Citizen Engagement in Development Projects: What We Know, What We Need to Do and Learn


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Remember the old saying "the customer is always right"? The motto used by a number of prominent retailers (like Marshall Field) was all about placing value on customer satisfaction. In essence it was about listening to the customer – the final point person at the end of the retail line.

Today we are seeing business build far more sophisticated means of using modern technology to get feedback from their customers. It begs the question – if business can do that, why can't we try and do the same in the business of development - with the benefit of modern technology?

I've seen the evidence that we can do it. Last October at the World Bank, we applauded the work of teams in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia and India, who've been using the mix of modern technology and development to boost results.

These teams had been focusing on how to improve the impact of Bank-funded projects on people's lives by systematically asking those citizens their opinion about the services they were receiving. It is in the end about empowering citizens – the ones who are on the receiving end of development assistance.

In itself it's not a new concept – around 22% of Bank projects have some form of citizen engagement; civil society and foundations and some governments have been working on collecting feedback from people impacted by projects through "scorecards" and community engagement for many years. But it did show that the power of technology is catching up with our bigger aspirations!

The teams found new and innovative ways to use new technology to record, curate and feed the results back to the Bank and government so that problems could be fixed and services could keep improving.

Rio Grande do Sul State Brazil allows 120,000 citizens to propose and vote on the web or phone to find new government policy solutions leading to new health services for women. Participation increased by 60 percent. The Bank project in Bangladesh asks 135 million citizens for their feedback, so the government can address grievances and improve service delivery.

In Cambodia, we support local government to better meet citizens' needs through designated service centers that ensure feedback and dialogue with district authorities. The Karnataka Maternal Health project in India allows Bank staff to get important health metrics and citizen feedback in "real-time" from illiterate pregnant mothers via a hand held device. This data is then centralized in an integrated dashboard which can alert staff when services are not being delivered to avoid failure, and manage risks.

So we know it can be done. The next step was to connect these innovators in the Bank with academics, civil society representatives, and foundations who like us have been grappling with these issues for years, to the vibrant technology community who want to use technology to solve the world's toughest problems, to government and the private sector. Result – the Citizen Voices conference.

What we know:

  • Citizen engagement is essential for open government and effective development, strengthening the quality of policymaking and the "science" of service delivery with improved social accountability.
  • But it's not a panacea -- you need a committed and responsive government too. There is often less discussion about to how to design and implement participatory processes that deliver their expected benefits. We know involving citizens is driving performance improvements in Kenya's Water and Sanitation Services. In the first two years of the pilot, the community groups solicited a total of over 400 complaints and successfully resolved 97% of them, some which had been outstanding for over 3 years. Overall, the project has broken new ground when it comes to community engagement.
  • And participatory budgeting and new innovations in information communication technology are working to successfully build transparency, increase accountability and overcome a long history of mistrust in DRC South Kivu Province.

What we need to do and learn

  • It's time to move from the rich experience and knowledge generated by many to concrete action on citizen engagement that leads to more effective development results.
  • We need concrete partnerships among government, civil society, foundations and the private sector to scale up innovative and results-driven citizen feedback systems enhanced by ICT tools at global and country levels.
  • We need to learn from others -- the private sector has a particular take on "consumer feedback" and I'll be chairing a session on this at "Citizen Voices."
  • We'll hear from WaterHealth International about an inclusive business model that has received financing from the Bank's private sector arm, IFC. WaterHealth works to get a sustainable supply of quality drinking water to over two billion people on very low incomes with limited or no access to a guaranteed source of safe drinking water at an affordable price. Using groundbreaking, low-cost water purification technology with ultra violet light it operates more than 500 water purification plants in Bangladesh, Ghana, Liberia, India, and the Philippines.
  • Another example is a survey of smallholder coffee farmers for a fair trade coffee buyer in Nicaragua that was financed by the Bank's private sector arm, IFC. This study clearly showed how farmer feedback can improve productivity and profitability by pin-pointing previously underappreciated farmer preferences. It also identified new service opportunities. All from listening to farmers.

Citizen Voices is just the beginning of the Bank's work to mainstream citizen feedback in all our projects.


Caroline Anstey

Former Managing Director, World Bank Group

Join the Conversation

Siddharth Chatterjee
April 17, 2013

I agree whole heartedly with Caroline Anstey’s blog on the need to learn from the business sector about the value of consumer feedback. The private sector has historically been investing in market research to design and improve products and services. The development sector has not traditionally “beneficiaries” as customers in the same way. Given the development sector represents billions of aid dollars each year, if it were run like a business, data on customer satisfaction would certainly be sought as a key to survival in the market.

Development actors in the 1970’s, most notably civil society and NGOs, advocated that recipients of aid should actively participate in project design and decision making as a precondition for relevant, responsive and effective aid. The concept of feedback mechanisms or citizen engagement is therefore not a new one. However, with the increasingly popular usage of mobile phones and SMS in developing countries, never before have communities been able to engage in providing customer feedback to service providers.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies,(IFRC) is historically rooted in face to face communication on a daily basis with those receiving services through its expansive community volunteer network around the world. IFRC’s more recent experience with beneficiary communications programmes in Indonesia, Haiti and Pakistan was a game changer in how internet based technologies support effective disaster response and communication.

IFRC defines beneficiary communications as:

Beneficiary communication aims to save and improve lives through the provision of timely, relevant and accurate information and support an environment of transparency and accountability through the creation of feedback mechanisms.

Transparency and accountability is key for citizens to be able to participate in the process of improving their situation in both humanitarian and longer term development settings. For IFRC, empowering communities to access and provide feedback on services and resources is key to reducing vulnerability and building safe and resilient communities.

IFRC fully supports the World Bank’s efforts to mainstream citizen feedback in all of its projects and is actively engaged as a global partner of the Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability.

March 26, 2013