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Locally-led monitoring as an engine for a more dynamic and accountable post 2015 development agenda

20 Jun 2012
Richard Morgan and Shannon O’Shea, Post-2015 Development Unit of UNICEF’s Executive Office,
For over a decade, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have served as a unifying global human development paradigm. The relative simplicity and measurability of the MDGs are often credited as the major forces behind their staying power. That being said, there are inevitable and increasingly-evident limits to the ability of a single global framework to remain relevant to people's diverse, complex and changing lives. Civil society organizations, academics, government entities and the UN system have now begun reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs and how a post-2015 framework can build on the positive features of the "first Millennium decade", while seeking to renew and revitalize the development agenda.

One of the central criticisms of the MDGs is that their focus on national averages and global aggregates as measures of progress can mask - and in many cases, has masked - slow or stagnant progress among the worst-off sections of societies and growing disparities at subnational levels. Though there have been historic advances on aggregate towards some goals - such as access to safe drinking water, poverty rates and numbers - there remain many millions of people, often concentrated in deprived areas or in groups widely subject to discrimination, who have been rendered effectively invisible to policy-makers by the dominant use of averages and aggregates. Further, as suggested by Jan Vandemoortele, the MDGs have been widely and inappropriately interpreted as targets to be achieved by all countries, rather than as guides to addressing local realities. Going forward, "the post-2015 framework must interpret global targets as collective ones; they can never be equated with national targets" to be meaningful, they need to be tailored and adapted to the national context and the initial conditions." Clearly, a major issue to be addressed in the post-2015 framework is how common global goals and monitoring frameworks can best be adapted to serve people in terms of the complex realities they confront in their daily lives.

To help with this challenge of relevance, locally-led monitoring should be a central feature of a new Development Agenda. It can provide a means both of empowerment for people in the development process to articulate their priorities while taking greater decision-making control over their lives, and for them to hold duty bearers, such as providers of basic services in local government and the private sector, more greatly to account for delivery and performance. These elements of empowerment, participation and accountability have been largely missing from the first Millennium decade - in part as a result of the MDGs becoming too detached from their normative grounding in the Millennium Declaration. Participatory monitoring of locally-relevant development indicators, within national frameworks of targets and standards, and of public sector performance in meeting basic obligations, provides a means to address this absence.

Local monitoring can take various forms. At its core, it should be a culture and practice, embedded in both social norms and development policy. It is about people - working together in some organized way - identifying and tracking the priority issues that affect their communities, so that barriers to progress can be addressed and solved, with support as necessary from public sector and other accountable agencies. Locally-relevant issues might concern, for example, unstable local water supply conditions, school access and quality, epidemic disease control, and difficulties - ranging from hidden fees, poor information and discrimination - in obtaining social welfare entitlements. Questions to be monitored, and information transmitted to public sector duty-bearers, could, for example, include: has the water pump been working continuously this week, and, if not, how long has it remained unrepaired?; are seeds available from local traders?; what is the retail price of staple food?; does the health post currently have anti-retroviral and anti-malarial drugs?; how many young children were weighed at the health post this month?; have child grant and pension payments been transmitted to all those eligible?

High-and Low-Tech Opportunities for Community-led Monitoring

It is somewhat difficult to imagine from the vantage point of 2012, but at the time when the MDGs were crafted: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter did not exist; mobile phones did, but they were certainly not that “smart” and their use outside of a handful of developed countries was virtually non-existent; Google was still in its infancy; very few people were 'texting' and no one was 'blogging', 'podcasting' or 'tweeting'.

For mostly better (but occasionally worse) purposes, people - including in many of the poorest countries - now have vastly greater access to diverse sources of information and to inexpensive electronic means of connecting, trading and otherwise conversing with each other. Technology is, potentially and actually, a transformative agent for socio-political change and for economic development. Ever-evolving technologies are powerful tools to enable local interest groups, families and individuals - including, increasingly, those who have historically been marginalized - to influence and help drive the development process and to participate in the efforts of society to attain shared goals and standards.

