Citizen engagement: a game changer for development?

As practitioners, we need to constantly update, study and research what is actually happening “in the field”, but we rarely have the chance to jump off the treadmill and reflect consistently on the theoretical underpinnings of our work. This is why I jumped at the opportunity to take the CourseraWorld Bank joint MOOC Citizen Engagement: a game changer for development?

The course is part of the ongoing efforts of the World Bank to mainstream citizen engagement and social accountability in its programmes. As such, it is aimed at a wide audience of activists, practitioners and development workers from all over the world. More than 8000 participants enrolled, contributing – in the words of the course organizers themselves – to making peer interaction “one of the most valuable learning resources” in this MOOC.  Surely enough, I got excited just by reading the “introduce yourself” section of the course forum and by discovering more about the profiles, motivations and competences of my fellow students.

The course covers key concepts, theoretical frameworks and examples in the area of citizen engagement from a development perspective, and draws from a wide variety of research – not produced only by the World Bank – that looks at the issue from a results-oriented angle. The title of the course formulated as an open question is in itself telling: is citizen engagement a game changer for development?

What will I bring home from this experience? First, that to discuss the impact of citizen engagement on development, we tend to narrow its definition to one that takes into account the instrumental value, rather that the intrinsic value of participation. Thus we leave aside (for a moment) Amartya Sen and his understanding of participation as key component of our “human capabilities” and we define citizen engagement as “a two way interaction between citizens and governments or the private sector that give citizens a stake in decision making, with the objective of improving development outcomes.” In this respect, the concept of citizen engagement is interchangeable with that of social accountability, the key is the responsiveness of the government to the voice of the people and the end game that of improving accountability of government and service providers by closing the “feedback loop” in a system of reciprocal communication at all levels, from that of the community to that of national and global institutions.

While research and practice show that citizen engagement can have a positive impact on human development indicators in health and education, on outcomes of macroeconomic policies, on the frequency and quality of government responsiveness, thus de facto answering our question, what is less clear is why and what makes it work. In Uganda, a project of community monitoring of health care services helped dramatically reduce infant mortality and increase the use of health care services by the community. Maheen Zehra – programme specialist from the Bank – in one of the google hangout organized during the course, cited the case of the education sector in Karachi (Pakistan), where strengthening the role of civil society and families in parent-teacher associations worked effectively to increase water and sanitation in schools and to raise enrolment rates. In Maharashtra (India) a project aimed at improving Service Delivery through Community Score Cards helped reduce child malnutrition, sensitized parents and supported the mobilization of community resources. Participatory Budgeting, piloted first in Porto Alegre (Brasil) in the 1990s and in numerous countries afterwards (as different as Italy, South Korea, Cameroon, DRC) helped target public service delivery from a pro-poor perspective and increased trust and transparency.

While these are success stories, there is no certainty that their replication will yield the same results, and a number of similar project and programmes exist that have not achieved equivalent outcomes. Why?

If the practice of participation is old as humanity itself and the concept of participatory development has entered the development agenda since the late 1960s and 70s (thanks to the seminal work of Paulo Freire, Robert Chambers among others), the debate on its impact in development programmes has a more recent history.

The World Bank 2012 report Localizing Development: Does Participation Work? entered this arena by providing a framework for understanding participatory development and by assessing it against a number of different development variables. This fundamental work, together with other extensive reviews and assessments, helped frame the issue, but its critical rigorous, quantitative stance somehow also shifted the focus away from a more qualitiative analysis of the issue and especially from the aspect of contextual drivers and barriers, both formal and informal, that are an integral part of citizen engagement initiatives.

According to Jonathon Fox  “we cannot consider civic engagement as a process replicated independently of context” and to paraphrase him we could say that to assess its impact on development, we need to bring context back into citizen engagement.

From a review of the determinants of SA effectiveness, Grandvoinnet, Aslam, and Raha found that a variety of contextual formal and informal factors determine success and failure in SA projects. Their findings, among those of others, point to the critical importance of power and political relationships; suggest that civil society is not a homogenous category immune to power relations; highlight the need to focus on the “coalitions that cut across state and citizenry” and on the dynamics of inequality and exclusion, which shape the “extent to which many citizens can engage effectively in or benefit from SA claims.”

By way of example, the mantra in engaging communities is that transparent and accessible information is key, but the right question when designing a project shouldn’t be whether we are providing information, but whether the kind of information we are providing is accessible and actionable. How can we expect communities to engage in public service delivery, in health for instance, if they are not aware of the rights they hold in terms of service provision?

Looking a citizen engagment from this angle means bringing Amartya Sen’s approach back at the forefront, because only by working on increasing the capabilities of individuals and groups to fully express their potential we can achieve meaningful impact. Only by taking into account the socio-political determinants, by accepting complexity as part of the picture, by looking attentively at the underlying drivers of social accountability programmes – do they respond to a tactical approach or to a strategic approach? Do they combine top-down and bottom-up, civil-society collective action and reforming efforts? Do they work to strengthen both upwards accountability mechanisms and downwards accountability mechanisms? Do they take into account the structure of civil society? Are they designed for the community or with the community? Do they allow sufficient long-term experimentation to learn from experience? – it is possible to design effective programmes aimed at tackling poverty, exclusion, illiteracy and health through citizen engagement.

Citizen engagement can be a game changer for development, the World Bank believes it and I do too, but as activists, planners and practitioners, we need to start asking ourselves the right questions.


Ps. I am still waiting for the final grades, but I should have done alright (fingers crossed!) and I definitely recommend taking the next edition of this course!

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