Cleaning Up Lead Poisoning One Tweet at a Time

WorldPolicy Blog: “At first, no one knew why the children of Bagega in Zamfara state were dying. In the spring of 2010, hundreds of kids in and around the northern Nigerian village were falling ill, having seizures and going blind, many of them never to recover. A Médecins Sans Frontières‎ team soon discovered the causes: gold and lead.

With the global recession causing the price of precious metals to soar, impoverished villagers had turned to mining the area’s gold deposits. But the gold veins were mingled with lead, and as a result the villagers’ low-tech mining methods were sending clouds of lead-laced dust into the air. The miners, unknowingly carrying the powerful toxin on their clothes and skin, brought it into their homes where their children breathed it in.

The result was perhaps the worst outbreak of lead poisoning in history, killing over 400 children in Bagega and neighboring villages. In response, the Nigerian government pledged to cleanup the lead-contaminated topsoil and provide medical care to the stricken children. But by mid-2012, there was no sign of the promised funds. Digitally savvy activists with the organization Connected Development (CODE) stepped in to make sure that the money was disbursed.

A group of young Nigerians founded CODE in 2010 in the capital Abuja, with the mission of empowering local communities to hold the government to account by improving their access to information and helping their voices to be heard. “In 2010, we were working to connect communities with data for advocacy programs,” says CODE co-founder Oludotun Babayemi, a former country director of a World Wildlife Fund project in Nigeria. “When we heard about Bagega, we thought this was an opportunity for us.”

In 2012, CODE launched a campaign dubbed ‘Follow the Money Nigeria’ aimed at applying pressure on the government to release the promised funds. “Eighty percent of the less developed parts of Nigeria have zero access to Twitter, let alone Facebook, so it’s difficult for them to convey their stories,” says Babayemi. “We collect all the videos and testimonies and take it global.”

CODE members travelled to the lead-afflicted area to gather information. They then posted their findings online, and publicized them with a #SaveBagegahashtag, which they tweeted to members of the government, local and international organizations and the general public. CODE hosted a 48-hour ‘tweet-a-thon’, joined by a senator, to support the campaign….

By July 2014, CODE reported that the clean-up was complete and that over 1,000 children had been screened and enrolled in lead treatment programs. Bagega’s health center has also been refurbished and the village’s roads improved. “There are thousands of communities like Bagega,” says Babayemi. “They just need someone to amplify their voice.”….

Key lessons

  • Revealing information is not enough; change requires a real-world campaign driven by that information and civil society champions who can leverage their status and networks to draw international attention to the issues and maintain pressure.
  • Building relationships with sympathetic members of government is key.
  • Targeted online campaigns can help amplify the message of marginalized communities offline to achieve impact (More)”