Event ReportsPublished on May 04, 2021
Programmatic knowledge sharing on informed community decision-making and community-based data driven initiatives

Communities lie at the heart of development. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of community-level engagement and knowledge in tackling the spread of the virus and also ensuring continuity in developmental activities—whether it is education, or administering health programmes.

The latent knowledge within communities provides context and nuance for innovation in governance and processes. The usage of digital devices and data generated by people provide an interface between market, state, and communities.

Supporting communities with tools of data and technology can help realize the potential of community empowerment. It allows them to create their own models of development that are contextualized to their local requirements, thus, limiting exclusionist tendencies.

Within this context, the Observer Research Foundation along with the World Bank and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the programmatic knowledge exchange series titled, “Informed Community Decision Making and Community-Based Data-Driven Initiatives”. The series aims to bring together eight countries from Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Central Asia for peer-to-peer learning and information exchange on community-based data driven initiatives.

The inaugural webinar on 18th November 2020 saw the participation of 90 participants from 20 organisations that included government entities, country delegations, and civil society organisations.  Country delegations from Cambodia, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, and Nigeria participated. For the first webinar, delegations from India and Nigeria provided insights into community-based data driven initiatives in their respective countries. From India, the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), Mobile Vaani, and Digital Green initiatives were showcased and the ‘Nigeria for Women’ project was showcased by Nigeria.

Indian and Nigerian initiatives

National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) with its network of 6.5 billion Self Help Groups (SHGs) has facilitated thrift promotion, increased credit linkages and empowered communities. Its holistic approach is seen in its goal of eliminating rural poverty through the promotion of multiple livelihoods for each rural poor household. NRLM does this through mobilization and collectivization, training and capacity building, facilitating micro-livelihoods plans, and enabling women to implement these plans through facilitating access to financial resources from their own institutions and banks. The scale of the program is staggering with more than 70 million women mobilized, 6.5 million Self Help Groups (SHGs) formed, USD 2.5 billion community savings, and USD 35 billion credit mobilized. One in seven women part of NRLM SHGs today have access to livelihood opportunities. NRLM aspires to economically empower 50 percent of women in NRLM SHGs over the next five to seven years. The program also recognizes the importance of decentralization with states evolving its own strategy and intentional engagement of the communities themselves. During the webinar, examples of use of community-based processes were touched upon. The community monitoring tool used in the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana NRLM––through peer internal audit of processes and local social audit––helps provide feedback and ensures accountability of institutions of the poor.  The community-based      recovery system seen in the SHG      model allows           for proper coordination between communities and banks for implementing the Self Help Group-Bank Linkage Programmes (SHG-BLP). The SHG community itself ensures the recovery of loans from its members to repay banks, thereby reducing the time gap between repayment and renewal of loans. This facilitates regular credit flow to the SHGs.

India’s Digital Green has partnered with the NRLM to train agriculture extension and health service providers to produce, disseminate, and monitor short locally relevant videos, featuring farmers and testimonials for adoption of practices to improve agricultural production, livelihoods and nutrition. The data on viewership, participants’ questions and feedback, uptake of promoted practices shown in the videos are utilized for further improving the efficiency of the Digital Green program. A customizable open-source data management system where data can be entered and reviewed, both, online and offline is used. A unique ID is assigned to each farmer to prevent duplication and provide analysis of farmer engagement online. Video recommendations for farmers are based on the data entered by them in the Kisan Diary app which records cropping plans and on-farm transactions of farmers. Digital Green has trained 17,000 frontline workers who have reached 2 million rural community members to promote improved practices of agriculture and nutrition. Over half of those who view the videos have adopted at least one practice (and more commonly adopt multiple practices). Through a randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted by Innovations for Poverty Action and Jameel Poverty Action Lab in Bihar, Digital Green’s intervention has demonstrated a 50 percent gain in adoption rates and 46 percent increase in paddy production compared to traditional group-based approach. To maintain privacy and safety on the platform, individual data is not visible on the analytics dashboard.

Mobile Vaani is an Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) and mobile app based two-way community media platform. It provides 24/7 access to local news and contextual information created by community members in local vernacular languages. It works in collaboration with Enable India to become more friendly for persons with disabilities. It also addresses grievances and conducts surveys and questionnaires to gather information on changes in user’s knowledge and attitude perception. Mobile Vaani was very useful during COVID lockdown as it helped record people’s grievances, and connected them to concerned authorities. The two-way flow of information enabled by the app provided learning about what was happening on the field. In the JEEViKA project, Mobile Vaani is one of the key communication channels for community engagement on health, nutrition, sanitation, and other issues. An independent study by the Population Council has demonstrated improvements in maternal dietary diversity, complementary      feeding, and diarrhea management. While discussing, a participant pointed out that while IVR is considered a more expensive tool but it’s highly useful as it’s a community-based technology.

