"A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject."
– Winston Churchill
- Winston Churchill
"A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject."
– Winston Churchill
On May 2 this year, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, the gigantic Wall Street bank, was interviewed on CNN by Fareed Zakaria (his show is Global Public Square). Towards the end of the interview, Blankfein set up a striking distinction between the two publics of Goldman Sachs, as he saw them, and the ethical standards relevant to each public. The exchange is worth quoting in full:
ZAKARIA: We're back with the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein. And finally, when George W. Bush tried to persuade Hank Paulson to become secretary of Treasury, as you know, he tried a couple of times and finally, he got Paulson to agree. It was a great coup to have gotten the chairman of Goldman Sachs, the most storied name in finance, to come to his administration and now, here you are with a very different reputation, particularly in the public's eyes. Do you think you can right, do you think that a few years from now, this will all have passed and Goldman Sachs will still be regarded with the same kind of awe and admiration it was or is that world over?
Citizen participation, access to information and action usher in much needed reforms. The process to engage citizens is easy to describe but hard to achieve. So how do you grab and keep the attention of community stakeholders and keep them informed? This week’s answer is “Participedia.”
"Participedia is a wiki-based platform with an ambitious goal: strengthening democracy around the world. The website consists of a user-generated library of examples and methods of participatory governance, public deliberation, and collaborative public action. From citizen involvement in budgeting to oversight groups that ensure better health care and social service delivery, government initiatives that encourage democratic participation demonstrate powerful results." Launched in 2009, Participedia is a project of Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of British Columbia. Participedia uses the same wiki platform as Wikipedia except they use it to tell democratic reform stories.
The idea of starting a grassroots women-to-women communication campaign dawned on me when I realized the power of aesthetic expressions in capturing the intangible impact of development interventions. The beneficiaries of the Women’s Empowerment Project in rural Nepal used oral lore to articulate their impressions and experiences of their participation in the program through songs, dance and poetry. And because the program interventions were rooted in basic literacy training, I helped translate the oral lore into written documents through the medium of a newsletter, where the program beneficiaries themselves became the suppliers and readers of the contents. The newsletter proceeded to serve as a powerful grassroots network that brought together two- hundred and forty local organizations partners of the program and their hundred and twenty thousand clients across the country for horizontal learning. The newsletter also proved to be an effective vertical medium for the program management to assess the impact of the program interventions beyond its set targets and indicators.
Their voice comes in minor or major key – as rap, folk or pop. Boy, they do have a voice, and they are raising it, as a citizen voice and as a singing voice. On voices-against-corruption.org music bands from around the world are making the pitch, in different languages and different sounds: Congolese and Philippine pop singers, Macedonian and Senegalese rappers, and beautiful Zimbabwean choruses are amongst the many bands that come together to support a global youth anti-corruption network and to help break the silence that still surrounds this pressing challenge in many of their home countries.
Two brilliant speakers visited the World Bank last Friday: Beth Noveck, the United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government and Head of President Obama's Open Government Initiative and Hans Rosling, Swedish Professor of International Health and famous for his bubble graphics of complex development statistics. They commented on the World Bank's recent Open Data initiative that brought 17 data sets with more than 2,000 indicators from World Bank data sources online and into the public domain.
"Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of arts"
- Justice Felix Frankfurter
A Canadian band had a line in a song, "all touch, and all touch and no contact" which echoes the way that organizations try to reach people with information about development and governance. Very adept at knowledge production, material such as studies, books, reports, power points, research documents, they are often very good at sharing these among ‘cocktail party’ colleagues. But what is being done about reaching the people who need to be convinced to take action with this knowledge?
The program was massive. It catered to a hundred and twenty thousand clients, scattered across the mountain and plain terrains of the country, along 21 districts, from the east-end to the west-end borders. It required working with two hundred and forty local organizations and four thousand community groups. And it entailed a multi-sectoral approach, combining basic literacy with business training and legal rights and advocacy campaigns. And the client themselves took charge in running these programs. The USAID-funded Women Empowerment Program in Nepal was the largest social development program during 1997-2001.
Yesterday, U.S. president Barack Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, which requires the U.S. State Department to specifically highlight press freedom issues in its annual review of countries' human rights. According to news reports, the annual human rights review will now explicitly identify whether countries participate in or condone press freedom violations.
What, if any, effect will this have on efforts to promote independent media around the world? Some would say that, at the nuts-and-bolts level, not much. Reforming and opening media sectors requires hard work, including coalition building, technical training, and sustained effort by multiple actors. Rhetoric and reports cannot on their own improve any individual country's press freedom environment.
