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[Op-Ed] Tech, Democracy and USAID

BY Katrin Verclas | Thursday, April 10 2014

Among a myriad of controversies surrounding ZunZuneo is the illicit collection of millions of cell phone numbers (teleyradio)

There has been much debate about the ill-fated "Cuban Twitter" program funded by USAID, the US development agency, and administered by Beltway contractors Creative Associates and MobileAccord. While "Cuban Twitter" was indeed completely mismanaged, USAID is involved in a myriad of other projects that are supporting democracy efforts, citizen oversight over institutions, political party development, and fair elections. Many of these purport to have a technology component as well. So how do they fare?

First things first:

Cuban Twitter was indeed a fiasco. In Tuesday's hearing before Congress, Sen. Patrick Leahy and his committee grilled USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah repeatedly. The AP investigation outlines the broad strokes of the debacle: USAID funded a mobile social network aimed at increasing citizen debate online in Cuba using contractors as the agency is wont to do, but without a well-thought-out plan for how the project would be sustained over time, or consideration of how it might harm the very people it was intended to help.

Creative Associates is a large so-called “beltway bandit" — one of the many contractors charged with implementing USAID development projects. Creative is number 12 on the list of the agency’s 40 largest vendors with annual billing of $209,930,230 in FY 2012, according to USAID.

With Cuban Twitter there was a myriad of problems:

1. Assistance to Cuba, especially in the democracy and governance arena, is politically sensitive in the extreme and should have received much greater oversight and care of senior leaders at USAID and Creative.

2. It is still unclear how exactly the acquisition of the initial set of Cuban phone numbers happened. If the AP is right that the initial large list of numbers was simply given to ZunZuneo by a former telco employee, that is bordering on the illegal (under European law, at least) and definitely unethical. USAID's policies with regard to data privacy and protection are in urgent need of public review (if they even exist).

3. There was at least one blatant conflict of interest in the execution of the program: a Creative associate hired her brother to work on the first iteration of the project.

4. The selection of the vendor is questionable: MobileAccord was awarded the technical contract after having failed to pull off a very similar project in Pakistan funded by the State Department. In fact, there is no publicly available contract for the Cuba implementation available on the US contract database UsaSpending.gov, but $1.6 million was awarded to MobileAccord for work in Pakistan in the form of two so-called ‘single source’ contracts. These are awarded without a public bidding process.

5. MobileAccord’s then-CEO James Eberhardt was a favorite of the State Department’s tech honchos. He was brought on several of their "tech delegations" and in one famous case, recounted in the New York Times Magazine story on former innovation and policy advisors Alex Ross and Jared Cohen, was one of a select group of techies invited to dine privately with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (That event included Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Eric Schmidt, and was also attended by Andrew Rasiej of PDM). MobileAccord was also the vendor that ran the mobile giving program for the Red Cross after the Haiti earthquake, a role that was heavily brokered and advertised by the State Department. (Neither Ross nor Cohen responded to requests to comment.)

6. There was no discernible strategy for sustainability -- a problem that in the Cuban context could have been amply visible from the outset. The fate of Humari Awaz, the mobile social network in Pakistan developed by MobileAccord that folded when the State Department money for free text messages ran out, should have been a clue as how ZunZuneo would fare when its USAID grant similarly ran out.

The shenanigans with this project are in part explained by the irrational exuberance for "shiny tools" and "Twitter revolutions" that USAID and its counterparts at State exhibited at the time (remember, this was 2009, not very long after the Iran "green movement" and the hype about Twitter playing an instrumental role there).

But USAID has, for a very long time, funded and supported a large "democracy and governance" program, increasingly with tech components. What is this?

USAID and Democracy

USAID has supported democracy efforts worldwide for decades. Institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute (disclosure: I was employed by NDI in 2012 and 2013) and International Republican Institute are just a few of the most visible organizations that emerged in the last 30 years focused on human rights and democracy support.

A lot of this work is not exactly sexy: For instance, USAID funding was instrumental in advancing the so-called Decree on Associations in Tunisia, one of the most progressive non-governmental organization laws in the region. Similarly, USAID supports programs that increase the number of women in parliaments, trains MPs on political processes, and supports citizen input in the development of constitutions in new democracies.

Some of the work in rights-restricted or repressive regimes is controversial. There is an ongoing debate about how political this work can get. Russia and Bolivia have banned USAID efforts, not in small part because of the perception by these countries that USAID's democracy and governance work was "subversive." Similarly, while not covert or classified, a lot of this work is not publicly advertised and disclosed in public databases only in the most generic of terms.

What kind of money are we talking about? USAID’s budget for democracy and governance (D&G) is relatively low compared to the other areas that the agency funds: It is currently is about 9% of the overall USAID budget, significantly lower than the allocations for economic development (32% of USAID’s budget in FY 2013), health and education (28%), and humanitarian assistance (16%). Allocations for D&G have fluctuated in the last few years - the FY 2013 allocation was significantly lower than the one the year before, for example.

