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Thoughts on citizen engagement as a game changer for development

Jeff Thindwa's picture

As we enter the last week of the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on Citizen Engagement— developed here at the Bank in partnership with London School of Economics, Overseas Development Institute, Participedia and CIVICUS— let’s explore the central question posed in the course: Is Citizen Engagement a Game Changer for Development?

In a blog following the London MOOC event, Duncan Edwards argued the need to think hard about the approaches we adopt in advancing citizen engagement to address development challenges.

Do we look at citizen engagement from a rights-based perspective, whereby as Amartya Sen argues citizen engagement is a key component of human capability?

Or through an instrumental approach, such as Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao propose whereby citizen engagement is a means to achieving improved development outcomes?

A right-based approach to citizen engagement accepts that there is, or argues that there should be, a specific contextual environment. Unfortunately, these conditions do not always exist in developing countries and yet citizen engagement has been successful in a range of challenging environments including fragile and conflict situations.

And, as John Gaventa noted in the course, no matter how weak the state might be there are going to be some small cracks where citizens can come together to share their voices, discuss and take action.  

An instrumental approach looks through a narrower lens at how citizen engagement can improve development outcomes. As Rakesh Rajani discussed in the course, citizens and service providers (public or private) can work together directly to improve outcomes through the short-route to accountability. However, the focus of the instrumental approach is more on mechanisms and less on the role of institutions.

Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle. For citizen engagement to be a game changer in development one should look carefully at which specific mechanisms work best under which conditions. After all, as Simon O’Meally reminds us contextual factors can make or break a tool’s implementation.

We must also look at what it takes to build inclusive institutions. Civil society and social movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, as well as such multi-stakeholder initiatives as the Open Government Partnership, call governments to become more open, accountable and responsive by deepening their engagement with citizens.

However, building inclusive institutions is a long and deep process that requires commitment from governments and cannot be achieved overnight.

We as development practitioners, and as citizens, must always be searching for openings— at the project-level, the local level, the provincial, the national, and the international level— that can permit citizen engagement to facilitated, and to be transformational.

​What do you think? Tell us in the comments. 


Submitted by Bhamy V Shenoy on

One of strongest comments has been the course is theoretical. We need theory, but one sure way of comprehending basic concepts is how is it applied. For example Amartya Sen's capability concept, though sounds nice, how and where is it applied? Has he tried to implement in India, a country requiring tremendous citizen engagement?

Let us the two examples of CE that you have quoted of Arab Spring and Wall Street Occupy. There are many lessons to learn in my opinion.

While AS has failed but for some partial success in Tunisia, WO is a great success. US society has been able to put income and wealth inequality of the national agenda which to me is a great success. Why did CE succeed in the case of US and failed in the MENA? In my view while the former had already functioning institutions, others did not have it. Second the kind of CE in WO where it was well informed and concerned citizens participated , but it was not the case in MENA. In the US right from elementary school, values of citizenship is drilled into the young minds. It is not the case in MENA. The course did not highlight the importance of education at all.

Submitted by Wilfredo Awitan on

Inclusive institution is a great idea especially on the global south. Though government programs seems to be pro marginalize but it has to reach on a deeper comprehension and on a more profound essence that seriously address social exclusiveness. Capability Approach of Amartya Sen is something to value with particularly on using citizen engagement as a game changer in development.

Submitted by AMIT SENGUPTA on

open government partnership is an Utopian concept which is difficult to implement.However a pathway between a key component of human capability or a means to achieving improved development outcomes can be obtained if citizens know how to snatch power;The example sited by a CSO on how they are making it effective by involving and strengthening GRAM SABHA is worth mentioning here;

Submitted by Charles Meshack on

I totally agree with you in the sense that, citizen engagement if adopted widely by government, would help in addressing many problems and challenges we see them today. However, this will take time before we see government investing in citizen engagement because there are still many individuals in the governments are reluctant to open the doors for citizen engagement.

Submitted by Victor N. Garpulee on

Hello Mr. Thindwa,
Thank you very much for the contribution made to bring the MOOC- citizen engagement program to life as we move towards building a community of love, care and respect for each other through which our relationship will create the environment for peaceful engagement which will lead to transparency and accountability.

Engagement depends upon the demonstrated will on the part of the group that will engagement citizens in any given responsibility at the level of the citizens in the village, town and city before other can understand the new global platform that is gear toward achieving development through transparency and accountability.
Thank you and the World Bank group for the hard word.

Victor N. Garpulee

Submitted by Paula on

Regrets I didn't get to participate in the course as planned due to several unplanned family engagements, sharing some random thoughts and inputs...

