Mobile Phones and Gender Inequality: Can We Hear Her Now?

While the growth of mobile phones is undeniably impressive, when we look at issues more closely, mobile phones are far from being the panacea that some purport it to be. This master thesis [PDF] by Kari Mackey adds to a literature that examines the relationship between mobile phones and gender inequality. 

Here’s the abstract: 

Are mobile phones the best vehicle for reducing gender inequality in the developing world? ICT experts champion the use of mobile phones to improve women’s lives, and various stakeholders have invested millions of dollars to launch mobile phone programs for women. Yet, given high female illiteracy rates, patriarchal societies, and other structural and cultural barriers in developing countries, many scholars contend that limited access to ICTs can perpetuate gender inequality. Rooted in the theory that women’s empowerment and equality are inseparable and necessary components for the realization of sustainable economic and social development, this paper aims to determine if stakeholders are jumping on the mobile phone bandwagon too soon by using a multivariate regression of cross national data to demonstrate whether or not mobile phones fall short of advancing women at the same rate that men develop.

And a snapshot from the conclusion: 

According to this study, mobile phones alone are not enough to reduce gender inequality. In fact, there appears to be no relationship between mobile phones and gender inequality, or one particular vehicle that is shown to be best at closing the gender gap. Rather there seems to be various moving parts working in unison. While increasing women’s literacy, reducing religious favoritism, and strengthening democracy are demonstrated by this study to be statistically significant contributors to greater gender equality, this research was limited in scope. There are 40 surely other variables out there, such as cultural attitudes, affecting gender inequality that have yet to be put through the rigorous test of statistical analysis. In order to determine what they are, it is clear that better data and additional scholarship are needed.

Open Government and Democracy

The International Budget Partnership (IBP) has recently released the results of the Open Budget Survey 2012, which measures “the state of budget transparency, participation and oversight in 100 countries around the world”. In the survey report, the authors highlighted the positive relationship between budget transparency and democracy:

A democratic political system is a significant factor that supports budget transparency (…) In fact, a switch from autocracy to democracy is typically associated with an improvement in a country’s OBI score by almost 20 points, after controlling for other variables. In addition, transparency seems to depend much more on current levels of democracy than on how long a country has been a democracy: for countries in transition, this means that rapid improvements in transparency can be achieved without having to wait for slow processes of learning and adaptation.

This adds to a growing body of literature showing that democracies (and electoral competition) are indeed more transparent than other types of regime. If the relationship between democracy and openness comes across as obvious, it also opens space for some questions about the open government movement and its strategy to promote transparency.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 00.42.12

Political Rights and Civil Liberties in 2013 – Freedom House

Transparency, it seems, is one of the vital signs of well-functioning democracies. Chronic lack of transparency, on the other hand, emerges as the symptom of flawed democracies or authoritarian regimes. If this logic is correct (and the evidence suggests it is) advocating for transparency would correspond to treating the symptoms of a disease, rather than preventing it in the first place.

This is not to say that promoting transparency reforms (e.g. open data, open budgets) is a useless act. Treating a symptom is not a problem in itself: it alleviates the pain and may even prevent further complications. But neglecting to treat the cause of the symptom is surely a bad practice.

This begs a fundamental question: are open government advocates efficiently channelling their energy and resources when asking for more transparency from governments that have little or no inclination to democracy? Or are they failing to strike a balance which combines a focus on transparency with more fundamental reforms that promote, for instance, free, fair and competitive elections?

Granted, transparency and democracy are mutually reinforcing: it is difficult to think of a democracy without informed consent. And even well-established democracies still have a long way to go towards more transparency. But, for instance, going as far as considering that open government may blossom in non-democracies seems questionable to me. All the technology and transparency in the world is unlikely to realize its full potential in the absence of fundamental political rights and civil liberties.

It might be time to start focusing on the role that political regimes play in promoting values that are dear to the open government movement, such as transparency, participation and collaboration. And democracy – or lack thereof – is the elephant in the room.


Further reading

Alt, J. E., Lassen, D. D., & Rose, S. (2005). “The causes of fiscal transparency: Evidence from the US States.” IMF Staff Papers, 53(Special Issue), 30–57.

Alt, J. E., & Lowry, R. C. (2010). “Transparency and accountability: Empirical results for US States.” Journal of Theoretical Politics, 22(4), 379–406.

Hollyer, J. R., Rosendorff, B. P., & Vreeland, J. R. (2011). “Democracy and transparency.” Journal of Politics, 73(4), 1191–1205.

