Discourse on the promotion of evidence in policy processes has traditionally been around the use of data and scientific research. While this is a laudable idea, there remain many questions on why other types of evidence, especially citizen evidence (also known as citizen knowledge/stakeholder engagement) remain under-represented in policy processes.
Why is citizen evidence necessary?
First of all, it’s acknowledged that all four types of evidence have their inherent strengths and weaknesses (see VakaYiko’s Introduction to EIPM handbook, p.18). Focusing on a few of those evidence types, instead of taking advantage of their complementary strengths, exposes gaps in policymaking. These gaps could have been avoided, or better, closed, if the complementary power of the evidence types had been exploited.
Second, there seems to be some inconsistency in the idea of democratic societies that are governed by purely technocratic processes. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy has emerged as the preferred political system for most societies. The idea of democracy suggests that decisions are made with the involvement of citizens – as Lincoln said, ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’. So policies that affect citizens but are made by technocrats who use all other types of evidence except citizens’ knowledge is a grave abnormality.
There have also been recent incidents of policies that failed to secure legitimacy, mostly because the citizens felt that their interests were not well represented (see Hong Kong’s extradiction bill in June 2019). Despite claims by the framers of such policies that the interests of the people were considered, they were not well received. Discussing ideas with citizens to secure their buy-in at the very beginning would have prevented the crises.
How is the momentum building in Africa?
On the African Evidence-Informed Policy Making (EIPM) landscape there is growing appreciation of and interest in promoting the uptake of citizen evidence in policy processes. Despite earlier efforts to promote the uptake of different types of evidence in policy such as through DFID’s BCURE programme and WHO’s EVIPNet programmes, new discourse on the particular case of promoting citizen evidence started in Nairobi (Kenya) in March 2018 at the African Evidence Informed Policy Forum.
Another platform created to further this burgeoning movement was #EVIDENCE2018, held in Pretoria. Ideas generated from these engagements have been shared with this community, like those on the dimensions of citizen evidence and the need to navigate power dynamics. Consensus was reached at the Nairobi meeting to continue further interactions among interested organisations through remote communication, eliminating logistical difficulties.
In May 2019, the first virtual meeting was held. The organisations represented included (in no particular order) CommsConsult, the Africa Evidence Network, CLEAR-AA, PACKS Africa, Global Development Network (GDN), IDRC, and INASP. Other interested organisations that could not participate in this meeting but should nevertheless be acknowledged include Africa’s Voices, Canon Collins Trust, Restless Development, and the African Union (AU).
Ongoing initiatives to promote citizen evidence
The organisations represented made submissions on initiatives to promote uptake of citizen evidence. Previous work by colleagues from the Africa Centre for Evidence (University of Johannesburg) on stakeholder engagement was shared, and a forthcoming book on evidence in Africa (with Ian Goldman as a co-author) was mentioned, including two chapters focusing on citizen evidence.
Other initiatives include INASP’s previous work with Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Parliament that came up with issues around citizen evidence, and the organisation’s upcoming programme strategy is diving more deeply into such areas.
CLEAR-AA showcased their ongoing work with Twende Mbele that is trying to construct a platform for improving state–civil society relationships, with the intention of enhancing state use of evidence generated by civil society. This agreed with a report by PACKS Africa from their recent workshop that, although limited in use, citizen evidence was currently aggregated by civil society organisations (CSOs) and the media, notwithstanding those that are absorbed through social research.
Another CLEAR-AA initiative is their pilot project in Ghana, testing a new mechanism for stakeholder engagement in the sanitation sector, focusing on liquid waste. Once this pilot is completed, the broader collaborative elements of such a platform will be tested in other African countries, drawing on a peer-learning approach.
Many participants suggested how their organization might contribute to the movement. Some offered to organise panels at upcoming events (in 2019 and 2020) to focus on citizen evidence, while the Africa Evidence Network suggested organising a webinar as part of Evidence Week on 9-13, September 2019.
Others considered working in small groups on focused ideas and subtopics to make the most of existing synergies. These subtopics included models for researching, assessing, and mapping citizen evidence; the environment sector in Ghana; citizen evidence within health sector policies in West Africa, and working with parliaments.
With this growing interest and momentum, it is envisaged that there will be more opportunities in the future for policymaking institutions in Africa to use more and better citizen evidence, and socio-economic development on the continent would be the ultimate beneficiary.
Contributions from colleagues within the network are acknowledged, including those from Ruth Stewart (University of Johannesburg/Africa Evidence Network), Ian Goldman, Hermine Engel, Aisha Ali & Laila Smith (CLEAR-AA), Megan Lloyd-Laney (CommsConsult), Shannon Sutton & Peter Taylor (IDRC/Think Tank Initiative), Francisco Obino (Global Development Network), and Emily Hayter & Tabitha Buchner (INASP).