Five questions with Twaweza founder, Rakesh Rajani

Five questions with Twaweza founder, Rakesh Rajani

Audio part 1:

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Yesterday, we got the opportunity to interview a special friend of our organization, and someone who has inspired a lot of our current projects. Meet Rakesh Rajani, currently the head of Twaweza, which aims to facilitate large-scale, citizen-driven change in Tanzania and greater East Africa. Before founding Twaweza, Rakesh initiated and ran Haki Elimu, a group focused on democratizing education in Tanzania, for more than 6 years.

In general, Rakesh’s experience is extensive in the East African development sphere, ranging from progressive and community-driven media and telecommunications campaigns, to the assessment of learning across public schools. It is therefore with deep enthusiasm and interest that we, at Vijana FM, took this opportunity to interview Rakesh.

(1) We can read and hear about your commitments, but we are curious about what motivates you. Why do you want to look into often sticky and long-unresolved issues in Tanzania’s development?

I think it’s pretty simple. I mean, things need to be done, and you work on them. What else does one do with their life, other than work on the things that are important and are worthwhile?

I wake up in the morning and I’m excited about working on those things. You go to bed and you feel a little tired but you have a sense of fulfillment. Every day I get five to ten affirmations; people calling, sending e-mails, engagements you have, a sense of the difference you have made, a sense of how what you have done has been used by others to make a difference. And that’s a good life.

I don’t know what else to do because it seems otherwise you would have a boring life, a shallow life. So it’s the only life I know how to live, at least for now, and its very fulfilling. It gives you the privilege of engaging with others working on issues that really matter, and in that process I meet some very interesting, powerful people, like yourselves.

(2) Vijana FM was at a Media and Accountability Forum today morning in Dar-es-Salaam, organized by the Tanzania Media Fund, where we learned that citizens and journalists may not always agree. At the same time, Vijana FM has received a number of reports from Twaweza that have helped bring public misconceptions on government spending and education to light. Do you think we – that is, those Tanzania-based organizations involved with new media – are reaching everyone we need to reach? (In other words, do you think could we do better?)

The answer is “Yes” to all your questions. I think you are reaching people, I think you are increasingly going to reach more people as social media becomes more reachable and as we get more used to it.

And sure you could do better. So I hope you will keep being dissatisfied with yourselves because that will keep you on edge. And look, at the moment I don’t have the numbers, but I think the access to social media and the uses of social media are still limited, but it’s growing very fast. And certainly compared to many other things – physical meetings, newspapers – I think social media has very wide reach. Particularly Facebook seems to have a way of growing very fast. So I think you should feel good about what you’re doing, but keep asking yourself “Who are we reaching? Are we speaking to peoples’ concerns, creating feedback loops?” I think the way you’ll know is based on the feedback you’ll get; whether things go viral or not; or even whether people are looking at these things or not.

My feeling is that these are early days, and in a few years, maybe two, maybe three, possibly earlier, we’re going to have a breakthrough, at which point social media is going to become incredibly powerful, and in some ways perhaps more powerful than many other things that we have. So keep at it, because you are on the cusp of something that is already and is going to become increasingly more powerful.

(3) Twaweza has been trying to work with multiple modes of media. Why build such partnerships? (In other words, how is this different from, say, starting your own school of thought or media house?)

Starting your own media house is no joke, and maybe I don’t have the capacity to do that, but if you start your own thing, you have a hundred headaches. You have to worry about many things. Our problem in Tanzania is that we have media houses, but they lack quality content. We have media houses, but the level of interaction with citizens is still limited. So instead of trying to create one more thing, for which you will probably not have the financial and physical and human resources to do a good job, why not just take what’s out there, what’s existing, and try to do a better job out of that?

So I think those are two main reasons, (1) in order to avoid the huge headaches of maintaining an organization and (2) to add value to what already exists.

But there are also other points. I think there’s much more scope for a media ecology in Tanzania. For instance, imagine if there was an Internet-based newspaper, which could also then provide content for existing newspapers and existing radio.

In Uganda for example, there is something called the Uganda Radio Network, where a small group of well trained, dedicated journalists create content like Reuters does or Associated Press does and then it is carried by many other – something like over 60 – FM radio stations in Uganda. It’s an initiative we at Twaweza support. I think we could do with something like that in Tanzania. So instead of competing with what’s already there by creating the 29th radio station or the 15th newspaper, I think its much more worthwhile to say: How can we add value to what already exists out there and create more of a media synergy and a media ecology out there.

(4) In an interview with the World Bank, you referred to five networks that matter when considering development in Tanzania. Out of these five – Religion, mobile phones, mass media, consumer goods, and teachers – which do you think the youth access most, and could benefit from?

That’s a really interesting question, because I think it’s hard not to answer because at one level I would say all of them. Of course now it depends on what you mean by “youth”. I mean, if you start of with teachers: Of course, teachers are in touch every day with 8 million people, young children and young people in Tanzania every day. So in that sense you could say that teachers are very important.

On the other hand, many young people do not look at our schools for inspiration, so our teachers are in touch, but perhaps that’s not where the youth are getting their inspiration.

Where are youth getting their inspiration? Well certainly I have yet to come across a young person who doesn’t crave a mobile phone, and if they have one, not craving a better mobile phone, and they are constantly communicating with eachother and others. So I think the mobile phone is very important.

Media, particularly television, is something I think that is growing among people. And newspapers, and radio, and so on.

