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#4 from 2012: Openness for Whom? and Openness for What?

Soren Gigler's picture

Citizen consultations in Bolivia.Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on April 9, 2012

The emerging concept of “Open Development” has become a topic of keen interest to citizens, policy makers, and development practitioners alike.

Opening data to enhance transparency, accountability and development outcomes sounds great. However, two main issues remain unclear: Openness for whom? And openness for what?

Two weeks ago, I participated in a fascinating panel, entitled ‘Does Openness Enhance Development?’ at the ICTD2012 Conference in Atlanta. At the center of the discussion were the following issues: (i) what do we mean by open development? (ii) Can openness close the ‘accountability loop’ between citizens, governments and international donors? (iii) Can openness lead to a more inclusive development? (iv) What is truly open and what not? and (v) What are the main barriers to opening up the development process?

What do we mean by Open Development?

While Matthew Smith from the International Development Research Center (IDRC) stressed that ‘Open Development’ is still very much an emerging concept, he notes some key principles needed to transform development:

  • Opening up data and information (e.g. Access to Information Policies and Open Data Initiatives)
  • Making development processes more participatory (e.g. crowdsourcing)
  • Promoting a collaborative over a centralized approach (e.g. open-source communities)
  • Facilitating horizontal knowledge exchange (e.g. south-south exchanges) 

He emphasized that the concept of Openness combined with the rapid proliferation of ICTs (e.g. social media, inter-active mapping) and the emerging ‘networked society’ can affect real social change.

Openness for Whom?

Openness and improved accountability for better results are key concepts of the Openness agenda. A key issue, however, remains unclear: Should the priority be to first improve the openness and transparency of international development agencies or is it more strategic to support the enhanced openness of central and local governments to improve the effectiveness of the delivery of public services? It seems that in order to affect changes that can be sustained in the long-term, the improved openness of both international donors and governments should be encouraged simultaneously. Improved aid transparency is fully consistent and complimentary with opening up government: At the core of both concepts stands a more open, collaborative and participatory approach to development that empowers citizens to hold both international donors and governments accountable. 

Can openness enhance accountability?

First, opening up information and transparency (through Open Data and Access to Information Policies) alone will not enhance social accountability

It is critical that improved transparency and open data initiatives go beyond one-way flows of information, strengthen existing participatory governance structures where citizens, civil society and other stakeholders are empowered to make their voices heard and participate in decision-making processes. In other words, while improved transparency and openness are critical requirements for enhancing accountability, there is a need to ‘close the feedback loop’ by facilitating information flows between citizens, governments and international donors. Only when citizens are enabled to make their voices heard and participate in decision-making processes about development programs will enhanced openness have any real positive impact on strengthening accountability.

Whose voices? 

A second challenge facing Open Development is how to broaden the reach of development programs and thus making them more inclusive. Can we use innovations such as ICT-enabled feedback mechanisms (e.g. Listening to LAC, Crowdsourcing, Open Aid Partnership) to better listen to citizens and to extend the reach of our programs to groups that have traditionally been unable to participate?  A key argument for the use of ICTs (e.g. mobile phones) to strengthen existing participatory mechanisms is that they have the potential to significantly extend the reach of development programs enable real-time feedback and lower the costs of participation. However, a critical issue remains: Whose voices do we listen to? In the late 1990s, many years before the ‘Internet revolution’, Jeremy Holland and James Blackburn wrote a book entitled Whose Voices. It provided a powerful argument that participatory approaches have opened up new ways in which policy and development programs can be influenced by the realities of those who are poor, weak, marginalized, and excluded. If we want to use innovative ICTs to make development processes more inclusive, these tools must be embedded in the ongoing participatory process and cannot be implemented in isolation.

Enhanced Openness is not about the improved access to data or technology; it is about a process of making development more inclusive, broadening the dialogue to include voices from traditionally excluded or marginalized groups. Open Development has the potential to strengthen existing participatory and social accountability mechanisms and thus bring about an important cultural change in the way development programs are designed, planned and implemented. 

