Centering Citizen Voices for Social Change

Africa's Voices Foundation

For decades, there has been an outcry against preconceived policies and solutions to socio-economic challenges in African communities that do not meaningfully account for the perspective of these communities. The capacity for Africans to conceive and design the life that they want is undeniable and this conviction is taking a stronghold across the continent. Local governments and development partners are being called to listen. Through the use of media and responsible technology, Africa’s Voices Foundation is facilitating this process by building space for citizen participation in their own development. Their work in East Africa, mainly Kenya and Somalia uses interactive radio to engage citizens in large scale meaningful dialogues, in their own language. This engagement is in turn converted into actionable evidence used to adapt policy making and program development that help to improve health, gender equality, social inclusion and livelihood outcomes for local communities. 

Samatar Abdi, Elena Georgalla and Nasra Ali talked to the DevDispatch about their contribution to the work of local and national governments as well as humanitarian organisations through their unique qualitative and conversational approach to citizen consultation. Their highly interactive radio shows on one hand, allow ordinary citizens to not only stay informed but share their viewpoint (through SMS) in response to important societal questions that affect them. On the other hand, they allow for local policy makers and humanitarian organisations to better understand the citizens they serve and adapt their policies and interventions to their needs. This service becomes even more pertinent in situations like in Somalia where due to security reasons, in-person engagement for data collection and survey is impossible.

“IMAQAL meaning “listen to me” in Somali is a mutli- media platform for a nationwide, rich and inclusive dialogue on gender equality and social inclusion matters in Somalia. Since late 2018, AVF has built this trusted space within Somalia, where Somalis across the country can discuss issues around gender equality and social inclusion targeting mostly women, the youth, IDP’s and marginalised groups. We set ourselves the objective from the beginning that, you know, using a medium like radio – to shift perceptions that are negative towards these groups. And also within the group itself to also change attitudes on perceptions using our own unique social behaviour and communication methodology. The centrepiece of the whole project of IMAQAL was citizen voices so we usually get the insights, narratives, the stories, beliefs and experiences that emerge from those voices and we have put that into different formats for the radio. For example we have a radio drama, we have a magazine show which has different issues and segments within it, and television talk shows. Before COVID-19, we had on the ground forums, which really were used to target hard to reach populations. It really created a space where Somalis all over the country who wanted to express their views for example for women to define their societal norms and expectations and to voice their opinions about these issues. These ground forums have happened across 7 cities in Somalia with about 75 participants in each forum including members of the community and leaders.”

In just over a year, the Africa’s Voices Foundation through IMAQAL, has been able to build trust with the communities and has leveraged the platform as a safe space for citizens to share their  insights, narratives, stories, beliefs and experiences from the happenings within the community. It also elevates citizens’ voices for social and behavioural changes and the social insights collated and made available to local governments and social changemakers to inform programming and interventions that continue the behavioural changes that have already begun within the community. 

The work of Africa’s Voices Foundation is in so many ways, the first step to developing and implementing community interventions that have the capacity to respond effectively to citizens’ needs. Therefore when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Somalia, AVF saw this as an opportunity to do what it does best- gather insight around citizen perception and support attitude shifting-  but in this case, towards positive health practices and behaviours within the community in response to the coronavirus.

“Once the pandemic hit, we have adapted and pivoted towards tackling COVID-19 from a gender perspective and social inclusion perspective because COVID-19 is expected to adversely impact vulnerable groups in Somalia, especially women, IDP’s and minorities. This could really exacerbate challenges that sustain social exclusion and gender inequality. In the early days of COVID-19 in Somalia, we did a rapid diagnostic. Essentially we reached out to all the 50,000 people who were engaging with IMAQAL. We asked them a question through SMS on their understanding of risk and preparedness around COVID-19, and one of the things that came up really strongly was this emphasis on religion. People were seeing COVID19 through a very religious lens. So that was one of the first things we took to the working group on COVID-19  in Somalia, and some partners were able to adapt their programming and response in Somalia, based on this particular insight. Prior to that, they hadn’t seen any other evidence that points to the importance of religion in talking to people about COVID-19. So far we have done 8 radio shows  over a network of 30 FM partner stations across Somalia. We share very vital public health messaging by having for example, representatives from the ministry of health on the shows and discussing the pandemic. So our program is on a weekly basis and a new program goes out to 30 radio stations. The large scale of the conversations are really important especially in the context. We speak to a lot of people to affect the attitudes and behaviours and to let them adapt to the messaging in our program.”

To deliver their work, Africa’s Voices Foundation partners with existing radio stations to achieve maximum listenership but also to build their capacity to design and produce high quality interactive radio programs. With the insight collected through these radio interactions, Africa’s Voices Foundation packages them into reports, simplified policy briefs, or newsletters for targeted dissemination through industry forums so that they reach development practitioners.

During the pandemic, Africa’s Voices Foundation did not only pivot around insight on citizen perspective on the virus and awareness raising, but also explored citizen perception on how local government was responding to COVID19. Their work with the Banadir Regional Administration in Mogadishu is a perfect example of this. The original intervention in partnership with UNICEF was aimed at supporting the Banadir Regional Administration to improve communication with citizens and citizen engagement through digital channels. However, with the pandemic, Africa’s Voices Foundation shifted focus to helping the Banadir Regional Administration better understand how citizens perceive the Regional Administration’s response to COVID19. 

“Through a series of interactive radio shows and capacity building workshops which we conducted in May until July, we were able to strengthen the capacity building of the Banadir Regional Administration to listen and respond to the participants through the process of civic  engagement and intervention. Through the show we asked about the socio-economic impact of the virus on Mogadishu citizens, and how it is affecting their lives and also we enquired about their perceptions of how the Banadir Regional Administration is responding to COVID19. So many things have come out from this. We have learnt that most of the citizens are not generally educated about the virus. There are misconceptions, rumours and misinformation that is out there about the disease and the things that people think are relevant. Therefore, citizens need to be educated more on the virus especially vulnerable groups like IDPs and women. Also we talked about how people have been affected by the virus. This is where people talked about education challenges, job loss and other issues. On social accountability, the shows created  a platform for one-on-one conversations between the Banadir Regional Administration and the citizens. Due to the disruption from COVID-19,  ground movements were not possible, so this radio intervention was very special and relevant in analysing the Banadir Regional Administration response to the virus within Mogadishu.”

The final product was a robust report that included insights and actionable recommendations for the Banadir Regional Administration to take on board, with regards to the way that they respond to the crisis in the region, how citizens perceive them, and what they should be focussing on. 

While this pivoting was necessary, Africa’s Voices Foundation admits that this has not been easy. The pandemic and associated social and economic response has taken a toll on the Foundation’s targets especially fundraising targets set for 2020. The need to adjust budgets and contracts and in some cases develop new proposals has created delays to the start of activities. As a small team, Africa’s Voices Foundation has also had to make internal adjustments like remote working, staff salary cuts and moving its partnership engagements online. 

The team however shared that one of the glaring gaps that they have perceived during the course of their work during this pandemic is the need for effective knowledge sharing through conversations with government and all development actors on the ground as well as conversations with the beneficiaries. They insist that input into programs and policies have to go beyond surveys and data and bring human voices, opinions and perspectives into their design and implementation. Support to communities and citizens has to be anchored on the ability of stakeholders to listen to a broad range of voices before proposing a course of action. Simply out, the citizen’s voice must be at the centre of decision-making. 

Learn more about the work of Africa’s Voices Foundation here 

Images provided by Africa’s Voices Foundation