June 19, 2013—Recently in two local municipalities of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, citizens have been busy using their mobile phones in the Participatory Budgeting process in universities, neighborhoods forums and municipal assemblies. This experimental initiative was supported by the World Bank Institute (WBI) and the World Bank’s Open Development Technology Alliance (ODTA) and is one of several similar initiatives in 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 lack of a participatory culture, few available platforms for dialogue, a lack of local resources, and few mechanisms to enforce accountability of resource allocation. This initiative seeks to actively address these challenges by taking advantage of the high mobile phone usage in Africa, especially Cameroon. As of 2011, more than half of the country’s 10.4 million population owns a mobile phone. By contrast, registered Internet users are much fewer.
Supported by Information and Communication Technologies’ 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 information sharing, mobilization and inclusion in the decision-making process.
Yaoundé councils II and VI were chosen for the pilot because of their commitment to participatory budgeting approaches and support from the council mayors and civil society. Since 2009, local stakeholders discussed project initiatives across health, education, electricity, water supply, road construction, urban planning, and community maintenance. 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 participatory budgeting: identification and prioritization of projects.
In Yaoundé VI, where the experimentation was ‘heavy,’ the initiative included five main steps:
Information (mobilization): The aim here was to inform people about the initiative, dates of meetings in the different neighborhoods and also to communicate the amount of budget submitted to participatory process.
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 participatory budgeting 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 everyone in 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 or 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.
In Yaoundé II, the experiment was related to the information about budget data, mobilization for a sanitation campaign and mobilization of local leaders for the monitoring of projects.
The introduction of the SMS service into the 2012 participatory budgeting process significantly increased participation from the local community while 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 2,000 people from Council II in support of collective action on sanitation and water safety, while 1,000 more citizens attended neighborhood forums in Council VI. This represented a doubling of community outreach and participation from the previous year.
The inclusion of an ICT component had a variety of benefits on the public budget decision process in 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 World Bank’s Open Development Technology Alliance (ODTA) has played a critical role in this pilot. 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 better coverage and competition ultimately leading to wider connectivity.
The successful outcomes of this pilot process signify the growing success of using 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.