New Face of People Power: Social Accountability in action

In an earlier post, I wrote about how citizen groups are increasingly empowering themselves with information to demand greater accountability from their elected representatives in local, provincial and central governments.

This is collectively called Social Accountability – and it represents a significantly higher level of citizen engagement than merely changing governments at elections or taking to the streets for popular revolt (‘people power’).

In 2004, TVE Asia Pacific produced a half-hour international TV documentary titled People Power that profiled four Social Accountability projects in Africa (Malawi), Asia (India), Europe (Ireland) and Latin American (Brazil).

Watch the Brazil story on TVEAP’s YouTube channel:

The experiment with participatory budgeting in the municipality of Porto Alegre in Brazil is a long-running example that we filmed. This is one of the largest cities in Brazil, one of the most important cultural, political and economic centers of Southern Brazil.

The city is well known as the birth place of the World Social Forum. The first WSF was held there in January 2001.

Participatory budgeting goes back to a decade earlier. It was started in 1989 by the newly elected “Worker Party” (PT) to involve people in democratic resource management in an effort to provide greater levels of spending to poorer citizens and neighborhoods. It has since spread to over 80 municipalities and five states in Brazil.

Porto Alegre’s challenge was how to include the poorer people in this success. Housing was a major problem as rural people migrate to the city looking for work. In the past, people built temporary houses on whatever land they could find, and the city council kept on demolishing these unauthorised structures.


As Brazil moved from a totalitarian to democratic form of government in the late 1980s, the newly elected city government adopted a program where the people participate in prioritising the City Budget.

The city is divided into sixteen regions and during each year, local neighbourhoods send representatives to people’s assemblies. In these assemblies, the neighbourhood representatives discuss priorities for the allocation of the city budget. They then elect their representatives from each region to form a budget council.

Over a year, from neighbourhood associations to people’s assemblies, up to 20,000 people have a direct say on how the city budget should be allocated.

This participation ensures democratic accountability and fairer distribution of tax revenue. It allows the poorest and the richest regions to have equal weight in the decision process.

After the introduction of participatory budgeting, an influential business journal nominated Porto Alegre as the Brazilian city with the ‘best quality in life’ for the 4th consecutive times. Statistics show that there has been significant improvement in quality of roads, access to water services, coverage of sewerage system, school enrollment and tax revenue collection.


We interviewed Joao Verle (wearing pink shirt in photo above), the then Mayor of Porto Allegre, who said: “I believe in this project since i was one of those responsible for starting it fifteen years ago. The participatory budget is now part of the organic life of this city – people can change it any time they please. And this makes it more adaptive to the people’s needs.”

First broadcast on BBC World in February 2004, People Power documentary has since been widely distributed to broadcast, civil society and educational users in the global South. It is still available from TVEAP on DVD and VHS video.

Photos are all captured from People Power video film. Courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Read my post about social accountability in the world’s largest democracy, India

The Road from Citizen Kane to Citizen Journalist

From Citizen Kane to Citizen Journalist.

That’s the original title given to an essay that I co-wrote with Sir Arthur C Clarke nearly two years ago, at the invitation of the Indian news magazine Outlook.

The editors of Outlook changed it to Arise, Citizen Journalist! — which was fine, though perhaps not as poignant.

Of course, our original title would make sense only if you know what Citizen Kane means. That’s the name of the famous 1941 movie directed by Orson Welles, based on the life and career of American newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane. The Wikipedia describes Kane as ‘a man whose career in the publishing world was born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolved into a ruthless pursuit of power and ego at any cost.’

Many consider Citizen Kane to be one of the finest movies ever made — some rank it as the best ever.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

In the essay, written within months of the Asian Tsunami of December 2004, we looked at the rise and rise of citizen journalists — taking both a historical perspective and a futuristic scenarios.

On the road thus far, we wrote: “Historically, organised and commercialised mass media have existed only in the past five centuries, since the first newspapers — as we know them — emerged in Europe. Before the printing press was invented, all news was local and there were few gatekeepers controlling its flow. Having evolved highly centralised systems of media for half a millennium, we are now returning to a second era of mass media — in the true sense of that term. Blogs, wikis and citizen journalism are all signs of things to come.

After exploring the corporatisation of the mass media, and its implications for free flow of information and opinions, we ask the question: can the citizen journalist fill the many voids in today’s mainstream media?

The essay quotes John Naughton, a noted British chronicler of the new media, who has watched and commented on the rise of blogging and its impact on the rest of the media. We also refer to researches Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis who have defined citizen journalism as the act of citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information”

We raise the all-important question: “Will citizen journalism survive and thrive in the harsh marketplace? The answer to that question lies in our hands—let us not underestimate the power of the discerning media consumer to set new trends (and not forget how mass indifference kills many innovations).

The essay suggests that we should not write off the mainstream media — it has survived and adapted to many changes in both technology and the marketplace.

