Bruised but better: the stronger case for evidence-based activism in East Africa

March 22, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Varja Lipovsek
Aidan Eyakuze

Wrapping up Twaweza week, Varja Lipovsek (left) and Aidan Eyakuze reflect on the event that has provided the last week’s posts

It was a stormy couple of days in Dar es Salaam. First, it is the rainy season, so the tent in which we held our meeting flapped and undulated over our heads like a loose sail. More importantly, we crammed the tent with more than fifty sharp, articulate, thoughtful, and driven individuals who for two days pored over, picked apart – and also suggested how to reassemble – the main areas of work and future strategic direction for Twaweza East Africa. It was our Ideas & Evidence event, and boy was it a good ride!

We are Twaweza: an initiative working on enabling citizens to exercise agency, promoting governments to be more open and responsive, and improving basic learning for children in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Since our start in 2009, we still hold at our core the democratic ideal that lasting change is driven by the actions of motivated citizens. Granted – that core idea was felt to have much more traction ten years ago, when it seemed (naively in retrospect) that the world order was generally tending towards a greater embrace of rights and democratic values, more openness and a deeper connection between citizens and government.

A short decade later, the world has changed. The speed and depth of the pivot to authoritarianism by governments and to cynicism by citizens are alarming. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the countries where Twaweza works, have not been immune to these dark developments. Kenya’s constitutional and electoral crisis in 2017, Uganda’s scrapping of age limits for its presidency in the same year, and Tanzania’s steady slide into use of restrictive legislations and the use of deadly force by incumbent leaders and their agents (both official and otherwise) are the tip of the iceberg.

So there we were, in a tent full of activists, researchers, policy wonks, and a few government folks, from East Africa and far afield, talking about what we have learned over the last decade, what this all means in the current environment, and where we ought to go next. Rather than summarise the very rich conversations, we want to highlight key navigation points that have started to crystalize for us and which will be instrumental in shaping our new strategy.

The necessary fuss about ‘evidence’. There was an impassioned debate running through the event about what constitutes evidence, including Duncan’s own musings on this theme. But why are we becoming so shy about producing and using evidence? Almost as if we are falling prey to the defeatist “post-truth” notion, as if there is something shameful – or at least quaintly old-fashioned – in intellectually rigorous thought. We understand and support the clarification that the search for evidence does not just mean conducting randomized controlled trials (i.e., boiling out the context until there’s nothing left but a few hard kernels of “truth”). For us, the search for evidence is being in the thick of it: trying to unpack a complex problem into various components (such as, why do the public education systems in East Africa continue to fail to achieve even basic level of learning among our children?), and then examining those components with the most appropriate tools, while remaining aware of the context within which the problem is steeped.

This brings us to another key theme that arose, which was the call for a tight(er) link between evidence and action. Indeed, every single research study we conduct is directly linked to a program, or initiative we are implementing. Very many of them are evaluations, prompting Duncan to quip that we seem to be producing lots of evidence of what does not work. True, but as James Habyarimana put it, a “zero point” is a supremely important piece of insight, particularly when advising government policy implementation. If we can continue to demonstrate that the decisions taken in East Africa about how to improve learning outcomes are not yielding results, then perhaps we stand a better chance of turning the discussion towards the evidence of what does seem to work. This resonates with Rosie McGee’s presentation about the effectiveness of civic tech: 4+ years and 187 grants later, we can say what tech will not do for governance. It can be really frustrating, but it is also infinitely better than insisting we have solutions when we don’t. Such brutal honesty may allow us to nudge that discussion further.

Putting the human back into the design. How one communicates the various types of evidence is supremely important, starting by being very clear to whom you want to communicate it to, and understanding what that person (or group) is likely to respond to, depending on what are the motivations and barriers around the issue. The insights from Togolani Mavura on what government really listens and responds to were really great – though as our colleague Ben Taylor pointed out, what the government doesn’t like listening to is as important as what it likes; e.g., independent media is an often “disliked” but crucial voice in the public dialogue. Twaweza engages with government along multiple tracks. One is the shaping of public discourse through data, including data journalism and opinion polling. This is the track that seeks to hold a mirror up to government claims, fully aware that sometimes the picture won’t be pretty. Another track, however, is a deeply embedded role which we are just starting to take on in Tanzania, where we are working closely with two key ministries to implement a teacher motivation program (whose power to boost learning outcomes we showed) through government’s own systems. In other words, we have been going with the grain when the going is our direction of travel. But we have also been ready to go against the grain, when the grain sucks (thanks Alan and Ruth for these insights!).

There are no shortcuts to being grounded. We may be starting to understand what prompts governments to engage, but we seem to know even less about what compels citizens to engage with evidence and take action (see Ruth Carlitz’s post). But beyond the research findings, the activists in the room were unanimous that if we are serious about this, there is no substitute for good old fashioned community level engagement (in the search for both evidence and for solutions). We heard loud and clear from Tamasha Vijana, African Youth Development Link and Shahidi wa Maji about the importance of participatory action research, understanding the localized needs, opportunities, barriers and incentives faced by the citizen groups in focus, and also by local government as it (tries to) respond. We are fortunate to already be working with a group of grounded activists and look forward to deepening some of these relationships and learning from them.

So what next for Twaweza? We are currently deep in the drafting of the new strategy, and would welcome the opportunity to share it in the near future. For now, here is the direction of travel:

Twaweza’s core mission remains to make sure that the democratic space in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda does not shrink further, and perhaps even regains some lost ground. We shall employ and deploy all manner of evidence, tactics and communication and persuasion tools to this effect.

The centrality of citizens as the energy that drives pro-democratic change has been put squarely back on Twaweza’s agenda. This includes generating grounded, participatory evidence, creating a tighter link between evidence and action at local levels, connecting with local governance, and engaging with “street-level” civil servants.

Our desire for scale remains ambitious, but it has evolved. No longer just the thin, horizontal scale aiming to simply touch many (sometimes known as the “spray and pray” approach); it will be more ‘vertical’, starting with deeply grounded understanding of needs, barriers and opportunities around a specific governance problem, deliberately percolating the issue up the system, to connect the various levels of governance, from wards to districts and counties, to national policy. We have much to learn here from friends and colleagues such as Dejusticia in Colombia, and grounded academic groups such as ARC and GOV/LAB.

Within the realm of democratic rights, the quality of basic education occupies a central role (for so many reasons: because we have a youth bulge, because it’s the first encounter between citizens and state, because no country has ever really progressed without investing substantively in public education…), and we will continue to push for improvements in education as a right in and of its own, and as a space to demonstrate the possibilities of pro-social engagement between citizens and state.

Overall, we emerged a little bit bruised (which is good) but mostly energized (even better!) from the two day storm in the tent. The sharp, honest and thoughtful discussions allowed us to examine the core essence of what Twaweza stands for, what we do, and how to do it better.

We are deeply grateful to everyone who gave us their time, energy and insights.