Virtual Exchange: From DC to Monrovia, a discussion about the election

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In a continuation of our Global Hubs Virtual Exchange Series, on September 28, the OpenGov Hub in DC hosted its first Virtual Exchange with the iCampus, Liberia’s first inter-disciplinary and collaborative community that incorporates cutting-edge technologies, accountability, open governance, and social enterprise to encourage positive change in Liberia. iCampus is also the OpenGov Hub affiliate in Liberia.

The goal of the exchange was to introduce the complementary, and sometimes crossing over, Hub and iCampus communities to one another and open the door for ongoing conversations and possible collaborations around issues of shared interest on a quarterly basis.  This video conference focused on the theme of: Promoting Information Access, Accountability, and Engagement during Political Transitions: Liberia’s 2017 General Election.

A total of 12 individuals, representing 5 NGOs in DC and 3 NGOs Monrovia, began the exchange by briefly introducing their roles and highlighting one key challenge that they have in it.

Some of the common themes and shared challenges were:

  1. Considering ways to make data a part of the government/civil society discourse (especially due to the upcoming election).  This has been a struggle as the government in Liberia is still learning how to cull and provide accessible data, while civil society actors are learning how to disseminate data effectively (through internet, radio, and television) to citizens for easy understanding.

  2. How to understand the impact their NGO actions are having in the political process.  There have been many different initiatives to get citizens involved in the election process, including large scale music festivals, but the tracking which initiatives are having the most effect has been difficult.

  3. The challenges of how to make data sets relevant to all citizens during this election cycle and continuing the conversation around them afterwards.

After initial introductions, three organizations from the iCampus and four organizations from the Hub shared what they are doing to try to have an impact on the relationship between the government and civil society in Liberia.

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iLab Liberia began by discussing their Freedom of Information Platform that they developed with mySociety. This platform lets citizens digitally request information from government Public Information Officers. The work has been two fold, as the Public Information Officers have had to be trained in how to access the information and share it with citizens, while they also performed outreach to citizens to help them understand that the what kind of information they could ask for and how to request it. iLab is currently working with the government to develop a permanent website that can act as a clearinghouse for requests that makes this process easier for all stakeholders. iLab also described how they are developing an online tracker with newspapers to hold the new government accountable for the campaign promises they made.

Accountability Lab Liberia discussed the larger issues around the election that Liberia is facing, and the novel ways in which they have been citizens.  They have tapped into the “Hip Co” music scene (see video below) by having artists make songs that encourage understanding of the vote and held concerts that have allowed young people to learn more about the people who are running for office. This has lead to Youth Groups who are working on a Manifesto of Principles that they expect out of the next Government when it comes to power.

National Democratic Institute then shared how they are currently partnering with the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC), a network of civil society organizations, to monitor the upcoming election process. This includes voter registration, the campaign period, and election day. NDI is providing assistance to Liberian organizations to encourage those traditionally marginalized from political processes, including women and youth, to engage in the upcoming elections by mobilizing around issues that they find most important in their daily lives.

International Republican Institute focused the conversation on their Generation Democracy youth programs.  This is a powerful international youth organization that focuses on peer to peer youth training and engagement in local governments, rather than an expat led program.  The IRI discussed wanting to work with iCampus organizations to bring Generation Democracy to Liberia.

SIMLab mentioned one of their projects, to test different feedback mechanisms in health projects, brought up the challenge of responsible data, as the approach to get data to citizens must be inclusive. Technology can be the easiest channel for NGOs to use, but sometimes it is better to take the more comprehensive approach of using community mobilization through channels that already exist. This means spending more time in communities, but it allows the projects and feedback mechanisms (that are integral to making sure projects are effective) to travel through the same channels that citizens already trust and use. More can be learned about the pilot programs and their effectiveness using different communication methods here.

Global Integrity introduced their Africa Integrity Indicators which assess key social, economic, political and anti-corruption mechanisms at the national level through 100 different Indicators. These indicators help to give an understanding of many different parts of government and society, both in law and in practice.  It provides a comprehensive set of data on countries that is both detailed and transparent in its methods of collection.

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Open Gov Hub finished the presentations by bringing up the power of marketing as an underutilized area for many NGOs that for-profit companies consistently use in similar situations. They shared slides that would be helpful for guiding NGOs in ways to get their message out more effectively.

This call reminded all of us that elections and other key moments of political transition can be real moments of opportunity for open government advocates to get their messages across.  While these moments can be risky and difficult, participants agreed that the value of advocating for young people in data based projects was something that held too much value not to continue going forward.  

The call also took into account that the work to be done by all the organizations in helping make data understandable to both the citizens and government officials of Liberia.  While it is daunting project to undertake, by focusing on making the data relevant for all, organizations will be able to have larger impacts on civil society.

Everyone involved in this Virtual Exchange agreed that it was a good experience and look forward to having another after the election.

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