5 months after MDG summit, citizen tracking mechanism is launched in Kenya

    An online citizen tracking program in Kenya makes use of text messaging to enable people to voice their concerns when they find that any kind of service is lacking or missing from their communities. Photo by: Ken Banks / CC BY

    Ten years after their establishment, the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals are set to gain a new local and tangible edge with the launch of an online citizen tracking program in Kenya that went live Feb. 10.

    The U.N. Millennium Campaign, in collaboration with 20 local and national Kenyan non-governmental organizations, is sponsoring the novel initiative. The pilot project debuts five months after September’s U.N. summit on the MDGs in New York, where civil society voiced concerns that funding pledges made there by world leaders might not be adequately tracked and that civil society could have a hand in reporting about actual successes and failures of aid projects in the field.

    The project will benefit millions of Kenyans, who will be directed to anonymously contact government officials via text messaging when they find any kind of service that is lacking or missing from their communities. The exact nature and deriving location of all complaints, as well as the local government officials and offices responsible for responding to them, will be posted live on Huduma.info, a name derived from the Swahili word for “service.”

    “The campaign has been thinking very hard about how do you get a real conversation going between citizens and governments about realizations on the MDGs, for the past two years, how do you get into the specifics of what is and what is not working?” explained Corinne Woods, director of the U.N. Millennium Campaign, an inter-agency initiative hosted by the U.N. Development Program.

    The answer, it seems, is to enable and empower citizens to voice their concerns quickly, efficiently and cheaply, while providing them with a public platform to ensure that their queries are not getting buried in a suggestion box. It is a solution that ultimately requires participation from all sectors of society, including government and civil society organizations at local, national and international levels, which will serve different roles in the outreach, follow-up and tracking process.

    Why Kenya?

    The U.N. Millennium Campaign’s Africa office decided to launch the initiative in Kenya in part because of the country’s recently established constitution and strong civil society network, according to Nargos Hardos, a member of the Africa office and implementer of the project.

    “A lot of people are not sure what their rights are and what they are entitled to, like health care and education, or of their rights as a taxpayer,” said Hardos. “This is also a tool for the government to be able to show exactly what the citizens want and how to reconnect with them.”

    For the pilot launch, the U.N. Millennium Campaign and its partner organizations are working to distribute phone numbers to citizens in four Kenyan districts, including Kibera, the country’s largest slum. One target western province alone has a population of 4 million, according to Hardos. The population in Kibera and Langata, both located in Nairobi, combine for a total of about 200,000.

    After Kenya, the U.N. Millennium Campaign hopes to roll out similar projects in Uganda, Nigeria, India and the Philippines within the next year.

    Simple messaging is key

    Under the initiative, non-governmental groups, largely local, grass-roots organizations, will work to mobilize people to send a text message to the provided number when, for instance, a midwife is regularly not present at a health clinic. There are approximately 22 million mobile phone users in Kenya, said Hardos, with network connection virtually anywhere.

    Basil Ibrahim, also of the U.N. Millennium Campaign’s Africa office, said concise, simple messaging will be key in getting the word out.

    “We’re not talking about MDG 1 or 2 or the new constitution, but it is about the pleasure of rinsing in clean water and decent health care,” Ibrahim explained. “Our whole communications strategy will be built around the emotion of deprivation, which is very real to people.”

    The goal is for the project to take on a life of its own, spanning well past 2015 – the target year for the MDG goals – and operating independently, with people automatically thinking of texting the provided number or logging in to Huduma.info when there is a problem to report. That may not lead to clearer data on any MDG tracking – specifically information on infant, child and maternal mortality, which is notoriously difficult to document – but it will help identify areas that need increased attention, Woods said.

    “What this does is help governments and the U.N. at the country level understand what the bottlenecks are,” Woods said. “If you see here a center is closed and it should be open, clearly something is going on. Maybe the people there are not being paid, or the doctors opened a private practice.”

    The information will feed into a larger analysis of what is and what isn’t working at a local level, Woods said, while also identifying “what we can do about this.”

    NGOs will ultimately be responsible holding government officials accountable once requests for help appear in a little bubble form on Huduma’s user-friendly map, a concept developed by the Kenya-based Social Development Network, or SODNET. As the program expands and begins to span countries and regions, the capacity for participation for national and international NGOs will expand as well.

    The future of MDG progress tracking

    The concept of citizen tracking on a local scale is not new, according to Woods. But the pilot program in Kenya is the known first U.N.-sponsored MDG-specific initiative that eliminates the back-and-forth process of conducting surveys, writing reports, and submitting the reports for publication, consideration and feedback.

    On a global level, U.N. efforts to monitor MDG progress as well as the resources pledged to achieve the goals are done through the secretary-general’s MDG Gap Task Force and the new Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health. The high-level commission was established in December 2010 to develop an accountability framework that will help countries monitor spending of resources committed for maternal and child health during the MDG summit in New York. It will issue its first report in May 2011.

    >> UN Creates Commission to Ensure Accountability in Women and Child’s Health Aid Flow>> MDG Summit Culminates With USD40B Global Health Roadmap

    At this juncture, even as the pilot project in Kenya is just taking off, the U.N. Millennium Campaign is considering a new program to enhance involvement with civil society in tracking all MDG monetary and policy commitments.

    “We’re in the very early stages of that planning, and there is a lot of thinking,” said Woods. “We’re having that discussion now with people from different civil society organizations and would be very happy to hear from them and hear what their thinking is.”

    Civil society organizations interested in becoming involved in either effort should contact their U.N. Millennium Campaign officer in the region or country where they are working.

    For more information, visit www.endpoverty2015.org.

    About the author

    • Amy Lieberman

      Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.