Can Mobile Phone Surveys Identify People’s Development Priorities?

Ben Leo and Robert Morello at the Center for Global Development: “Mobile phone surveys are fast, flexible, and cheap. But, can they be used to engage citizens on how billions of dollars in donor and government resources are spent? Over the last decade, donor governments and multilateral organizations have repeatedly committed to support local priorities and programs. Yet, how are they supposed to identify these priorities on a timely, regular basis? Consistent discussions with the local government are clearly essential, but so are feeding ordinary people’s views into those discussions. However, traditional tools, such as household surveys or consultative roundtables, present a range of challenges for high-frequency citizen engagement. That’s where mobile phone surveys could come in, enabled by the exponential rise in mobile coverage throughout the developing world.

Despite this potential, there have been only a handful of studies into whether mobile surveys are a reliable and representative tool across a broad range of developing-country contexts. Moreover, there have been almost none that specifically look at collecting information about people’s development priorities. Along with Tiago Peixoto,Steve Davenport, and Jonathan Mellon, who focus on promoting citizen engagement and open government practices at the World Bank, we sought to address this policy research gap. Through a study focused on four low-income countries (Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe), we rigorously tested the feasibility of interactive voice recognition (IVR) surveys for gauging citizens’ development priorities.

Specifically, we wanted to know whether respondents’ answers are sensitive to a range of different factors, such as (i) the specified executing actor (national government or external partners); (ii) time horizons; or (iii) question formats. In other words, can we be sufficiently confident that surveys about people’s priorities can be applied more generally to a range of development actors and across a range of country contexts?

Several of these potential sensitivity concerns were raised in response to an earlier CGD working paper, which found that US foreign aid is only modestly aligned with Africans’ and Latin Americans’ most pressing concerns. This analysis relied upon Afrobarometer and Latinobarometro survey data (see explanatory note below). For instance, some argued that people’s priorities for their own government might be far less relevant for donor organizations. Put differently, the World Bank or USAID shouldn’t prioritize job creation in Nigeria simply because ordinary Nigerians cite it as a pressing government priority. Our hypothesis was that development priorities would likely transcend all development actors, and possibly different timeframes and question formats as well. But, we first needed to test these assumptions.

So, what did we find? We’ve included some of the key highlights below. For a more detailed description of the study and the underlying analysis, please see our new working paper. Along with our World Bank colleagues, we also published an accompanying paper that considers a range of survey method issues, including survey representativeness….(More)”