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The barriers to citizen engagement

The Open Institute works in two main ways as regards government – citizen relations. First, we promote proactive government transparency and second, we work with citizen groups and CSOs to foster active citizenship. 

Government transparency has in the past decade been achieved, to some level of success, by implementing ideas such as building open data platforms, and building tools and apps that support  transparent reporting of projects and inclusion. 

When I got involved in the good governance space in the early 2000s, the rationale for Open Data was simple – that if government were proactively open and published data in machine readable format, enabled free and easy access via the internet, then citizens would use the data to better engage with government and also to hold their duty bearers accountable.

This thinking persists today and I think it still holds true. Well, almost entirely.

The development of mobile apps for good governance and citizen participation also had similar motivations. The theory was, for example, that if an app was built to enable citizens to alert government to a water outage in my area and that if the alert was not acted upon would escalate a notice up the chain of command until someone acted or they were shamed publicly. That app would be widely used.

In my experience, majority of these apps were rarely, if at all, used.

The question therefore is why is it that even with such technological solutions, there still aren’t many successes recorded? I propose a couple of reasons, based on my recent stay in rural Kenya and the observations of others that I have spoken to in similar environments.

Little-to-no Literacy

A study by the statistics company statista; in 2019, revealed that 21.7% of sub-saharan youth were not able to read and write. Uwezo, a programme by Twaweza showed that even among young people who have gone through 8 years of primary school, literacy and numeracy is still very low – indicating a lower rate of educational outcomes then is commonly reported. As we are discovering in the course of our interactions with rural communities, the numbers are likely much higher among young adults. Lack of functional literacy is the first and most limiting barrier to citizen engagement.

The thing is that in my view, it goes a little further than just basic literacy. Functional Literacy is an important gap that is experienced by people who may know how to basically read, write and count (literacy and numeracy) but who lack the knowledge and skill of managing money (financial literacy), navigating public offices and services (civic literacy), handling their phones and technology (digital literacy) or even just knowing how to handle themselves in offices and workspaces or care for themselves and others responsibly (lifeskills). Functional literacy is possibly a much more significant gap that needs addressing.

Lack of Exposure

Even when people are literate in the strict sense, citizens who have never visited a bank, a supermarket or another town may have difficulty knowing what they should demand of their leaders or what they should aspire to for their communities. In my engagements with women community leaders in Kilifi County recently, I learnt that out of a group of 30, less than half had actually travelled outside of the county for more than one day and even less, had stayed in other places for longer.

I have met people who have never experienced running water in a building and who have difficulty conceptualising the idea. How then do we expect them to effectively use data for advocacy?

Lack of confidence

The net effect of functional literacy and exposure is a high self esteem, which results in the confidence of the citizens in approaching the government with their proposals for development and laying down their priorities. The value of confidence as a contributor to positive citizen participation is often under valued and there is not much investment in the direction of building citizen confidence.

Farida went to the government office and applied for an ID card – the document that in Kenya, enables her to open a bank account and access a plethora of government and other services. She was given a waiting card, which is essentially a placeholder as she awaits the delivery of the ID card a few weeks hence. Unfortunately, she ruined the waiting card in her laundry wash by mistake.

The absolute fear of being scolded by the government officials render her incapable of going back to pick her ID. She knew they would ask for the waiting card and the embarrassment is enough to make her live for years without getting an ID. Farida is now 30 and has lived without the document for a decade at least. She has no ownership of public processes and therefore cannot see herself participating in anything.

She is not alone in this.

Also Read: Thoughts that preoccupy me

Invest in soft issues

There is a real opportunity for us to invest in these “soft” areas if we are to succeed to have people use data and be sufficiently moved to act on it. We must structure our programmes and funding to go beyond the hardcore technology and data initiatives.

We must invest energy in civic literacy and participation, including the setting of norms and creating awareness in support of active citizenship. We must invest also in developing the functional literacy of those most left behind.

In our considered view, the best people to deliver on these needs are those who are doing it already at small scale in communities. They work in community based organisations with women, youth and rural populations. They work on building capacities in agriculture and other livelihoods, financial literacy through table banking and they have robust youth and children outreach programmes.

We have to structure our programmes to support community based organisations to do what they do best. They already have the trust of the communities and therefore can have more frank conversations, even around community fears. They can directly reach more people than larger organisations can – and more cost effectively.

One of the challenges I have observed in many communities is the commercialisation of community engagement activities by non-profits. No meetings happen without per diem (or “transport”, as it will be politely called). The challenge is, in many cases, the per diem is the reason for the meeting and the real purpose is often lost. CBOs can engage their communities in farms, churches, mosques and schools at no extra cost.

The best demonstrations I could point to are two organisations that we have been working collaboratively with in Malindi, Kilifi county. Thellesi Trust has been working with partners like Baraza Media Lab to build the capacity of youth to become citizen reporters. We supported them to engage with young people and established mainstream and social media influencers like Maxine Wabosha and James Smart. Out of that interaction was born a new Tiktok star – Sofia, a young woman who talks about social issues in a most engaging way, reaching thousands of people – literally weeks since she started. Here she is seen decrying the sexual and physical harrassment of a woman on Forest Road, Nairobi by boda boda (motorbike taxi) riders, yesterday.

This is not a success that large organisations can easily lay claim to without considerable expense.

Lit, a CBO that works to build the functional literacy of young people has had great impact in the lives of some of the young people I have spoken about in this blog before. I have seen young men come from being afraid to speak with people they are not used to, to them learning english, getting ID cards and opening bank accounts.


I am a writer first and foremost. I am passionate about social entrepreneurship, which I define by finding ways to innovate the world’s processes to make life better for people – whether in business or in the non-profit sector. I am professionally involved at the Open Institute, Thellesi Co and various agricultural ventures.

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