Why the way we vote matters for fighting poverty

2016 is a big year for voting.  The result of EU referendum sent shockwaves through the UK and around the world. The outcome of Colombia’s referendum vote surprised many and numerous national elections from the Philippines to Uganda have taken place. All eyes are now of course on the US as the election battle enters its final days.

The relationship between democracy and development has preoccupied experts and policy makers for decades. Most work focusses on the causal link between the two.  Is democracy a pre-requisite for development? Can you have development in an autocracy?  And what does democracy mean anyway?

There is universal agreement that free and fair elections are critical to a true democracy. However, much less attention has been paid to the way people vote and the impact on development outcomes.

This year, after a decade working on international development in the public and not for profit sectors, I spent some time working for a voting technology company. They provide everything from biometric technology to internet voting all around the world. Before I started I hadn’t thought a lot about the mechanics of how you actually vote and the impact it could have on development. But the more I got into my job the more I realised how intertwined they are.

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The benefits of electronic voting

The easier we make it for people to vote the more likely they are to do so. The more they trust the result the more likely they are to turn up to the ballot box. The faster the result is known the less instability there is likely to be. Technology can play a role in all of this.  From internet voting making it more convenient for people to vote at home or on their mobiles to biometric technology stamping out fraud at the ballot box, technology can boost  legitimacy of elections in many ways.

In its 2016 ‘Digital Dividends’ report, the World Bank noted that ‘digital technologies help enable the poor to vote by providing them with robust identification and by curtailing fraud and intimidation’. The report also suggests that digital technologies have made elections freer and fairer by improving voter registration and reducing errors. A fascinating study by Thomas Fujiwara of Princeton University found that in Brazil, the introduction of electronic voting made it easier for poorer people to vote, significantly increasing their participation. This led to the election of parties who increased spending on public health, a priority issue for those newly enfranchised voters, which in turn resulted in better infant health outcomes.

This month, a new publication authored by prominent election experts and which I helped to bring together– The Future of Elections offers further food for thought.  The contributors include Professor Jega, the acclaimed former head of Nigeria’s Electoral Commission, Dr Bam who ran South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) for 12 years from 1999 and Dr Quraishi, formerly India’s Chief Election Comissioner.

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What next?

There are three key elements which jumped out at me:

Firstly, innovation is happening in the most unlikely places: countries leading the way in digital democracy are not those you might suspect. For example, the voting technology used in the USA, the home of Silicon Valley, is in urgent need of updating.  And, the fact that we continue to vote in the UK with a pen and paper and meagre identify checks is frankly absurd. In contrast, India first began using voting technology in the 1980s revolutionising the participation of illiterate voters at the ballot box. In 2015, Nigeria used biometric technology to significantly increase credibility in its elections and huge countries like Brazil and the Philippines have used electronic counting to deliver almost instantaneous results significantly reducing the incidence of electoral violence.

Secondly, we need more evidence: whilst the essays provide good qualitative evidence on the role of technology, there is still not enough thorough analysis- especially on the benefits it could bring for particular groups. For example, would technology encourage more women, who due to work/home obligations and safety concerns may be less likely to go to the polling booth, to vote? Another area which needs urgent attention, as a recent report from the Atlantic Council highlights, is whether technology lowers the cost of elections.  For many low-income countries this could mean significant savings and more to invest elsewhere.

Thirdly, trust in technology still needs improving: many people are still sceptical about the use of technology in elections, although the benefits are clear. A joined up effort from business, the international community and those governments who have seen at first hand the benefits it can bring could help change that.

The Sustainable Development Goals and Democracy

So how can the linkages between elections and development be strengthened? The Sustainable Development Goals say little on this- democracy is only once explicitly mentioned and elections not at all.  On the plus side the inclusion of Goal 16 –‘To promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies’ was in itself an important step forward but,as the Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, has pointed out, one particular gap is ‘the failure to address the key instruments of representative democracy, namely parliaments or political parties’. Instead the targets are very broad talking about ensuring “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.