Rosendorff, B. Peter, and James Raymond Vreeland. (2004). “Democracy and Data Dissemination: The Effect of Political Regime on Transparency.” Working Paper, Yale. 

Rosendorff, B. Peter and Doces, John A. (2006). “Democracy and Transparency”. Swiss Political Science Review, 12 (3), 99-112.

Wehner, J. and de Renzio, P. (2013) “Citizens, Legislators, and Executive Disclosure: The Political Determinants of Fiscal Transparency.” World Development, 41, 96-108.

Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

( cross-posted from techPresident)

In my frequent conversations about open government and citizen participation, the subject of elite capture (or “how representative it is”) is almost unavoidable. Some go as far as evaluating participatory initiatives on the grounds of an ideal notion of representativeness: participants should perfectly mirror the socio-demographic traits of the larger population from which they come.

But oddly enough, the same people who raise these concerns about participatory initiatives are much less inclined to apply the same reasoning and standards to traditional politics. In other words, few take the time to consider how representative and inclusive existing electoral democracy actually is. An article by Nicholas Carnes at the New York Times about political representation in the United States puts the issue into perspective:

If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

I’ve yet to see a participatory process that produces similar results. But the limits of representation do not stop there. African Americans and Latinos are still greatly under-represented in US politics. The gender issue is no different: with the House of Representatives only 17 percent women, the Inter Parliamentary Union ranks the US 82nd in female representation in politics, behind countries such as the Arab Emirates, Sudan, Mauritania and Kazakhstan.

Obviously, the US is by no means exceptional in exclusion. Those working in the field of political participation have long been aware of the excluding effect of representative systems. As put by political scientist Arend Lijphart, unequal participation remains as representative democracy’s “unresolved dilemma.” Even more unfortunately, underlines Lijphart, inequalities in representation and influence “are not randomly distributed, but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens (…) and against less advantaged citizens”.

And it is from this unresolved dilemma that the raison d’être of participatory innovations stems. But rather than a replacement for representative systems (as misunderstood by some), participatory innovations are complementary mechanisms to enable the participation of individuals who are systematically excluded from traditional politics, ultimately increasing the overall diversity of voices that influence government.

This observation leads to a fundamental issue when assessing citizen participation initiatives: beyond questioning demographic representativeness, one must also consider the extent to which initiatives succeed (or not) in promoting the participation of previously marginalized sectors of society (i.e. inclusiveness).

So how inclusive are these mechanisms?

To continue with the US example, let’s consider one of the most exciting open government events taking place at the local level in the US: the recent adoption of participatory budgeting in NYC. Unlike most overhyped #opengov experiences, a team of researchers carried out an evaluation of the experience looking at, among other things, the extent to which it promoted inclusiveness. Below are some excerpts from the report [PDF]:

  • Twenty percent of PB voters identified themselves as African American; 14 percent as Hispanic or Latino/a; 2 percent as Asian and 2 percent as “Other.”
  • A higher percentage of African Americans participated in neighborhood assemblies (38 percent), compared to the full population in the four districts (31 percent).
  • Twenty-one percent of budget delegates and 19 percent of PB voters were born outside of the United States.
  • Participants that identified themselves as Black/African American were the most likely to volunteer to be budget delegates.
  • Women represented 64 percent of neighborhood assembly participants, 65 percent of budget delegates and 62 percent of voters in the PB process.

But how these numbers compare with participation in traditional politics is probably one of the highlights of the evaluation (emphasis is mine):

One of the most striking findings about who participated in PB [participatory budgeting] is how the data compares to other types of civic engagement, particularly voting patterns in NYC elections. Across the districts, PB engaged communities that have traditionally been uninspired by politics. People of color, low-income people and some immigrant groups turned out at higher rates than in previous elections.

A few numbers worth noting:

Latino/as represented 39 percent of voters in the 2009 City Council elections. However, 50 percent of PB voters identified themselves as Latino/a (District 8 NYC).

Black or African Americans represented 79 percent of voters in 2009 City Council elections. However, 87 percent of the district’s PB voters identified themselves as Black or African American (District 45 NYC).

Twenty-two percent of PB voters had a household income of less than $10,000 compared to 4 percent of the district’s voters in the 2009 City Council election (District 8 NYC).

I have very little doubt, if any, that the contrast would be even starker if we compared the income of those who sit on the City Council and those who participated in the NYC participatory budgeting. In City Councils across the US, less than 10 percent of members come from a blue-collar background. Conversely, the numbers on income of participatory budgeting participants speak for themselves.

