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Information is power: Silvio Waisbord on how digital technology changes the public sphere and notions of privacy

Roxanne Bauer's picture
How do digital media affect traditional theories of the “public sphere” and power? Are we living in a modern-day panopticon?

The notion of the “public sphere” is useful worldwide to consider how citizens can and do articulate demands to the market or to states. The public sphere is generally conceived as a place (figurative or literal) in which citizens can share information, debate issues and opinions, and restrain the interests of the powerful elite. This space is critical to the formation of public will and the transmission of it to official authorities.

In contrast, the Panopticon is a design for a prison or jail which allows watchmen to observe all inmates at all times without the inmates knowing whether they are being observed or not.  The idea has been used to discuss online privacy, as individuals are often unaware of how governments and companies collect and use the information they gather about them online.  Moreover, the revelation that governments and companies work together to “spy” on citizens, as revealed by Edward Snowden revived the concern that a modern-day panopticon might be possible.   

But these concepts raise another important question: How can the public sphere, which aims to limit excess power, continue to function if the state is monitoring citizen activity?  Much of the information that is collected and tracked online is willingly shared by individuals as they search the internet, use mobile apps, and contact friends and family. This activity is vital to the future of a public sphere around the world, but it also allows governments and companies to intrude in our private lives.

Silvio Waisbord explores these two evergreen, yet very immediate concerns. He argues that while digital technologies have improved the capacities of states and companies to track human activity, digital media can also be used for democratic purposes. 
 
The modern public sphere vs. The online panopticon

Drones for better roads: Pointers from the Philippines

Kai Kaiser's picture
Local leaders have turned to OpenStreetMaps (OSM), and use targeted drone tracking to document road needs and investment progress.  Photo: Kai Kaiser

Amazon is promising to deliver goods with drones. Seeing these prospective innovations in airborne delivery, we’ll be forgiven for thinking that bad roads will increasingly be secondary concerns.

But the reality is that “last mile” road access will continue to be a major and costly development challenge for years to come. “Last mile" access refers to road to final destinations, whether communities, crops, markets, schools or clinics. These are typically provincial, city-municipal and barangay (village) roads in the Philippines.

Often the responsibility of local governments, these roads determine the ease and cost by which people and goods can get to final destinations. Communities across the globe face poor road access, depriving them of economic and social opportunities, whether bringing produce to markets, getting kids to school, or mothers to clinics. Billions of dollars continue to be spent on last mile road access, but often with very poor results.

Can drone technology make a difference?

Inspection Panel Launches “Emerging Lessons Series”

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture

This blog post is co-authored by Gonzalo Castro de la Mata, Chairman of the Inspection Panel, and Dilek Barlas, Executive Secretary of the Inspection Panel.

The World Bank Inspection Panel this week released the first in a series of reports that draw on the main lessons from its caseload over 22 years. The lessons identified in the “Emerging Lessons Series” are intended to help build the Bank’s institutional knowledge base, enhance accountability, foster better results in project outcomes and, ultimately, contribute to more effective development.

The Panel was created in 1993 by the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank as an independent mechanism to receive complaints submitted by people suffering harm allegedly caused by World Bank projects. Since then, the Panel has received 105 requests for inspection, of which it has registered 85 and investigated 32. Two additional investigations are underway.

The “Emerging Lessons Series” will include reports on the most recurrent issues in the Panel’s caseload: involuntary resettlement, environmental assessment, projects involving indigenous peoples, and requirements for consultation, participation and disclosure of information.
 
It seemed logical to start with involuntary resettlement as the topic of the first report because it has been an issue in 21 of the Panel’s 32 cases. The report identifies seven lessons from those cases:

It’s time to boost public financial management in the Caribbean

Samia Msadek's picture
School children in Kingston, Jamaica. Strong public financial management affects all facets of government spending, including education. Photo credit: UN Photo/Milton Grant 

Finance ministers, auditors-general, and leaders of professional accounting organizations are meeting Tuesday in Nassau to discuss a topic that is often hidden from view, but is critical to quality of life in the Caribbean: Capacity and standards in public financial management.

