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.

Action/2015 –the official verdict or why coalitions are totally worth it

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On April 22nd, about 160 countries are expected to officially sign the Paris Climate Agreement which was negotiated last year. It was one of the two international deals agreed by Heads of State in 2015 which made it such a critical year for international development and for millions of activists and citizens around the world. The second was the agreement of the new Sustainable Development Goals-  or the Global Goals –  which provide a new and ambitious framework to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change.

The global coalition – action/2015 – was formed because of those two historic deals.  It brought together civil society around the world – from the big organisations like World Vision to small grassroots groups and networks– to campaign together across sectors and geographies.  As Head of the action/2015 campaign for Save the Children, one of the organisations at the heart of the action, I was one of those campaigners.

With the signing of the climate deal this week and the independent evaluation of the campaign concluded (which you can read here), it feels like a pretty good time to step back and reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what we can learn for the future

When action/ 2015 was first conceived, lots of people were sceptical. And there’s no denying it was ambitious. The idea of bringing together diverse sectors from climate and development across hundreds of countries with different cultures, languages and attitudes to campaigning in just under two years seemed pretty unachievable to many – especially those who had worked in coalitions before! I have to admit when I started on the campaign at the end of 2014 I had similar qualms – could we really pull it off?

But, I’m proud to say the campaign proved the sceptics wrong. The official evaluation highlights in its 7 main conclusions that one of the key impacts of the campaign was that global civil society groups learned to work together. I would caveat that to say that action/2015 helped them to work better together but the sense of solidarity that grew across the campaign was undeniable. it worked because of the campaign’s loose, fluid structure that meant individual organisations or national coalitions could take the content and tactics they liked, adapt them to their own contexts and leave the bits that didn’t work for them.  It was also crucial that this was not a campaign with specific policy asks but was  focused on mobilisation.

“The main reason we got involved is because it is a unique campaign. It links global to local, and it aims at mobilising citizens. This was unique meaning that we usually target policy makers, but this was more about masses, numbers, reaching out to everybody. And that attracted me. It was something different.” , Participating organisation, Africa

The other main point that leaps out is the conclusion that ‘action/2015 made meaningful steps towards Southern ownership of a global campaign’. By the end of the campaign 80% of its members were based in the South.  The campaign’s centre of gravity definitely felt like it was much more in the cities, towns and villages of India or the streets of Costa Rica and Kenya than Northern capitals.

Big NGOs did play a driving role in the campaign, but in a different way than in previous campaigning. I’m proud that Save the Children took much more of a backseat, deploying resources and support to help civil society all over the world campaign.

It certainly wasn’t an easy campaign and we didn’t get everything right. In many ways we were building the car as we were driving and there’s no doubt with more resources and time  we could have achieved more but what the campaign did achieve should not be dismissed. Millions of people mobilised to take action, a new generation of activists inspired, some amazing backers from Malala to One Direction, a strong basis laid to ensure the successful implementation of both deals and a new model of campaigning.

So the big question now is what next?  The evaluation sets out 10 lessons. Some of them might sound obvious like leaving enough time for planning and the importance of proper evaluation but these are often the mistakes made again and again.

Tax injustice, the refugee crisis and global health challenges like Zika – these are all issues that have been hitting the headlines. The new frameworks we have could arguably have helped prevent many of the inequalities that lead to and exacerbate s these and similar crises and they can definitely help reduce their likelihood in the future. But that won’t happen unless people know about the deals and are able to hold their leaders to account. That’s why a sustained and concerted campaign building on the momentum and goodwill generated last year is vital.  We need to campaign less about the frameworks themselves but campaign about them through the real life lens of people’s lives.

Campaigning is about trying new things and being prepared for some things not to work.Yes if we were to do action/2015 again I’d do some things differently but I would keep the same level of ambition and the open, inclusive campaigning model. action/2015 has built a huge appetite for campaigning together all around the world which we must harness. I can’t put it any better than one of the action/2015 campaigners from Africa – “I got more friends and when you have more friends you feel stronger.