But our conclusion is definitive: Yet one thing is clear: the age of passive media consumption is fast drawing to an end. There will be no turning back on the road from Citizen Kane to citizen journalist.”

Read the full essay in Outlook magazine’s 10th anniversary issue, 17 October 2005

Read my friend Shahidul Alam on ‘Publishing from the Streets: Citizen Journalism’

Shahidul Alam on citizen journalism on MediaHelpingMedia website

People Power: Going beyond elections and revolutions

“At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper.”

That’s how Sir Winston Churchill summed up democracy at work. Elections – at national and local levels – give ordinary people the chance to decide who would run their affairs for the next few years. At least in theory.

In the modern world, however, elections alone cannot ensure that people’s wishes prevail. Better models of engagement are needed…and are being developed across the globe.

Historically, people responded to bad governance by rejecting governments at elections, and occasionally by overthrowing corrupt and despotic regimes through mass agitation. In the past decade, this “people power” has toppled rulers in the Philippines, Nepal and Ukraine among others, and sent a strong signal to autocratic governments elsewhere.

Yet such people power has its own limits: in country after country where one political party – or indeed political system – was replaced with another through popular vote or revolt, people have been disappointed or dismayed at how quickly the new brooms lose their bristles. The solution must, therefore, lie in not just participating in elections or revolutions, but in constantly engaging governments and keeping the pressure on them to govern well – or else.

So what is to be done, as Lenin famously asked? One challenge is to find new approaches to promoting good governance.

Photo: An election awareness public rally in Rajastan, India (late 2003)

An example is Social Accountability practices – individuals or civil society groups getting together to demand accountability from different levels of government. This represents a significantly higher level of citizen engagement than merely changing governments at elections or taking to the streets.

It involves the careful gathering of data, their systematic analysis and knowledge-based engagement and negotiation with elected and other public officials. Crucial to this process is accessing and using critical information – about budgets, expenditures, excesses, corruption, performance, etc.

The new breed of citizen voice is about using information in a way that lead to positive change in government and society. People use knowledge as a pivotal tool to improve governance, better use of common property resources, and management of public funds collected through taxation or borrowed from international finance institutions.

The media can play multiple roles in such social accountability processes. At a basic level, media’s coverage of these processes adds momentum to citizen movements. At a higher level, some citizen groups are use media as an information tool or campaigning platform or both, optimising each other’s strengths.

Here’s an example from my own experience. In 2004, TVE Asia Pacific produced a half-hour international TV documentary titled People Power that profiled four Social Accountability projects in Africa (Malawi), Asia (India), Europe (Ireland) and Latin American (Brazil).

First broadcast on BBC World in February 2004, it has since been widely distributed to broadcast, civil society and educational users in the global South. It is still available from TVEAP on DVD and VHS video.

Hernando de Soto

We interviewed the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (photo, above) of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Lima, Peru, who said: “Supposedly in a democracy, if the majority of people are poor, then they set the criteria of what is right. Yet all those mechanisms that allow [society] to decide where the money goes — and that it is appropriately allocated — are not in place throughout the Third World. We take turns electing authoritarian governments. The country, therefore, is left to the [whims] of big-time interests, and whoever funded the elections or parties. We have no right of review or oversight. We have no way for the people’s voice to be heard — except for eight hours on election day.”

When the India story was being filmed, in late 2003, by coincidence several states were holding elections for the state legislatures. Our crew followed the election process in the northern Indian state of Rajastan to see how a citizen group was forcing social accountability for all standing for election.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) invited the people of Beawar, Rajastan, to a public meeting where the affidavits on the local candidates were made available to everyone. This process of social accountability and transparency extends beyond the political process to the village level where the MKSS has successfully lobbied for the right to information legislation to overcome the systemic corruption in the political and bureaucratic organisations.


MKSS’s struggles has led to laws to ensure people’s right to information across India.

“India is the largest functioning democracy in the world and it has significant strengths (but) it also has weaknesses,” says Dr Bela Bhatix (photographed wearing red saree), Associate Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, interviewed on our film. “Among the strengths is that we have been able to sustain our democracy…It’s no small matter to have regular elections and we usually have something like 60 per cent turnout — around 600 million people, or twice the size of America. But at the same time there are some very important weaknesses of our democracy which we really need to think about.”

Social activist Aruna Roy, coordinator of MKSS (photographed below), says: “In 1996, the MKSS sat in a 40-day sit-in at Beawar and we were demanding the right to access records of the Panchayat, the smallest elected body in India. We involved the entire city and made it a people’s campaign. We involved people from all over India, and the national campaign for people’s right to information was born.”

Watch India story from People Power on TVEAP’s YouTube channel:

All photos captured from People Power documentary, courtesy TVE Asia Pacific.

Read TVEAP website feature, People Power beyond elections and revolutions by Nalaka Gunawardene