A programme initiated by UNICEF and partners in Uganda called U Report uses SMS messaging capabilities on mobile phones to engage people - particularly young people - to voice their opinions on issues that they care about. Users can register for free and are then asked a series of questions during the registration process by which responses can be analyzed and messages refined. Topics discussed since the launch of U Report in 2011 include: female genital mutilation, outbreaks of disease, safe water, early marriage, education, health and inflation. There are now over 124,000 U-reporters in Uganda, with 300 to 500 members joining the network daily. The average age is 24, some 51% are female and U-reporters are represented in all 112 districts in Uganda. Results are publicized through national media channels and within parliament to present decision-makers with information regarding their districts or ministerial portfolios. For example, the Ministry of Health has used U-report information to understand how problems in the delivery of malaria drugs are perceived by local service users as being addressed. Other countries are looking to pilot similar programmes. Another way in which SMS and mobile phone technology are being leveraged is for more rapid, closer to real-time data collection and monitoring. In the Indian state of Bihar, SMS-based monitoring, linked to an on-line data base, is used to assess progress in the delivery of services under the National Rural Employment Guarantee and Integrated Child Development schemes. In Brazil, nutritional data (on body mass index, child stunting and diet) are collected by village health workers for analysis and action by local and district health teams. In Rwanda, the initial success of an SMS programme for monitoring maternal health has led the government to expand the initiative. The country has launched a campaign "A Thousand Days in the Land of a Thousand Hills" which uses SMS to monitoring growth and nutritional wellbeing in the critical first 1,000 days of children's lives.

These are examples of how community groups and workers can use technology to monitor their local situation and to exert pressure for public resources and action to be more efficiently and effectively deployed. The post-2015 development framework could usefully provide space for learning exchange and knowledge transfer so that promising local monitoring initiatives of these kinds can be assessed, documented and/or scaled up.

Though technology is playing an ever-increasing role, there are still many people without access. One 'lower tech' solution, piloted in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Mozambique, is a reality checks approach which "collects insights for impact evaluation of development programmes by directly gathering the experiences, opinions and perceptions of people living in poverty." Researchers live with families to gain a deeper understanding of daily life issues through direct observation and discussion (e.g. hardships experienced getting to a health clinic or collecting water). This also provides a way to advance the voices of family members who often go "unheard" - such as girls, or people with disabilities.

A combination of higher- and lower-tech local monitoring initiatives - alongside improved capacity for traditional data collection and analysis through institutional systems and household surveys - is needed to better understand the true barriers and bottlenecks to development progress, and to empower individuals and community groups to hold public servants and other duty bearers more closely to account.

Such systems and initiatives will of course not be sufficient on their own. They will need to be complemented in most societies by moves to much greater transparency and accountability in governance, including: the routine publication of national and local authority budgetary information; greater use of social auditing, resource-used tracking and performance scorecards (such as in the Philippines' local government performance measurement system); and by safe and accessible complaint mechanisms and recourse procedures.

Concluding Remarks

As Alicia Ely Yamin notes in her Commentary, in a human rights-based approach to development, civil society participation is necessary both for defining problems and for shaping solutions, Such participation has been largely absent as an explicit, let alone institutionalized, component of MDG implementation. A new development agenda for the post-2015 era will only retain its relevance and dynamism if it is meaningful to the circumstances and concerns of those who are meant to be its beneficiaries. To be so, it will need to enlist and enable them as principal actors.

The widespread promoting, enabling and recognition of locally-owned monitoring systems and opportunities provides a means for a new agenda to remain relevant, rooted in peoples' dynamism and in their own interests. It can help turn "participation" from token, one-time consultations into ongoing conversation. And it can help address the greatest weakness of the present approach: the lack of means for people to hold their local public services, contractors and political representatives to greater account for actions and inactions, for performance against targets and standards, and for development results.