I think one area we haven’t explored is religion. When I meet young people and I ask the question “Which institutional form of organization is the most powerful among some young people?” – is it the Boy Scouts or the Girl Guides, is it youth associations, national youth campaigns, school based associations – my answer is that they are actually religious-based. I’ve met many young men, for example, in Dar-es-Salaam. The moment they look forward to every week is the time after Friday prayers, because that is the time when they feel that their concerns are heard, where they can come together and think about what to do. Similarly among Christian youth; their Christian youth associations are some of the most powerful.

Now, not for everyone, so depending on who you are different ones of these will matter to you, but I think the whole point of these five networks is that they reach many, many people, particularly young people.

(5) You’re working on a new tool for examining Tanzania’s budget from a citizen perspective. Is this going to develop further into a system whereby citizens can “like” or “dislike” budgetary changes as they happen?

That’s a nice idea, I must admit we haven’t thought about “like” or “unlike” but maybe that’s something we should think about. We’ve just started work on this. In fact, what we’ve put out there is a sort of beta version.

There are a number of things. The whole idea is to visualize budgets. If you say to ordinary people “budgets”, we get scared, we think they are too complicated, we think we need a finance degree, we think numbers are too hard. And, for many people, if you start writing numbers with many zeros, it’s hard to compute, and hard to make sense of. Even if you said to a person “The district education budget is 80 million shillings”, what does that mean? How do you make sense of that? Is that too much, is it too little? What does it really mean? It’s very hard to understand. So what we’re trying to do is to visualize data, and this specific case, visualize budgets, so that people have a handle. So that people can be demystified about this. So that people can get a sense of where our money is going. And one other tool that is always helpful in understanding data is to be able to compare. So if you can compare what we are spending on education, compared to health, compared to military, compared to roads, compared to allowances for our leaders, then you get a sense, and that’s where you start debating: Should we be spending more on our education than we are for health? Should we be spending more on roads than we are on social services? How much is a fair amount to pay for renovations of buildings? Those sorts of questions only take meaning when you can compare them, and people can only compare them if they can visualize them.

So we’re doing that with budgets, we’re doing that with other kinds of data as well. But one important caveat. The budget data that we are visualizing right now are data that are available to us, which at best are disaggregated at the district level. And for the ordinary mwananchi, that is still too high level, because what the ordinary mwananchi wants to know is “How much money for my child’s school? How much money for my child? For the dispensary?” That’s what would be really powerful, and in Tanzania we’re not there yet. But one of the things that Twaweza is advocating for, including a global initiative that we are part of, currently lead by Brazil and the United States – the Presidents of Brazil and the US – is something called the Open Government Initiative, and what we want to try to do is to really help catalyze the worldwide movement if you want to call it that, where Governments realize and feel compelled to make sure that all the data they have is shared publicly.

So the idea behind it is very simple: That data belongs to people, Governments are there to serve people, and Governments should take all the information they have and make it available. Now if Governments decided to make information at that low level available, so that every citizen can know – “This is for my school, this is for my road, this is how much was collected” – then you can unleash the revolution.

Well, it’s definitely been pleasurable to have you with us here, Rakesh, and thank you very much. We look forward to developing this conversation on the blog, hopefully through the comments that come in, and we also look forward to someday interviewing you again and seeing where we’re at in some time. Thank you again!

You’re welcome. You and your colleagues should know that it’s young people who are making things happen. My inspiration comes from the kinds of things you guys do, so keep at it, and keep us on our toes.

Link summary:

Al-Amin founded Vijana FM in 2009. With over a decade of experience in communications, design and operations, he now runs a digital media consulting agency - Lateral Labs - in Dar-es-Salaam.

4 Comments

  1. Subi 8 years ago

    What an informative, educative, short & concise interview!
    A lot of skills to acquire from VijanaFM and Rakesh.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kiranga 8 years ago

    Great work at a crucial time. Just the coming together of like – and sometimes different minds- is encouraging.

    My dissatisfaction on the state of our lack of excellence in financial management is naturally justified by our meager financial resources. To anecdote this cancerous stink, president Kikwete just lambasted Minister Ghasia on this very issue, albeit in a more theatric pageantry show than anything serious IMHO (What, no cabinet meetings to iron these out before embarassing each other in a live setting? Where is the action to accompany these numerous empty threats? ). For this reason, I am particularly excited about the budget examination initiative, it has the markings of an empowering tool if afforded the right cooperation and used rightly.

    I am really curious to find out specifically on whether we have goals for financial management amongst our bureaucrats. I know where I work for example managers are required to commit to a certain percentage (say 5% of adjusted plan) within which they must manage their budgets. Too many times I hear about mini-budgets that could potentially be so bloated to make the very idea of budgeting overly arbitrary and therefore meaningless.

    I would also like to know which Ministry returns money due to being overly frugal, if we even have such sages. I was told Ben Mkapa used to do that when he was still cultivating his “Mr. Clean” image.

  3. AM 8 years ago

    Nice interview, the audio is a great addition.

  4. ak 8 years ago

    @Kiranga – I share your enthusiasm for seeing more information about budgets and spending. The problem, as Twaweza is showing, is that these budgets are somewhat transparent only until the district level. So everyone in that district – every person, institution, and group – sees an aggregate sum of money, but does not have an idea of how much their immediete constituency has been delegated.

    I think there may be a way out of it if the government can reward “good” spending. I like your idea about returning unused money. What if budget handlers in the government were rewarded (monetarily through their salaries or through perks) if they met objectives and saved money? Of course, I say this assuming someday budgets will be transparent all the way through to every constituency, and so we’re talking about people handling budgets from the very top, to the very bottom of the hierarchy.

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