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Citizen Engagement

Some healthy scepticism about ‘Citizen Engagement’ (and why I’m excited about MOOCs)

Duncan Green's picture

MOOC logoDuncan Green recently spoke at the launch of a MOOC about Citizen Engagement, put together by the World Bank, LSE, IDS, ODI, Harvard and Civicus, and offers a review of the discussion and the sceptisim that citizen engagement can solve everything.

MOOCs are taking over. If you aren’t yet excited about Massive Open Online Courses, you should be. When I was first getting interested in development the only way to bridge the gap between reading the news and coughing up squllions for a Masters was to cycle through the rain every Tuesday evening to London’s City Literary Institute to sit at the feet of Jenny Pearce and her course on Latin America (I ended up taking over from her, and writing a book based on the course). These days I could stay warm and dry, and listen online to development gurus from around the world. The numbers signing up are colossal – Jeff Sachs reportedly has 14 million students for his MOOC on sustainable development.

As often happens, the initial surge came in the US, but it’s crossing the Atlantic. Last week I spoke at the LSE at the launch of a MOOC on ‘citizen engagement’, put together by the World Bank, LSE, IDS, ODI, Harvard and Civicus (a sort of crowd-sourced MOOC – even more funky). We spoke a few days after the MOOC went live, by which time 14,000 people had signed up from all over the world.

The discussion was pretty good and although no-one was against citizen engagement (CE), they were strikingly sceptical about the hype around it – no-one is drinking the participation-will-solve-everything koolaid any more. Some snapshots:

Is a ‘populist’ a shameless demagogue?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

If you maintain even a nodding acquaintance with the contents of the global financial/business press one of the things you notice is as follows. They all promote, consciously or unconsciously, a set of policies that ‘responsible’ governments should follow if they want to stay within The Grid. And The Grid is the set of rules and norms that allow access to pools of global capital.  Stay within, and money flows into your country; get kicked out, and money dries up. Now, for countries facing financial crisis, or those simply concerned about growing inequality, the worries about the devastating impact of austerity are real. Yet, the masters of the universe who control The Grid don’t give two hoots about equity, jobless youths or hungry pensioners. They simply say to these countries: “Do what you need to do to stay within The Grid or you are going to find your economy, your country languishing in the wastelands. Your call.”

Is citizen engagement a game changer for development? Free online course starts March 15, 2015

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Engaging Citizens is Critical to DevelopmentIs citizen engagement a game changer for development? The World Bank, in partnership with London School of Economics, Oversees Development Institute, Participedia and CIVICUS, explores this question in a free 4-week course on Citizen Engagement, hosted by Coursera. 

In just the last few years, we have witnessed calls from all over the world, from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to the Open Government Partnership, for governments to become more open, accountable and responsive by deepening their engagement with citizens. As a result, interest in citizen engagement programs for effective development has gained momentum. This MOOC has been developed to explore what is meant by citizen engagement and how it can be used to enhance development impact.

14 Ways for Aid Agencies to Better Promote Active Citizenship

Duncan Green's picture

As you may have noticed, I’ve been writing a series of 10 case studies of Oxfam’s work in promoting ‘active citizenship’, plus a synthesis paper. They cover everything from global campaigns to promoting women’s leadership to labour rights. They are now all finished and up on the website. Phew. Here’s the accompanying blog which summarizes the findings of the exercise (with links to all the papers). Huge thanks to everyone who commented on the draft studies when they appeared on the blog.

Programme design

1. The right partners are indispensable

Whether programmes flourish or fail depends in large part on the role of partners. Usually this means local NGOs or civil society organizations, but sometimes also individuals, consultants or academics. Good partners bring an understanding of local context and culture (especially important when working with excluded minorities such as the tribal peoples of Chhattisgarh). They often have well-developed networks with those in positions of local power and will carry on working in the area long after the programme has moved on.

2. Start with the ‘power within’

Promoting active citizenship means building the power of citizens, starting with their ‘power within’ – their self confidence and assertiveness – especially in work on gender rights. In the case of We Can in South Asia or Community Discussion Classes in Nepal, building this ‘power within’ was almost an end in itself. Elsewhere, citizens went on to build ‘power with’ in the form of organizations that enabled poor and excluded individuals to find a strong collective voice with which to confront and influence those in power. This approach has led to some impressive progress in what are often the most unfavourable of circumstances (women’s rights in Pakistan, civilian protection in Eastern Congo).

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Many in Emerging and Developing Nations Disconnected from Politics
Pew Research
In recent years, high-profile protest movements have erupted in several emerging and developing countries, roiling, and sometimes overturning, the political status quo in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil, Thailand and other nations. Millions have demonstrated, and activists have pioneered new forms of online engagement.  However, a recent Pew Research Center survey finds that many people in these nations remain relatively disconnected from politics. Although most vote in elections, few take part in other forms of political participation.
21st-century censorship
Columbia Journalism Review
Two beliefs safely inhabit the canon of contemporary thinking about journalism. The first is that the internet is the most powerful force disrupting the news media. The second is that the internet and the communication and information tools it spawned, like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, are shifting power from governments to civil society and to individual bloggers, netizens, or “citizen journalists.”  It is hard to disagree with these two beliefs. Yet they obscure evidence that governments are having as much success as the internet in disrupting independent media and determining the information that reaches society. Moreover, in many poor countries or in those with autocratic regimes, government actions are more important than the internet in defining how information is produced and consumed, and by whom. 

