Buntwani is a Swahili word for the open air space in rural African communities where people congregate to discuss issues of common interest, meet with elders or other local leaders and formally receive guests from other villages. It is also the name of an event organized by Open Institute through which they facilitate conversation, learning and knowledge exchange on citizen engagement in Africa.
This year’s Buntwani was held at the University of Dar es Salaam’s dLab on 4th to 6th September. It was the second time I was present for a Buntwani event and I found the meeting to be an engaging and enlightening experience. The opportunity to meet a diverse group of practitioners working on improving citizen engagement in governance was a space for cross-pollination of ideas and space for candid discussion that is hard to find.
A few themes remained in my field of view for weeks after the meet up and in a way may provide a departure point for the next collective heave by practitioners in improving citizen engagement in the region. Two of these are top of mind for me going forward and take the form of the following questions:
- How to get a community of practice that goes beyond technology and data and into the more ‘offline’ areas of innovation that exist?
- How do we ensure innovations that are rolled-out don’t create a scenario where some in our populations are left behind?
Beyond Technology and Data
Citizen engagement, as a sub-sector of the broader governance, transparency and accountability movement has for the most part been associated with technology-heavy approaches and a global-north leaning narrative. However, citizen engagement and public participation were a core part of traditional African culture, from Cape to Cairo. In placing a great emphasis on technology and open data it is likely we stopped strengthening what already worked in the past. Such as the local Buntwani as both a physical space and a cultural construct.
Those grappling with the challenges of improving or strengthening citizen engagement are not just civil society actors, local administrators and national government officials struggle with this all the time. Especially in countries where the law requires significant consultations to be had before any law or policy is finalized or implemented. For many of these, technology tools do not provide them with an adequate platform other than for making announcements. Something more is needed. There’s a good chance that the lessons needed to inform the next generation of approaches to improving public participation lies in the past. Finding ways to discuss this at the local level, connect with ideas from other regions and explore opportunities for mixed approaches could help practitioners find both tech and non-tech innovations that will work for their context. And that is what a community of practice is all about. But how do we create such a platform and ensure it delivers real value for local civil society, local administrators as well as national level policy innovators?
Leaving No One Behind
There are those whose voices are not heard and who do not get the opportunity to participate in shaping the decisions that will change their lives and those of their children.
They have been left behind and as we increasingly idolize technology-driven approaches to the exclusion of ‘old school’ methods we continue to leave them behind.
There are definitely instances where a technology-driven approach is most suitable due to a variety of factors including cost, scale and ubiquity. However, even in those instances there are sections of the population that are not able to benefit. Technology adoption occurs on a bell curve over time meaning at some point along the scale, innovations will leave some behind. Those most at risk of being left out are the elderly, vulnerable groups such as displaced persons and women. How do we roll out innovations in ways that still maintain or strengthen pathways for service delivery and citizen engagement that have been in use by people for a long time? What frameworks can be designed to help practitioners take into account factors necessary for progress while moving the needle on efficiency and effectiveness?
These represent future areas of work by the community, through research or participation (such as in the CoP), that would contribute to the realization of the Africa we want over the next few decades. It won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all if we don’t get started today.
I look forward to the formation of the community of practice and to the insights on what works best that are sure to emerge from local practitioners.