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#3 from 2013: Who is Listening? Who is Responding? Can Technology Innovations Empower Citizens to Affect Positive Changes in their Communities?

Soren Gigler's picture

Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2013
This post was originally published on August 15, 2013

It was a sunny, hot Saturday afternoon and I mingled with farmers, community leaders, coffee producers and handicrafts entrepreneurs who had traveled from all parts of Bolivia to gather at the main square of Cliza, a rural town outside of Cochabamba. The place was packed and a sense of excitement and high expectations was unfolding. It was to be anything but an ordinary market day.
Thousands of people had been selected from more than 700 rural communities to showcase their products and they were waiting for a special moment. President Evo Morales, Nemesia Achocallo, Minister for Rural Development, Viviana Caro, Minister for Development Planning, and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, on his first official visit to Bolivia, would soon be meeting them.  

While waiting among them, I felt their excitement, listened to their life stories and was humbled by the high expectations they had in their government, their leaders and the international community to support them in reaching their aspirations for a better future for their families and communities. From many I heard the need to improve the well-being of their families and communities and their goal of “Vivir Bien!”

Listening and putting people first

A key challenge that we are facing in our daily work, however, is that we do not listen enough to people, their aspirations for a better life and the barriers they encounter in their daily struggles to overcome poverty. What are the mechanisms for a more meaningful and continuous dialogue between citizens, governments and the international community? Do we need to fundamentally change our approach and is there a need for “Putting People First?” How can we learn to become better listeners and learn from people’s life experiences? How can we be more responsive to the real needs of people and communities?  

How can we establish a dialogue that is not ad hoc but a continuous exchange? How can innovations in technology support  a process of ‘becoming better listeners’ and to make our programs more open, effective and inclusive? Can we leverage the power and rapid spread of mobile technology to become more responsive to the real needs and aspirations not only of the people who participated in the event in Cliza but of all the people and communities that struggle every day to move out of poverty?

Based on the need expressed by local communities and policy makers to establish a direct, continuous and two-way flow of information sharing between citizens, Governments and international donors, our team at the World Bank Institute (WBI) has developed, over the last 18 months, a Citizen Feedback program called “OnTrack.” The program forms part of the new agreement of the Rural Alliances program and the principal Urban Infrastructure Project of the City of La Paz “Barrios y Communidades de Verdad” both financed  by the World Bank Group.

The main idea of the OnTrack program is quite simple, yet quite complex to realize: empowering the citizens of Bolivia to provide feedback in a direct and open way on project results to Governments and World Bank project staff using innovations in technologies that combine mobiles, SMS with web-feedback loops. Through the OnTrack platform (Platfaform Empoderar) over 30,000 Bolivian families that currently participate in the Rural Alliances project can now, for the first time, make their voices heard simply by sending a text message from a cell phone or directly on the OnTrack website. Government agencies responsible for implementing projects, and international development agencies, including World Bank staff, can now communicate more directly with citizens.

Francisco Mamani, a rural entrepreneur and one of the leaders of a rural producers’ association from Buenavista specializing in organic coffee and handicrafts production, greeted President Jim Yong Kim: “It's a happy moment ... you have come with a mindset of listening and through the new OnTrack platform we now have a window to the world through the Internet. We can now contribute to the protection of the Amboro National Park through sustainable, organic farming.”

Now let me take you a very different local context. The next day we traveled to the Bolivian highlands at around 13,000 feet and the City of La Paz which is surrounded by mountain peaks such as the majestic Illimany.  On the outskirts of La Paz, thousands of people have migrated to the city, full of hope for a better future.  The City of La Paz, supported by the WBG-financed Urban Infrastructure program, helps marginalized urban communities to enhance their living conditions by financing the construction of small-scale urban infrastructure, such as Community Centers.

The Mayor of la Paz, Luis Rivilla, Minister Viviana Caro and Sue Goldmark, World Bank Country Director, launched the On Track platform (Barrios Digital) in the marginalized community of  La Portada  to enable citizens to provide feedback, make suggestions or report a problem related to the provision of public services.  An Aymara women’s leader from La Portada shared her frustrations about the problems her community is facing with the collection of garbage. She shared the following message with the project team using the On Track platform: “The neighbors have to work better together to collect the garbage and to place it at a specific collection point so that the city workers can pick it up and it is not left in the streets.” It was fascinating to see that her suggestion was not really a complaint to City officials, but a plea to her community members to be more organized and to work together better. The experiences from both rural and urban communities in Bolivia show that people perceive citizen feedback not only as a complaint mechanism, but would like to use it to have a voice in development and positively affect changes in their communities.

Sharing local experiences, connecting with other communities and people from other countries, and entering into a constructive and direct dialogue with policy makers seem to be even more meaningful to them. 

Mamani expressed this by saying: "The OnTrack program will help us to exchange experiences and ideas with other organizations in Bolivia and other countries."

Photo Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank.
1) Bolivian listen to President, Evo Morales speak at the Rural Alliance Fair
2) World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim is warmly greeted while touring the Rural Alliance Fair

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Being heard is important, but its a far cry from being involved in decision making, or even dialogue between equals. For decades those who have studied citizen participation have put consultation low on the ladder of empowerment. Often, development agencies and practitioners are so caught up in the potential of new communication technology, we forget what we have supposedly already learned about participation and power in development relationships. The challenge has never been that those in power 'become better listeners', but that the poor and excluded organize themselves in ways that allow them to have a seat at the decision-making table. ICTs may or may not contribute to this goal.