How governments manage taxes, borrowing and spending is essential to economic growth, to poverty-reduction, and to ensuring that the region’s poorest can improve their lives. It is a core function of accountability in government. Improvements in this area could increase the health of small and medium-sized enterprises, create jobs, and bring in additional government revenues to spend on essential public services. Residents of Caribbean nations: this strategic dialogue will be about how the government manages your money.

Expect no lines in front of the digital counters

Gina Martinez's picture
See high resolution here.

While countries around the world reap the benefits of an expanding digital environment, development challenges persist, adversely impacting low-income countries from achieving that same rate of growth.
 
The 2016 World Development Report (PDF) recently highlighted these findings in addition to three factors that contribute to a government’s responsiveness towards these digital changes.
 
According to the report, public services tend to be more amenable to improvements through digital technologies if the proposed system allows for fluid feedback, a replicable development process, and an outcome that can be easily measured and identified.
 
Here are five public services improved through digital technologies in five countries:

The ‘decentralisation agenda’ must succeed

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

MoroccoDuncan Green’s blog hosted a post by LSE’s Jean-Paul Faguet titled: Is Decentralisation good for Development? Faguet has edited a book by the same name that you can find here. This is a subject very close to my heart, and I believe in decentralisation as a value, just as I believe in democracy. It is often a work in progress, but it is a project worth persisting with, an ideal worth pursuing. Faguet’s research (at least, my interpretation of his work) therefore, really speaks to me. In this post, he makes several interesting and compelling points. For instance:

On the advantage of competitive politics generated by decentralised systems:

Imagine you live in a centralized country, a hurricane is coming, and the government is inept. To whom can you turn? No one – you’re sunk. In a decentralized country, ineptitude in regional government implies nothing about the ability of local government. And even if both regional and local governments are inept, central government is independently constituted, probably run by a different party, and may be able to help. Indeed, the very fact of multiple government levels in a democracy generates a competitive dynamic in which candidates and parties use the far greater number of platforms to outdo each other by showing competence, and project themselves hierarchically upwards.  In a centralized system, by contrast, there is only really one – very big – prize, and not much of a training ground on which to prepare.

Keeping the lights on– workable and unworkable approaches to electricity sector reform

Brian Levy's picture

Lethaba Power Station, South AfricaTwo decades ago, when I was working on utility sector reform we knew the answer. Here (using the example of electricity) is what it was: unbundle generation, transmission and distribution; introduce an independent regulator; rebalance prices; privatize. Two decades later, we have learned the stark limits of orchestrating reforms on the basis of ‘best practice’ blueprints such as these.

What would a more ‘with the grain’ approach to electricity sector reform look like? To explore this, I asked my Johns Hopkins SAIS and University of Cape Town students to review how a variety of country efforts unfolded in practice – focusing specifically on efforts to introduce private sector participation into electricity generation. Some striking patterns emerged.  Here I contrast South Africa’s experience with those of Kenya, Peru and Lebanon. The former illustrates powerfully the hazards of ‘best practice’ reforms; the latter point to the promise of  more incremental, cumulative, with the grain approaches.

In 1997, an official South African report signaled that in 2008 the lights would go out if there was no new investment in electricity generation; the report proposed that the country embark on a far-reaching effort to implement the ‘best practices’ template for electricity sector reform, constraining the dominant parastatal, ESKOM, and turning to the private sector for new investment in electricity generation. In 1998, the government adopted the report’s recommendations. In her richly-researched Masters dissertation (available on the link that follows), Nchimunya Hamukoma detailed what happened next.

