What Partnering with Communities Teaches Us About Civic Tech

The World Bank Group’s “Barriers and Accountability” Opportunity

By Natalie Bridgeman Fields

The World Bank hosted a high level panel on civic engagement through technology during its annual meetings

The World Bank is pledging to solicit beneficiary feedback through a citizen engagement strategy, led by two of the bank’s global practice groups. That is a welcome announcement. As I’ll explain below, this effort should be broadened and supported as a key component of the Bank’s work. Over the past two decades of working in communities impacted by World Bank Group projects, I’ve seen a pattern of citizen exclusion, rather than engagement. Often the first thing to go wrong with a bank-financed road, mining, or agriculture project is that affected communities do not receive critical information about projects early on. When people in a project area don’t have access to even basic information, consultation cannot be meaningful and valuable feedback about the project’s design or impact cannot be provided. Accountability is lost. Not only does the project lose valuable input, but people in the project’s path can lose everything. A true focus on citizen engagement, from the earliest stages of project development through to implementation and project evaluation, is vital to ensuring projects are successful in achieving development outcomes and avoid causing harm.

For example, we are currently supporting communities in Sindhuli, Nepal whose request for information about their forced displacement for a transmission line project and peaceful protest led to beatings and imprisonment. They were forced to sign papers “consenting” to the project as a condition of their release. These affected people who are losing their land and livelihoods had constructive ideas about how to make the project better by using an alternate route. But they were never consulted and that option was lost. Even after successfully bringing a complaint to the bank’s citizen-driven accountability office, the Inspection Panel, and having independent validation that their exclusion violated bank policy, they are still struggling to be heard.

Speaking up and requesting information about the environmental or social impacts of a bank-financed project can land you in prison — or worse — in many countries where the bank operates.

A villager from Nepal whose home was threatened by a World Bank-financed high voltage transmission line

That’s why real citizen engagement is crucial. But in places like Sindhuli it’s hard to understand how much faith to have in the bank’s new effort, especially when action from other parts of the bank seems to show that citizen voices can be put aside in favor of other bank priorities. We are hearing this message from the bank’s own president, after all.

Two bank leaders with opposing narratives — which to believe?

I spoke on a panel at the bank’s annual meeting last week where the bank’s CEO, Dr. Kristalina Georgieva, introduced civic technology or “civic tech” as a tool for improving citizen engagement. I was pleased to see such a senior bank leader emphasizing citizen engagement. But as we started the panel, I wondered if anyone from the bank’s private sector departments — the International Finance Corporation (IFC) or the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) were attending. A majority of the bank’s budget flows through those two agencies. The IFC in particular has come under criticism for devastating human rights and environmental impacts. Citizen engagement problems are acute for IFC and MIGA projects. If the bank’s President, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, and the IFC’s CEO, Philippe Le Houérou, are not as committed to citizen engagement (and by association, civic tech as a tool toward that end) as the bank’s CEO, Dr. Georgieva, will this worthwhile initiative end up being treated as window dressing?

Another cause for concern is the contrary messages we hear consistently from President Kim, which seem diametrically at odds with the citizen engagement messaging from the bank’s CEO. While Dr. Georgieva is promoting the use of civic tech to improve citizen engagement, the president is talking about how the bank’s protections for the most vulnerable are a “trade off” that need to be made to increase financial flows — to private banks. For the many times I’ve heard bank President Kim speak in the past year publicly about the move from “billions to trillions,” the “crowding in” of the private sector, and the “cascade approach” to encouraging private finance that will lead to poverty alleviation, I’ve seen no evidence of the bank making a financial commitment to citizen engagement and beneficiary feedback proportional to its lending ambitions. There have been no public statements of the incentives and consequences for the bank’s staff or on clients’ success or failure at implementing citizen engagement strategies. There has been no talk of the need to prepare the investment environment in places with weak rule of law by first “crowding in” strong civic engagement platforms that allow the most vulnerable to overcome the barriers to their participation. Can this new initiative overcome those strong headwinds?

