Two sides to open development
Ever since Robert Zoelick’s speech on “democratizing development” there has been a lot of buzz around the idea of open development and lots of discussion about what it really means. Some of the recent discussion is nicely summed up on this post on the Bank’s public sphere blog “Openness for Whom? and Openness for What“. I’ve also tackled the related issue of “Development 2.0” or the new way we can/should be doing development work taking advantages of changing technologies and business models now open to us.
Trying to unpack this a little bit I realize that there are two related but different aspects to the open development discussion that often get a little mixed up:
1. Transparency and reducing friction – i.e. making use of technology to make it easier to share information and knowledge in a standard way so it can be easily assessed, compared, mashed up, acted upon.
2. Participation – using technology to give people a voice and to change existing power structures, and decision-making processes.
In the mid 1990s I was doing some work on knowledge sharing on public finances. I can draw a parallel between the types of discussions we were having on sharing public finance information with the discussions on open development today. In more traditional public finance work the aim of major players (led by the IMF) was to provide high quality technical advice and capacity building to ministries of finance, usually behind closed doors. Along came two new related but different approaches, coming mostly from the human rights and democracy movements. There were:
1. Budget transparency – making government budgets public, widely disseminating them, and presenting them in a form that could also be understood by non-specialists (which includes parliamentarians, the media and civil society as well as the public at large). The aim here is that making the information available in a public, comprehensible and unbiased format would put pressure on government to justify and implement budgets more effectively, and also make it easier for them to be held to account through existing means (such as through parliamentary oversight or public opinion).
2. Participatory budgeting – Some municipalities/regions chose to take this a step further – they also created standing, open, consultative mechanisms that allowed citizens to directly influence at least part of the public budget, and be involved in its oversight.
The obvious corollary is that while transparency is necessary for greater participation, and can also help increase interest and engagement, it is not a sufficient step. Deciding to take the step to participatory budgeting requires and additional political commitment to devolve power back from the authorities (whether elected or civil service) back to citizens. And so open budgeting is much more widespread than participatory budgeting. It’s also worth noting that in participatory budgeting the devolution to citizenry is partial not absolute, covering part of the budget, or having and role in decision-making but not as final arbiter.
So back to open development….
Much of what is currently being talked about is in the first category – making more and more consistent information widely available so anyone can use it however they see fit within their means and influence. Making aid data open puts pressure on aid agencies to be accountable to all, but mostly to their current and potential donors. Similarly access to open data and open research allows aid workers and government policy makers to make better informed decisions (if they choose to do so), open public procurement means that companies have a level playing field for competing for aid contracts which also hopefully helps reduce costs for donors and beneficiaries alike.
But this openness only takes you so far in making development more democratic and empowering. It’s now becoming possible to collect and incorporate beneficiary feedback and local voices and knowledge into development work , but only IF you want to. While many of the big players are opening up their data, most are not opening up their allowing more input from beneficiaries and partners in their decision-making and resource allocation – here formal Boards and big donors still call the shots. Those that are experimented with limited feedback mechanisms are often doing this from the perspective of using the feedback to improve the likelihood their programmes will work by avoiding unseen pitfalls, or to help get better public and “buy-in” for their projects rather than to explicitly empower beneficiaries and change the power relations between “beneficiaries” and “benefactors”.
While the possibilities of technology can make the beneficiaries more vocal, in the end those who currently have the power will need to agree to give some of it up if technology is to really make aid more empowering. As with participatory budgeting, I don’t imagine that this will be a complete reversal of power relations, donors will still ant a say over where their money goes, but rather a rebalancing in favour of devolving of part of the donors or aid worker’s current role back to the people they wish to empower and assist to become sustainably self-sufficient.