Accountability Lab’s Civic Action Teams (CivActs) is a pioneering community voice and feedback process to close the loop on citizen challenges related to everything from migration and natural resource management, to the Covid-19 response and misinformation. At the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law annual conference in October, AL shared some of the creative ways that local governments are working with CSOs to disseminate important policy information in a resonant and inclusive way.

Speakers included Suresh Chand, Program Manager at AL Nepal, Tinotenda Chishiri, CivActs Projects Officer at AL Zimbabwe, and Amna Rajput, Projects Coordinator at AL Pakistan.

Chand outlined the objectives of the “Gov-Her-Nance” project under CivActs in Nepal which aims to bring new voices into the country’s patriarchal caste system and help find solutions to issues of gender equity, local development, and open government. Nepal has 753 local units and regulations make allowance for 2 female representatives out of a total of 5 in each ward or unit. And while the country also had a national Gender and Social Inclusion Policy to guide the work, the reality on the ground was very different with local representations “rubber stamping” political decisions and not making any real efforts to reach out to marginalised communities. “Their voices were not being heard as part of the decision-making processes. Marginalised communities were excluded from program development and implementation, which was controlled by male-dominated policy departments,” Chand said.

In Nepal, Gov-Her-Nance pioneered a community development feedback model with the Dhangadhi sub metropolitan city, holding a needs assessment workshop with the Deputy Mayor’s office to identify community priorities and challenges. Eighteen Inclusion Fellows were recruited (representing the LGBTQI+ and media sectors, and disabled people) and trained on advocacy, storytelling and filmmaking. They engaged with a variety of urban, peri-urban and rural communities, hosting policy dialogues centred on how to localise and embed Nepal’s gender equality and social inclusion policy. They also facilitated community-level budget consultation processes, helping implement a public participation model that created space for the inclusion of views from minority communities. In all, 17 proposals were adopted from minority communities and incorporated into a localised gender policy. Another key outcome concerned the composition of Nepal’s local consumer groups situated within local units to facilitate development processes around infrastructure projects such as road building projects. Whereas all groups were formerly male-led, the Gov-Her-Nance campaign helped introduce women into these roles, ensuring that 13 of the 47 consumer groups appointed women as leaders. 

In Zimbabwe, meanwhile, there is a dearth of trust between communities and local power-holders, with many CSOs working hard to institute greater collaboration between the parties. Chishiri explained: “Lots of citizens feel that they don’t have a voice, and that they are powerless to address community challenges.” The CivActs campaign set an objective of bolstering the relationship between citizens and local municipalities to foster a sense of accountability and greater levels of trust. Community Frontline Associates (CFAs) used a variety of offline and online methods including listening meetings and Whatsapp, to reach out particularly to women and youth representatives, positioning them as allies for local leaders to lean on in terms of co-creating solutions to development challenges. Sustained engagements ensued, building into a feedback model between the parties that first defined the challenges raised by communities through a process of community consultations, focus groups and surveys. Findings were fed back to communities via digital bulletins and community radio shows. “The idea is to equip citizens with information that can help them constructively engage with local councillors. The emphasis is on collaboration, co-creation and construction engagement. We found that local leaders are very willing to engage with citizens. The project was useful in fostering effective relationship building,” Chishiri said.

A case study was presented on the informal trade sector in Goromonzi. It was noted that while informal traders historically had hostile relationships with local authorities who routinely shut down stalls and confiscated goods, the CivActs process created a beneficial dialogue space for the parties so local authorities understood where development blockages were. The result was an infrastructure project that led to the construction of dedicated vending spaces for the trainers. “Local leaders gained an appreciation for including citizens in decision making. Meetings resulted in  local councillors adopting an open door policy  with vendors, which is not the norm in Zimbabwe.”

In Pakistan, the team identified remote regions for their CivActs campaign where communities were unable to access essential pandemic health information after the outbreak of Covid-19. CFAs from these communities were trained in how to identify and mitigate against fake news and Whatsapp groups were created for easy dissemination of validated health information. Digital bulletins and community radio inserts were also part of the distribution channels. Content was drafted purposefully in a way that was accessible and multilingual. “The CFAs also elevated youth voices, bringing forward stories of hope, resilience and positive behavior,” Rajput said. In another example, she raised the issue of the transgender community in Pakistan which is largely ostracised. Many transgender people were unvaccinated because they were not welcomed at any vaccination centres. The CFAs held awareness sessions, educating communities about trans rights, with the result that hundreds of remote-based trans people were slowly accepted at vaccination centres. 

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Speakers highlighted citizen participation as one of the great absentees in public policy in the Global South. In many cases, the legislative framework or the constitutional provisions seemed adequate but were insufficient in practice because of poor implementation. This creates opportunities for conflict and corruption. There is therefore a great need for facilitating strong cooperation platforms between local power-holders and communities. In most cases cited, local authorities were very supportive of these processes – particularly as engagements were constructive and focused on co-creating solutions. “Local authorities quickly realised that we were not coming to attack them, but to discuss how to help solve development challenges,” Chand said.

The CivActs model was also successful because of a focus on the levers that motivate local authorities to respond to citizen demands where it hadn’t happened previously. Further, community dialogues were not based on emotions but on hard evidence driven by the use of widespread citizen surveys. “Using a less confrontational approach – but also using an evidence-based approach – motivated responses from local authorities,” Chishiri said. She added: “Citizens realizing the power of their voices does wonders for political accountability.”

Chand shared that another success factor of the program was involving local government departments to participate in the campaign from inception, helping design the project before implementation. This was a key incentive for local authorities. “We also gathered citizen feedback on the project design. Everyone felt included which ensured participation from beginning to end,” he said.