Civil Society Engagement Crucial in World Bank Group’s Development Efforts, Global Opinion Leaders Say

Jing Guo's picture

Ending extreme poverty is achievable, but the World Bank Group cannot do it alone. It needs strategic and meaningful collaboration with governments, the private sector, and civil society partners that have local expertise, experience, and connections. 

The Bank Group currently engages with hundreds of civil society organizations (CSOs) every day in various stages and areas of its development activities. How is its engagement efforts perceived by civil society and other stakeholders? Is citizen/civil society engagement a vital ingredient for successful reforms? How can the institution engage more effectively? 

Recent data from the annual World Bank Group Country Opinion Survey, with input from over 9,000 stakeholders around the world, shed light on these important questions. 

As part of ongoing efforts to better understand the needs of global stakeholders and partners, the Bank Group undertook Country Opinion Surveys in 42 developing countries from July 2013 to June 2014 (as part of an annual program that conducts surveys with opinion leaders in all client countries every three years). 9,255 opinion leaders from government, bilateral/multilateral agencies, civil society, academia, media, and the private sector participated in the survey and shared their views regarding the Bank Group’s work and relationships on the ground.

Seeking Your Views: How Can Citizens Contribute to Better Development Outcomes?

Johanna Martinsson's picture

The World Bank Group is developing a framework to more systematically mainstream citizen engagement in Bank Group-supported operations with the goal of improving their results. The framework will build on experience from existing efforts and highlight additional context-specific opportunities to engage with citizens and seek beneficiary feedback.

The Bank would like to learn from the wealth of global experience in citizen engagement. Specifically, what works, when, why and how? Please share your experience through this short online survey. The team working on this would very much appreciate your input, which will help inform the framework.

For more information, visit the consultations website. If you have any questions, please send an e-mail to


Weekly Wire:the Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Infographic: The Decline of Global Internet Freedom
PC Mag
Two years after the Internet went dark in protest of a proposed U.S. Internet censorship bill, four out of five people worldwide still don't have access to an uncensored Web. In celebration of the second annual Internet Freedom Day, Golden Frog released an infographic (below) chronicling the worldwide struggle for Internet freedom. "Everything you love about the Internet is at risk," the software firm said, painting a bleak picture of global Web sovereignty. Few countries can claim "mostly unrestricted" access; the U.S., U.K., Australia, and bits of South America, Western Europe, Africa, and Asia (specifically Japan) can freely roam the World Wide Web, without fear of government oppression or censorship. Almost half of the world, however, falls under heavy restrictions READ MORE

Rescuers Sift Through Social-Media Noise to Direct Typhoon Response
Wall Street Journal
In disasters like the typhoon that slammed into the Philippines, sifting through a barrage of confusing and conflicting on-the-ground reports is one of the first problems facing rescue teams. Social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can make matters worse. All too often, users recycle what others have posted or retweeted without adding any fresh information. Sorting through all the noise is too much for individual agencies to handle on their own. So Swiss-born Patrick Meier is gearing up to attack the problem with a new approach called social mapping: Using a combination of volunteers and algorithms to filter the chaos and to provide rescue teams with a detailed, data-driven map of what they should be doing, and where. READ MORE

Transparency & Social Accountability: Where’s the Magic?

Kate Henvey's picture

Are citizens receiving the greatest development impact for their development dollar? This is the basic principle at the heart of International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve the transparency of aid, giving citizens in developing and donor countries the information they need to hold their governments to account for use of those resources.

Last week, as Publish What You Fund (PWYF) released their second Aid Transparency Index (ATI), which assesses adherence of the world’s major donors to their IATI commitments, the question turned from one of how institutions performed on the index to one of how aid transparency enables effectiveness, accountability and social change in real terms.

Kicking off the conversation, Duncan Edwards of the Institute of Development Studies challenged the basic assumption that because better data/information is accessible, citizens, governments and institutions will use it in their decision making processes. The common narrative in open development projects is flawed, Edwards claims, it simply cannot be proven that to “provide access to data/information –> some magic occurs –> we see positive change.” 

AidData, along with several other voices, countered that while open data is certainly not sufficient to provoke positive change it is a necessary baseline to catalyze better development outcomes. 

Transparency can only lead to greater social accountability if citizens understand what data means and if there is genuine public debate about a country’s development spending. The panelists at the October 24th Brookings Institution launch of the 2013 ATI report suggested how transparency can catalyze positive change:

Rethinking Social Accountability in Africa

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

Mwanachi, a Swahili word that means ordinary citizen, is the name of a governance and transparency program that was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development for five years in six African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leonne, Uganda, and Zambia. This program is the focus of a new report entitled Rethinking Social Accountability in Africa by Fletcher Tembo, who served as Director of the Mwanachi program since its launch in 2008. The report acknowledges the important role of several actors in in strengthening citizen demand for good governance, including civil society, media, elected representatives, and traditional leaders. At the same time, it challenges common notions of effective citizen-state relations that focus on a preoccupation with actors and actor categories. Instead, it argues that effective social accountability programs should focus on relationships and contextual realties that are driven by 'interlocution processes.' In other words, processes that address the complex web of incentives and actions through actors that are selected for their game changing abilities.