Greeks and Greek-Americans in the U.S. Diaspora, like myself, have been watching the strikes, demonstrations and tragic deaths that have brought our country to a standstill with mixed emotions. The images of Athens burning, tear gas rising and riot police clashing with citizens sharply contrast with images of white sandy beaches, beautiful islands, historic landmarks and mouthwatering cuisine that usually come to mind. Despite feelings of shock, sadness and even anger, to those who know Greek public political culture in its entirety, it is not surprising to most that this day would eventually come. Greek citizens, immigrants and those with strong ties to the country, admit the role that societal norms, mainly tax evasion, nepotism, clientelism and bribery (all very persistent in Greek public political culture) are in part responsible for bringing the country to the brink of collapse. For the past decade, Greek citizens did not heed warning their culture of corruption and the shadow economy could not sustain the system.
“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”
Attributed to Albert Einstein
At the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010 in Santiago last week, I was able to gather a wealth of information and ideas regarding the use of ICT for accountability. In a session on this topic I had the chance to discuss with people who actually implement citizen media projects on the ground and shared their experience and insights. A number of very interesting and useful ideas came up:
Accountability needs "bottom-up transparency". Many governments in developing countries do not have the capacity for gathering data that they could then publish for citizens to hold them accountable. Supporting government capacity may not be the only and not even the most efficient solution: Several participants of the session introduced projects where it is the citizens themselves that provide information about public services.
Transparency remains the sine qua non of the international development sector. We preach its value to others; we see open records laws, for example, as key indicators of good governance. But what we rarely discuss in the context of access to information, is the value not just of the data itself, but of transparency about how the data is analyzed.
Lots of studies come across each of our desks everyday. Some come directly from the folks conducting the studies; the Pew Research Center, for example, sends me a weekly email of their work. Some studies we learn about via the media: a news outlet itself or a pollster has completed a survey, and a news story summarizes the major takeaways. And some studies come to us another step removed: we pick up a book by Malcolm Gladwell or Ori Brafman, for example, and the author précis a study to argue his own insights.
Community-funded journalism is yet another demand-driven governance tool, which uses media to allow citizens to exercise their rights to public services. The idea is that citizens, who are disgruntled with public services, and are having a hard time getting necessary support to address their concerns, no longer have to feel discouraged. Instead, they can foster their pro-active citizenry by hiring reporters to investigate the matter and expose the issue to pressure for reform. A media firm or a non-profit can act as an intermediary to catalyze this scheme. Individuals and communities can approach the intermediary to propose and pay for the investigation or, the intermediary can propose stories and mobilize interested individuals and communities to fund the project. The quality and impact of the investigation and reporting depends on the scope, size and weight of the issue tackled, extent of funding and the capacity of the intermediary to produce evidence-based persuasive reporting.
Earlier this year, the White House and the Department of Education announced the Race to the Top High School Commencement competition. They invited public schools across the US to compete to have President Obama speak at their graduation. In addition to the essay responses, applicants were encouraged to include materials like a video showing the school’s culture and character and data on key indicators such as attendance, and student achievement. Six finalists were selected by the White House and Department of Education. The schools were then featured on the White House website and the public voted for the three schools they felt best meet the President’s goal, on the White House blog. The three finalists included Clark Montessori Jr. & Sr. High School in Cincinnati, OH, Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, MI, and Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver, CO. On May 4, the President selected Kalamazoo Central High School as the winner from these three finalists. He will visit the winning high school to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2010.
"It is true that economic and social objectives have long been seen as distinct and often competing. But this is a false dichotomy; it represents an increasingly obsolete perspective in a world of open, knowledge-based competition. Companies do not function in isolation from the society around them."
Please, hold the door, the Carrotmob is coming. If you are among the un-indoctrinated, please allow me to introduce you to the Carrotmob. “Carrotmob is a type of consumer activism in which businesses compete at how socially responsible they can be, and then a network of consumers spends money to support whichever business makes the strongest offer.” According to Brian Byrnes, regular contributor to CNN.com and author of “Argentine 'Carrotmob' stick up for green business” they are a “global movement that is built on the 'carrot-or-the-stick' concept. Carrotmob rewards -- rather than punishes -- small businesses for employing sustainable practices. Essentially, a Carrotmob is the opposite of a boycott.” Although the Carrotmob operates in the commercial sphere, they are working to increase, so called, public goods with other stakeholders in their community. Activities like those undertaken by the Carrotmob are an example of creative coalition building and help to begin to address one of the challenges of fostering a collective identity, maintaining both internal and external political efficacy.