The broad nature of the targets is  however an opportunity–to interrogate how exactly that representative decision-making can be delivered and then to take action.  Specific targets to bolster voter turnout could have a huge impact on democracy, development and citizen trust by holding governments to account for their efforts to encourage people to turn out to vote (not just those that it is most in their interests to convince). Technology is by no means a silver bullet but it could be a vital part of the solution.

Within development there has been a lot of focus technology, for example in healthcare, education or disaster relief. Elections are an area that could do with much greater attention. Technology offers a golden opportunity to increase the legitimacy of elections but it will take a concerted effort and focus to make sure it benefits people in some of the poorest countries of the world.

Honouring Jo Cox by supporting women in politics

Jo Cox only used one qualifier when asked what kind of feminist she was.

“Massive”.

She believed in politics and the rightful role of women at the centre of power. She was forever pushing other women forward and was profoundly committed to supporting female candidates across the political spectrum. Inspired by her example and in her memory a few us hosted an event with Julia Gillard, designed to encourage women to consider a public life and give them the tools to change the world.

You can read Julia’s speech here and watch the whole event here:

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Before Julia spoke we heard from a range of amazing speakers about what they can offer women considering public life and what each of us can do. Suggestions ranged from getting involved in Campaign Bootcamp to amplifying the voices of other women (buying this book is a good place to start). There isn’t enough space here to do full justice to those speakers, so the most important practical step you can take is to watch and share the session as a whole. Then make a note in your diary, right now, to check in two months time how many of the things the speakers ask of you that you’ve done.

There is so much to be sad about in times like these, but much hope to be drawn from Julia Gillard’s message that power is not a dirty word and politics is not a dishonourable profession. Our Jo believed and embodied both those things and I hope this event helped set the next Jo Cox off on her journey. We must do all we can to support her on her way.

 

 

Land grabbers, be afraid, the Women of Kilimanjaro are coming for you

[Across Africa, tens of thousands of grassroots women activists have been organising rallies and mobilisations as part of #women2kilimanajro, a march and assembly for land rights. Hundreds of delegates met this week at the foot of Kilimanjaro, including representatives from each country who climbed Africa’s highest peak. This is Ben Phillips’s speech given at the conclusion of the assembly in honour of the Women of Kilimanjaro.]

It is a privilege to address this group of powerful women.

Why do men take land from women? Why do corporations take land from the people? Because they believe that you are weak. But you are not weak. You are powerful.

I have learnt from you how your power comes from three things.

Firstly, the power of the your victory on the mountain. As the great Revd. Dr. Martin Luther King declared, “I have been to the mountain top!” But even he did not climb Kilimanjaro as you have. You have shown there is no mountain you cannot climb.

Secondly, the power of the music. It is said that though history is written by the rulers, it is the people who suffer who write the songs. And in the end the music wins.

Thirdly, you have the power of each other. Your friends, your partners in struggle, the women in this assembly and beyond, are your greatest strength. And together you are formidable.

My message to you is well done and thank you.

But I also have a message for the land grabbers. Be afraid. Be afraid of the women of Kilimanjaro. For they are coming for you.

 

This week’s UN refugees summitry: a missed opportunity?

The huge numbers of people on the move around the world – be they seeking refuge from war or oppression, or looking for a better life – will be top of the agenda for world leaders gathering this week at the United Nations in New York for their annual get together at the General Assembly.

Monday sees the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants to assess how to update the way the international community deals with people moving across borders.

On Tuesday, US President Obama is convening a Leaders Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis to directly consider how to deal with the huge increase in the numbers of people seeking refuge in recent years partly – though by no means exclusively – driven by the conflict in Syria and the instability and repression in several parts of the Middle East and North Africa that have followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.

Not to be too cynical about it, it’s noteworthy this high level focus on refugees follows the recent flow of large numbers into the European Union and growing pressure on wealthier countries to do more.

The majority of the world’s 21 million refugees are being hosted – as they have always been – by neighbouring countries, which, in the case of Syria, means Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Beirut, Amman and Ankara had been calling for greater support and solidarity from the rest of the world for several years, but the response so far has been underwhelming.

Few countries have been prepared to take in significant numbers of people and the UN’s humanitarian relief operations for Syria have been chronically underfunded – this year only 74% of the money needed – and, in many cases, promised – has actually being made available.

