What informs our thinking

Throughout East Africa states are failing to deliver the basic services that citizens need. Legal reforms have made some headway, but the problem is implementation. Government leaders and elites are divorced from the real lives of their constituents, and the same can be said of many non-governmental organisations whose work is often poorly coordinated, governed by short-term goals and shifting donor requirements. The media landscape faces constraints through consolidation of media ownership and control over editors, and state broadcasters are yet to transform themselves into public broadcasters. Missing, across East Africa, are the long-term strategies necessary for producing real change and the reflective, learning-oriented practices that can generate lessons about what works and what doesn’t. However, space for direct citizen engagement has grown. The use of mobile phones has dramatically increased communication possibilities. Young people are the key demographic, and can be seen as a key resource for change. There is greater citizen engagement with budgets which are increasingly coming under scrutiny. The country assessments we did in 2008 revealed six themes that have become key to our programme work.

1. The everyday retail level is what matters most

It is easy to think about the macro level policies, reforms, and budgets, and national level politics. But community visits showed the great distance between national and policy level and everyday life, and how easy it is for development efforts to lose sight with this level. Many respondents were unable to answer when we phrased the question in terms of ‘what does this mean for a 45 year old woman in rural village? What can she do?’ Yet, it is precisely this level where life is lived, it is at its most concrete, and that impacts on the lives of citizens– interactions with teachers, heath workers and local leaders, the everyday spaces and opportunities. The macro level is important insofar as it affects peoples' lives, but for Twaweza we need to make the everyday retail aspects our core unit of reference.

2. Information is essential for citizen action

Virtually everyone we spoke with emphasized that citizens must have information in order to act and to make a difference. Information enables people to know their rights and entitlements, to know what is happening both around them and far away, to compare the actual with what is promised, to learn lessons from what others have done, and so on. Without information, action either does not take place or is poorly informed. A key take home lesson is that while information alone is not sufficient, it is a vital and necessary driver for change.

3. Class, geographical and citizen-CSO based gaps need to be reduced

People in positions of power and charged with the responsibility to make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens– whether in government, media, civil society or business– tend to live and think in the capital city, and among each other. This elite is poorly linked with its constituencies, and thus risks both becoming out of touch and weak without broad based support. Many groups we interviewed now recognize that this gap exists and are beginning to work with it, though it’s slow moving and requires greater imagination. An important distinction needed here is between mobilization (gathering numbers to support your cause) and organizing (facilitating people to organize around their own cause).

4. Disparate efforts need to join up

In all three countries we were able to catalogue useful and creative work. But it appears to be done in a fragmented, disparate fashion and doesn’t constitute a critical mass for change. Many people that we spoke with highlighted the importance of bringing people and ideas together in order to leverage greater change, and welcomed Twaweza’s ecosystem approach in this regard.

5. Learning, reflection and imagination are urgently needed

Many committed practitioners are so busy running around fundraising, managing their organizations, implementing activities, and reporting that they do not spend adequate time reflecting on strategy choice and effectiveness. Yet this is crucial for program vitality. In connection with this, several key people were pleased with Twaweza’s explicit focus on learning from the outset, and welcomed Twaweza’s role in fostering what one observer called ‘introspection’.

6. Deep change takes time

Many observers made a simple point– the type of change Twaweza envisages will take time. A typical remark was 'unless you can think in at least 7-10 year terms or more, don’t even bother.' Several cautioned us to guard against donors who may want quick results. Instead what was needed was a wide time horizon and flexibility within it to respond to key opportunities. Twaweza and its donor partners will need to work to get this balance right. You can read more about the background to Twaweza in our situation analysis which is an extract from the full Twaweza background document.

Read more: Twaweza work ethic


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