despite having generated mixed results to date, continue to benefit from considerable amounts of funding.

As a final thought, practitioners may wish to consider which aspects of service delivery might be amenable to influence. For instance, establishing community groups could create greater scope for users to share information and coalesce around shared needs. Such groups will likely be more effective when they build on existing institutional channels rather than set up parallel structures. This implies taking time to learn about people’s existing routines for problem-solving, and supporting those strategies which seem to be generating more results. In other words, working with the (local) grain.

Public goods and services can also be distributed in such a way that reduces the availability of exit options. For example, a recent study of handpump distribution in Kenya advises against clustering, as people will be more motivated to maintain their local water points if they don’t have ready alternatives.

Finally, it may also be possible to shift expectations about the possibility of improved service delivery — in particular, providing information in a way that facilitates bench-marking. For instance, learning that everyone in the neighboring district has water piped into their houses when you are spending hours each day collecting buckets from a far-away tap could serve as a tipping point

Where does this leave us? For those of us who earn our keep by cranking out conference papers and journal articles (and the occasional blog) there is much work to be done. Hopefully, such work can help to guide donors when it comes to making impactful investments, and practitioners when it comes to making actual impact.

Originally posted on the From Poverty to Power blog.

Citizen Accountability in a time of Facebook

This article is written by John Gaventa and first published on the IDS opinion blog here

“Develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

This is what Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in his open letter to the Facebook community at the beginning of this year. The statement of intent from the social media giant is a bold one, and one worth reflecting on for those of us working on issues of accountability and empowerment. For me it raises a couple of important questions. How far can or should the likes of Facebook, and other technical innovations that have rapidly evolved over the last ten to fifteen years, connect us all as individuals and engage us with the institutions that govern us and help us hold them to account? And how does this happen in a world where the opportunities and spaces to voice dissent and protest are shrinking, and where questions about ‘whose voice matters’ are further confused and complicated by ‘whose voice is real or authentic’ in this digital age?

The promise of tech

They were also questions that arose at the recent Making All Voices Count (MAVC is a programme funded by DFID, Omidyar, SIDA and USAID) Policy and Practice Dialogue, Appropriating Technology for Accountability. And as I reflected in my speech at that event, these questions around transforming and improving accountability are by no means new. However, the context in which we ask them is constantly changing – from the Gutenberg press which took printing out of the hands of priests and put it into the hands of the people over five hundred years ago, to more recently, the advent of the personal computer, the internet (1990), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and What’s App (2011). These technologies have revolutionised the way people access information, how they communicate with each other, as well as institutions and public figures, and how they respond to and organise around particular issues.

There’s no denying the positive force of these technologies in helping people to speak out and to amplify voices in an attempt to hold powerful institutions and individuals to account. This was evident in a number of examples shared over the course of the two-day event – the Black Sash human rights organisation in South Africa who are piloting a project encouraging citizen-led monitoring of local public services; This Is My Backyard (TIMBY) which has highlighted millions of dollars of misspent county social development funds and unearthed a 10.5 million dollar scandal in Liberia; Game my Village which built new relationships of trust and transparency between government officials and villagers in Indonesia and Oil Journey which communicated with over 300,000 citizens in Accra in Ghana about how oil revenues were being spent on community development projects.

Tech and closing civil society space

Yet at the same time there is no escaping the fact that these technical innovations designed to empower are operating in a global environment where civil society space is shrinking. The current situation has been labelled by Civicus as ‘a Global Civic Space Emergency’ in their 2017 State of Civil Society Report. The report highlights that:

  • Only three per cent of the global population live in countries where civic space is completely open.
  • In 106 countries, over half of all countries, civil space is seriously constrained.
  • This problem affects all regions of the world including the UK where civic space has narrowed in the past year.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that technologies are being used to close spaces as much as to open them, to surveil and monitor, as much as to connect and engage. Examples extend from malware being used to monitor the activities of advocacy and campaigning groups (highlighted in this open letter from Mexican civil society of the Open Government Partnership (pdf) and this IDS Bulletin article The Dark Side of Digital Politics) to state-supported trolling. For those gathered at the conference, there was a sense that the excitement and optimism that had characterised the work of MAVC and other similar programmes exploring accountability and the role of technologies in creating more open, inclusive and accountable societies only a few years ago was being replaced by a growing pessimism.

A digital level playing field?

The conundrums and paradoxes associated with technology and its role in promoting accountability is also evident in relation to global governance. On the one hand technology has enabled voice and responsive governance, but on the other hand the governance of the digital sphere remains in the hands of a powerful few who control the networks they have created. As reported recently in the New York Times, Google’s market share of search advertising is 88% and Facebook owns 77% of mobile social media traffic.

Digital technologies have created winners and losers, rather than a level playing field. Rather than disrupt, they have often replicated entrenched inequalities and power imbalances within society. Critically, just under half of the world’s population remain offline. Moreover, women are 50 per cent less likely to have access to the internet and a third less likely than men of a similar age, education level and economic status to access their Internet via their phone (World Wide Web Foundation, 2016). Inequalities also exist within the tech industry. A study in the US found that Hispanics, African Americans, and women hold only 8 per cent, 7.4 per cent and 36 per cent of tech sector jobs respectively (US EEOC 2016). Hence, across decision making, usage and application of technologies it is often the voices of the already powerful that are amplified and the voices which have always been marginalised remain unheard.

Within this unequal context, it has also become increasingly hard to distinguish amongst the myriad of information flows and voices between what’s authentic and what’s not. It is not well understood amongst the majority of technology users, how complex and sophisticated algorithms are being used by companies, by governments and by individuals, to control and manipulate what is shared and liked, and ultimately shape public opinion and debate.

While technology has helped achieve amazing things, in itself it cannot create a ‘social infrastructure…that builds a global community that works for us all.’ Politics and power still matter, and it is only when we link these with technology-led accountability initiatives as well more analogue, traditional efforts that of transformative change towards a more inclusive, accountable and open world is possible.