As the Syrian civil war entered its fifth year in early 2015 and the UN was forced to cut food rations in refugee camps, it’s no wonder many Syrians decided to take a chance on the perilous journey to Europe across the Aegean and through the Balkans or directly across the Mediterranean to Italy.

This week’s high level discussions may be being driven by the arrival of large numbers in Europe and demand for more action by richer countries, but it’s still the less wealthy countries in regions affected by conflict that are doing the lion’s share of coping with the millions displaced by conflict.

Take the example of South Sudan where, following the breakdown in the fragile ceasefire in the civil war in July, another 100,000 South Sudanese have crossed into Uganda which is already hosting tens of thousands of people fleeing the threat of murder, rape and economic chaos.

Support in countries neighbouring conflicts is provided by host governments, UN agencies like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR and its food agency, WFP, along with non-governmental organisations, like Sightsavers, the one I work for, which has helped organise medical treatment for eye diseases as well as neglected tropical diseases in refugee camps in Kenya, for instance.

But this week will hear calls for deeper reform of the global system and for developed countries to take on a fairer share of providing refuge for people seeking asylum.

The UN’s refugee agency has already hailed Monday’s summit as a “game changer…that will enhance protection for those forcibly displaced and otherwise on the move”.

Humanitarian and development organisations and activists though are markedly less effusive.

They point to the watering down of the draft declaration for the summit, where governments, particularly the Europeans and Americans, have sought to limit their commitments to concrete action – suggesting political leaders in wealthier nations are still unwilling to fully cooperate and share responsibility for taking in people forced to flee their homelands by war, oppression or poverty.

The growing electoral appeal of nativism and right-wing populism in the EU and US is inhibiting many governments from doing more. And that is not going to change any time soon.

The example of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose political fortunes have taken a decided turn for the worse since she took a brave decision to take in the bulk of Syrian refugees who made it to the EU, is deterring even those who feel a moral duty from following her lead.

So UN agencies as well as humanitarian and development organisations will be forced to continue depending on uncertain finances and ad hoc solutions to look after those seeking asylum will continue their work.

It needn’t be this way.

The next few days provide an opportunity to make the step change the UNHCR has prematurely hailed in the way governments, working together, could make life easier for refugees and reduce the strain on the countries currently bearing the brunt.

This requires collective political will and individual leadership from the government heads gathered in New York, but, as things stand, the odds are this chance is going to be missed.

What happens when you take up Bridge on their call to visit their schools?

It is said that one difference between British English and American English is that when Americans say “you really must visit us sometime” they hope and expect that you will, but when British people say it, they are certain you won’t and they will be appalled if you ever do.

Bridge, a large and controversial education corporation, has recently found itself facing even more criticism over its operations after it concluded a deal with the Liberian government to take over some of its schools (earlier mooted as a plan for all schools). Bridge has responded to critics (who include the UN, teachers’ organisations, NGOs and education experts) by suggesting that such criticism is based on ignorance. Their call: Come see our schools, and then talk!

So I did. Together with Liberian colleagues, I visited at random a school that had been passed from the government to Bridge. We declared up front exactly who we were and that we had come to learn about how their school had changed after becoming a Bridge school. The Principal and his Vice-Principal welcomed us, and we spoke at length with them and also briefly with some of the older students. The Principal and his Vice-Principal were very open and proactively brought up a range of issues of which we had not previously been aware. Towards the end, they worried that they had said too much and would get in trouble with Bridge. We promised not to share their identities, a promise we maintain.

I was shocked by what I heard and several times repeated my questions or their answers to confirm I had heard it right. In each case they confirmed. Because what I heard shocked me, and in the spirit of transparency in public debate, I wrote down the summary and shared it in a series of tweets as soon as I had internet access whilst we were still in the car getting home:

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The next day we took part in a public meeting on education and privatisation where government, teachers, NGOs and private sector were all present. We shared our account of the visit.

Bridge was at the meeting too – indeed I had personally spoken with the Bridge representative about his attendance – but Bridge said nothing throughout the whole event, either to rebut any points made or even to let people know they were present.