As citizen engagement gains traction in the open government agenda, inclusiveness should be one of the top priorities: both from normative and empirical standpoints, more inclusive initiatives are likely to produce better outcomes. The NYC experience provides valuable lessons for donors, policymakers, advocates, and enthusiasts alike. They can find more about it here and here.

Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation


When designing citizen engagement mechanisms I always consider sortition (or randomization) as a mechanism of participant selection. Nevertheless, and particularly in the #opengov space, my experience is that this idea does not resonate a lot: it sounds less sexy than crowdsourcing and more complicated than over-simplistic mechanisms of “civil society engagement”.

This is why it is always great to see someone like Lawrence Lessig putting forward a system of  “Citizen Conventions” for proposing amendments to the Constitution based upon sortition. In this video below, at a hearing at the U.S. Senate’s Commission of Justice, Lessig explains in a few seconds how such a system would work:

With his unique eloquence, Lessig also makes the best case for ordinary citizens to engage with the Constitution and reforms:

I think to the surprise of many people, you would see that ordinary people deliberating about what the Constitution needs and how the reforms should go forward, would far surpass ninety eight percent of what is commonly discussed in this particular context. And that’s because, frankly, politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional.

Lessig’s remark on the amateur’s role in politics reminds me of something I read a while ago from the apologue of Protagoras. When charged with taking to humans the art of politics, Mercury asks Jupiter whether it should be distributed like the other arts, to the competent ones only. Jupiter replies that the art of politics should be distributed to all. Otherwise, says Jupiter, the city would not exist.

A Bottom-up Account of Occupy Wall Street

New report on Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 08.46.39

Some of the findings:

  • Highly educated young adults were overrepresented
    among OWS activists and supporters, a group with
    limited ethnic/racial or class diversity
  • Most OWS activists and supporters were deeply
    skeptical of the mainstream political system as an
    effective vehicle for social change. For some, this
    skepticism intensified after the election of Barack
    Obama in 2008 failed to produce the changes they
    had been led to expect.
  • Despite being disillusioned with mainstream
    politics, many OWS activists and supporters
    remain politically active and civically engaged.
  • OWS was able to attract supporters with a wide
    variety of specific concerns, many of whom had
    not worked together before, This was in large part
    because it made no formal “demands,” and united
    around the “We Are the 99%” slogan.

Read the full report here.

(HT Archon Fung)

Democratic Innovation in Open Government

The Oregon Citizen’s Initiative Review is without doubt one of the most interesting recent innovations in the field of citizen engagement.

Here’s an excerpt from Participedia on the initiative:

The Oregon Citizen Initiative Review (Oregon CIR) is a Citizens’ Initiative Review designed to allow citizens of the U.S. state of Oregon to evaluate statewide ballot initiatives. A Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) is a Citizens’ Jury that deliberates about a ballot initiative. The Oregon CIR is intended to give voters clear, useful, and trustworthy evaluations of initiatives on the ballot. (…)

The Oregon CIR involves four categories of participants: panelists, the citizens who deliberate about a ballot initiative; advocates, individuals who are knowledgeable about the ballot initiative and who argue in support of or in opposition to the ballot initiative; stakeholders, individuals who will be affected by the ballot initiative, who also argue in support of or in opposition to the ballot initiative; and background witnesses, individuals who are knowledgeable about issues related to the initiative, and who present neutral background information about those issues to the panelists. (…)

I have written before about different methods of participant selection, and this is one of the strong points of this initiative:

To select the panelists for the 2010 Oregon CIRs, HDO used the following selection process: HDO took a probability sample of 10,000 Oregon voters. All voters in this sample were sent an invitation to participate in the 2010 Oregon CIR and a demographic survey. Three hundred fifty members of the sample responded, for a response rate of 3.5%. From those who responded, HDO, using the demographic data from the sample survey, anonymously chose 24 panelists, and 5 alternate panelists, for each 2010 Oregon CIR. The panelists and alternates for each CIR were chosen using stratification, so that each panel closely matched the Oregon population in terms of place of residence, political partisanship, education, ethnicity/race, gender, and age.

If advocates and policymakers in the open government space are really serious about citizen engagement, this is the sort of institutional innovation they should be looking at. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening.

Find out more about it at

My Reading Suggestions (Part One)

Fundação Biblioteca Nacional

Tom Steinberg asked me for a list of my favorite recent reads. So here’s the first part of a rather disorganized list of readings and other resources, with sporadic comments on why I like some of them. The list is heterogeneous in terms of subject, method and quality. In my opinion, the common denominator among the different resources is their relevance for those working at the intersection of participation and technology.


