Strengthening citizen participation in governance and social programmes in East Africa

A presenter reads the news at Radio Shabelle, Mogadishu, Somalia (credit: United Nations Photo/Flickr)

Research on digital technology and political communication by Sharath Srinivasan and his team led multiple development agencies in East Africa to integrate citizens’ views in their strategy and operations, including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank.

The developments follow a decade of research after Srinivasan identified a gap in knowledge about a popular socio-political phenomenon in many African countries: interactive call-in or text-in radio shows.

Srinivasan found that citizens actively engaged with one another and government through interactive public affairs shows in Kenya, Zambia and Uganda. He also found that some stations were better than others at curating discussion with diverse citizens and policymakers. Further research determined how social and political factors affect show popularity, and led to Srinivasan’s team designing methodology to study public opinion using computational linguistic techniques.

Srinivasan co-founded a spin-out charity, the Africa’s Voices Foundation (AVF), to translate research on interactive radio into a mixed-method approach through which governments and aid agencies could increase citizen participation. Since then, research has been conducted collaboratively between Cambridge University and AVF.

AVF has continued to draw upon the research in its subsequent work, and the research approach is now used extensively in Somalia and Kenya. For instance, in 2019, AVF helped the World Bank to review its strategy in Somalia by convening interactive radio shows and analysing public views.

The team’s research on how to use the approach in public health interventions enabled AVF to move quickly to support COVID-19 risk communication in Somalia and Kenya. In April 2020, AVF collected and analysed over 7,500 individuals’ views on COVID-19. It identified that stigma and misinformation were widespread, and that addressing these issues required working with trusted religious authorities. Based on this work, Somalia Stability Fund and UNICEF commissioned AVF to conduct further COVID-19 programming in Somalia, responding to their earlier findings and bringing religious leaders and content into radio discussions.

Africa’s Voices was awarded the Market Research Society’s President’s Medal for Social Impact in 2016.

“[Africa’s Voices Foundation’s] work tackles an important challenge for the World Bank in Somalia and many other country contexts: namely inclusive approaches to civic engagement and rigorous methods for drawing insights from citizens into more accountable and participatory policy planning processes.”

– Somalia Country Manager, World Bank