When parents send their children to school, they expect that their child will receive a basic level of education. Now, imagine your child cannot read or write because his/her teacher does not show up to class. In central sub-Saharan African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), such behavior is commonplace.
This situation is often attributed to a shortage of educators, low wages and a lack of other incentives, not to mention weak transport infrastructure. To make matters worse, the school administration has little influence over specific teachers, and alternative education solutions are not accessible to the poor.
Until recently, there were few, if any, avenues for recourse, especially for the poorer Congolese parents. The situation is changing, however, with the arrival of Allô École! (‘Hello, school!’ in French), a mobile social accountability platform launched in 2017 by the World Bank with financing from the Belgian Development Cooperation.
Regardless of the level of literacy, parents with a basic mobile phone can now provide feedback on matters like teacher absenteeism or the distribution and use of books. Allô École! can either send them a short message service (SMS) or call users directly using interactive voice response (IVR) technology. Close to 10,000 users have already tried it. More and more users are joining the free service.
“Teachers and parents can now provide feedback, concerns and suggestions to the Ministry of Education and its local administrative bodies,” explains Yannick N. Wahema, Head of the Ministry’s Communications Management Service. “This should ultimately help improve accountability and communication between parents and education authorities, with potential benefits to enhance children’s education and learning.”
Allô École! makes a voice call to a database of phone numbers or sends the users an SMS from a toll-free short code ‘1-7-8’. Voice call users can choose from among four languages—French, Lingala, Tshiluba, and Swahili—and continue to answer questions by pressing buttons or leaving voicemail-style open-ended responses. After self-identifying as a teacher or parent, each user chooses a topic or theme on which to provide feedback.
“In our government-to-people communications we decided to focus this school year on the challenging topics of teacher absenteeism and education of girls. Moving forward, we will program more automated surveys on other priority policy matters,“ said Alexis Yoka, Head of Educational Provinces Directorate at the Ministry and newly-appointed Coordinator of the Platform. ”Before this tool arrived it was nearly impossible for us to incorporate citizen feedback into our policy making or policy evaluation processes.”
Allô École! is now available to 100 schools in N’Sele in Kinshasa East. Following further learning from the platform’s operations and evaluation of its impact on school-level outcomes, the platform may be available in more provinces already next year.
Mobile Feedback Gaining Ground
When it comes to mobile feedback, the proliferation of mobile phone networks has significantly transformed communications in Sub Saharan Africa. As growth in mobile penetration increases, international development agencies, tech companies and local civil society organizations are creating a variety of platforms aimed at providing people with new and unprecedented opportunities to directly engage with policy makers. These platforms also demonstrate the potential to close the feedback and accountability loop between citizens and governments.
In most cases, the success of a mobile feedback platform depends on the understanding of local communities and its specific technical and their language needs, as well as on whether the platform fits into existing workflows and incentive structures. For example, Allô École! has successfully placed its bet on the IVR technology in view of high illiteracy rates amongst the population, and on the use of four local languages instead of just the official (French) language. A number of activities are ongoing in parallel to build the Ministry’s capacity to handle increasing volumes of feedback and to follow established response protocols.
Growing Citizen Engagement
Mobile feedback platforms could also be used to drive citizen engagement on the impact evaluation of large-scale investment projects. Typically, impact evaluation garners the interest of few stakeholder groups. But these platforms could foster wider citizen participation and feedback.
Allô École!, for instance, helped to monitor the impact of a $100 million Bank-funded Projet de Soutien à l’Education de Base Project, which closed in February 2017. The project’s main components included the distribution of teachers’ textbooks and manuals, and the construction of schools. Discussions are underway to see how the platform could be extended to other Bank funded projects.
“We need to use 21st century tools to monitor and evaluate education system the provision of inputs into the education system including the distribution of books, whiteboards, and other classroom materials. These tools are typically ICT-powered and allow for wide mobilization of beneficiaries,” said Maria Amelina, Senior Social Development Specialist and Allô École! project Task Team Leader. “Interestingly, some of them might be quite disruptive in that they break up existing counterproductive approaches and practices and, at the same time, create space for new services, often with private sector participation. The dilemma is how to routinize such disruption within governance.”
Looking at some of the more successful feedback experiments across the globe, Allô École! is only the beginning of a much larger conversation on how communities of citizens, government counterparts, and donors can - and should - learn from each other to improve the impact of development projects.