Twaweza is a Swahili word that means “we can make it happen.” In Tanzania and Kenya, it is also the name of "a citizen-centered initiative, focusing on large-scale change in East Africa.” Earlier this week, at the Center for Global Development, Twaweza head and founder Rakesh R. Rajani delivered a presentation the title of which tickled my imagination: “Why Ownership and Capacity Building Don’t Work: Lessons from East Africa.”
What, according to Rajani, isn’t working?
In a nutshell, he says that donors often advise civil society groups to get involved in the policy process. These organizations are urged to participate through technocratic mechanisms that ostensibly seek to collect feedback from groups that represent citizens’ interests. In many cases, however, both policy processes and participatory mechanisms are dysfunctional. So, people end up “dancing around government and the policy world” to keep donors happy. Real and meaningful change, says Rajani, can only be achieved by engaging the political process. And key to this engagement is learning how to work with the media.
Take, for instance, a water project in Tanzania described during the session as a success story from the perspective of accountability. Government funds were provided for improving water services in a particular district, but this was implemented in only some quarters and not others. When the prime minister visited the area to inaugurate the project, citizens were able to organize through a combination of local radio and text messaging. They blocked the road on which the prime minister was traveling, and managed to show him that the project had not been implemented as planned. The prime minister then continued on to the inauguration event and publicly castigated the district water engineer.
Here we see citizens taking it upon themselves to make sure their voices were heard -- by tapping into the local media ecology. It was a combination of traditional and new media technologies that enabled both community organizing and the exercise of voice. In fact, in terms of making change happen through accountability mechanisms, Rajani emphasized that “media is where the really exciting stuff is happening.”
For those who care about strengthening free, plural, and independent media systems, this is indeed a heartening claim. See, for instance, Public Sentinel, for a global take on the news media's contributions to governance reform. And there’s that constant refrain we hear repeatedly when successful reformers talk about their experiences: sustainable change is more likely when transparency, accountability, and participatory mechanisms are locked into governance structures and processes. Obviously, the media system has something to do with this. So why does it seem like it’s always the same people who get excited about these things?
Image credit: twaweza.org