Sustainable Development through Citizen Participation
16-year-old Astghik is an old hand at civic engagement. For the past four years she has been working with fellow citizens and World Vision Armenia to improve local services in Yerevan, with tangible results. Can examples like hers be scaled up across countries, and give citizens everywhere an active role in making sure the Sustainable Development Goals are achieved?
Adopted by all UN member states in September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development encompasses 17 global goals from eliminating hunger and poverty to ensuring climate action, quality education and decent work for all. Whether these ambitious targets can be achieved will depend on a number of factors, political will and adequate funding chief among them. Both of these can be galvanized by a third essential ingredient: public pressure.
“Citizen monitoring will be essential to making sure that the goals are realized,” said Besinati Mpepo, Technical Director, Social Accountability at World Vision International. The humanitarian and development agency, alongside others, has developed tools such as scorecards and social audits to help citizens translate their experiences of local services into data which can be presented to decision-makers.
With a scorecard, “Communities identify the issues which are important for them,” said Mpepo. “So for a health facility, the indicators might be the quality of staff, and whether there are drugs at the hospital. And in schools, children can tell you whether their teachers have shown up, and whether they’ve actually delivered in class.”
What is Social Accountability?
Local Experiences to National Change
In Kanaker-Zeytun, Astghik’s neighbourhood in the Armenian capital Yerevan, the main issues affecting the community were garbage pollution due to irregular rubbish collection; and a lack of after-school classes accessible to children from vulnerable families.
“We had challenges,” said Astghik. “Many adults do not take young people seriously. Service providers had no culture of reporting to citizens about their performance, and were surprised when we young people applied to them to demand accountability.”
“But we had successes, too.” Using World Vision’s ‘Citizen Voice and Action’ approach, young people carried out an assessment of the community’s unmet needs. “We discussed common challenges and organized focused groups. Then we had a meeting with the head of the local municipality, representatives from different units of the local municipality, as well as young people representatives,” said Astghik. “We showed a presentation of the focus group results, including photos of garbage pollution and video interviews with young people.”
Following the meeting, the authorities agreed to clean the polluted areas and to support children from 50 vulnerable families by paying their after-school class fees.
But the real success, according to Astghik, is that “young people, like me, start to believe they can bring changes to their community. They start to take issue with things like cleaning the streets in winter or the absence of traffic signs. And the community municipality starts to be more accountable, and now has regular meetings with young people and opens its door to all community members.”
When scorecards are used across regions, patterns emerge which can lead to country-wide change. In the Lori region of Armenia, 20 communities used score cards and social audits to monitor local health services from 2008-10. The aggregated results showed that doctors were not reaching remote communities, even though government policy suggested they should have been making rounds on a regular basis.
“After several citizen surveys showed a lack of doctors, it was raised with the right authorities,” said Mpepo. “They realized that doctors’ pay-structures were rewarding them according to the number of patients seen – and so they had no incentive to spend hours travelling to remote locations.” Following the exercise, doctors’ compensation was adjusted, and remote communities began to receive their entitled medical care.
Building Up Data and Pressure
The question of reliability of data gathered by citizens – compared to that from central statistics bureaus – is often raised. “In my view, there’s no more reliable data than that coming from someone’s own lived experience,” said Mpepo. “We’re talking about people. They are the ones who have lived experience of no access to water, of no doctors when needed, of delivering without a skilled birth attendant and having lost their babies. When they tell their stories, especially over vast period and space, that picture is powerful, and I think it’s reliable.”
Moving from individual experiences to usable data is a challenge. World Vision is working to gather citizens’ responses to audits and scorecards into a ‘Citizen Voice and Action’ database, which will enable community members and other actors to access, aggregate and draw on the records to generate reports and make policy recommendations.
In the meantime, social media and digital platforms are an increasingly useful way to rate services, share experiences and highlight gaps in provision. “With time, all communities will have access to mobile phones or some sort of technology,” said Mpepo. “So a lot is happening and the time is right to explore further.”
“If you empower young people with the tools, skills, knowledge and networks, they will be able to hold decision-makers to account,” said Miriam Freudenberg, Advocacy and Networks Coordinator at Restless Development, the youth-led development agency.
In Astghik’s case, the local municipality in Kanaker-Zeytun agreed to communicate their progress on rubbish-clearing via their Facebook page – which their young partners are closely monitoring.
“Young people often have the solutions at their fingertips – with social media, they work together, they are out and about, they are well placed to monitor implementation and to gather data,” said Freudenberg.
Another project which uses digital technology to drive change is HarassMap in Egypt. Using mapping software, volunteers crowd-source information on sexual harassment across the country, raising awareness and enabling targeted responses.
“Volunteers who witness sexual harassment can report it either through the app, by calling a number or on the website,” said Freudenberg. “Then it pops up on an interactive map of Egypt showing hotspots and what happened. And volunteers get this info, zoom in, get a print out, and go to exactly that corner, bus stop, school, university or café where sexual harassment is happening, and talk to the owners, people who participate in street life in that area, and convince them to take a stand against sexual harassment.”
“They convince people sexual harassment is a problem, that the victim should not to be blamed but the perpetrator, and they aim to introduce consequences for such behavior, and create safe areas, safe schools and universities which are explicitly taking a stand and have policies in place against sexual harassment,” said Freudenberg.
Examples like these demonstrate the power of citizen engagement across the SDGs from gender equality to sustainable cities, and show how highlighting a seemingly local problem can end up solving a national issue.
“Citizens have a critical role to play in monitoring the SDGs,” said Mpepo. “To ensure no one is left behind, margnialsed groups, including children and young people, should be involved. After all, it is them that will live out the promises made in 2015. They’ll be able to tell you whether those promises are reflected in their localities.”
Voices & Views:
- Roadmaps to Engage Civil Society; blog on putting local actors at the centre of develoment and update on EU Country Roadmaps for engagement with Civil Society
- How to Engage EU Citizens in Development
- EYD2015 and the Policy Forum on Development
- Telling the Development Story...
- CSOs in India use the Right to Information Act for Accountability and Transparency
This collaborative piece was drafted by the capacity4dev.eu Coordination Team.