Can e-participation help to reduce poverty in Africa? Is it a suitable tool to improve the effectiveness of aid projects and to reduce corruption in the aid business? These questions may surprise you, as PEPNET is a network of organisations and individuals working in Europe and even in Europe it is challenging to design well-functioning e-participation processes. OpenAid has been a member of PepNet for a few months and I would like to make our long-overdue self-introduction by describing our vision of e-participation in development cooperation.
OpenAid is a small association based in Germany and our background is evaluation of development projects. Traditionally, funding organisations, like the German ministry for economic development and cooperation (BMZ) commissions experts to visit projects, e.g. in Africa and assess these projects based on predefined criteria. While this type of project evaluation a very dominant feature of the development business, it has only limited value. In an evaluation, for example of a water project in Southern Cameroon, only the questions that are most interesting to the donors in Germany and to the project managers get asked. Concerns that people living in the project areas may have will not be addressed, if the project management is not aware of them or does not want to address them.
In addition, most citizens in a project area are not able to talk to the evaluators, due to the tight time schedule of evaluations, distances in the project area and language barriers. Providing feedback about a project on a regular basis is close to impossible.
We at OpenAid are convinced, that this lack of feedback in aid projects is a big problem, and we think that advances in technology and social media can help to fix the feedback loop. This is where we why we are interested in experiences about e-participation in Europe. What are the lessons learnt in Western Countries about the conditions for successful e-participation? And which of these lessons are applicable to development cooperation?
We call our e-participation project public online monitoring of development aid. In our thinking there are several elements to public online monitoring:
1) General information about aid projects: The more information and the more open the information, the better. This strand of our work links us to the open data movement. International development cooperation has been very slow to provide information in accessible format to a wider public. But currently the aid transparency debate and open data initiatives in development cooperation are gaining momentum. OpenAid has been promoting aid transparency, and particularly the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) since 2009. We are currently organising a major open aid data event in Berlin for September 2011.
2) Mobile Technology and Connectivity: Costs for providing and distributing information to a large audience have plummeted due to the advances of technology in recent years. Of course, in many rural areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, good internet connections are not self-evident. But mobile services can substitute regular internet connections to a certain degree. This is why we are very interested in the creative use of SMS and other mobile applications. For the time being it is also possible to experiment with public online monitoring in urban areas e.g. in Africa that have good internet access. We are convinced that access to the internet in rural areas will continue spread in the coming years.
3) Online communities: Where should people go to provide feedback about a water project, about a health clinic or about a school feeding programme? Where is the virtual comments box for aid projects? One option would be for large aid projects to set up their own online community. But it will probably be difficult to generate enough among citizens living in the project area and other concerned people to bring such a community to life. This is why we propose to use existing social networks, where people already connect, to monitor projects that interest them. Traditionally these social networks were community meetings e.g. in churches and mosques. Today, social media networks can complement offline communities. So, we have in mind to “project groups” on social media networks like Facebook. On the one hand Facebook has a fast growing number of users in e.g. development countries. On the other hand, however, the criticism about Facebook is increasing and other social media networks may be more appropriate.
In our advocacy work on aid transparency we have seen, that migrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America tend to have a strong distrust of the aid system and strong feelings about misuse of funds in development cooperation. Therefore we are currently exploring possibilities to cooperate with migrant communities in Germany to build online communities around individual projects or around development cooperation going to geographically limited areas.
Other possible drivers of online communities are donors themselves. The example of AKVO in the Netherlands demonstrates, that even governmental aid agencies are recognising the value of collecting public feedback on projects via the internet. We are hoping that other donors will follow the same path.
4) Choice of projects: Finally, we are convinced that not all aid projects are amenable to public online monitoring. Projects targeted at young, urban, educated people are probably more suitable then projects targeted at elderly, rural, illiterate citizens. Projects delivering direct services like health programmes or water projects will probably attract more interest then projects focused on administrative reforms in ministries or projects targeted small minorities in the population.
Until now, OpenAid has been active on the precondition of public online monitoring: access to open data on aid activities. We are just taking the first steps to make public online monitoring a reality. We hope that successes and failures of e-participation in Europe will help us make good choices in this process and hope to be able to share our experiences with member of PEPNET in the future. If you have any comments on our concept so far or if your organisation is interested in collaborating on this project, please contact me under firstname.lastname@example.org!