There is definitely a lot of bad reading out there about collective intelligence.   Indeed, many of the discussions and papers out there are nothing more than half-baked re-readings of ideas and concepts well established in the field of epistemic democracy. But there are a few exceptions. Acquainting myself with Hélène’s awesome work in the domain was one of the highlights for me in 2012. Here’s a sample:

Landemore, Hélène E., Democratic Reason: The Mechanisms of Collective Intelligence in Politics (April 1, 2011). COLLECTIVE WISDOM: PRINCIPLES AND MECHANISMS, Hélène Landemore and Jon Elster, eds., Cambridge University Press, Spring 2012.

You can find more of Hélène’s work here

Also, if you are interested in high-level talks and discussions about collective intelligence, the videos of conferences below are some of the best things out there:

Collective Intelligence Conference (Video)

College de France – Collective Intelligence (Video) 

Epistemic Democracy Conference (Video) 


Miller, J & Page, S 2004, ‘The Standing Ovation Problem’, COMPLEXITY, vol. 9, no. 5, pp. 8-16.

Bond, R. M., C. J. Fariss, J. J. Jones, A. D. I. Kramer, C. Marlow, J. E. Settle, and J. H. Fowler.  2012. “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization.”  Nature 489: 295–298.

S. Gonzalez-Bailon, J. Borge-Holthoefer, A. Rivero, and Y. Moreno. The Dynamics of Protest Recruitment through an Online Network. Nature, December 2011.

Margetts, Helen Zerlina, John, Peter, Reissfelder, Stephane and Hale, Scott A., Social Influence and Collective Action: An Experiment Investigating the Effects of Visibility and Social Information Moderated by Personality (April 18, 2012).  

Hale, Scott A. and Margetts, Helen Zerlina, Understanding the Mechanics of Online Collective Action Using ‘Big Data’ (March 22, 2012).


David Lazer is the co-author of two of these papers. If you don’t know it already, Stuart Shulman’s work is definitely worth checking out. Thamy Pogrebinschi is probably one of the people to look out for in the coming years in the field of participatory democracy.

Lazer, David, Sokhey, Anand E., Neblo, Michael A. and Esterling, Kevin M., Deliberative Ripples: The Network Effects of Political Events (August 10, 2010).

Neblo, Michael A., Esterling, Kevin M., Kennedy, Ryan, Lazer, David and Sokhey, Anand E., Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why? (September 15, 2009). HKS Working Paper No. RWP09-027.

Stuart W. Shulman, 2009. “The case against mass e–mails: Perverse incentives and low quality public participation in U.S. federal rulemaking,” Policy & Internet, volume 1, number 1, article 2.

Pogrebinschi, Thamy, The Squared Circle of Participatory Democracy: Scaling-up Deliberation to the National Level (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. 


Largely unknown even among the most enthusiastic participation advocates, there is a growing body of literature in the field of tax morale that links citizen engagement to reduced tax evasion: one of the best cases for the ROI of Open Government.  Below is one of the best papers in the field.

Frey, Bruno S., and Lars P. Feld (2002) “Deterrence and Morale in Taxation: An Empirical Analysis.” CESifo Working Paper no. 760, August 2002

You can find more references about tax morale here. Alex Howard gives a good account of how this might be happening in the DR Congo, helped by mobile phones (a project I’m part of).

And if the subject is the ROI of open government, here’s a paper that links participatory budgeting to reduced infant mortality (and there’s more to be published on that front soon).


If I were to make any predictions for 2013, I would say we will start to see a growing number of studies using randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to assess the validity of claims for transparency and participation. Indeed, some donors in the open government space have already started to ask for RCT evaluations as a project component. Here are a couple of examples of how good studies on the subject would look (IMHO):

Olken, B. 2010. Direct Democracy and Local Public Goods: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia. American Political Science Review, 104, pp 243-267

Zhang, K. 2012. “Increasing Citizen Demand for Good Government in Kenya”. Stanford University. 

Of course, scholars, practitioners and donors should take claims about the awesomeness of RCTs with a good grain of salt (and pepper):

Deaton, A. 2008. Instruments of development? Randomization in the tropics, and the hunt for the keys to development. Princeton University mimeo.

Cartwright, N. 2007. “Are RCTs the gold standard?” Biosocieties, 2, 11–20.


Rothschild, David and Justin Wolfers. 2011. “Forecasting Elections: Voter Intentions versus Expectations.” Working paper, University of Pennsylvania.

Gomez, Brad T., Thomas G. Hansford, and George A. Krause. 2007. “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections.” Journal of Politics 69 (August): 649–63.

