Foreign Assistance for Digital Activism: The Research Problem

By Travis Mayo, Program Analyst at USAID Bureau for Global Health

Note: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government

Like a large ship, government agencies rarely change course quickly. However, when a new path is set there is a heck of a lot of momentum moving behind it. When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton delivered a speech on internet freedom in January 2010, it was a public trumpet call for initiatives already taking place that provide US government funds to support organizations using new technologies for democracy and human rights. Both the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development have started populating their democracy and governance portfolios with projects that focus on assisting civil society organizations build their capacity in the utilization and promotion of ICT and new media (it’s taken for granted that any civil society organization receiving said strengthening is working towards goals that improve democracy or governance in their country e.g. accountability, transparency, advocacy, etc.). The underlying assumption fueling these projects is the same that pervades through Secretary Clinton’s speech: increased access to new technologies will empower people, allow for greater freedom of expression and access to information, and thus enable safer, happier, more democratic societies.

The Problem

In general, the field of international development has a less than stellar reputation for monitoring and evaluation (M&E). To combat the problem, the field is witnessing increasing calls for stronger accountability and a reallocation of funds to proven development initiatives that are both effective and efficient. Development sectors like health have it comparatively easy when it comes to M&E, indicators are widely accepted and measurement comes down to funding, access and accuracy. Measuring democracy and governance on the other hand is much more difficult, even the definition of key terms such as accountability, transparency, and freedom are far from universal. Zero in on projects aiming to strengthen civil society’s utilization of ICT and new media, and the problem of M&E is compounded. A civil society group could be three teenagers in garage who monitor blogs, or it could be a multi-million dollar advocacy group with an office in the capital and several hundred field staff throughout the country. The type of new activities taking place as a direct result of increased ICT/new media utilization could be direct or indirect, internal or external, online or offline, or a combination of all the above. Altogether, this means developing an M&E plan for just one project in a single country is tricky, and measuring the aggregate effect of these projects across all countries and organizations is a significant problem.

The need for data that can measure the effect increased new media and ICT usage is having on the ability for civil society organizations to advance their goals should be clear. International donors don’t give their money to support malaria prevention methods that are based on an assumption, nor should millions be poured into the strengthening of civil society’s new media and ICT capacity without really knowing what you can expect in return.

Foreign Assistance by Sector - Source:

Democracy and Governance Funding by Sector - Source:


Working towards a Solution

Supporting civil society organizations ability to engage in digital activism is a new, and in terms of funding, relatively miniscule sector of foreign assistance. However, as internet and mobile phone penetration rates continue to rise and the innovative capabilities of new media are unraveled, the potential for increased funding is like a lit match over a barrel of gasoline. Moving forward, there is a distinct gap in available information to guide policy making. Research that can successfully develop indicators capable of measuring the ethereal combination of digital activism with on-the-ground results, as well as cogently comparing the resulting data across both countries and organizations, is sure to be a highly sought after commodity. At the very least, it would be nice to transition the theory from sensible assumption to proven method.

In my forthcoming posts I plan to explore methods of evaluating the effectiveness of digital media used by civil society actors.

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