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The government and political representatives did speak, but did not defend Bridge or challenge any points made about them. Instead they argued that Liberia had no choice as some donors would only fund Bridge, and insisted that this was only a temporary decision that they might reverse.

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Meanwhile, my tweets on the trip had started to go viral. And finally a Bridge voice responded – to criticise me for visiting a school when I should have instead got my information from Bridge HQ. I reminded them of Bridge’s call for people to go and see the schools.

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And then Bridge sent me a letter. It is one of the most extraordinary letters I’ve ever received because it was actually more incriminating than anything I had written. I share it in full in this post, so you can “see for yourself”, as they say.

First of all, they said that I shouldn’t take the Principal’s word for how the school is run because he may not know what happens.

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Consider that statement. They organise their schools on the basis that the Principal does not know about, let alone determine, how lessons are run. Remember this is not a critic writing, this is Bridge defending their model.

Secondly, they denied that the Principal (who they say doesn’t know what happens) actually told me what he told me, and claimed instead he had said “he was proud to be part of Partnership Schools for Liberia”. This struck me as odd because not only he did not use the phrase “Partnership Schools for Liberia” but no one does outside of official spokespeople. Indeed the government representative at the next day’s Monrovia meeting complained  “everyone calls it Bridge schools but that’s not the proper name!” Neither did we hear anyone we met in that whole week ever use the phrase “proud to be part of”. The words struck me as sounding rather like a media release, so I checked and found that that entire phrase is identical to the phrase they put out on launch. Compare them below.

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Not only that, they quote the Principal as having apparently said to me that the reason he was proud was that he was making “meaningful impact”. Again, no one we met in Liberia used that phrase either, which sounds also more like something from corporate statement, and indeed matches exactly the phrasing of Bridge’s corporate summary of their self-evaluation. Compare below:

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So, according to Bridge, teachers working for them after just a few weeks of training then use in colloquial conversation the exact PR phrases of the corporation, word for word. Critics have said the Bridge system is too scripted and pushes out creative and independent thought but no one has ever implied it goes as far as Bridge’s own letter suggests.

Lastly, while framing the letter as rebuttal they make some powerful admissions of the weaknesses in their system. For example, they “rebut” our revelation that uniforms had not yet been delivered with the statement “Bridge is now distributing uniforms.” But they had earlier publically claimed that uniforms had been given out at the beginning. Compare.

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This is the logistics equivalent of the taxi company who calls you to say “your car is waiting for you” and then when you call them from the outside on the deserted street says “I told you, it’s on its way“.

Of course, no one doubts that the uniforms will arrive. But the admission highlights two weaknesses. Firstly, spin over actual delivery, a challenge around “truthiness” that jeopardises both the provision and the evaluation process. Secondly, that delivery of materials is the least complicated part of school management, and the easiest to measure, and so failure on it means that other more important but harder to measure failures are inevitable. This is important because the justification for Bridge is their supposed management expertise. When you scratch the surface, the gold seems to peel off.

They also “rebut” our account of the Principal saying he had had only “17 days” training from Bridge with the statement that Bridge provides “three weeks” training, i.e somewhere between 15 and 21 days, remarkably similar to the number we quoted and really very little as a basis for turning around a public management system that Bridge says is broken. If it’s broken, can someone with no experience of running a school before fix that with 15-21 days training? A training which Bridge says leaves him not knowing how his school lessons are run?

Bridge denies that any kids who had been at the schools they took over have had to leave. But they also say that an attraction of Bridge schools is that they are smaller. (“Do the math”, as Americans say.) The Principal, and the Vice-Principal, and students, all reported this to us. It’s vital that the Government now publish how many children were in each class at each school before it was handed to Bridge, how many are there now, how many of those are students who were there before, and how many former students no longer attend each year group at each of those schools, and why. These numbers should be opened up to public scrutiny. Furthermore, the Government should issue an instruction that no child who was a student in 2015 at a school handed over to Bridge can be turned away if they now try to enter. As Bridge claims this is no kids at all, it should be very easy.