This is just the first part of a longer list. I hope to finish a second part soon, focusing – among other things – on the (uneasy) intersection of behavioural economics and participatory democracy.

Happy reading.

Open Government and Technology: Groundhog Day

I came across a recent paper by Jan van Dijk that looks at the claims and achievements of digital democracy in the last 25 years. Here’s the abstract of  “Digital Democracy: Vision and Reality” [PDF] (highlights are mine):

Digital media have made a strong appeal to people wanting to improve democracy right from the start. Four waves of utopian visions of the last 25 years are described. The concept of digital democracy is defined. Subsequently, six views of both representative and direct democracy are distinguished that favor particular applications of digital media in politics and government.  The next paragraph makes an inventory of the claims and achievements of 25 years of attempts to realize digital democracy in the field of information provision, online discussion and decision-making. It appears that information provision is the best realized claim. The final part of this chapter is about eParticipation in politics and policy. It discusses both government- and citizen-centric applications. Citizen-centric applications appear to be the most successful. Generally speaking, e-participation has not been successfully incorporated in institutional politics and government.

Van Dijk’s paper adds to my list of readings on how little can be achieved by technology [PDF] in the absence of institutional change (something few seem to care about / understand).

But it also brings me to another issue that I think is not stressed enough: the current enthusiasm around technology and open government strikes me due to its lack of historical perspective. And, if history serves as any guide, advocates in the open government space would fare better in managing their (and others’) expectations about what can and cannot be achieved by technology.

Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart.

Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart.

This reminds me of a quote I read in an article from 1994 by Armand Mattelart on the “promise of redemption” of communication technologies. The author refers to a speech by then vice-president Al Gore in 1994 at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), defending the creation of the Global Information Infrastructure (GII). Al Gore’s view for democracy and information technologies couldn’t be any more enthusiastic:

The GII will not only be a metaphor for a functioning democracy, it will in fact promote the functioning of democracy by greatly enhancing the participation of citizens in decision-making. And it will greatly promote the ability of nations to cooperate with each other. I see an new Athenian Age of democracy forged in the fora the GII will create.

Nearly 20 years later, hopes similar to those of Al Gore can still resonate in blog posts, conferences and official documents.

I can’t help but think of what Mattelart called “a strange alchemy of cynicism, naïveté and amnesia”.

David Karpf on Netroots and the MoveOn Effect

David Karpf lecture at the American University on the impact of technologies on political activism.


A brief description of the talk from the Center for Social Media website:

Karpf walked his audience through an examination of internet age advocacy organizations: examining their effectiveness in running campaigns; how they run campaigns as compared to legacy advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club (an organization that predates the internet by nearly 100 years); and what the future of the netroots movements means for the future of all who are involved in advocacy work. Karpf, who served on the Sierra Club board of directors in graduate school, came equipped with a perspective that combines the physical experience of his grassroots campaign work and the intellectual experience of meticulously mapping the behavior and patterns of online groups such as DailyKos and MoveOn.

Podcasts – Democracy and Resistance

Podcasts of the “Democracy and Resistance” conference, held last June, are available here. A good start in my opinion are the podcasts of Jane Mansbridge and Yves Sintomer .

Below, the list of podcasts. (Hat tip ABC Democracy)

Introduction: Regina Kreide

Democracy in Crisis?

Hartmut Rosa: The Politics of Speed and the Loss of Resonance: How Social Acceleration Causes Democratic Alienation

Hauke Brunkhorst: Crisis of Democracy in Europe

Jodi Dean: Occupy Wall Street: Claiming Division

Costas Douzinas: Athens Revolting: Disobedience and Resistance in the Crisis

Forms of Resistance

Chris Thornhill: Revolutionary Constituent Power and the Transnational Constitutional Order

Rada Ivekovic: Sovereignty, Resistance, Citizenship and Subjectivation in a New Context

Robin Celikates: Civil Disobedience and the Question of Violence

Banu Bargu: Biopolitics and Human Shields

Gertrud Koch: Mass and/as Medium

Juliane Rebentisch: Theatrocracy: The Scene of Democratic Sovereignty

Democracy Revisited

Andreas Niederberger: Participation Reconsidered: Constellational Citizenship and the Plurality of Means and Forms of Democratic Participation

Andreas Kalyvas: Radical Democracy and Constituent Power

Yves Sintomer: Citizen Participation – A Response to the Global Crisis?

Oliver Marchart: Democratic Protest and Its Discontents

Jane Mansbridge: Resisting Resistance