As the leader of an organization that serves as a resource to the World Bank Group, I hope the bank of the future is one where citizen engagement is meaningful. We are eager to improve on the way the bank operates, particularly in engaging citizens so there will be less need for advocates like us who must help them raise their voices when they have gone unheard. I hope that the civic technology critique of the citizen engagement framework that follows here is relevant and useful for the bank. It will need participation from development finance institutions, governments, civil society, and the private sector to get it right — and we will need to tread carefully.

The World Bank Group’s Citizen Engagement Strategy is a good starting point

The bank’s 2014 Strategic Framework for Mainstreaming Citizen Engagement was designed to get at some of the problems that leave affected people out of project design and implementation. I laud the bank’s 2013 pledge that sparked this framework, which mandated that the bank increase beneficiary feedback to 100 percent for projects with clearly identified beneficiaries. It’s a truly important goal.

However, framing citizen engagement around beneficiaries, instead of the wider grouping of all project-affected people, misses those with the most to gain from citizen engagement and whose feedback might be most valuable to the bank. As the bank works to implement this strategy, I hope attention will be focused on those who stand to lose from bank-supported projects, and on addressing how increasing use of technology hurts or hinders this group. The bank has indicated that it may intend to capture a wider group than just beneficiaries. But the Strategic Framework needs adjusting to capture this intention.

The bank can look to Accountability Counsel’s project-affected client communities as a leading example of how civic technology tools may play a role — but cannot be the only tool — in getting meaningful feedback, especially for those likely to be hurt by a project. From Mongolia, to India, to Peru, the communities we work with are not getting required information. Many also lack critical access to participate in citizen engagement strategies that rely on technology because of a variety of barriers. Those with the most need for engagement are the least able to engage. But if marginalized communities were the explicit, context-based target of the engagement (or even projects), others would likely be able to participate as well.

Who benefits? Who doesn’t?

The bank’s strategy rightly notes that civic engagement outcomes are “highly context-specific and sensitive to governments’ and citizens’ capacity and willingness to engage, as well as to social, political, economic, environmental, cultural, geographic, and other factors, such as gender dynamics.” When it comes to civic tech, there are often multiple barriers to meaningful engagement. Recognizing these barriers can help us focus on the greatest opportunities for impact and avoid creating strategies that could serve to further exclude the most marginalized groups. A few of the well-known barriers that I’ve personally seen in our work include:

● Lack of connectivity and energy access: While the majority of the world’s population now has mobile phones, poorer communities often can’t power them or find a reliable cellular connection. (In the segment of development finance projects that come to me where something has gone badly wrong, those projects aimed at energy access have not brought energy to villages at project sites, even where promised);

Language and literacy barriers (SMS surveys don’t work if you can’t read them);

Gender disparities that prevent women from accessing technology (women don’t always have access to a family’s phone); and

Security concerns (technology tools can be used by governments to surveil and silence their own and other countries’ citizens).

What can the bank do?

Development finance has a role to play in financing public and private projects that squarely address these inequalities. By engaging project-affected people in the design of projects targeted to solve for civic tech inequality, these projects will more accurately address needs and provide the technology platforms that can in turn be used for future citizen engagement around all sorts of projects. Until “beneficiaries” and other project affected people — those currently lacking access to technology — tell us these problems are solved, using tech platforms for citizen engagement in vulnerable communities will exacerbate inequality. We need to recognize that it could be a very long time indeed until some of these barriers are adequately addressed. They are deep and structural. Fortunately, the bank clearly knows that and is working to address them now.

While there are some incredible civic tech innovations that help with citizen engagement, they cannot provide the entire solution to the divide between the bank’s policy pronouncements and observable practice. For example, policy requires two-way interaction between citizens and their government or a corporate actor, full information, and meaningful consultation.

Human interaction — there’s no app for that.