Tech for Democracy

In the last five years or so there has been an increasing emphasis on technology for democracy -- in part outlined in the new USAID Democracy, Human Rights and Governance strategy that was released in the middle of 2013 (pdf). In it, the agency states that it:

Promotes democracy, human rights and governance through the innovative use of technology. USAID is increasingly integrating technological innovations into its DRG portfolio to enable democratic progress by leveraging mobile technologies, social networks and youth engagement. The explosive growth of information technology has democratized communication. These new information communication technologies can present new challenges to democracy as some governments monitor and control access to the Internet, but they also present powerful new opportunities for citizens to participate in public policy decisions and hold their governments accountable.

This emphasis on technology in democracy support manifests itself in a number of ways. To name just a few:

  • There has been increasing reliance in independent and local election monitoring by citizens - a large area of support for USAID. For instance, citizen election monitoring efforts now routinely use SMS and other mobile data tools for information transmission.

  • Parliaments in developing countries and emerging democracies have been wired, MPs and staff have been trained to use technology to communicate with constituents, and there are efforts to make parliamentary proceedings much more transparent using online and mobile tech.

  • Tech Challenges - favorite tools for galvanizing tech innovations - are being emphasized more, most recently with the $45 million Making All Voices Count Challenge that funds tech for citizen feedback and accountability.

  • Independent citizen and independent media support is also an area USAID has invested in with significant amounts.

  • In the human rights arena, USAID and the State Department have invested millions in internet freedom projects and online security tools.

Much of this revised USAID strategy is influenced by the rapid and exponential changes in which people are now able to communicate and organize with one another using social media, a growing demand for better aid accountability and better analytics, and the closing space for civil society organizations that are increasingly moving online to disseminate information and organize support.

As with any large institutions, there are successes and failures. I can personally point to the pivotal elections in countries like Zambia and Ghana, for instance, where citizen oversight, using instant transmission of election information via mobile phones, ensured that there was a peaceful transition of power.

But for every success there are tech failures -- true in development as it is in the private sector. As an emerging arena, the tech-for-democracy field is experimenting -- sometimes well and often not so well. The enthusiasm for funding and deploying technology is laudable but not necessarily accompanied by good strategy, the smart selection of tech, strong project management, and a solid political strategy.

There is still too much of an emphasis on ‘shiny tools’ and not enough on understanding the political economies of interventions. I remember distinctly sitting on a panel with the former head of innovation for USAID when she called for the next ‘killer app’ -- not exactly a comprehensive strategy that integrates tech smartly and well into development efforts.

For USAID and development organizations alike technology management is not a core competency and projects can be badly mismanaged - even if they are sound conceptually. So-called ‘sustainability’ is elusive for many of these projects. Many Democracy and Governance proposals submitted to the agency by contractors include tech as an afterthought and are inadequately funded -- even when it is clear that online and mobile communications could substantially increase the effectiveness of a program. There is little to no acknowledgment and learning from failures in this field and successes and failures alike are not thoroughly analyzed. Lastly, and very importantly, there are no clear guidance or policies issued by the agency to its contractors and grantees as to how to protect the privacy and security of citizens affected by its D&G programs in hostile environments.

But, to its credit, the agency is slowly changing. Beltway bandits are seeing a lot fewer development dollars, for instance, and there is a push to fund organizations and efforts in the specific target countries to a much greater degree. USAID Forward, the reform agenda introduced by President Obama and Secretary Clinton three years ago, emphasizes better management in the agency.

The head of the agency, Rajiv Shah, is widely heralded as an innovative leader who has already reduced the overly large reliance USAID had for the last few decades on government contractors to implement its works, much to their chagrin. There is an increase in partnerships with the private sector and a dramatic expansion of the Development Credit Authority that issues loans to private sector entrepreneurs. With new initiatives like the Global Innovation Lab that launched just a few days ago after four years of work, and concomitant efforts such as mSolutions (now housed at the Lab), there is a greater effort to better and more professionally manage tech projects and learn what it takes to scale and disseminate them.

And even some development organizations (albeit not enough) are realizing that they need to do better in managing tech-for-development (and democracy) projects by hiring competent project and technical staff.

Lastly, there is a growing push towards greater openness and transparency, including aid transparency. People want to know what the agency is funding and where. Since USAID has been lagging in aid transparency, calls like yesterday’s letter to USAID by the transparency initiative “Publish What You Fund” to increase its aid transparency and disclosure are much needed - and not just to mock failed tech efforts.

Granted, this is a work in progress. A lot of the work is messy and some of it is clearly geo-politically motivated - something that critics of democracy funding often point to. But as the largest aid donor in the world, and for better or worse, one that supports democracy, citizen participation, human rights, and good governance to the tune of some $930 million dollars a year, the emphasis should be on making this work more locally relevant, technically sound, and highly accountable to a discerning public both in the United States and in the countries where USAID works.

Katrin Verclas is a development professional who has worked on ‘tech4dem’ and ICT4Development for the last fifteen years.

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