20 Feb 2012

Why did Maji Matone fail? 3. Citizens' engagement, risk and apathy?

"If you're scared as well, let's just leave it."
This is the third post in a series exploring possible reasons why Maji Matone hasn't worked. The first post looked at the challenge of making the technology fit the context, specifically rural Tanzania. And the second looked at some specific challenges related to rural water supply. A final post will try to summarise what we've learnt from the experience. 

Why did Maji Matone fail? 3. Citizens' engagement, risk and apathy?

When Madeleine Bunting of the (UK) Guardian interviewed the head of Twaweza, Rakesh Rajani, she reported his concerns that in Tanzania
"there is still a deferential culture towards the government, and people don't have that sense of agency that something could – and should – be changed. That sense of entitlement that government services can and should work, is what Rajani is trying to provoke. It is basic to the way western democracies work, so it's hard to appreciate how its absence shapes a political culture. But Rajani hopes this is finally changing, and that a new generation will use the contemporary technologies of communication to transform how countries are governed and public services delivered."
Our Maji Matone programme, delivered with Twaweza as our main partners, represents both the hope and the fear expressed in that passage. The hope - that new communications technologies can transform the relationship between citizens and their government - is exactly what Maji Matone was trying to deliver. The fear - that widespread apathy and a low sense of entitlement undermine political accountability - is one possible reason why the programme failed. Perhaps we didn't get many messages because people felt that there was no point, that nothing would change as a result?

An SNV report (pdf) on Public Expenditure Tracking in Tanzania from a few years back elicited a depressing but poetic response from one respondent:
"What do we expect from our government? It is like the rain: if it does not rain we try to survive, when it rains we are grateful."
And we found similar findings from our own study on citizens' attitudes towards local government in Njombe, Ludewa and Makete (to be published / presented at the 2012 REPOA annual research workshop).
"The study found a widespread sense of powerlessness among citizens, a sense that there's nothing they can do to hold local government to account." (p.i)
"Powerlessness of citizens has made them fear to form and/or join movements to raise issues, question the actions of leaders or fight for their rights." (p.30)
We were aware of all this when we designed the Maji Matone programme. We knew that although calls for government action were the typical response to any problem, expectations of what government would actually provide were low.

So we put a huge effort into promotion of the service, on radio and through posters and flyers. Which, according to our reviews, did a reasonably good job - enough people knew about the programme. There is always room for more reinforcement of messages, though, particularly when those messages are about asking people to take action. And we had to find a way of motivating people to send messages with details of how their information would be used without creating unrealistic expectations or making grand promises. That's a tough balance, and we may have got it wrong.

We also knew that anyone speaking out publicly to report problems was putting him/herself at risk of reprisals from powerful local leaders, particularly in rural villages where everyone knows everyone else and since a common reason for broken down waterpoints going unrepaired is that someone in authority has misappropriated the maintenance money.

So we tried to find ways of reducing that risk, helped by the technology that made the reporting of problem a less public, less visible matter. Anyone could send us a text message without other people knowing who it came from. But protecting people's anonymity was difficult when we did receive messages - District Water Engineers wanted to contact the sender to get more details of the problem. And more particularly, our qualitative review of the pilot programme found that people were still worried that sending a message would somehow earn them a reputation for being a troublemaker.

The same review also found strong evidence of low general expectations from water programmes - that a long history of unfulfilled promises from politicians, government, NGOs and others have fed a perception that promises made in relation to water supply services are worthless.

In one sense, then, this is another obstacle to engagement that is particularly challenging in rural areas. And perhaps it is also a particularly challenging obstacle in the water sector, though I suspect expectations are similarly low in other sectors.

But it is more complicated than that. The obstacles to engagement discussed in an earlier post in this series, such as low literacy and poor access to electricity for phone charging, are things we can do little about and have to simply accept as part of the context we're working in. Apathy and low expectations are different. Part of the reason for setting up the programme was to challenge the culture of apathy, and to be part of a wider effort (through Twaweza) to replace this with a culture of citizens' agency - citizens taking action to hold government to account and to improve their own lives.

This is something we still believe in very strongly and are not prepared to give up on. And we still believe that communications technologies offer opportunities to do this.

Perhaps we were too ambitious in trying to go straight to rural communities to create this culture of citizens' agency. After all, cultural change of any kind tends to be driven by urban society, with more conservative rural communities playing catch up. But that's not a satisfactory answer either, as it is in rural communities where the culture of apathy is strongest and in greatest need of being challenged.

Finally, let me link into an interesting public debate on Tanzanian cynicism and apathy that's been going on recently. Whether it's MG Vassanji's description of Tanzania as "a land of constant complaints", or Karim F. Hirji in the East African "Why so gloomy, Tanzania?", there are those who see undue negativity and cynicism. There's certainly something in that view, which is arguably both a cause and effect of the rise of Chadema as a meaningful opposition party. But others see the opposite, such as Hafiz Juma, with his direct response to Vassanji's article.

And anyway, complaining is easy; taking action is something else altogether.