We want to hear from you: digital forums and community trust in local government in Somalia

BY Isatou Batonon, Liam Perret | April 5, 2018|Comments 0

Good news and Somalia are words that rarely appear in the same sentence. The country is slowly emerging from decades of conflict and recurrent drought, and continues to be the victim of tragic terrorist attacks, the most recent and deadliest of which occurred in October 2017. And yet, there is positive news to report. Somalia successfully organized presidential elections in February 2017, a major milestone for a country that has long been plagued by political instability. Other signs of progress include the formation of new federal member states and, most recently, of district councils. It is the establishment of these local governance structures, which are closest to the population and best placed to respond to local needs, which offer the most promising opportunities for successful state-building in Somalia.

Seizing opportunities and addressing gaps

As the district council formation and local governance process extends to new member states over the coming months, the quality of relationships between local government and citizens will become increasingly important. A local governance foundation based on trust, cooperation and legitimacy is critical to realizing greater stability and security in the country.

It is in this context that we, the Somalia Resident Coordinator’s Office/Peace-building Fund Secretariat and UNICEF Somalia, developed a joint initiative aimed at giving voice to community priorities and concerns, and stimulating dialogue between local government officials and their constituents in two key districts: Baidoa and Kismayo. Our Daldhis project is funded under the Voice pillar of the UN DOCO Delivering Together for Sustainable Development Facility and implemented through the Joint Programme on Local Governance and Decentralized Service Delivery, a multi-agency UN programme which supports the establishment of legitimate and functional local government across Somalia.

We want to hear from you

The in-depth consultations we held with federal, state and district officials at the start of the initiative revealed that, not only were these stakeholders wanting to hear from their constituents, but they were also eager to interact directly with them on the issues that citizens care about. District and state officials have generally been confined to the capital cities and been unable to conduct any outreach in the community. Drought-related population movements and low levels of access due to chronic insecurity, both of which have disproportionately affected this part of the country, have all posed challenges to stronger engagement between local authorities and their constituents. There is subsequently a real demand for cost-effective, accessible and open spaces for public engagement and dialogue.

Public officials expressed to us their eagerness to hear from citizens about the quality of service delivery, security and public participation in decision-making. There was also interest in understanding the public’s perception of government efforts to integrate the large numbers of IDPs and former refugees who have arrived in Kismayo district in particular.

While government authorities are the primary beneficiaries of this initiative, we and other implementing partners also lack the means to conduct real time community level surveys that can serve programme implementation and the needs of their government partners. Nuanced feedback gathered from citizens in pre-existing and valued social spaces can be useful in making the policies and services delivered by government and implementing partners more responsive to the needs of citizens.

Establishing the interactive forum and building engagement

As part of the UN Country Team, UNICEF, in partnership with Africa Voices Foundation, designed a research and citizen engagement initiative based on the community scorecard methodology. While this approach has been tried before in more stable parts of the country, the challenge in southern Somalia was to establish large-scale and inclusive forums for citizen-government dialogue that are unhindered by barriers of insecurity or access.

Given the extent of mobile phone penetration and reach of radio in Somalia, it was decided to base the initiative around SMS messaging and interactive radio in Baidoa and Kismayo. Five radio stations were selected across the two districts – including a mixture of independent and government owned radio stations to ensure greater engagement public engagement and a diverse range of opinions in the radio discussions.

Each week questions on service delivery, security, civic engagement and returnee integration are disseminated through radio broadcasts across the target districts. Citizens then respond via toll-free SMS messages with their opinion/perspective on the topic. These messages are analysed by Africa Voices Foundation to provide in-depth insight into citizen perceptions on priority topics, and how they vary by demographic group. In the first instance, this analysis provides the key talking points for monthly interactive radio consultations. Emerging themes, trends and illustrative messages are read out on air in conversation with policymakers and government officials who are given the opportunity to respond and interact with callers. The analysis also serves to amplify citizen voices as robust forms of evidence for decision-making.

The first of two rounds of the scorecard exercise has recently been completed. The first set of questions have focused on citizen perceptions of service delivery, security and local government roles and priorities. 1,055 people engaged through SMS in the two districts over the first three weeks, with especially strong reach among youth (68% of respondents were under 24 years), IDPs, those in urban centres and those with secondary or higher levels of education. Key findings from analysis of citizen feedback show that:

  • Men, older people and those with higher education and were all more likely to be dissatisfied with local government services than other audience members.
  • The narratives used by citizens to proclaim satisfaction with service delivery often focused on perceptions of overall positive change in their environment, rather than predetermined notions of what government should deliver.
  • Those dissatisfied with local government performance often discussed this in terms of government failing to live up to certain political values, whether they were transparency, fairness or abiding by Somali cultural and religious norms. They also mentioned a range of services that they perceived as lacking including education, healthcare, infrastructure and water and sanitation.
  • There was a clear lack of consensus amongst radio audiences on which institution(s) should be responsible for security. Many voices pointed to the community and citizens themselves as being the primary arbiters of security, rather than any formal institution.

