The effects of tech-driven accountability approaches on power, politics and change in Pakistan
Making All Voices Count has supported a number of initiatives in Pakistan at the intersection of technology, accountability and open governance over the past three years. These include Accountability Lab Pakistan’s Accountability Ambassadors, in Rawalpindi; Bahawalpur Service Delivery Project; Hamara Internet, and Track Reps.
In July, the Accountability Lab hosted a learning event to reflect on the most effective pathways to citizen engagement and government responsiveness, particularly through the use of technology. The event brought together all Making All Voices Count grantees in Pakistan to share lessons around the effects of tech-driven accountability approaches on power, politics and change.
The two-day event included group discussions, individual feedback processes, personal reflections and a public event on the key areas of learning: programme implementation; the politics of change; donor dynamics; and community building. The respective insights from these learning components are as follows:
Despite the best efforts of the participants to ensure accurate pre-programme mapping and analysis, factors outside the control of project implementers often negatively affect the effectiveness of programme delivery. For Making All Voices Count grantees, these included absent or delayed cooperation from government departments; expectations of benefits on the part of public officials from the implementing organisation; and apprehension on part of community elders who do not always see the value in adopting new, tech-based solutions to public service delivery issues.
While Pakistan’s population is rapidly becoming connected online (largely through the use of cheap 3G and 4G enabled Chinese mobile phones), internet penetration is still only 18 percent. The group struggled with the issue of how best to reach the “unconnected” and make their tools inclusive when these technologies tend to be exclusive to only a segment of the population.
All the grantees have issues of sustainability in financial terms and were interested in finding ways to either diversify philanthropic funding or create earned income streams that could support their work over time. However, creating revenue streams from civic technologies is difficult in Pakistan - there are very few people who are willing or feel they should pay for tools that work to improve citizen voice and accountability.
Resistance to Reform
All of the projects work with civil servants to shift incentives within the system and change the status quo. In Pakistan, as in many other parts of the world, this can be a challenging and potentially dangerous process, as the personal interests of corrupt networks are directly threatened. All of the groups indicated that public servants that engaged in the work faced threats to either their jobs, families or lives.
Disincentives to Participation
Grantees also found that because their projects were aiming to change the status quo, there was less participation than expected. Networks that support mis-governance are deeply entrenched in Pakistan, and even when public servants may want to change these dynamics, it is difficult for them to do so. Equally, challenging the system was seen by potential users of these systems to create additional workload without concomitant compensation.
There are key change moments when communities can be built for reform in a country like Pakistan. Taking advantage of these moments means being prepared for them - building trust with constituents, understanding the political dynamics and being willing to “step into the gap” when change takes place.
The grantees also discovered that expectations were very high around the sorts of solutions their technology innovations might provide. Often, technology is seen as a silver bullet but the group agreed that technology is only one small part of a much larger, political – not technical – process of governance.
In Pakistan there are important cultural issues that impact programme implementation. For example, there are certain beliefs about the role of women broadly, and the extent to which they should have access to the internet, which if ignored can often lead to severe punishment.
The group discussed the need for technology tools to allow for repeated failure in order to iterate and learn. The approach to tech-tool development by the aid system can be supply driven - a process in which organisations who need resources can be complicit. However, this leads to tools as a starting point - looking for problems to solve, rather than the other way around.
In relation to pathways to change, the group identified that there are key moments when communities can be built for reform in a country like Pakistan. Taking advantage of these moments means being prepared for them - building trust with constituents, understanding the political dynamics and being willing to “step into the gap” when change takes place. If a change occurs, such as a spark that ignites the women’s rights movement, or a corruption scandal that brings attention to a lack of accountability, organisations need to be agile enough to move quickly and mobilise their constituents around these core issues which reflect the larger cause for which they have been working.
There is significant potential for civic technologies to fundamentally challenge and change existing governance structures in Pakistan. Young people are more technology savvy and literate than ever before; and more connected and networked in a way that will facilitate collective efforts to support change. At the same time, however, it is clear that the impact of these technologies should not be over-estimated and the structures that support them need to be adapted if this potential is to be fulfilled.
About the authorFayyaz Yaseen is Director of the Pakistan Programme at the Accountability Lab
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