In line with the points outlined above, I note that in the Caribbean region - the question - Is Citizen Engagement a Game Changer for Development? is a given, answered historically as people engagement which led to the formation of the Caribbean nation-state which is well-known and well-documented with historic civic events - slave revolts, trade union and workers' led pre-independence movements that shaped unique engagement processes some still evident in business and governance models of the modern Caribbean nation-state. These are illustrated in unique features that resulted from respective journeys to statehood and independence often fuelled by hard-won citizen-led revolts to achieve access and equity,from oppressive social and economic circumstances. The 1st Barbados hosted SIDS Conference in 1994, which tabled the seminal Barbados Plan of Action (BPOA), showcases Caribbean pioneering thought leadership and results. The launching a political space and platform for issues of resilience, survival and self-reliance. Ref: the first SIDS International Conference 1994(BPOA) .

With a fast-paced evolving mix of 21st century ICT influences and tools, effective citizen engagement requires even more strategic applications. Tools and strategies needed to address today's more complex challenges and solutions, are highlighted in the three tweets identified. However the paucity of 'get-it-done, 'how-to' 'road mapping' applications is at the heart the citizen engagement challenge in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Reference UN International Year of SIDS, - 1st UN dedication of an International Year to a specific category of countries.

Globally citizens, now overwhelmed, by a plethora of global, national and sub-national - in the Caribbean we can add regional - information overflows that compete for citizens' attention, resources and inputs to mobilize and sustain game-changing activity that yield effective outcomes. Today’s high indexed (HDIs, MDGs) middle-income ranked Caribbean nation-states still struggle with century-old global, regional and national challenges, which unabated, has evolved into 21st century development issues that include new economic, social and environmental variables. linked with identity and social cohesion outcomes that cross-cut with sustainability, accountability and performance outputs.

There is hope in the new and innovative collaborations initiated by development stakeholders e.g. global programmes – The Rockefeller Foundation “100 Resilient Cities” and Clinton Foundation programme “ Too Small To Fail”, IDEO's "human-centered, design-based approach" have stimulated citizen engagement reforms and new mobilization action, branding and tools that can give life to citizen centred ideas and advocacy.

On a related note of analysis, the 2014 State of Civil Society CIVICUS REPORT notes “In reviewing`the year that was’, the report shows that the latest waves of protests are taking place all over the world, including in countries like Brazil, Turkey and Venezuela that are democratic on paper and have had high economic growth. The report also shows striking commonalities across countries and regions, including the escalation of protest from an initially local grievance, to broader issues of dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the economic and political elite, corruption and rising inequality.”

Citizens also need to take advantage of new global governance platforms such as those created and maintained by the UN System Post 2015 , 2014 International Year of SIDS, UNDP Strategic Plan 2014-2017 - CHANGING THE WORLD and MY WORLD - consultations, dialogues and platforms.

Submitted by Valerie Holden on

One of the most interesting revelations from the course, for me, was the work being done worldwide to underpin evolving forms of national and local governance, service provision and cooperative initiatives with strong values around equal voices, accountability, closed feedback loops, ICT capability.
I expect many countries will overtake my country's old and creaky democracy quite quickly, delivering true representation and self-determination to all their citizens. :-D

Submitted by Valerie Holden on

Ha ha my comments have vanished at the confirm stage of the process. They were very profound too! I will rewrite and try to re-post..... never admit defeat

Submitted by Valerie Holden on

I entirely concur that we must all search for the "small cracks" as recommended by John Galenta. Game-Changing innovations in Citizen self-determination have throughout history, often benefited from small and unobtrusive beginnings. I have been inspired by what I have learnt and intend to engage at local and national level if possible. Interesting that, worldwide, nations are developing engagement activity that my fellow europeans, with our creaky old democratic systems, may well soon envy.

Submitted by Frans Scheepens on

Hi Valerie, it is a good thing that you re-wrote your comment!
There have several moments during the course that I had the feeling that European countries can learn a lot from 'developing countries'. For instance, every time I learn more of the experience of Brasil (porto allegre) with participatory budgetting I wonder if there are really extreme examples of municipalities or provinces in Europe that include a lot of citizens in real decision making.

Then again, I do believe that we're at a turning point; In the Netherlands a growing number of municipalities have 'client contact centres'; that have the intentions to give direct answers or bring you in contact with the 'right' civil servant in one call. How trivial this might seem and how imperfect is sometimes still is, it does change that attitude of civil servants. There getting used to 'being disturbed while making policy' and respond to the needs expressed by 'real' people. I believe there is a new generation of civil servants waiting in the wings in Europe, that welcome citizens to join in.

