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Good Practices for Engaging with Citizens for Greater Development Impact

Vinay Bhargava's picture

Last week I was a panelist at a civil society organization seminar during the World Bank Annual Meetings on the topic of “Engaging with Citizens for Greater Development Impact.” The task for the panel was to discuss good practices in citizen engagement to make governments and service providers (including the private sector) more accountable so that policies and project interventions have greater impact for all citizens. The other panelists included representatives from Civicus, Plan International, and the Bank and International Finance Corporation.

The invitation to this event made me reflect on a fundamental question: Is it realistic to expect citizens to hold service providers accountable given the huge asymmetry of power between the two, or are we setting unrealistic expectations that citizen engagement interventions can improve development outcomes?

As I searched for answers, I was reminded of the story of the mighty warrior, Goliath, and the shepherd boy, David, who stepped up to fight him when no one else dared. No one in his or her right mind would have given David a chance against Goliath. However, we all know how the story ends — David hurls a stone from his sling with all his might and hits Goliath in the center of his forehead, causing the mighty to fall. Can we have similar happy endings in citizens vs. almighty service providers?

The answer for me is yes, provided citizen engagement uses appropriate strategies and tools. What are these? The answer is complex and context-specific, and I need to step back a little to elaborate. I volunteer at a CSO, Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF). My audacious yes answer is based on PTF experiences with supporting Davids (citizens) through more than 200 projects over the last 12 years to fight public-sector corruption in more than 50 countries. I shared at the panel one such story and the five winning strategies (good practices) that citizens can use to attain positive results. I recite them here for broader reach. More stories can be found at our website.

I want to share a story of desperate housewives. No, not the drama on American television, but the plight of truly desperate women in a remote and poor tribal area in the Odisha state of India who are eligible to receive free maternal and child health care services under the National Rural Health Mission program of the government of India. However, they are routinely cheated out of these benefits due to lack of awareness, bureaucrats denying services with impunity, and corruption.

With the help of a PTF-funded CSO, these poor women and men in the community were able to take collective actions, engage collectively with authorities, and experience improved service delivery. According to independent evaluation the free medicines under the scheme became available to at least 60% of those in the project area. Free institutional delivery became available to 80% of women, while the overall quality of pre- and post-natal health services improved.

So Davids can win not only in ancient tales, but also in modern times. Here is where I come to the five winning strategies I referred to. However, a word of caution: Citizens have to be proficient and trained in use of these strategies, just as David was highly skilled in the use of sling and stones. Without his knowledge and skills he would not have succeeded. The five winning strategies, based on PTF’s experience of over a decade, are:

  1. Social intermediaries are vital to help citizens’ access and collect information to raise community awareness and motivate them to demand accountability.
  2. Collective action groups need to be formed and trained in use of collection action tactics and performance monitoring tools.  to take collective action to get authorities to respond and vested interest groups to retreat.
  3. The collection action groups (helped by social intermediaries) need to carry out periodic performance monitoring using customer feedback tools and to organize collective actions for advocacy and communication.
  4. Citizens must be willing and able to constructively engage with service providers at local and national levels, work with champions in government who often are willing and able to succeed in getting grievances resolved and improve citizen/beneficiary satisfaction with delivery of services.
  5. Close the feedback loop by periodically sharing feedback with communities and authorities to provide positive reinforcement and create peer pressure.

In addition to the five good practices mentioned above I also had the following takeaways from the remarks by the other panelists:

  1. Robustness of civic space in a situation determines success of citizen engagement;
  2. Citizen-generated data on performance is more credible than progress reports from service providers;
  3. Alleviating supply-side constraints of service providers must be part of the solution to improve responsiveness;
  4. It is extremely important to understand the who, how, and why of citizen engagement to ensure inclusion of those illiterate (IT or otherwise), remote and marginalized; and
  5. Expect low capacity among CSO/citizen groups to engage, and include resources for capacity building.

Your thoughts and suggestions on these or other good practices are welcome and most useful those of us who are committed to supporting the Davids against the Goliaths.