Finally, Bridge claims that my tweets disrespect Liberian teachers. I think Liberian teachers manage miracles every day in a hugely challenging context, and that they deserve better than the Bridge solution. However, let Bridge and us agree to ask the Liberian teachers union for their perspective on the Bridge programme, and to respect their advice. Deal? Bridge also claims that they are only in Liberia at the invitation of the Liberian government. Can they confirm that if they are ever disinvited, they will leave, and not as they have in Uganda take the government to court? Deal?

I should emphasise that at no point have I had to experience what the Canadian researcher into Bridge went through (he was arrested, and though he was eventually released without charge, that’s much more scary than an angry letter), and I am grateful for that. I should emphasise too that whilst I am pleased that my visit has shone a light on the crisis in Liberia, it is Liberian voices that most need to be heard. Please read this and this and follow ActionAid Liberia’s Country Director here.

And please do visit a Bridge school yourself. After all, they say you’re invited!


(PS: Bridge’s letter in full)

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The Ten Commandments of Referendums

Guest post by Quintin Oliver, of Stratagem International, @StratagemInt

Hot off the plane from Bogota where he was advising on the upcoming referendum, Quintin Oliver tells us his ten commandments on referendums:

  1. Referendums are not elections – there are brexit-referendum-questionno candidates and no posts to win, and although parties are involved, they and the voters are addressing an issue; campaigners must ‘unlearn’ their election campaigning instincts. First mover advantage often goes to those who successfully ‘frame’ the terms of debate. Think Brexit, as ‘taking back our country’.
  2. Voters often answer the wrong question (Charles de Gaulle) – referendums are susceptible to ‘capture’ by other players, and voters often use them to register a protest against the government of the day, or against the political elites. Think the Swedish Euro vote of 2003 vote, led by Abba, Volvo and Saab, which was expected to pass.
  3. Referendums, especially on big national scottishissues, against a background of conflict, usually become more emotional, than rational; voters express their instincts, rather than their cold, rational, evidence-based selves. They remember the past and are reluctant to embrace an uncertain – or overly idealistic – future. Think Scotland 2014.
  4. Most referendums are lost (albeit narrowly) – indicating that promoting the ‘change’ case is harder, especially if complicated, recently published and containing tough concessions, unless there is a huge consensus that the change is overwhelmingly acceptable And much more attractive than now. This is exacerbated mid-term (when governments tend to be less popular) and in tough economic times, when the risks of change may seem higher. Think Cyprus 2004, when the Greek south was entering the EU, regardless.
  5. Winning a ‘No’ campaign in a referendum is easier – opponents can scatter objections and complaints, untruths and deceptions, with impunity, while the Yes side has to articulate its change proposition lucidly, coherently and cogently; they must not become defensive and bogged down in detail. Think the Alternative Vote debacle of 2011, when a 2:1 polling lead was reversed.
  6. Referendum debates can be volatile and uncertain – with shifts in opinion and voting intentions as (sometimes unexpected) issues gain prominence and traction. The status quo can become more attractive against a kaleidoscope of untested options, especially if a credible Plan B (renegotiation) is promoted. Think Nice l and Lisbon l in the Republic, both reversed after concessions.
  7. Referendums allow many more yessignni2012voices – voters tend to look first to their political party of choice for advice but then seek other cues from voices they trust, or who appear widely to be opinion-formers (churches, labour unions, NGOs, artists, celebrities, athletes…); voters especially like to see traditionally opposing politicians putting aside their differences in the national interest and sharing platforms to promote their unified case, especially if this contrasts with the opponents. Think Good Friday Agreement poll in 1998.
  8. Referendums permit a significant space same-sex-marriage-referendum-irelandto organised civil society (usually excluded from traditional elections) – since it can articulate bottom-up, grassroots depth and richness around the issues for debate, with knowledge and experience, credibility and authenticity. Elections are rarely ‘fun’, but referendums can give expression to creativity, satire, parody and excitement; music and art can capture and shift the national mood. Think the 2015 Equal Marriage plebiscite in Ireland.
  9. Referendums are rarely well played by the media, especially where there is no embedded referendum culture – the media seek ‘presidential’ or ‘gladiatorial’ style’ contests, polar opposite positions, argument and conflict, as in elections, whereas the policy content of a plebiscite should permit richer, textured discourse; shades of grey should be encouraged, not pummelled into submission; doubt, worry and concern are legitimate feelings. Think Netherlands overturning the obscure EU-Ukraine trade deal.
  10. Referendums are often susceptible to undue diaspora influence, both in terms of out of country votes, but also contribution to the debate, positive and negative, funding and campaign support. The international media often look first to local (to them) voices, and ‘frame’ their hypothesis accordingly. Think various recent Greek polls…

Quintin Oliver ran Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement YES Campaign in 1998, and advises globally on referendums, with Colombia and Cyprus polls upcoming soon.