Nigeria’s “Nigeria for Women” Project aims at women empowerment and reduction of gender-based violence. Nigeria believes in the ethos of investing in people to ensure economic recovery and growth. With women constituting half its population, and 75 to 80 percent of its workforce, empowering them and ensuring gender equality is an important goal. To this end, in partnership with the World Bank, the Government of Nigeria launched the “Nigeria for Women” project. This project aims at better education, health, and economic empowerment of women. It’s planned to be ned across three phases and 36 States.

The project comprises four components. The first is aimed at building social capital. It seeks to do so by organizing women affinity groups that can serve as institutional platforms for women in Nigeria. The second—the Livelihoods Program––seeks to provide support to economically active ones amongst women affinity groups through livelihood grants, and holistic and targeted skills training. It supports individual livelihoods as well as livelihoods collectives. The third component consists of innovations and partnerships. It seeks to find ways to boost the efficacy of projects. The fourth component, comprising project management, and monitoring, evaluation and learning, aims to strengthen the technical and implementation capacities of stakeholders while also ensuring better coordination among implementing partners and utilization of highly qualified technical professionals.

Technology tools are key to scale up the various initiatives under the project. As a part of this, data collection, health-demographic surveys, project management information systems, grievance redressal mechanisms, and use of cable TV and radio to transmit information are utilized. Women affinity groups are trained for record keeping. It uses technology in the form of robocall for emergency announcements and also involves inclusive digital engagement with civil society organizations.

Challenges and opportunities

By solely responding to their respective sustainable development goal (SDG) commitments, developing countries can add a significant share to their gross domestic product (GDP). Poor Internet connectivity, as a major challenge of using digital platforms, came up during the webinar. Developing countries’ need to improve access to and affordability of internet connectivity as digital technologies will be an important catalyst for them to increase access to and quality of social infrastructure. Improving access to the internet is an important component of this. A study by the International Telecommunications Union suggests that a 10 percent increase in mobile broadband penetration results in a 1.8 percent increase in GDP in middle-income countries and a 2 percent increase in low-income countries.

The impact of the pandemic on community development programmes was discussed during the webinar. While the pandemic has halted various sectors of the economy, and disrupted the provision of certain social benefits, there are examples of how systems were able to respond positively.      For instance, India’s local supply chains were able to respond positively in the context of a global breakdown, and that India witnessed more activity, especially in the manufacturing of masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits. Community engagement and community-initiated actions were instrumental in supporting rural communities to cope with the impact of the pandemic.     . The use of technology through the JanDhan–Aadhar–Mobile (JAM) trinity enabled instant transfer of 3.7 billion to nearly 320 million beneficiaries’ bank accounts in India.

In addition to these themes, a major theme that all the participants stressed upon was the importance of women’s empowerment within the community-driven data initiatives and how women can become enablers of change in society. Skilling of women and their organization into homogenous groups under NRLM and women’s participation in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) have empowered women by increasing their confidence and positively impacting their stature in society. Women have emerged as community leaders and resource persons. Under NRLM, women with higher levels of schooling and leadership potential are identified and trained to become community cadres and train other SHG members. In this way, a multiplier effect of women empowerment is created. Collective organization of women has given them the power to take on more visible roles in society in form of challenging graft, monitoring village government leaders and confronting societal problems like alcoholism. The economic gains from women involvement in community development projects can be seen from the findings of Bihar’s Rural Livelihood Mission Project (Jeevika). Under this, women saved nearly USD $64 million and leveraged another USD $511 million from the formal financial sector. The centrality of women in initiatives will continue to be a thematic discussion in the subsequent webinars of the programmatic knowledge exchange series.

Other initiatives

Apart from India and Nigeria, delegations from six other countries (Cambodia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, and Kyrgyz Republic), that are a part of the programmatic knowledge exchange series, will take part and present their initiatives in future webinars. Cambodia is using technology and data to integrate social accountability into its national and sub-national systems project. Ethiopia’s programme involves multi-sector community driven initiatives directed towards refugee-hosting districts and women’s empowerment. Ghana’s program “People for Health” uses various means like digital accountability dashboard and involves a close feedback loop to strengthen its health sector. Indonesia’s KIAT Guru program is directed at improving teacher performance and accountability. Kenya has a participatory budgetary initiative, where technology was integrated during COVID, as it ensured that information flow continued, as it was available online. Kyrgyz Republic’s CASA 1000 community support project and its COVID-19 additional financing will also be covered in this webinar series.


The subsequent webinars will comprise focused discussions on how data is leveraged by communities from such platforms. This is all the more important given the global discourse on the protection of personal data of individuals and leveraging non-personal data of communities to foster innovation in policymaking and provision of services by the private sector. Empowering communities must be an important topic in such conversations and communities must be co-opted in decision-making. Providing voice to the vulnerable population is the motivation behind community development projects. This can be done from the demand side, by building capacity among people to demand the government or from the supply side, by building the system’s capacity to provide. Technology and data are efficient enablers to this process. They enable two-way flow of information and citizen engagement, thus, expanding the scope and reach of community development. In this manner, one can ensure that development is truly of the community, by the community, and for the community.

This report was compiled by Anurag Reddy, Research Assistant, ORF
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