Published on Let's Talk Development

Implementing the WDR: Shifting norms with youth

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“What good is the law if laws are ignored or never enforced?” a young civil society activist asked us as part of a group discussion recently. We began to explain that the law should provide a framework through which power can be constrained and policies implemented- but the conversation had already moved on to a loud and frustrated debate about the myriad ways that lawmakers abuse their positions, steal public money and undermine governance through the law itself.

The World Development Report (WDR) 2017 focuses on the relationship between governance and development, with the critical insight that we have to think not just about laws but about norms. After all, where rules do not correspond to existing norms it is this incoherence that can provide the space for corruption, patronage and misconduct. If paying a bribe is seen by citizens and officials not as an illegal act, for example, but as something that has to be paid to receive a public service- bribery will continue.
If we want to close this gap- and shift norms towards accountability and good governance over time- we need to start with youth. Why? For obvious reasons- sheer numbers is one. Over half of the people on the planet are now under the age of 35 years old. In Africa, the median age is now less than 20 and this is a constituency that is raising its voice louder than ever.
Today’s youth are also better connected than ever before, through tools that allow them to chat, share and collaborate. Almost 70% of the world’s internet users are on Facebook. This provides an unprecedented comparative perspective across societies, and a fertile environment for the development of shared norms.
Finally, young people today are less entrenched in patronage networks than their parents and grandparents, and less interested in perpetuating these ties than any generation before them. Our conversations with millennials around the world through the Accountability Lab indicate strongly that their aim is not to become part of a corrupt system but to change it. They desperately want to create new systems that value meritocracy over partiality and honesty over duplicity.
But how exactly do we support young people to create these new norms? It’s a long-term process that requires an approach very different to the development paradigms of the past and an understanding that there are no shortcuts. At the Lab we use five key principles: 

  1. Meet them where they are- this means using better and different types of data to understand youth (less surveys and statistics and more sense making of narratives and social media mining). It also means making the connection between governance and popular culture in meaningful ways- engaging them not through trainings and information-heavy workshops but through film-making, music production, theater shows and online campaigns. These are the tools that shift norms.    
  2. Find and support influencers- the WDR calls them “norm entrepreneurs” and within the accountability space more specifically we call them “accountapreneurs”. These are the key individuals within a given community or society that have a trusted voice and can be encouraged to model behaviors and messages that set the standards for others. Support to these influencers has to be very carefully calibrated- authenticity is essential- but could include creative efforts to support the work of visual artists, rappers, bloggers and citizen journalists, for example. 
  3. Construct a positive narrative- the finger pointing and shouting in the press around corruption may at times be necessary but does nothing to instill hope in young people about a better future. It reinforces the norm that corruption is endemic. Engaging youth around these issues requires a positive narrative- through which they see a better future that they can help to build. This means celebrating and sharing what works, making sure reformers are connected to each other and “naming and faming” people with honesty and integrity.    
  4. Mobilize infomediaries- the open data and transparency movement has been transformative for governance, but too much of this information remains inaccessible or too difficult for most citizens to understand. As Nikhil Dey of MKSS in India has pointed out, we need the “right to demystified information”. Young people are the critical infomediaries who can interpret, translate and synthesize this data in meaningful ways that can actually shift norms. Useful infographics like those put out by BudgIT in Nigeria are part of this; but so are low-tech ideas like data-driven mural campaigns or citizen chalkboards
  5. Build a movement- efforts to support governance and law in a given context are too often disparate and incoherent. As the WDR makes clear- these are political processes to which short-term technical approaches- building organizations, putting in place rules- tend to be insufficient. Shifting norms has to be truly a generational movement that requires long-term, collective, and often non-linear support. This also means really working to build communities for accountability and integrity that can support each other, share ideas and understand how to learn and improve. With youth, organizations like Rhize and Restless Development are doing this in intelligent ways.
Governance is a function of intersecting layers of rules and incentives both formal and informal. If we want to shape norms to ensure that behaviors match rules, we have to work with young people in more creative, more patient and more meaningful ways. The World Bank and other development organizations are getting much better at this- but there is a great deal they will always be unable to do given their mandates, structures and roles. We need to work now to find the real “accountapreneurs” in communities who can use their own tools to shift collective thinking and build a positive movement for governance.   


Blair Glencorse

Executive Director, Accountability Lab

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