WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Citizen-led action can complement the anti-corruption work of governments and the private sector and increase chances of successful development projects that reduce poverty, experts said at the World Bank spring meetings.
Involving local communities in the design and monitoring of development projects not only can improve their quality but also reduce abuse of funds, civil society groups and policymakers said.
"Projects fail because citizens are not listened to. Citizen engagement has the potential to be the most transformational change in the way we work," said Sara Aviel, U.S. representative to the World Bank in opening a panel discussion on how to accelerate citizen’s participation and responsive government.
Citizen engagement is an important theme running through sessions at the World Bank spring meetings in Washington, part of President Jim Yong Kim’s push to strengthen the efforts of the development institution in its quest to end extreme poverty by 2030.
Achieving that goal will prove no easy task, Kim said in his opening press conference on Thursday.
"The vast rolls of the poorest – those earning less than $1.25 day - will have to decrease by 50 million people each year. Think about it: To reach our goal, one million people each week will have to lift themselves out of poverty—that’s each week for the next 16 years," he said.
This will require drawing on expertise from a range of different sectors and tailoring solutions to each country’s needs, experts said. Many innovative approaches are needed, and fostering citizen input to share ideas will be important.
Sanjay Pradhan, the vice president for change who is leading a restructuring of the World Bank’s operations, sketched out a collaborative model of government, private sector and citizens working collectively to solve problems.
The bank’s primary focus is on helping governments, who are its clients and its shareholders. But in recognising that citizens play a crucial role in the success of projects, the bank needs to go further in supporting governments to look for ways to incorporate citizens’ voices in decision-making, Pradhan said.
New digital technologies and the Internet can play a vital role, because they allow governments to access quickly and cheaply a wide range of views, he said.
EXAMPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES
The Philippines has embraced this community-centered and technology-based approach to development, said Edwin Lacierda, cabinet secretary for President Benigno Aquino. For his government the change was easier because citizen engagement was viewed as an important tool in rebuilding trust after the corruption of the Marcos era, he said.
The Philippines has joined the Open Government Partnership, a multi-national commitment to make government information open and accessible using technology. It publishes government budgets online, and it has gone even further by launching a grassroots budget consultation process to ensure it responds to citizens’ needs. The Philippines also has launched geo-tagging, which allows citizens to monitor infrastructure projects by uploading photographs to a central office that checks whether construction complies with design specifications, he said.
However Anabel Cruz, director of the Communication and Development Institute based in Uruguay which promotes civil society’s role in policymaking, warned of fatigue among poor citizens over efforts to engage them in the development process, especially when results are not clear.
"We have to be alert. There is no magic bullet with technology. You can open up a web page but because you are collecting data doesn’t mean anyone is doing anything about it and accountability is going on," Cruz said.
Who has access to the technology, be it the Internet or a mobile phone, will affect the quality of data collected; who has the time to spend lobbying the government in a poor community where food for survival is at a premium limits participation; and in a number of communities, the very act of reporting abuse can be dangerous, said Benedicte de la Briere, senior economist for governance at the World Bank.
"Are you going to stand up to the only teacher in your community and say, ‘Stop beating my child’, or ‘Stop taking their lunch’, or ‘Stop raping my daughter’? These are powerful people in these communities," she said.
These asymmetries of power need to be addressed, said Chris Underwood, director of Making All Voices Count, which gives grants to innovative citizen projects that incorporate technology.
One way the World Bank has sought to strengthen civic participation is through the Global Partnership for Social Accountability. Set up in 2012, the World Bank has invested $20 million, which has been topped up by foundations. So far 37 countries have joined.
One is Moldova, where the civil society group Expert-Grup has designed a school monitoring project to improve the quality of education. Another is the Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF), which is working in the Philippines to implement citizen monitoring of a government programme that makes cash payments to 300,000 pregnant women.
Vinay Bhargava, PTF’s chief technical adviser, said its purpose is to see whether citizens can better address challenges the government faced in ensuring that money was delivered to the women most in need, and checking they used the healthcare and education services tied to the programme.
"I believe there are limits to what bureaucracy can do. There are certain things bureaucracy must do well, but involvement of the citizen can take it to the next level," Bhargava said.