Erratic and sporadic water supply, clogged drains, sickened children and unhealthy lives – these are the everyday challenges Janet Adu faces, living in Turlako, a suburb of Accra. Her story is captured in this video and is a vivid reminder that poor sanitation in Ghana accounts for 70 percent of out-patient attendance and 25% of under-five mortality for children. With Ghana’s cities growing at an unprecedented 3.2 percent annually, living conditions for the urban poor like Janet Adu are deteriorating rapidly.
In Accra, Ghana’s capital, over 50% of water provided is lost through leakage and pilferage. A key contributor to the situation is weak monitoring and evaluating capability at the municipal level, as a result of which pressing issues, such as water leakages and garbage accumulation, are often not reported and left unchecked. In Ghana, most urban services, such as solid waste and sanitation management, are primarily in the hands of local governments, who rely on private vendors to deliver these services. And in the area of waste management and sanitation, there is no mechanism in place to monitor the performance of these private vendors.
Enter Taarifa: Engaging citizens and communities
ICT-based platforms can encourage collective action and put pressure on local governments and service providers to respond to citizens’ problems. In Ghana, the World Bank has recently helped implement an ICT platform called “Taarifa” to help citizens and local governments monitor waste disposal. Taarifa  (which means “headline” in Swahili) is a smartphone-based app that enables community-based reporting and monitoring of service delivery. Designed by an open source community, the platform is an online tool for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping which allows citizens to document and report issues and service delivery gaps via SMS, online feedback forms, email or Twitter.
Officially launched as ‘The Ghana Districts Monitor’, the Taarifa platform was implemented to enable civil society to monitor waste collection services in the city on behalf of the urban poor, and report problems to the concerned authorities. In the first phase of the pilot project, smartphones were distributed to four CSOs (already engaged with local governments on issues related to water & sanitation, waste management, youth education, and slum redevelopment) and people were trained to use the app, record data and fill-out and send their reports in real time.
Taarifa is designed to be a sustainable and powerful social accountability tool. For example, the app automatically captures GPS coordinates, works in the absence of any mobile internet signal (the information gets stored in the phone memory and is automatically sent when the phone connects with Wi-Fi or catches a signal), and the platform also integrates with regular SMS. At the operational level, CSOs were encouraged to monitor on a contract basis with service providers or other agencies. The money earned from these contracts allows them to buy more phones, train more personnel, and fuel-up their vehicles. As of this writing, such contracts have already been signed and citizen reporting is alive and well in the municipalities of the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area (GAMA).
The road ahead is still long and more work remains. Faced with tight budgets, municipalities are struggling to tackle the plethora of issues brought to their attention by the newly-empowered citizens. A stronger coordination mechanism is needed to ensure that complaints logged are followed by quick action. But as urban populations rise and service delivery is unable to keep up, ICT platforms such as Taarifa will help local governments to become better service providers and take more proactive approaches in the fight against poor sanitation in Ghana and make cities more livable for everyone, including Janet Adu.