It was a sunny, hot Saturday afternoon and I mingled with farmers, community leaders, coffee producers and handicrafts entrepreneurs who had traveled from all parts of Bolivia to gather at the main square of Cliza, a rural town outside of Cochabamba. The place was packed and a sense of excitement and high expectations was unfolding. It was to be anything but an ordinary market day.
Thousands of people had been selected from more than 700 rural communities to showcase their products and they were waiting for a special moment. President Evo Morales, Nemesia Achocallo, Minister for Rural Development, Viviana Caro, Minister for Development Planning, and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, on his first official visit to Bolivia, would soon be meeting them.
While waiting among them, I felt their excitement, listened to their life stories and was humbled by the high expectations they had in their government, their leaders and the international community to support them in reaching their aspirations for a better future for their families and communities. From many I heard the need to improve the well-being of their families and communities and their goal of “Vivir Bien!”
Listening and putting people first
A key challenge that we are facing in our daily work, however, is that we do not listen enough to people, their aspirations for a better life and the barriers they encounter in their daily struggles to overcome poverty. What are the mechanisms for a more meaningful and continuous dialogue between citizens, governments and the international community? Do we need to fundamentally change our approach and is there a need for “Putting People First?” How can we learn to become better listeners and learn from people’s life experiences? How can we be more responsive to the real needs of people and communities?
How can we establish a dialogue that is not ad hoc but a continuous exchange? How can innovations in technology support a process of ‘becoming better listeners’ and to make our programs more open, effective and inclusive? Can we leverage the power and rapid spread of mobile technology to become more responsive to the real needs and aspirations not only of the people who participated in the event in Cliza but of all the people and communities that struggle every day to move out of poverty?
Based on the need expressed by local communities and policy makers to establish a direct, continuous and two-way flow of information sharing between citizens, Governments and international donors, our team at the World Bank Institute (WBI) has developed, over the last 18 months, a Citizen Feedback program called “OnTrack.” The program forms part of the new agreement of the Rural Alliances program and the principal Urban Infrastructure Project of the City of La Paz “Barrios y Communidades de Verdad” both financed by the World Bank Group.
The main idea of the OnTrack program is quite simple, yet quite complex to realize: empowering the citizens of Bolivia to provide feedback in a direct and open way on project results to Governments and World Bank project staff using innovations in technologies that combine mobiles, SMS with web-feedback loops. Through the OnTrack platform (Platfaform Empoderar) over 30,000 Bolivian families that currently participate in the Rural Alliances project can now, for the first time, make their voices heard simply by sending a text message from a cell phone or directly on the OnTrack website. Government agencies responsible for implementing projects, and international development agencies, including World Bank staff, can now communicate more directly with citizens.
Francisco Mamani, a rural entrepreneur and one of the leaders of a rural producers’ association from Buenavista specializing in organic coffee and handicrafts production, greeted President Jim Yong Kim: “It's a happy moment ... you have come with a mindset of listening and through the new OnTrack platform we now have a window to the world through the Internet. We can now contribute to the protection of the Amboro National Park through sustainable, organic farming.”
Now let me take you a very different local context. The next day we traveled to the Bolivian highlands at around 13,000 feet and the City of La Paz which is surrounded by mountain peaks such as the majestic Illimany. On the outskirts of La Paz, thousands of people have migrated to the city, full of hope for a better future. The City of La Paz, supported by the WBG-financed Urban Infrastructure program, helps marginalized urban communities to enhance their living conditions by financing the construction of small-scale urban infrastructure, such as Community Centers.
The Mayor of la Paz, Luis Rivilla, Minister Viviana Caro and Sue Goldmark, World Bank Country Director, launched the On Track platform (Barrios Digital) in the marginalized community of La Portada to enable citizens to provide feedback, make suggestions or report a problem related to the provision of public services. An Aymara women’s leader from La Portada shared her frustrations about the problems her community is facing with the collection of garbage. She shared the following message with the project team using the On Track platform: “The neighbors have to work better together to collect the garbage and to place it at a specific collection point so that the city workers can pick it up and it is not left in the streets.” It was fascinating to see that her suggestion was not really a complaint to City officials, but a plea to her community members to be more organized and to work together better. The experiences from both rural and urban communities in Bolivia show that people perceive citizen feedback not only as a complaint mechanism, but would like to use it to have a voice in development and positively affect changes in their communities.
Sharing local experiences, connecting with other communities and people from other countries, and entering into a constructive and direct dialogue with policy makers seem to be even more meaningful to them.
Mamani expressed this by saying: "The OnTrack program will help us to exchange experiences and ideas with other organizations in Bolivia and other countries."
Photo Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank.
1) Bolivian listen to President, Evo Morales speak at the Rural Alliance Fair
2) World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim is warmly greeted while touring the Rural Alliance Fair