Getting project information to affected populations in an effective way can and should be aided by technology, but also through a number of low-tech or non-tech methods tailored to local settings. As World Bank Senior Economist Indhira Santos noted, “the digital agenda for gender equality requires solid analog foundations.” Choosing appropriate methods of engagement figured out from the start can ensure that communities are partners in their own development, have a voice in changing aspects of projects to avoid or mitigate harm (or otherwise improve the likelihood of project success), and are providing feedback to the World Bank to ensure learning.

Once basic project information is shared, citizen engagement should be an iterative process of communication. New communication methods should be built with two-way communication in mind that allow people to comment, respond, ask questions and converse. Here, the key is making use of global civil society networks to support in-person engagement and investing in training and resources for bank staff and clients to engage in person.

An efficient way to do this is to ensure that access to information is not only targeted toward the most vulnerable groups, but is also democratized and broadly available; open-source systems and a good application program interfaces (“API”) can be useful ways to encourage local civil society groups to engage with and distribute data on top of what the bank is already doing. The bank can create an ecosystem around project information so that groups can meaningfully and safely engage. And again, until those platforms are in place and are proven to reach the most vulnerable in a secure manner, there is no substitute for meaningful human interaction. Even when they are in place, there will be no substitute for human interaction at some point in the process.

When new technology systems are created, they need to be designed with users in mind. What’s considered “intuitive” design for people in Washington, D.C. may not carry over to local communities because of the barriers described above. It’s worth stating the obvious here — stakeholder processes and feedback from a broad array of communities during the development process can ensure that systems are built that people actually use.

The results are in, but they may not matter

The bank has just announced it has reached 97 percent citizen engagement toward the goal of engaging 100 percent of beneficiaries. Because the bank hasn’t first addressed the barriers described here, 97 percent engagement is unlikely to reflect the gathering of feedback from the most digitally unconnected and vulnerable. So this statistic may not mean much. As the bank’s Tiago Peixoto has noted, “[E]xperience has shown that in the absence of commitment from leaders and citizens and without appropriate capacities and methodologies, public participation provisions may lead to simple ‘tick the box’ exercises.” Now is the time for the bank’s citizen engagement mandate to be better funded, better targeted, and better incentivized throughout the institution. Risks of exclusion, rather than inclusion, are only growing.

Seeking resources, incentives, accountability, and commitment from the top

Concretely, there are risks with the bank’s “agility” programming, including the Multiphase Programmatic Approach, that delegates supervision over some of these issues to bank clients’ countries (which may not care to improve citizen engagement). The bank has doubled down on financial intermediary lending that excludes citizens from the two-way interaction or social and environmental protections because a middleman is not held to the same standards and may not be incentivized to implement them of its own accord. The bank’s highly publicized “Ivanka Fund” is one example.

Finally, we are still awaiting a clear, unequivocal public statement from President Kim about two of the bank’s critically important citizen engagement tools: its two citizen-driven accountability offices, the Inspection Panel and the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO). These tools enable bank staff and senior leaders to hear directly from people impacted by bank projects and can be tools for learning. If the bank’s senior leaders truly value civic engagement, these accountability offices should receive more investment and prominence. Otherwise, the bank’s work to move billions to trillions in the developing world could end up scaling the deep inequity that already exists and on the backs of the poorest of the poor.

Walking the talk

As mentioned above, for citizen engagement to reach marginalized groups, civil society can be a bridge. This is particularly true with the Inspection Panel and CAO. In this vein, Accountability Counsel is launching a public database next year that will allow wider access to information about all development finance accountability offices, including information about every request ever filed. Stakeholders ranging from grassroots civil society organizations to bank staff will be able to access this information, and everyone will be able to add to it. We are building in APIs to promote an ecosystem of information that can be tailored to the needs of beneficiaries. We will also be physically sharing and discussing this information, in person, with communities who face barriers to accessing this information on their own.

There are key points throughout the development process where the bank can work with civil society to improve citizen engagement and the process of getting feedback. We applaud that the bank is working on citizen engagement as a priority. We hope this commitment is resourced and valued appropriately. All of us now have a role to play to ensure that we are focused on closing equity gaps, not deepening them.