Among the various roles news media play in governance, that of gatekeeper is one of the more problematic. According to Pippa Norris and Sina Odugbemi in Public Sentinel, “as gatekeepers, the news media have a responsibility to reflect and incorporate the plurality of viewpoints and political persuasions in reporting, to maximize the diversity of perspectives and arguments heard in rational public deliberations, and to enrich the public sphere.”
Put simply, a gatekeeper lets some in and keeps others out. Journalists, editors, and media organizations are supposed to exercise this function to advance diversity in the public sphere. There are at least two ways in which this can be organized. First, each and every news outlet can be tasked to reflect diversity. Second, diversity can be reflected in the country’s overall media system.
"For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.
But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.
A quick note from the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010, happening in Santiago, Chile. This is a unique gathering of bloggers, citizen activists, and NGO representatives who have come together to discuss citizen media for two days. All of them enthusiastic about digital and social media and excited about all the great possibilities - you would think. In the very first session, discussing the citizen media landscape in Chile, the issue of access quickly emerged as a central problem.
The Global Voices crowd acknowledged that this kind of summit can only be held by the information elite, those who can't even imagine a life without Internet access (entering the conference auditorium, the only thing I saw in the gloom at first was the bluish glow of several hundreds of open laptops). For digital media to have real political relevance, and we all agree that there is a huge potential, the digital divide must be bridged. Otherwise you will have those people participating in public dialogue whose voices could have been heard anyway because they are members of a country's education elite, often interested in politics and willing to communicate with politicians.
My norms and values are not subtle. They are time tested, “fact” based and I grip them with the strength of a vice. I am no different from others; we all value some things, look haltingly at others, and better still refuse to consider the norms and values of some. We all want to be open, malleable to others views but do not always know how to do it. Norms and values take on particular importance when we are working to build coalitions with others who do not share our way of looking at things. Minor differences suddenly seem larger than they actually are when we face compromise battles with others.
Many years back, a reporter asked a respected senator running for reelection in the Philippines why he remained in the opposition when most members of congress had joined the president’s party. The answer he gave was memorable: “I stay with the opposition because I believe our country’s party system needs to be strengthened.”
I’m not sure what he meant exactly, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the role of ideology in politics. As we know, dominant political parties in the developing world are deeply deficient in formulating and advocating coherent policy positions. There are, of course, notable examples of ideologically grounded parties that have risen to prominence in Argentina, India, and South Africa. But these are relatively rare occurrences.
In my previous blog, I had discussed procurement monitoring in the light of the large amount of government money lost in public procurement due to corruption and whether civil society can play an effective role in curbing such waste. I promised readers that I would come back to the topic, with innovative methods used by civil society in procurement reform. My search shows that techniques such as (i) coalition building among civil society organizations, (ii) issue-based advocacy campaigns and, (iii) third party monitoring have been effective in civil engagement in public procurement. However, the success primarily depends on government cooperation and ownership of these processes. To illustrate this point, I will analyze three case studies, drawing heavily from the book, “Our Money, Our Responsibility: A Citizen’s Guide to Monitor Government Expenditures,” published by the International Budget Partnership.
If the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami off Indonesia in 2004 have shown us anything it is that large scale natural catastrophes are not rare. Calamities that claim tens of thousands of lives happen with regularity (about every four years on average). Many others claim a smaller number of lives but are equally devastating to local communities. The claims that these disasters are unique “100 year events”, which cannot be predicated and therefore cannot be planned for, are increasingly hollow.
In an article last week in the Ghanaian Chronicle, two parliamentarians called upon the media to educate the public on parliament’s role and procedures. This plea sounded very familiar after hearing similar statements from Ghanaian politicians interviewed last summer as part of the AudienceScapes project. Several of the policymakers complained that part of the challenge of communicating about development issues with the public is how little people understand the structure or responsibilities of the various government agencies working on key policy issues like health, education, agriculture, or trade. As one Ghanaian policymaker lamented, very few people know about key elements of the policy process including the decision-making process, budgeting, and actual government activities.
In celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2010:
"Free speech and a free press not only make abuses of governmental powers less likely, they also enhance the likelihood that people’s basic social needs will be met."
- Joseph Stiglitz (2002). "Transparency in Government." In The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development, ed. Roumeen Islam, 27. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank