Technology as a poverty game changer: Using citizen-generated data to measure the SDGs

by 22nd Sep 2015
Lillian Adiambe, a young entrepreneur in Kenya, making a call on her mobile phone Lillian Adiambe, a young entrepreneur in Kenya, making a call on her mobile phone

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the first time a global compact on overcoming poverty has been created in the digital age. Harnessing the promise of technology will be key to transforming poverty and power in the next 15 years, but we must make sure the most marginalised are not left behind.

Innovation is core business

When the Millennium Development Goals were launched in the year 2000, Youtube didn’t yet exist, Facebook was four years away from existence, Tweets were noises made by birds, and SMS has only just become functional in a few high income countries. What happened next with the spread of mobile handsets, coverage, and users across Africa, and the explosion of mobile technology applications is now one of the defining stories of the first decades of this century.

And CARE has moved with this. One of the themes of CARE’s 70 years is our interest in innovation, either our own or harnessing the ingenuity of others, and using technology is no different.

Mobile banking is now part of CARE’s Village Savings and Loans approach, connecting community savings groups with formal banking systems. The Lendwithcare platform is a leader in the peer-to-peer lending market as our global community shrinks and entrepreneurs can find creditors anywhere in the world. Technology is central to our resilience work in the Sahel or East Africa as women farmers receive weather updates to help them plan crop rotations, and CARE uses SMS reporting to get rapid feedback from people we’re aiming to support, particularly in conflict zones, allowing us to adjust our programmes when problems arise to ensure we do no harm.

Data and power

As CARE International UK helps to lead what we’re calling Inclusive Governance within the CARE confederation, one area we also need to embrace is how technology can enhance our work on amplifying the voices of citizens and holding governments to account.

Already innovators, many in Africa have begun leading the way. In Nigeria BudgIT are sharing information on government expenditure through social media to give citizens the information they need to discuss and engage in public expenditure debates. In Tanzania, Uwazi – part of the Twaweza group – seek to ‘liberate’ data and information so as to better inform public discussion.

CARE’s own citizen accountability tool, the Community Score Card, brings local authorities, service providers and citizens together to grade local services, leading to discussions and action plans on how to improve the accessibility and quality of basic services. Its origins are demonstrably not hi-tech – indeed, a lot of its value comes from being people-based and focused on trust-building – but increasingly we are starting to see how data and technology can take this approach to a new scale.

In Malawi, communities supported by CARE are using cell phones to monitor teachers’ absenteeism and generate data which goes to the Ministry of Education. And in Ghana, tablets are a tool for monitoring (through video, SMS, and voice messaging) the implementation of large infrastructure projects in the north of the country.

Now what we are wondering is how these pilot technology score card approaches can play their part, alongside the newest technology ideas, in monitoring the greatest effort in global development in human history, the implementation of the SDGs.

Citizen monitoring of the SDGs

CARE believes that the only people who should judge whether the 17 goals and 164 targets in the new SDGs are a success, should be the people whose lives they are intended to transform.

This is where citizen-generated data, on a scale previously unimagined, could revolutionise how we measure quality and progress, and ultimately how governments are held accountable.

However, we think community processes, like score cards, have a vital role to play as well. We believe score cards can ensure that marginalised voices can still be heard from those whose gender, class, ethnicity or physical ability might leave them excluded from new technological platforms. And we believe the score card process builds the relationship that helps power-holders to want to improve services for their citizen. Yet, there is also much we still do not know.

How can these two approaches, from the quantitative to the qualitative, be effectively merged at scale? Or which of the 164 targets should we measure first?

Fifteen years into the new Millennium, we are starting afresh in the pursuit of a world free from poverty and social injustice, and never before have we had so many tools to enable us to succeed. This is why we are convening a discussion on the margins of the UN General Assembly summit (25-27 September) to bring together groups such as Civicus, the World Bank, BudgIT and others, to think big about how we can bring technology and citizen voice together in measuring the SDGs.

By calling it Citizen 2.0, we hope we can capture the best ideas between data, technology and citizen power. Our idea is that we want to find a way of making digital score cards one of the ways we will measure progress against poverty.

If you have ideas on how this can be done, or other big ideas to share, please add them in the comments section below, or tweet them to @lauriejlee. Thanks!

Laurie Lee

I joined CARE in August 2014, because I believe strongly in our focus on economic development, gender equality and people holding governments accountable. My focus at CARE is on ensuring we have the best people to do the job we do, to support our teams on the ground in over 70 developing countries, and to ensure we continuously improve our ability to monitor the impact of our work, and learn how to do it even better.  

Prior to CARE I worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for seven years, advising them on development policy issues in Europe and Africa. Before that I worked for the British government. I managed British development programmes in South Africa and Afghanistan. He worked in 10 Downing Street to prepare the G8 Gleneagles Summit on Africa in 2005. And I ran the DFID Trade Policy Unit until 2008.

One good thing I've read

One of CARE’s goals is to help the 2 billion people – including 1.1 billion women – without access to financial services, to get them. This great and easy book, Portfolios of the poor: How the world's poor live on $2 a day, by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven, explains why there’s no such thing as living 'hand to mouth'. The poorer you are, the more you need financial management tools.


Twitter: @lauriejlee