Putting people’s voices first

Deborah Sambu ICT4D, Methodology, Research

Using innovative research approaches, Africa’s Voices Foundation share how they use technology to reach the hardest to reach. 

Development and governance should be led by the views of those who are affected by its implementation. This is our goal as Africa’s Voices Foundation. By using innovative research approaches, we help to open communication channels between organisations and communities, so that citizens’ voices are included in development programming and decision-making.

Through popular media forums and digital technologies, such as radio and mobile phones, we run research projects that engage those who are harder to reach and often the most difficult to hear. Having worked with several large NGOs in East Africa, such as Oxfam in Kenya, UNICEF Somalia, and Trócaire in Kenya, we have leveraged our approach for many different thematic areas, from health issues to tax justice.

A new way of doing research

Africa’s Voices spun out of ongoing research at The University of Cambridge in 2015. When we began as an independent organisation, some were hesitant towards our innovative methods as many are more familiar with traditional research such as household surveys. Our approach goes beyond the ‘what’ to delve into the ‘why’ of people’s beliefs and behaviours. We engage and listen, whilst gathering valuable and nuanced insights for development programmes. As our Oxfam partner, Wairu, once said, ‘Africa’s Voices provides depth of insights, whilst other methods may provide breadth.’

you need more innovative methods to gather views across wide geographies
Recently, there is a wider acknowledgement that when conducting research in difficult, inaccessible contexts, you need more innovative methods to gather views across wide geographies, while maintaining robustness in research design.

Turning research into impact isn’t easy

One of the hardest parts of our projects is making sure that the final insights are taken up and acted upon by our partners, and that the voices we gather have an impact. We’ve found that by engaging with the organisations in a collaborative way throughout the whole process can be very effective. By creating a ‘true’ partnership with organisations and keeping them a part of the process through workshops and interactive outputs (rather than just presenting a static report) we can help them to better understand and incorporate our research findings.

For example, we participated in a workshop with Oxfam and partners in Turkana, Kenya, and found this to be a meaningful way of presenting our insights and together exploring how they could be applied. The insights then fed into a larger baseline study, and will be used to inform the advocacy and campaigning approaches in the different regions.

As well as this, dealing with the scale and conversational nature of SMS data can be a challenge, especially as we often invite participation in low resource languages. To overcome this, we combine data science, social science, and an understanding of local languages to process and analyse the textual data gathered, recruiting manual and automated techniques.

Our work with Oxfam

We’ve had two projects with Oxfam in Kenya. One of these was an interactive radio series to understand Turkana community’s perspective on issues of oil and gas extraction in the region. Most recently, we’ve been gathering the opinions and knowledge of people living in Nairobi, Turkana, and Wajir on their rights as taxpayers, government roles and responsibilities for tax justice, and county-level budgeting and public service delivery (open a presentation on the project). This is part of Oxfam’s ‘Domestic Resource Mobilisation’ (DRM) project.

We’ve sparked discussions on three different radio stations (and three languages) by presenting scenarios with a moral dilemma related to paying taxes. Audiences participated via SMS to the radio show, as well as to follow-up SMS questions we sent about, like their opinions on the quality of public services. In the baseline component of the ongoing study, over 550 people participated from 35 counties, sending 1149 text messages. They were mainly youth (25- 29) and men (73%). The full report can be found here. Audience messages include:

“Being taxed is a must but as people what we need is proper management of the taxes with adequate transparency and accountability – not these corruption issues we hear about everyday.”  – Man, 30, business owner, Lodwar

“The poor are most affected [by taxes] because their income is very low but they are taxed the same when buying goods [VAT]. The rich have ways of evading taxes through connections they have. The government needs to be transparent in how it taxes businesses of the rich.” – Woman, 26, business owner, Lodwar

“It’s the responsibility of every citizen to pay tax because that is how government raises its revenue. However the public must enjoy services provided by the government. In the absence of same, no logic for the people to bear the burden.” – Man, 40, Wajir Town

“The citizens have been very loyal always paying taxes that government puts to bad use through corruption. One day Kenyans need to all refuse paying taxes until the government takes responsibility.”  – NA

We found that one of the reasons why people avoid paying taxes is related to dissatisfaction with public services. But most people still said they would pay taxes even if they perceive service delivery as poor, because they see it as moral obligation and/or a civic duty. Across all the counties, the priorities for the country and counties budgets were better roads, better education with more and better paid teachers, jobs for youth, and a better healthcare system.

After the baseline and midline phases of the project, the DRM project is now entering its final phase and Africa’s Voices is preparing to conduct endline research. Oxfam intends to use our research to influence its programming and campaigning work on how to effectively capture citizen voices on DRM issues. Oxfam also intends to champion for the use of this methodology by other stakeholders such as government to enhance public participation around the budgeting process.

It’s more than just research for us

we must be innovative in our tools and research methods
We find that to truly understand the current realities of people you must reach them in the mediums and in the languages they are most familiar and comfortable with. Because we’re committed to this approach, we must be innovative in our tools and research methods. We’re proud to be pioneering a new way forward in research by combining social research with citizen engagement, thereby running parallel the research and the engagement to provide insights and to listen.


Deborah Sambu