Submitted by Ignacio Alfaro on

Maybe both ideas ar gateways for the same aim. Maybe both can be working at the same time and formig a vortuous circle, but not in its fully extension. Part of the adjustments we have to make due to context is to be able to slice both approaches so we can take elements of both to work... maybe at the same time... maybe one before the other... maybe in a chain of slices of both. As long as we are ready to test and change continuosly we can do it. Prototyping is the key.

Submitted by roberto arango on

Citizens engagement,base in the human rights context, to participate and let your voice and opinion be known. Is being landed in many part of the world,intensively in the political arena, where democratical practices, of the mathematical tyrani 0f the 51% and lapses between election, became an unsustainable ground for develoment and long term solutions for neeeded and excluded, specially where changing priorities and strategies very often, did supply the best govt and investement practices to foster development. The ICT have much too do with this, but the citizenship can not be trapped by this light approach of sending messages, has placed some trend setters that not necessary want to go all the way with the Compromise at community level,consulting and not directing, empowering people and not thenselves and shoeten distance an time between the citizens and the solutions. The human rights code and all other universal binding to human development have to be appropiately implemented in the gov institutions and private enterprises,

Submitted by Dimitra Mikou on

After being participant in this value-adding MOOC, I realized that such participations act gradually as cultural transformers, enabling us either as citizens or as officials/participating to istitutes or decision-making centers, to aggregate experience on citizens engagement and governments accountability issues, to deepen inside weaknesses and challenge in both directions: transforming ourselves from individualism to participators, as well as contributing constructively to the change on issue Jeff Thindwa addressed "For citizen engagement to be a game changer in development one should look carefully at which specific mechanisms work best under which conditions".

Submitted by oyedipe seun owodele on

Citizen engagement is a two-way interaction between the citizens and government or private sector in a way that give citizens a stake in decision making process with the objective of improving development outcomes.Citizen engagement improves policy making and also ensure better service delivery by creating room for inclusion, transparency and accountability. As a result, this creates room for the capacity and voices of the citizens to be heard and a teeth: the government, private and public institutions capacity to act and respond in a transparent way.

Submitted by Ali Jadoon on

I believe government of developing countries in general do not feel good to involve citizens broadly in policy making or decision. It because of fragile democratic institutions and also ineffective civil society organization. I believe we need to think it in a different context, the context would be empowering citizens to speak for their rights, to build a knowledge based communities where everyone have or must have the courage to speak against corruption, irregularities.

Submitted by Manuel Greco on

A summary of my conclusions today and the result of learning in in this course and my first 73 years old and 50 like engaged citizen.
We presume that in the world there is little citizen participation.

Noting various governments of the world, this happens in decreasing to 1. open and institutionalized democracies, 2.democracias open but not so institutionalized, 3 and 4. authoritarian dictatorships democracies.

In spite of all the difficulties of the items 3 and 4, are concerned citizens who work and participate.

Both governments as type 3 type 4, are what are referred to as populist.

These populist governments play with passions, hopes and ideals of citizens to pledge what is impossible exploiting the misery of their citizens, leaving out absolutely every reason and logic in decision-making, playing with the need to simply impose a dictatorship, playing with the needs of our peoples.

"They love the poor that multiplies because you are looking multiplying misery to continue receiving a vote through any material object that people need to" dismantle the institutions and dominates its result: corruption.

In addition, a population without education, will not require its political debate with logic and reason and arguments and be easily manipulated by the passions

That is why, it is essential to prioritize education and through it entered from the first level thinking long term - need to go shaping the short- term - building committed and engaged citizens.

It is here, with the introduction of long-term obvious the need to reduce consumption, considering issues of climate change, the limits of growth, replacement of growth by developing and finding the paths of prosperity without growth.

Submitted by Tina on

Citizen engagement at whatever level needs to have committed leadership for it to be a game changer for development. Committed leadership will be open to trying a variety of approaches and a host of ICT tools--whatever works given the context. Committed leadership is also a shared leadership, among individuals and institutions, and must work from the ground up, deeply rooted in realities and will not be brought too far afield by frameworks of development.

Submitted by Erasmus Onwudinjo on

The designers of this course are unique in intelligence. the contents are enriching. The participants were initially gently carried along, and then deeply before they now it without stress. I have participated in courses of types and scope, but this one is, is, is, is ----. Dear organizers, I love you all for teaching and engaging me.

Submitted by Muhammad Salar Khan on

Great reflections. PIMA/Measure cards in Tanzania and Citizen report cards in India are filled by citizens. These initiatives suggest the active involvement of citizens in impact analysis of expenditures. Without seeking citizen's voice, the dream of inclusive development is a mirage.

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