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Power to the People or Power from the People?

In early 2008, announced its initiatives to the world and made clear how the company would leverage its people, money, and creativity to address some of the world’s most pressing and difficult problems. Among them were climate change/renewable energy, global poverty, and emerging threats.

In Africa, one of our initiatives is focused on leveraging the power of information (or the right to know) to increase transparency, accountability, and ultimately the delivery and quality of public services. "You can’t change what you can’t see" is one of our mantras, and our job is to shine light in dark places and help people decipher the black box of public service delivery. What is working? What is not? What options are available to people to plug holes in a leaky pipeline of service delivery?

Much of the initiative is about unlocking quasi-public information. One of my colleagues calls it DBHD (database hugging disorder). Why is so much “public” information not accessible (ie government budgets, service level indicators, population data) and sitting on servers in London, New York, and Geneva but not accessible to citizens, media, and even planners in Africa countries? This clearly needs to change.

What is less intuitive, however, is that there is so much information, knowledge, and wisdom within Africa that is not making its way to politicians, planners, and policy makers who make decisions about Africa. We often hear that teachers, nurses, and civil servants do not show-up for work across the continent and this is a primary contributor to the poor quality of public services. Do we bother asking why absenteeism is such a problem? Ask teachers, nurses, or administrators and they will tell you. For example, since Universal Primary Education (UPE) was adopted in many African countries more than a decade ago, classroom sizes have doubled if not tripled while teacher salaries, instructional materials, and training have hardly changed at all. Government dispensaries are rarely stocked with medications that people come to purchase so why bother staffing clinics?

Last month in rural Uganda, I saw an example of how information gathered from students is helping a local NGO address pupil absenteeism in a very targeted way. The primary school has created a student-led club that investigates why students are missing school and why they drop-out. After all, fellow students face similar challenges and know much about their peers. It turns out that most students dropping out are girls; early pregnancy and lack of finances to purchase school uniforms are leading causes of student absenteeism.

With this information in hand, the Kabarole Research Centre is working with student leaders to plant a community garden to raise money to buy uniforms for needy students, and both are working with community leaders and parents’ committees to raise the sensitive issue of early pregnancy amongst primary school students. Several young girls have returned to school after giving birth, and school administrators are more aware of what needs to happen to reduce student attrition.

And so it’s not just about delivering information to people so they can make better decisions. It’s also about listening to people to make sure donors, planners, and government officials make better decisions. Using student leaders to understand better why their peers are missing school may seem obvious, but such approaches are pretty rare in top-down systems. Better information is certainly not a panacea but it’s a necessary condition to make better decisions based on evidence rather than anecdote.

Check out my photos from the visit.

Aleem Walji, Head of Global Development Initiatives,

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