Participation or ‘Being Participated’ in Technology-for-Transparency-and-Accountability Initiatives?

Ruth CarlitzRuthCarlitz

Over the years that I’ve spent conducting research in East Africa, I have learned a number of words that have no direct translation into English. One of my favourites is kushirikishwa, the rough meaning of which is, ‘to be participated’. With many governments in the region having signed up to participatory approaches to planning and budgeting, and donors promoting a ‘bottom-up’ approach, it is not uncommon to hear about citizens ‘being participated’ in various initiatives.

What is the difference between participating and ‘being participated’? Without getting into an academic debate on semantics, I would argue that this distinction can be useful – not just in East Africa, but in various other countries that have embraced participatory approaches. ‘Participating,’ then, can represent an active, conscious choice on the part of an individual while ‘being participated’ can signify a set of assumptions held by funders and implementing organisations around who participates, how and why.

The need to query these assumptions has been highlighted in more than one critique of community-driven development, and also came out strongly in a recent review of the impact and effectiveness of transparency and accountability initiatives.

It is becoming all the more important with the rise of initiatives that attempt to harness technological innovation to promote citizen engagement and government responsiveness, such as Making All Voices Count.

With this in mind, IDS, Hivos’ Knowledge Programme and the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative (ATTI) commissioned Rosie McGee and myself to undertake a learning study on people’s take-up and use of technology-for-transparency-and-accountability initiatives (‘T4TAIs,’ in case you wanted a new acronym to memorise).

water pump in Rwanda photo cc Adam Cohn

Water pump in Rwanda; photo by Adam Cohn

We began by poring over peer-reviewed articles and World Bank reports, and scouring books and blog posts in order to amass an evidence base on the state of knowledge on this issue. We followed our desk review with fieldwork documenting the experience of two ATTI-supported projects in Uganda – ‘Mobile Phones for Improved Access to Safe Water’ (M4Water) and TRAC FM. Looking at these two initiatives against the background of a literature review allowed us to compare experiences across a range of contexts. Whereas M4Water primarily targets rural water users and local officials, TRAC FM aims at broader engagement by citizens in monitoring and debating a range of public services, and hence targets both rural and urban populations.

So, when it comes to T4TAIs, are people participating or are they ‘being participated’? Without giving away too much of our findings (available in full report or policy brief flavour), the following factors are worth noting in terms of what affects people’s uptake and use of these initiatives:

  •  T4TAIs’ active participants tend to be the ‘usual suspects’ – men, urban dwellers, and people with higher levels of education and/or access to information. This bias suggests a risk of unwittingly selectively ‘empowering’ certain citizens, which could further entrench discrimination and social exclusion rather than increase accountability to the broader public.
  • It is increasingly clear that T4TAIs need to be integrated into people’s existing ways of doing things. All too often, funding and implementing organisations seem to expect their target users to jump at any chance to improve their lot, since the challenges they face are so pressing. But attempting to ‘participate them’ in this manner ignores the fact that T4TAIs are often expecting significant behaviour change – asking people to take an action that may take time and money, engender personal risk, and has no guarantee of improving anything.
  • Uptake and use of unfamiliar activities and technologies may be best brokered using financial incentives, though intrinsic and social incentives also play a role, as a recent study on Unicef’s Ureport system shows. However, the use of financial incentives raises concerns about sustainability, which affect T4TAIs more generally. On that note, we find that response, feedback and interactivity are important determinants of uptake and sustained use. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people want to see that the information they contribute (for example, by texting to an anti-corruption hotline) is being used in some way (leading to a corrupt official getting sacked!)

Since completing our desk review, new research has emerged examining the users of T4TAIs from various angles – including the role of access costs in determining uptake, the nuances of demand and supply for transparency facilitated by T4TAIs, and ‘real-time monitoring’ for the most vulnerable.

Considering the lessons of our learning study and this emerging research will be critical to ensure that new T4TAIs enhance genuine participation, rather than simply attempting to ‘participate’ their intended users.

Ruth Carlitz is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Ruth and Rosemary McGee co-authored a study on ‘the users’ in Technology for Transparency and Accountability Initiatives, published last week.

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