We shared these findings in the form of reports produced in English and Somali with local authorities. We recently organized the first of two radio shows in Baidoa and Kismayo and included key representatives from local and state level government who were interviewed based on the concerns that citizens had raised.

Radio and citizen feedback

State and district authorities have reported being satisfied with the radio format as a way of disseminating their work to the public, and value it as a space to hear and respond to citizen perspectives on their work. They also see value in using citizen feedback to guide civic education efforts, particularly as the district council formation process intensifies in Jubbaland and Southwest states.

Public engagement: A key lesson we learned is that an initiative such as this one should remain flexible and adapt to trending topics so as to remain relevant and build public engagement. Participation from the public and from local government officials has not been as strong in Kismayo as it has been in Baidoa. Kismayo district has been at the centre of ongoing political tensions between the Federal Government of Somalia and the Federal Member States, as each vies for their share of power and resources under the new federalism arrangements. Representatives of the Member States met in Kismayo recently to discuss their grievances with the Federal Government and this coincided with the first round of the scorecard. The airwaves were dominated by discussions about these tensions (and of the deadly terror attack that had just taken place), and this left little room for public engagement on the scorecard questions which focused on service delivery. While this can be difficult to achieve within the context of a small pilot project, a longer-term intervention should be able to tap into initiatives like the Somalia Big Data project implemented by the UN Global Pulse to identify and leverage trending topics.

Technology: Using new technologies increases the reach and inclusivity of citizen engagement but it also comes with limitations: FM radio coverage is mainly focused on urban areas and use of SMS responses means that those with very low levels of literacy may be excluded. This is also reflected in the demographic breakdown of respondents, as described previously. However, the literacy barrier may be overcome in the future with the introduction of other technologies such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR). The reach of shortwave radio may also increase participation from rural areas.

Findings: The nature of the SMS and radio-based scorecard means that it is not possible to gain a ‘representative’ sample of respondents from which to calculate statistics that can be generalised (e.g. x% of people believe that public services are of poor quality). However, this initiative seeks to unearth rich qualitative data that can provide the ‘why’ behind trends and public opinion that surveys fail to provide. Moreover by ensuring diversity in the discussions, and drawing comparisons between groups (e.g. men and women, IDPs and non-IDPs), it is possible to discuss how perception varies between them.

The finding that women, younger and less educated respondents were perhaps less willing to criticize government performance than their male, older and more educated counterparts was of particular interest to government officials as it suggests the need for greater engagement with this segment of the population in order to solicit and respond to their feedback.

Radio stations and citizen-state dialogue: This is the first time that government-run radio stations are engaging in an initiative such as this one in Somalia. The project is providing an opportunity to build the capacity of these radio stations and strengthen their role as facilitators of citizen-state dialogue and cooperation.

The space we created through SMS and radio has also opened up opportunities for citizens to discuss issues that fall outside of the scope of the intervention. For example, a number of messages have focused on Somali values and government’s relationship with al-Shabaab. This suggests that there is real potential for such an initiative to promote broader debate and dialogue in Somali society.

As we move  into the second and final round of questions and radio shows focusing on citizen engagement and reintegration issues, there will be more opportunities for the Somali government and its development partners to better understand how constructive relationships can be fostered and sustained between citizens and local governments, as they seek to build the foundations for inclusive, effective and accountable local governance in Somalia.

PHOTO: Internews Europe

 

Authors


Isatou Batonon Isatau is Social Policy Specialist / JPLG Coordinator at UNICEF Somalia. You can follow her on Linkedin.
Liam Perret Liam is Peacebuilding Fund Coordinator at the UN Resident Coordinator Office in Somalia. You can follow him on Linkedin.
Tags:
Collective Intelligence, Real Time Monitoring, SMS

Authors


Isatou Batonon Isatau is Social Policy Specialist / JPLG Coordinator at UNICEF Somalia. You can follow her on Linkedin.
Liam Perret Liam is Peacebuilding Fund Coordinator at the UN Resident Coordinator Office in Somalia. You can follow him on Linkedin.

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