Contestation over the agenda among competing factions within the ruling African National Congress and its allies interacted with a hugely-ambitious reform design — one for which almost none of the requisite political, institutional, economic and organizational capabilities were in place. The result was that after six futile years of trying, the effort at restructuring and private participation was abandoned, and ESKOM was given a green light to invest in new capacity. But the six lost years – the result of futilely pursuing an unachievable ‘best practice’ chimera – had an inevitable consequence. In 2008, as predicted, the lights went out.

Media (R)evolutions: New Publications on Media Development around the World

Roxanne Bauer's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

Computer class at Female Experimental High School in AfghanistanTwice a year, CAMECO, a consultancy specializing in media and communications, publishes a list of selected publications on media and communications in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. This rich resource includes 250 titles, covering recent media developments and project experiences in about 150 countries worldwide. Many of the titles can be downloaded directly.
 

Four ways open data is changing the world

Stefaan Verhulst's picture

Library at Mohammed V University at Agdal, RabatDespite global commitments to and increasing enthusiasm for open data, little is actually known about its use and impact. What kinds of social and economic transformation has open data brought about, and what is its future potential? How—and under what circumstances—has it been most effective? How have open data practitioners mitigated risks and maximized social good?

Even as proponents of open data extol its virtues, the field continues to suffer from a paucity of empirical evidence. This limits our understanding of open data and its impact.

Over the last few months, The GovLab (@thegovlab), in collaboration with Omidyar Network (@OmidyarNetwork), has worked to address these shortcomings by developing 19 detailed open data case studies from around the world. The case studies have been selected for their sectoral and geographic representativeness. They are built in part from secondary sources (“desk research”), and also from more than 60 first-hand interviews with important players and key stakeholders. In a related collaboration with Omidyar Network, Becky Hogge (@barefoot_techie), an independent researcher, has developed an additional six open data case studies, all focused on the United Kingdom.  Together, these case studies, seek to provide a more nuanced understanding of the various processes and factors underlying the demand, supply, release, use and impact of open data.

After receiving and integrating comments from dozens of peer reviewers through a unique open process, we are delighted to share an initial batch of 10 case studies, as well three of Hogge’s UK-based stories. These are being made available at a new custom-built repository, Open Data’s Impact, that will eventually house all the case studies, key findings across the studies, and additional resources related to the impact of open data. All this information will be stored in machine-readable HTML and PDF format, and will be searchable by area of impact, sector and region.

World Development Report 2016: “The internet unites people; its governance divides nations”

Sina Odugbemi's picture
© John Stanmeyer/National Geographic Creative. Used with the permission of John Stanmeyer/National Geographic Creative. Further permission required for reuse.The World Development Report (WDR) 2016, a World Bank Group Flagship Report, is titled Digital Dividends. At 330 pages, it is a big piece of work, and it is an Aladdin’s Cave of information gems, brilliant analysis, and the fulfilled promise of a thorough-going education on its chosen subject.

According to the press statement announcing the report, the…
 

…report says that while the internet, mobile phones and other digital technologies are spreading rapidly throughout the developing world, the anticipated digital dividends of higher growth, more jobs, and better public services have fallen short of expectations, and 60 percent of the world’s population remains excluded from the ever-expanding digital economy. According to the new ‘World Development Report 2016:  Digital Dividends,’ authored by Co-Directors, Deepak Mishra and Uwe Deichmann and team, the benefits of rapid digital expansion have been skewed towards the wealthy, skilled, and influential around the world, who are better positioned to take advantage of the new technologies. In addition, though the number of internet users worldwide has more than tripled since 2005, four billion people still lack access to the internet.

In what follows, I am going to discuss a small part of the report that I am particularly interested in. And that is the vexed subject of internet governance. As we all know by now, the dream of the founders of the internet was that it would be a libertarian paradise and a virtual monument to a transcendent cosmopolitanism: a truly free and borderless world. Sadly, all kinds of companies and governments are turning the internet into something else entirely.  How to govern the internet is now a bone of discord.


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