We recently initiated a pilot to start closing the ‘feedback loop’ for World Bank projects in Africa. The pilot is testing feedback functions on the Africa Region’s tool to monitor project results, the External Implementation Status and Results Reports Initiative. We’re using ICT innovations (inter-active mapping and mobile phones) to collect and track feedback from local communities on the performance and results of ongoing World Bank projects in Nigeria, Ghana, DRC and Zambia. In this program, the consultation process with civil society and local communities around the results of Bank-financed projects is at the center of the initiative, while technology amplifies the reach of this participatory approach and thus supports this process.

What is truly open?

Varun Arora from the Open Curriculum Project analyzed how ordinary people can truly benefit from improved access to “Open Educational Resources (OER)”. He stressed that the key challenge is to better define an “Openness Policy” to clarify” and address the intellectual property rights issues related to “Openness”. Such a policy is needed to define the details of ‘Open licensing agreements’ intended to allow both: (i) free and open access to knowledge resources while also enabling and (ii) the commercial use of open data and knowledge resources by social enterprises. Furthermore, he stressed the importance of open local content that is culturally appropriate to poor people’s real needs.   

What are some of the barriers?

Ineke Buskens from Gender Research in Africa into ICTs for Empowerment (GRACE) noted that an open development approach does not take place in a vacuum. Open development needs to be analyzed in a much broader social, cultural and political context of poor and marginalized communities. She provided several examples from Africa, where the existing power inequalities between men and women are critical impediments. Frequently, women do not have access to computers and the Internet and thus are deprived from the potential benefits of improved access to information. While she fully acknowledged the positive intent behind enhancing ‘openness’, she pointed out  that it is difficult to equalize the playing field in one small area when working within a broader environment that is not open and equalized.

A special thanks to Linda Raftree from Plan International who did a fantastic job moderating the session and to Tony Roberts and Caitlin Bentley who organized the panel. Tony and Caitlin are both pursuing PhD’s at ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Photo 1, by author: Citizen consultations in Bolivia.

Photo 2, by Sammia Cristina Poveda PhD candidate Royal Holloway, University of London: Soren Gigler at the March ICTD session on Does Openness Enhance Development?

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A focus on “aid transparency,” pressuring donors to publish detailed funding data, is a step in the right direction, but operates on a faulty assumption that data, in and of itself, is empowering. Unless technical and power asymmetries are addressed, those on the receiving end of aid will remain outside of the conversation.

Submitted by Michael Gurstein on
Hi Bjorn, Thanks for this and for pointing me to your very useful summary paper... In case you haven't seen this I've done another blogpost that might be of interest The overall special issue of the Journal of Community Informatics on CI and Open Government Data might also be of interest. Best, Mike

Submitted by Iván Guzmán de Rojas on
Estimado Soren: Me parece muy importante la discusión sobre el concepto de "openess", me ha gustado tu enfoque con las interrogantes que te planteas. Tengo mucha dificultad en la lectura del blog porque usa un tamaño de letra extremadamente pequeño y con un negro-gris sin contraste. Muchas veces simplemente lo dejo de leer por esta razón. Seguro, es un problema que tengo ahora la vista débil, pero me imagino que lo mismo les pasa a muchos... Es un pésimo diseño de página para la lectura... Saludos desde La Paz, Iván Guzmán de Rojas

Submitted by Ian on
Sorry to have missed what sounded like a very interesting session. I think it's right to stress that open development is about more than technology (open or otherwise). Here's something I wrote about "development 2.0" some time ago that tries to express something along the same lines. I think a major issue is that while technology, especially open technology has given us great opportunities to reduce a lot of the friction and knowledge/information barriers that currently exist within the aid and development sector, for this to be truly open, we also need to change the current power relations within the sector. While technology can make it easier for donors to find, monitor and evaluate projects, and for aid managers to better collect information to support their project management, better information on beneficiary feedback and wishes is only useful insofar as there is a real desire to use it, or when there is a willingness to devolve decision making down to local level (whether to project managers, local organizations or to beneficiaries themselves). If the decision making and money flows remain unchanged then while openness might well lead to greater efficiency, and even possibly effectiveness, it won't be transformative and empowering.

Submitted by Sandberg on
The issue of whose voices is important. While it is important that all voices be heard, as any decision maker knows, all voices are not in agreement. Too often, critics of policies set up the discussion frame as decision makers versus "the people." But in practice, "the people" are not of one mind. So the question, "whose voices" is important, but as important is the question "by what criteria are decisions made?"

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