How English-medium education is hobbling Tanzania’s children

Imagine yourself as a 12-year-old. Perhaps you’ve just squeezed your first zit or been crippled by your first crush. You’ve also just graduated from primary school, and are about to begin secondary.

You haven’t learnt that much during your first years in school – the teaching is so bad that half your colleagues failed to graduate. From primary school. Class sizes averaging 50 and sometimes hitting 200 didn’t help, nor having to share a textbook with four other students.

Often there weren’t enough chairs or desks in class, so you would have to stand all day at the back in the 35-degree heat (the fans overhead never turned). Your teachers were poorly paid and trained, demotivated, often absent, and when they did teach they used such antiquated methods that all you ever did was copy down whatever they wrote on the blackboard and, if you had the time or energy to study in the evenings, try to learn it by heart without ever understanding what it meant.

Not surprising, then, that some of your 12-year-old peers can barely read a word in your own language, much less a whole sentence. And forget other languages – although the study of English was obligatory in primary school, the teacher masked his weak grasp of his subject by conducting lessons entirely in your mother tongue. Since you could barely read or write in that, there was little hope that you’d be able to do so in a language of which you knew nothing.

So you’re getting ready to start secondary school, probably feeling a little daunted after just scraping through primary. Possibly feeling more daunted still because the rest of your schooling is to be conducted not in your own language, the language you’ve been working hard to familiarise yourself with for the past few years (it is itself not the language of your tribe, and not always spoken at home), but in English, a language neither you nor anyone you know speaks.

And you won’t just be studying the subject of English in English – this might actually be useful, or it would be if your teacher were better trained – but all other subjects too. And if you thought your English teacher had a weak knowledge of English, wait until you hear how your biology teacher speaks it, or your maths teacher. Most of the time they won’t bother, of course: they admit to using the local lingua franca – in Tanzania’s case, Kiswahili – reasonably arguing that since their students don’t understand English there’s no point trying to educate them in it.

But the textbooks you share with your colleagues are written in English. Your homework is supposed to be written in English. All the exams you take are in English. Throughout your secondary school career, therefore, you will be taught in one language but expected to produce the outputs you need in order to progress through the levels in another.

In theory, increasing your exposure to English makes sense. It’s the most important global language, after all, and while research shows that you will learn more effectively in primary school if you’re taught in your mother tongue, it also shows that young people can learn a second language well if they are confident in their first language and if it is introduced gradually, “in carefully managed stages”.

There is nothing gradual or careful about the introduction of English in Tanzania. English is supposed to replace Kiswahili wholesale. Students have a six-week English crash course before they begin secondary school, delivered by a teacher who has been through the same dysfunctional system. After that they are left to fend for themselves. The old-fashioned teaching methods, with a distant disciplinarian handing down diktats to cowed and silent subjects from the front of the classroom, allow no scope for thrashing out an understanding during an interactive discussion.

Teaching is bad enough in Kiswahili – asking teachers to use an unfamiliar language makes it worse. Asking children to learn in one language while they take exams in a different language that they can’t speak is likely to be a fundamental reason why 60,000 drop out of secondary school every year, why only 12% complete lower secondary education when they should, and why only 1.9% enrol in upper secondary school.

Before Tanzania’s last election, in October 2015, the ruling party suggested that it would ditch English-medium education and revert to using Kiswahili at secondary as well as primary level. No progress has been made on this pledge, and the new government has had little to say about it. This was one of the previous administration’s better ideas. Tanzanian students are hobbled by the current system. Teaching English well as a subject and teaching everything else better in Kiswahili will free them to realise their potential.

[This article first appeared on Daily Maverick, and is reproduced here with permission]

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