27 Feb 2012

So what have we learnt? Summarising lessons from Maji Matone Phase 1

I realise that this blog has already devoted a lot of space to the recent failure of our Maji Matone programme. Or to be more precise, to the failure of the programme's first phase. Another post risks boring readers by going over the same ground. But previous posts have left some lose ends that need tying up, and we shouldn't forget that the programme has had some successes as well as failures. So it's time for one final post in this series*, trying to bring together all the main lessons from the programme in one place and looking forward to Maji Matone Phase 2. 

So what did we learn?

First, our biggest conclusion is that motivating citizens to take action is difficult, and that difficulty is even greater when the target audience is rural and when the action being requested in narrowly focussed on a reporting a single issue. Rural communities face greater obstacles to engagement, including lower levels of education and literacy, lower access to mobile phone networks and electricity supplies for charging phones, and lower levels of disposable cash income. Low expectations of what government will be able to deliver, and therefore also of what the benefit of sending a message to the programme, were also a barrier to engagement.

Second, the programme had a good record at converting problems reported by citizens into actions taken by local government and ultimately into repaired waterpoints. From 53 reports received from rural citizens in the 3 pilot districts, actions were taken to repair waterpoints in at least 21 cases (40%). This was achieved by providing district water departments with a new source of information on problems with rural waterpoints, and by publicising both the reported problems and the actions taken in response. The power of the media to provide public scrutiny and to "concentrate the mind" of local government has been clearly demonstrated by this experience.

But it would not be fair to the District Water Engineers in our three pilot districts to say that their only motivation to respond to reports was the threat of exposure in the media. The communications challenge that they face is serious - they simply didn't have a workable channel for receiving reports of water supply problems from rural areas. And they were grateful to us for providing them with a new source of information.

Third, though the programme began with a heavy focus on "getting the technology right", it soon became clear that there were several technological options that would serve the programme's needs and that the programme's main challenge would be the human challenge of persuading people to engage with our technology, rather than either a hardware or software issue.

Fourth, the programme began with a twin focus on sustainability and equity in rural water supply. However, slow progress with the government's Water Sector Development Programme (see section 2) made it effectively impossible to focus on equity (while no planning decisions were being made), and revealed a number of other serious obstacles to access to clean and safe water in rural areas. This includes a widespread lack of awareness among rural citizens and even local government officials of national policy with regard to rural water supply, poor planning and management at national government level resulting in massively scaled-down implementation of the WSDP in rural areas, low levels of attention given to rural water supply issues in the national media and national politics.

And what comes next?

Well, we're still finalising the design of Maji Matone phase 2, but it is likely to include the following:

1. A citizen-monitors network of trained volunteers conducting a simple survey of waterpoint functionality and water-related household practices in rural Tanzania, using mobile phones for data entry and transfer. What proportion of rural waterpoints are functioning? What water sources are households using for different purposes? How satisfied are rural Tanzanians with the state of water supply services? Etc. This idea builds on both the Uwezo programme in the education sector here in East Africa and the ASHWAS programme run bArghyam in South-West India.

2. Media-focussed advocacy work, both at national and local levels, drawing heavily on the findings of the citizen-monitors network's surveys.

3. Open channels for citizen reporting, maintaining a link with Maji Matone phase 1, using a wide range of reporting channels including phone, SMS, email and online. 

The idea is to reduce the programme's dependence on motivating citizens to engage, working instead mainly with trained and supported volunteers, while not abandoning citizen reporting entirely. We also want to build on the main success of phase 1 - the demonstrated power of the media - and to broaden the programme's focus so that it addresses obstacles to sustainable rural water supply services at the level of national government as well as local. 

Will this work? Well, it's still an innovative programme working in a difficult context, so we can't be 100% confident. But we're optimistic that by learning lessons from phase 1 and reducing the programme's dependence on persuading members of the public to engage, we have every chance of success. And whatever happens, we will make sure you're kept informed. 

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* For the sake of completeness and transparency, there will be further posts on this topic, when the evaluators' report is finalised, for example, and a short video presentation as well. At some point we may also post a reflection on the experience of embracing and admitting failure so publicly.