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From Inertia to Participation: The Case of RECURSO in Peru

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Imagine there are accountability mechanisms and no one knows how to use them. Development practitioners in Peru wrestled with exactly this problem in the early 2000s when transparency and accountability became integral parts of government agencies - but citizens had no way of knowing what made public service delivery good and what should be complained about.

Peru's Ministry of Education and the World Bank teamed up to not only provide accountability mechanisms, but to also tell citizens to which standards they should hold their government. Bank practitioners introduced this approach at a round table this week. Together with the Prime Minister the World Bank set up a cluster of programs named RECURSO (the Spanish acronym for Accountability for Social Reform - REndicion de CUentas para la Reforma SOcial). One of the programs aims at making people understand what their children are supposed to learn in school*.

Imagine you get a thick report from your child's school that presents some grade levels, some percentages, some graphs. You will certainly peruse the report with interest - and then you will ask yourself: so what does this mean for my child? The Peruvian Ministry of Education tests all second graders in public schools with regard to their level of understanding math and reading comprehension (the test is called ECE). Then the Ministry sends the results to the parents - a nice accountability mechanism. At the start of the project, the education level of the second graders was well below expectations, and the reports showed that. Perhaps to the surprise of the Ministry, the parents didn't protest much, and things could have gone on the way they always had. Well - the parents didn't know what the reports about their children meant because they didn't know what level of education their children should have reached by the end of second grade. So, my daughter made it to level 1 - sounds good, doesn't it? Sounds less good when someone tells you that she should actually have achieved level 2.

Video producer Bibiana Melzi and a whole group of people from the World Bank Latin America and Caribbean Region and the Human Development Network set out to make this accountability tool - a report that assesses the quality of education - a useful one. They produced a video that explains to the parents what their second grader should be able to do, for instance read 60 words in a minute. They explain why the child should reach level 2 of an education evaluation pyramid and what it means if they don't. In short: they give benchmarks against which the parents can judge the quality of education.

In 2007, only two in ten children reached the desired level for reading comprehension and only one in ten for maths. The Ministry of Education wants to move all children up to the desired level. How? It motivates the parents to get involved. How? By creating expectations. RECURSO created expectations by showing where the children should be and juxtaposed that with data on where the children really were. Of course it is the expectation of parents that their children get a good education in school and that they do well. By defining what "doing well" means, a video like this one here creates an incentive for getting involved, for becoming active: the incentive here is the good of your child (and your very own pride in her). Would you want to have a word with your daughter's teacher if you know she's not meeting the mark? Exactly. The video shows the case of a particular school in which in 2007, no child reached the desired level 2 in mathematics. One year later 57 % did.

There are two major points this project is teaching us: First, how to move citizens from inertia to action, and second, how valuable audiovisual media are in this process. To engage, citizens need expectations and incentives. The video in this case provided a means to communicate the problem to a wide audience of parents: the schools received the video and then showed it to the parents. It's a media planner's dream: by creating a specific video to show to parents at public schools, the producers got exactly the audience they wanted. The audiovisual nature of this communication overcame, for instance, literacy problems.

Accountability mechanisms are an important instrument for improving public services, but they alone are not sufficient. People may not know about them, they may not care. An initiative like RECURSO makes them care.

* RECURSO has a similar video for children's health, explaining how much a child should grow up to a certain age.

Picture credit: Bibiana Melzi, from Y tú, ¿sabes cuánto aprenden nuestros niños?

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