Mobile Technology Empowers Citizens to Impact Budget Planning in Local Communities of Cameroon
Recently in two local municipalities of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, citizens have been busy using their mobile phones to become involved in the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process through citizen’s universities and popular forums (neighborhood forums and last ‘municipal’ assembly). This experimental initiative was supported by the World Bank Institute’s Information and Communications Technology for Governance (ICT4GOV) project and the Open Development Technology Alliance (ODTA), and is just one of several similar initiatives in a variety of locations including Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazil.
Decentralization and the Role of Mobile Technology
In 2004, the Government of Cameroon implemented a national decentralization strategy to empower municipalities and local communities with the resources to implement localized poverty reduction strategies. In recent years, this initiative has proved challenging for a number of reasons including: the dearth of a participatory culture for democracy, few available platforms for dialogue, a lack of local resources, and few mechanisms to enforce accountability of resource allocation (Source). The ODTA-ICT4GOV project seeks to actively address these challenges by taking advantage of the coverage of mobile phone technology in Africa, Cameroon being an active participant in the trend. As of 2011, over half of the country’s population (approximately 10.4 million) owns a mobile phone. By contrast, registered internet users are much fewer; there were only approximately 700,000 in 2012 (Source). This underlines the importance of mobile phone as not only a means of communication, but as the most accessible communication device for the majority of the population.
Supported by ICT technical advisors from the World Bank, two local municipal councils in Yaoundé introduced SMS services in 2012 into the local budget decision-making process to support three main outcomes:
• Information /dissemination
• Inclusion in the decision-making process
All the activities related to the experiment were conducted in a collaborative way as described in the graphic below.
The Implementation Process:
Yaoundé councils II and VI were chosen for the pilot because of their commitment with PB approaches and substantial support from the council mayors and civil society. Since 2009, local stakeholders discussed project initiatives from different sectors: health, education, electricity, water supply, road construction, urban planning, and community maintenance. Activities were designed specifically with each local council. Yaoundé II was at the stage of mobilization for the tracking (monitoring) of projects popularly adopted and Yaoundé VI was involved in the first cycle of PB: identification and prioritization of projects.
In Yaoundé VI, where the experimentation was ‘heavy’, the initiative included five main steps all related to the first cycle of PB:
Information (mobilization): The aim here was to inform people about the initiative, dates of meeting in the different neighborhoods and also to communicate the amount of budget submitted to participatory process. Here, the use of SMS was essential as a way to widely disseminate information.
Neighborhood forums: These meetings organized in each neighborhood allowed people to identify the most needed projects for their area. During the forums, each neighborhood voted for a delegate who would be their representative in all the activities related to the PB process.
Delegate’s forums: During this meeting, the delegates analyzed the projects and produced a sustainability study with support from financial and technical services of the local council, without actually deciding which projects would be implemented.
Last ‘municipal’ meeting: This event allowed all the population of the local council to decide through a direct vote which project they wanted to see implemented during the next year. Votes came either directly during the meeting our through SMS.
Integration of projects in the local council budget: This last step integrated the chosen projects into the financial planning of the local council through its budget.
Citizens of the local council voted to decide on specific projects to be implemented after their delegates had created the sustainability study of different projects with technical services of the councils. Community members could monitor the progress by subscribing to the relevant SMS service, which represented a simple but effective strategy to expand the inclusiveness of local decision-making and to ensure that development priorities reached its targeted beneficiaries.
At Yaoundé II, the experiment was related to the information about budget data, mobilization for (collective) sanitation campaign and mobilization of local leaders for the monitoring of projects under realization.
The introduction of the SMS service into the 2012 participatory budgeting process significantly increased participation from the local community while simultaneously lowering the costs of mobilization. The results indicated that budgetary information was disseminated via SMS to 30,000 citizens of Yaoundé Council II, and 25,000 subscribers received budgetary data from Council VI.
SMS messaging subsequently mobilized 2000 people from Council II in support of collective action on sanitation and water safety, while 1000 further individuals attended neighborhood forums in Council VI. This represented a doubling of community outreach and participation from the previous year.
As précised previously, the first cycle of PB in Yaoundé VI identified four main projects that needed to be realized for the 2013 year. The table below summarized the projects adopted during the last popular meeting.
At the same time, an increasing of budget amounts allocated to PB by local councils has been noticed (between 2011 and 2012) even if this dynamic cannot be systematically linked with the inclusion of an ICT dimension in the processes.
The inclusion of an ICT component to PB had a variety of benefits on the public budget decision process in the chosen municipalities of Yaoundé: more inclusive citizen participation and monitoring, which in turn demanded more accountability and transparency on the part of major local stakeholders, reduced costs and constraints to mobilizing public opinion, and an improved collaborative dynamic between local government actors, civil society, and concerned citizens of Yaoundé. The Mayor of Yaoundé Council II noted that the budgetary process “can change,” and will benefit greatly from the dissemination of “new technology” to the population.
Impact and Perspectives:
The World Bank’s Open Development Technology Alliance (ODTA) has played a critical role in these pilot programs by providing advisory services to develop the local ICT capacity and mobile phone services. The impact of simple SMS technology on the transparency of the local budget process is indisputable in the council areas where it has been trialed. Despite the positive signs of the trial, challenges remain: mobile phone penetration throughout the country rests at 51%, which is low in comparison to other countries in Africa such as Uganda, Tanzania, and Ghana. Currently there are only three major telecommunications networks that service Cameroon. Allowing new networks to operate will foster both better coverage and competition ultimately leading to wider connectivity.
The successful outcomes of this pilot process signify the growing success of using of mobile technologies to combat development challenges. The results also indicate that there is much work still to be done in order to unlock the full potential behind the growing intersection of technology and development.
Following the impacts and success of this initiative, a more important experiment including new local councils had been granted by the European Union. This project reflects the scaling-up of the experiment pilot in Cameroon and will allow the development of ICT based participatory process in order to improve local governance. This will also help to reinforce the collaboration between strategic actors such as local governments and municipalities, civil society organizations and entities linked to the central government. More deeply, the action allows for a progressive discussion on the benefits of ICT use in governance process at the national and African level. At a national level, many local councils (91 in January 2013) manifested their interest both in the PB process and in the use of ICT in their governance system. At a regional (African) level, the presentation of the experiments during the Africities Summit has led to an engagement of many local councils in Africa to promote better citizen participation and has opened the door to the use of ICT. The final recommendations of this summit also highlighted the crucial role of ICT in the development of governance process in Africa.