Dear Soren,

Great to read your blog in Bolivia! It does sound like that the work of the World Bank is generating a lot of interest and that technology might play an important role in development and active citizen's participation.

As you know, we are also working in Bolivia to hopefully help make the Open Partnership even broader by engaging all stakeholders that are now contributing to "aid" delivery as part of what is known Private Development Assistance (PDA).

As ODA flows continue to decrease, the contribution of local actors, NGOs, private sector, volunteers, and foundations (to name a few) will increasingly change the way needs are addressed.

I think that any new technology solutions should also be guided by previous attempt and I have no doubt that ONTrack will be a success. I was just reading this recent post about Making Success out of Failure where a similar project in Africa got little pickup from the intended public (citizens). I would imagine that the cost of using time on a cell phone (rather costly in Bolivia) might be an important decision.

We have just finished an interesting process with a few regions of Bolivia to look at mapping ODA at a granular/local level as well as PDA and domestic resources mobilization. At the same time, we are looking at mapping “opportunities and needs”. We also heard from various groups that there is an expectation when citizens or organizations express their needs, that a solution (financial or human) will also be available.

As the spectrum of aid continues to change and that pressure for the effectiveness use of scarce financial resources become even more essential, nurturing a space for innovative and strategic partnerships in a world of hypercollective actions will be crucial.

This exercise has been extremely useful to help demonstrate the obvious links between ODA and PDA in the context of local needs. By opening the “partnership” to new stakeholders, the efforts of ODA investment will be scaled up and the ambitious goals to address poverty will be accomplished.

As our work continues here in Bolivia and several other regions of the world, we will also focus on fostering collaborative innovation so that citizens don’t focus only on raising concerns but have the human and financial resources to address them.

Technology can play a role, but I think it must be one small part of a much wider effort to change power relations, to motivate and engage people, and as you say, to really listen and change behaviors. I'm guessing that motivation to participate and use these channels to communicate can be increased if people see an actual response and change. If not, it may be something people try once or a few times, and then stop doing. It would be interesting to hear more about local community culture, customs and habits and what mechanisms for government accountability have been used/tried/succeeded/failed in the past, and if/how the use of SMS feedback loops strengthens and/or complements these. It would also be interesting to know what levels of trust and openness are there to complain. It's interesting to see the citizen feedback as also being aimed at stimulating action among community members. How is the feedback shared with the local community that provides it, and could it be used as a way to collect and collate information for them to use the data to self-organize and plan their own activities also? One last thought is whether there are risks involved in feeding back, and how these potential risks are discussed and managed together with community members and/or government - how is space for dialogue around community concerns opened and dealt with? Is there a need for government to change its attitudes and behaviors and how can the program contribute to that? Very interesting initiative and look forward to hearing more!

Brendan Halloran nails it: "The challenge has never been that those in power 'become better listeners', but that the poor and excluded organize themselves in ways that allow them to have a seat at the decision-making table. ICTs may or may not contribute to this goal."

The "quality" of the relationship between a particular technology, and an organization or a community, is the key factor in its level of empowerment. A tool developed, managed and convened by an international organization, capturing citizen voices through very specific channels, empowers that organization much more than it empowers the contributors.

A way to think about this is through a "hierarchy of hacking", hacking as "the artful alteration of technology beyond the goals of its original design or intent". Muki Hakley analysed "neogeography" through the lens of hackability and power The take away for me is that the democratic potential of a technology is directly related to how hackability of that technology.

In other words, the answer to the questions you pose in this blog post are the same as the answers to "How hackable is OnTrack?"

I believe ICT Technology can be used as a tool to make leaders, managers,donors and society on a whole be more aware of what is happening on the ground,in people lives real-time. This is powerful, because it can create an atmosphere for people to make critical decision that would impact their lives.
Therefore, I don't think it is really a question weither technology can empower individuals; but how far are we as a collective society on the planet, are willing to go in using the technology that exist .
I think the key challenge is, to sync the mindset across social/political borders in order for this to really take root and make the world a better place.

Submitted by Baloko Makala on

This is a great read Soren and thank you for the invite. I am sure you have heard it before, technology is definitely a great enabler but it is not an end in itself. Long before mobiles phones and social media technologies, radio, newspapers, community gatherings did exists to give a voice to citizens. Technology access is merely a structural barrier and its pervasiveness will definitely bring more individuals on board especially the youth.

A more important challenge is to give the comfort to citizen that indeed they have do have a voice and that have to play an active part in the development of their communities. Translating these voices into tangible actions and following up on implementation would be next.

Rwanda is a great example where new and old technologies are made use of. Majority of public servants use twitter as mean to communicate real time with citizens and address their concerns.

Radio and TV programs are amazing tools for citizens to call in and ask questions on various national initiative or issues.

On a monthly basis, community gatherings are held to maintain cleanliness in communities across the country but also to sensitize citizens on an issue of the moment. It is also an opportunity for community members to meet.

Kenya is another example where twitter and newspapers are fascinating communication platforms for public expression of citizens.

However at the heart of it all must be the willingness and commitment of on both governments and citizens to collaborate together towards the well-being of their communities

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