#12 power
Patricia Dorsher

Becoming More Useful

It is a particular feature of aid that people on the ground are often not involved in activities affecting their communities. Can citizen engagement improve development work?

Let me tell you a story…

My first experience with development work was a short-term medical mission to Honduras. Teams of 10 to 15 people were sent to a handful of rural communities for two weeks to provide medicine, referrals, and reassurance to those who didn’t have regular access to healthcare facilities.

My team was dispatched to a small town in the mountains, and after we set up our tents in the gymnasium, we went to check out the clinic. It was basic, to be sure, but the thing that surprised me most was not the facilities: it was that there was, in fact, a well-trained, highly-skilled doctor working there fulltime. She was grateful for our presence because of the supplies we brought and the specialization of one of the doctors, but in essence we were redundant.

I kept thinking, “Why are we here? We could have moved two towns over and been of far greater use. Did no one bother to ask this community if we were even necessary? Is there something else we could be doing here that would be more useful?”

This is far too common a story, and it is indicative of one particular feature of aid: the deficiency in engagement with citizens on the ground in determining the practices that affect their communities. This critical flaw is in part derived from the uneven power dynamic between aid-giving and aid-receiving countries, and the attendant respect given to the opinions of citizens and experts from each.

Not only must we shift resources from more developed countries to those with greater need, but we must also do the same with other sources of power.

For development to be successful, not only must we shift resources from more-developed countries to those with greater need, but we must also do the same with other sources of power, such as agenda setting [1]. Agenda setting is one of the most potent tools for those with limited traditional resources. The ability for citizens to voice their opinions, have them heard, and acted upon increases their capacity to steer the aid which affects them.

The case for engagement

If increasing citizen engagement means relinquishing relative power, why should aid-givers and service providers want local communities to have more say in the agenda, to move into partnership? And how, as an international community, do we do make this change? While the “how” of the matter is still being explored, the benefits of engaging citizens have been shown time [2] and time again [3].

A natural starting point is that, in order for social programs to be truly effective, buy-in must be created. Buy-in is essentially another way of saying “trust,” which has to be fostered between all stakeholders in development projects.

To truly gain the trust of others, everyone must have a place at the table to have their opinions both heard and addressed. Still, the traditional view of “buy in” often comes to the game too late. Co-creation by aid-givers and aid-receivers, and incorporating affected citizens into the earliest phases, creates a much more even power balance, and establishes trust.

Programs that truly integrate citizens throughout planning and execution have been shown to create greater participant satisfaction, and can alleviate feelings of helplessness and the cumulative negative effects of aid [4].

Iterative co-creation, which involves citizens in multiple ways, and over a period of time, may be the most effective idea out there for empowering aid recipients. Several steps are required for this process.

First, unlike many current models, agencies and NGOs need to actively engage local communities in project design. While this is easy to say, it is obviously much harder to do. It requires open ears, empathy, a willingness to lose some control, and an admission of the limits of one’s own knowledge.

Second, it requires the open flow of information in all directions. Service providers must be willing to open up their books, their data, and their outcomes to those affected by them.

Simply providing open data is not enough, nor is merely conducting participant surveys at project completion.

Communities must also be willing to share their opinions and thoughts, possess the means and desire to do so, and know who to direct them to. The multidirectional component of this step is critical; simply providing open data is not enough, nor is merely conducting participant surveys at project completion.

Last, the communication must actually affect the work being done. This creates functional “feedback loops,” in which the feedback informs the work, which changes the feedback—over and over again.

Feedback loops level the playing field between funders, implementing organizations, and world citizens by allowing citizens to continually have a say in setting the development agenda. While creating these loops may seem resource intensive, they have the very real potential to make aid more effective and efficient by only keeping what is working for recipients, and shedding the rest.

And more important, they put the beneficiary at the very center of the aid process.

Feedback loops put the beneficiary at the very center of the aid process.

Examples in practice

Many organizations – NGOs, government agencies, and citizen groups – have been experimenting with similar ideas. The field is still nascent, so hard and fast answers are difficult to come by. Some ideas incorporate voice and shift power more radically than others, and all must be locally contextualized for successful adoption in other environments. However, there are many promising initiatives being pursued.

The Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC) [5] took an innovative approach when launching its Somalia program in 2011. In 2010, the sizable Minneapolis Somali community [6] approached ARC and asked why they had no programs in Somalia, making a case for the need for humanitarian and development support. ARC partnered with the local diaspora community to leverage their intimate knowledge of problems on the ground and remaining connections to their home country in order to close the feedback loop.

