One in eight people lack access to safe water sources worldwide. In some areas of the world, water points are broken or non-existent and locals have to travel long distances to fetch water – a heavy burden on human development. Sometimes such ineffective provision is due to a lack of money, sometimes a lack of information, but in some cases it simply comes down to a question of political will. But voting differently is not always a viable option for those citizens involved. Besides, if you are thirsty, you cannot wait for the next election to (maybe) bring change. Daraja experiments with a more immediate means of accountability by harnessing citizen agency and using mobile technology. What can we learn from Daraja?
Within the framework of our Stakeholder Feedback project, we try to keep track of and inform you about interesting initiatives that aim to connect the unconnected dots on the “feedback loop” in development. Amongst others, we are interested in the influence that the set-up and design of feedback pilots have on the willingness of stakeholders to participate.
Daraja – Maji Matone. “Raising the water pressure”
A few weeks ago, we spoke with Ben Taylor, Executive Director of Daraja, and asked him about Daraja’s project in Tanzania, Maji Matone. Daraja’s mission is to improve access to clean and safe water in rural Tanzania by empowering citizens to become change agents themselves. It encourages citizens to report on water supply outages via simple text messages sent to a short number. After receiving the messages, Daraja forwards them to the responsible provision unit, the local water engineers. If the authorities fail to act on this information, partnerships with the local media can be used to publish the story and put pressure on the local government. ‘If a radio team is there to follow up whether the water point is indeed being repaired, it will probably make public officials pull their socks up’, Taylor says.
The role of technology in Daraja’s approach
In this sense, the pilot builds on technologies that are available and familiar to the local communities. Radio, for example, constitutes a central part of the project’s technological arsenal due to its importance in many countries, including Tanzania. So does mobile technology, whose adoption rate in developing countries exceeds that of any other technology in history. (Today more than 72% of all subscribers are situated in developing countries.) Similarly to our SMS feedback project, mobile phones are used in the project in order to gather relevant feedback from beneficiaries. An SMS gateway then transmits the messages to a central web-based platform. But technology was also used in the preparation phase for outreach purposes: a combination of radio broadcasts and printed materials was used to explain the purpose, importance of the pilot as well as technical aspects involved with the feedback mechanism (for example which number to text to and which format to supply the information in). Essential though the use of technology is for the project, gathering data from locals is not an end in itself for Daraja. The emphasis is on acting on this data to promote change.
Status quo and outlook
Maji Matone is in the piloting phase until the end of the year, and is running in three pilot districts. After this, the plan is to scale it up to nationwide level. The project has already gathered 800 messages from citizens. 200 of these were passed on to the local government so that repair of broken water points could begin. So far repair works have been undertaken on water points in 12 communities, which benefits a calculated 3000 people in rural Tanzania.
Daraja is constantly monitoring the progress of Maji Matone and tries to discover what could be done better. One of the challenges, Taylor explains, is to improve the quality of citizen reports in terms of content. Sometimes, citizens forgot to include in the text information about where the water point is located, making it difficult to establish the whereabouts of the non-functional water point. The organization reacted flexibly to this issue and called or texted back to the given numbers. However, they were normally unable to reach the target person because, as it turned out, in many of the cases the sender was not the owner of the mobile device, or the numbers were unreachable. Taylor told us that Daraja is now working to resolve this challenge with the use of more outreach activities among the target district.
Daraja is also experimenting with changes to various aspects of the project. Based on a field research, they found that the main obstacle to participation for citizens was the use of a short number, while having to pay the fee of a standard rate SMS was not a problem for them at all. These results were quite surprising to us: firstly, we believed that making dialing a number more “simple” via a short code would be beneficial. In fact, in Daraja’s case, the people were not familiar with short numbers and they might have associated them with higher fees. Daraja is now considering switching to standard numbers or even abolishing the SMS system and replacing it with a voice and call-center based system. Second, we thought that providing some financial incentives to beneficiaries (and at least compensating them for the text messages) might be beneficial and give a kick-start. As Taylor explains, this seemed to not be a central concern for citizens in Tanzania.