The video posted above is the second in a series we are featuring on this blog. The interview was conducted last June, during a learning event jointly organized by the World Bank Institute’s Governance Practice and CommGAP entitled “The Political Economy of Reform: Moving from Analysis to Action.” The event’s primary objective was to bring together relevant expertise and take stock of experiences from around the world on the ways in which political economy analyses have been and can be made more operationally relevant. Featured in the video is Rakesh Rajani, head and founder of Twaweza  (“we can make it happen” in Swahili), a “citizen-centered initiative, focusing on large-scale change in East Africa.” From years of experience working in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, Rajani describes five local networks that he has found exist everywhere in these countries:
They are organic. They are powerful. They go to scale. They matter to people’s lives. People invest in those networks. And they would be there even if every aid dollar dried up tomorrow… And you’ll notice that those five are typically not the organizations or the institutions that development actors work with.
According to Rajani, these five networks include the following: religion; mobile phones; mass media; consumer goods and the shops that sell them; and teachers. Having lived most of my life in a developing country in a different region, I find that these networks actually resonate with my own experience. However, from what it’s like back home and from what I’ve learned about other places, I would probably add local government, which is not only the dominant employer in many poor contexts, but also carries a lot of prestige, perhaps reflective of culturally rooted patronage relationships between local officials and bureaucrats, on one hand, and constituents, on the other.
Regardless of the specific composition of key networks in particular places, the larger idea I take away from what Rajani said is that, at the local level, change initiatives can be supported and sustained by tapping into the existing channels through which influence and persuasion wend their way. That’s not to say that influence and persuasion travel on a one way street. In our own personal and professional lives, I imagine that all of us experience these things pushing and pulling in multiple directions.
We have also learned various things about these phenomena from applied research in the sociology of communication. For instance, as individuals, we tend to rely on a variegated set of "opinion leaders", depending on the topic or issue of interest. That is, when we seek information and advice, we listen to different people and/or access different media sources when we’re interested in figuring out whom to vote for, versus what clothes to wear, versus what music we should listen to, versus what book to read next, etc.
And although a number of considerations (each of which could be a blog post all unto itself) go into these personal inclinations and decisions, the idea of opinion leadership among people and information sources is certainly complementary with the view that robust and resilient local networks guide the flow of a substantial amount of information and influence. While particulars are crucially important, it is also key to understand that local contexts have within them deeply embedded local institutions of influence. And by not including these networks in our understanding of the ways in which development processes can lead to real results and meaningful change, as Rajani contends, “we marginalize ourselves.”