The program is overseen by a true partnership: an 11-person advisory council of Minneapolis Somalis works heavily with ARC in determining programming, and laid down ground rules for the engagement as well (for example, the main office must be based in Mogadishu, not Nairobi). Half the starting capital was fronted by ARC and half raised by Minneapolis Somalis, and ARC and the advisory council continue to engage in meetings and interviews in Somalia with those who are actually affected by ARC’s assistance. In this way, the Somali diaspora community is able to use ARC’s humanitarian know-how to bring assistance to their home country, and ARC gains important cultural understanding, trust, and community integration to make the program more effective.

As it works to reduce poverty in the United States, the Family Independence Initiative (FII) [7] demonstrates the impact that citizens can make when they gain ownership over their outcomes. FII empowers recipients to set and measure their own goals, and gain more control over their pathways out of poverty, by creating communities of mutual support and accountability. While this work focuses specifically on the United States, it could likely be adapted for other poverty reduction initiatives in other cultural and social environments.

Another exciting exploration is underway as a new consortium of organizations, called Feedback Labs [8], examines citizen engagement from all points of the aid cycle. The fund organizer GlobalGiving [9] has conducted great initial research about incentivizing NGOs to engage with their citizens.

Development Gateway’s initiatives to push open government and open data are critical for creating effective feedback loops.

Boots-on-the-ground development organizations GroundTruth Initiative [10] and Twaweza [11] add the practitioner perspective, and important insights about why citizens may not want to engage; and tech gurus Frontline SMS [12] and Ushahidi [13] are keeping the idea of technology as an enabler in the forefront of this effort. Development Gateway’s [14] initiatives to push open government and open data are critical for creating effective feedback loops.

Keystone Accountability [15] has been working on the citizen engagement issue for years now, and has come up with some promising practices for NGOs that wish to cultivate a voice in their local communities. Ashoka’s [16] crowd-sourcing abilities will be a critical component for knowledge sharing as the research progresses.

A hard road ahead

There are many others doing excellent work in this field – but there are just as many potential barriers to success, and legitimate criticisms of citizen-driven development models at the citizen, NGO, and funder levels. For example, many of the successful examples of feedback loops appear in already established democracies.

How do we integrate citizen voice into sociopolitical environments that do not have a standing tradition of citizen input? The process may need to be gradual, and must work to gain the support of the local community – not just the NGOs and donors.

There are often very real reasons, such as fears of retaliation, that people may not want a full, citizen-led model, and the international community must be respectful of that.

Another barrier is that many NGOs operate at the brink of their capacity. Changing their ways of conducting business and altering how their consumers engage with them requires commitment of time and resources.

This can be a heavy but necessary burden to place on organizations. The flipside is this: even if it takes more resources upfront to show what is working and what needs improvement, in the medium- and long-term it will come back to the organization in increased efficiency as a result of feedback loops. Whether organizations can make that first investment or not is the limiting factor, and funders should be cognizant of that bottleneck.

However, government funders also have difficulty when they want to move to this kind of model because aid is frequently used as a component of foreign policy – which is something that nations don’t want to lose control over, for very good reasons. Nevertheless, if aid is being leveraged as a tool of soft power to establish presence in the world, truly effective aid is exponentially more powerful.

Development practices that engage local people in sincere and open ways create more good will and awareness than those that act purely in the funder’s interests.

For example, quick action is essential to save lives in immediate humanitarian aid and crisis intervention. But development takes the long view. Establishing new engagement mechanisms takes significant time, but once they are in place, they can be executed relatively quickly and easily.

Development practices that engage local people in sincere and open ways create more good will and awareness than those that act purely in the funder’s interests. Agencies in aid-giving countries should embrace this model – even demand it of grant recipients.

A final common critique is that engagement processes are slow-moving and difficult to manage. This may be true – it is inconvenient to accommodate everyone, and there are times and places where those with resources do not have the “luxury” of working with others.

The Vision

In the end, creating the ability to hear citizen voice more effectively is simply a matter of prioritization. Champions of citizen engagement need to fight hard, because fundamentally this involves shifting power resources, and such realignments are never easy.

Through citizen engagement, we can produce more efficient development, promote human dignity, and create a more just world.

Incentivizing the use of citizen voice by demonstrating its positive effects in development is essential to increased adoption of successful models. This field is still being explored, and no one is expecting to find a panacea for aid.

But the power of engaging citizens lies in its enormous equalizing potential. Through its use, we can produce more efficient development, promote human dignity, and create a more just world.

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