Can Evidence-based Activism still bring about change? The view from East Africa

March 14, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Ideas & Evidence conference

Spent last week defrosting in Tanzania, at a fascinating conference that produced so many ideas for blogs that, even if all the promised pieces don’t materialize, we’re going to have to have a ‘Twaweza week’ on FP2P. Here’s the first instalment.

I’m buzzing and sleep deprived after getting back from an intense two days in Dar es Salaam, reviewing the strategy of one of my favourite NGOs. Twaweza works in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, and is in my experience unique in its deep and simultaneous commitment to civic activism, social change at scale and rigorous research, focusing in particular on improving the lamentable quality of primary education in East Africa.

Relying on a miracle

I first got involved with them back in 2013, at a point where their research had found that their hugely ambitious efforts had produced precious little in the way of results. But instead of burying the findings, they summoned people from all over the world to discuss them. Respect. That was where I first came upon my all-time favourite cartoon (see left). And I’ve been trying to understand ‘then a miracle occurs’ ever since.

We had an exchange of blog posts in 2013, and Varja Lipovsek and Rakesh Rajani, both at Twaweza at that point, summed up where they wanted to go next:

  • move beyond the ‘Magic Sauce’ of access to information as a driver of change
  • Political economy analysis as standard
  • Focus on the interstices between citizen and state
  • Understand the barriers to poor people’s agency
  • Think about Positive Deviance
  • Iterate and adapt
  • Don’t give up on scale

Fast forward to 2018, and I think this checklist is still where a lot of the more interesting work on accountability and governance is at.

But the world has changed since 2013, not least in the area of accountability and civil society participation. There has been a flowering of thinking and practice on institutional reform and governance, but there is a weird disconnect: the ‘Doing Development Differently’ and ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ types working on institutional reform seem barely on speaking terms with organizations like Twaweza and the whole ‘open government’ and transparency movement, even though they are often thinking and acting on parallel tracks. That weakens the thinking and practice of both groups: DDD people are often far too dismissive of civil society as a bottom-up driver of change; transparency and accountability people aren’t thinking hard enough about how to understand and ‘work with the grain’ of informal institutions and states.


More generally, the zeitgeist has not been kind to Twaweza’s original project, built on evidence and support for civil society. Governments and policy makers are more ready to dismiss evidence in these post-truth times, and civil society is under siege in dozens of countries (including all 3 of Twaweza’s). Which leads to two big questions:

To what extent should Twaweza focus on defending civil society space, even if it currently looks like a losing battle in many countries? Or (like the International Budget Partnership, which it resembles in some ways), should it further diversify its partners to non-CSOs, eg working more with private sector, or faith leaders, the judiciary or sympathetic politicians and officials?

I had an even bigger question on its understanding and use of ‘evidence’. Twaweza’s commitment to it is laudable, but it’s main value so far seems to have been in proving what doesn’t work – an impressively transparent process of unlearning and questioning initial assumptions, coming up with new ideas and then testing them in turn. That was particularly the case at the 2013 soul-searching. Since then, it feels like some of the engagement with academics has slightly lost its mojo – the researchers are burrowing away on questions such as what makes voters switch parties, that are of great interest to political scientists, but not obviously relevant to Twaweza. The gulf between the researchers and the activists at the seminar seemed wider this time, with the activists more sceptical about the value of some of the research, and insisting that what constitutes ‘data’ had to emerge from communities. I got very excited about updating Robert Chambers – from ‘handing over the stick’ to ‘handing over the click’ (I’m shallow like that). What’s the best thing to read on bottom up construction of data?

But I still think Twaweza should stick to its ambitions on scale (Rakesh originally got my attention by saying Twaweza didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t going to reach at least 2 million people). So if evidence and access to information aren’t enough to trigger the elusive miracle, are there any alternatives? Two emerged during the course of discussions:

Deviating from the norm
Spot the outlier

Positive Deviance: Twaweza is using PD to identify high performing schools in poor areas of all 3 countries. It’s a fascinating attempt to apply one of my favourite ideas on the ground, and Sheila Wamahiu has promised to write a post for FP2P on the experience.

Social Network Analysis: I was interested in this recent LSE post about applying SNA in fragile states, and wondered if Twaweza could get to scale by identifying the nodal individuals, communities or organizations on any given issue, and targeting them – after all, as Malcolm Gladwell described years ago in Tipping Point, marketing departments have been doing it for years.

These are big challenges and big ideas, but if any organization has the ambition and the smarts to pull it off, it’s Twaweza.

Anyway, I’ve run out of space. Lots more to come. Twaweza want right of reply to this post, 8 people attending the seminar promised to write blogs on their work, and I have at least two others of my own to churn out – a very productive couple of days!

(Full disclosure: Twaweza paid for my flights and hotel)

Update: Here’s MIT GOV/LAB’s Alisa Zomer’s summary of the event