If you follow me on Twitter (@ellnmllr) you already know that I spent the last two weeks traveling in India and Bangladesh. I was invited by Sunlight’s largest investor — Omidyar Network — to join them on a trip as they officially opened their office in Mumbai and as they made “field visits” — NGOs and for-profits — a number of whom work in the government transparency field.
From the opening ‘puja’ (Hindu ceremony) to bless the new Mumbai office (think rice grains pasted to our foreheads with a red paste) to looking at new solar lantern products (half of the Indian population is without reliable access to the grid), to visiting a training center for journalists to learn about the “state of Bangladesh government,” to appearing at a press conference with the Sunlight-like nonprofit Janaagraha in Bangalore as they launched a new platform for citizen engagement, the trip was filled with awe-inspiring work. The opportunities and challenges when it comes to citizen engagement in government and transparency of information faced in South Asia really aren’t so different than what we face in the US.
And I must admit that I really enjoyed stepping out of the government transparency advocate role for some of the days. How delightful to experience the wide eyed smiles of the school children being educated by Teach for India in Mumbai, meeting women in a small village who were learning of their legal rights for the first time, or hearing cases of dispute resolution by women who’d (generally) been wronged by their husbands. All of these latter efforts supported by the hugely impressive BRAC.
And then there was the “fun stuff’ — being swamped, literally — by Dhaka traffic; getting stuck in an elevator in a rickety industrial building; having to hold hands to safely cross a market street in Mumbai; negotiating the Calcutta airport on my own; visiting with ‘family’ friends of some 40 years; irregular but predictable electricity outages; the 97 degree heat and 100 percent humidity (who knew that October was pre-monsoon is some places?), and eating delicious food all along the way.
The highlights, naturally, for me came from the groups who are working in the Sunlight sphere — government accountability: the Association of Democratic Reforms, headed by a remarkable and passionate professor at a university in Bangalore (they just released a study focusing on how many politicians standing for reelection have criminal records); the very clever distributed research project from Janaagraha — “I Paid a Bribe” — that is bringing much needed attention to the widely accepted practice of local civic officials demanding bribes to process permits and grant licenses (I’m still thinking about how the concept can be imported into the US!) and the equally impressive new citizen engagement platform launched while we were there; the information and data oriented PRS Legislative Research site that, like OpenCongress.org, is trying to make sense for citizens and media information about the work of government; and the journalism training center and government assessment surveys of the Institute of Governance Studies, at BRAC University.
Sunlight’s work is certainly far more data centric than many of the organizations I visited. And I didn’t see anything that rivaled some of the tools for digesting and using that data that we’ve built. But some of the university-based projects and other NGOs have figured out things we haven’t on the engagement front, including excellent online and offline organizing models around government accountability, and thinking way ahead of us on the mobile platform. And while certainly some of the problems are different (real bribery is still prevalent in many places as opposed to the “honest graft” we have in the US), there’s tremendous room for cross-continent collaboration.
And traveling with Omidyar Network folks was terrific: Sal Giambanco, (Partner), Will Fitzpatrick (General Counsel), and Mike Mohr (Board Member), and Jayant Singh (Partner) made up the core of the hearty group. Everyone was good natured, flexible, and smart. The ON Mumbai office staff — all of them — were fabulous, and as you can imagine, I see many opportunities to work with them. The emails are already flying.
There were also those who worked quite literally, day and night, to keep us ‘on the road’ — Chez in Redwood City and Andrea in Bangalore and Mumbai — have my enduring thanks for keeping us on time and in the right place. And I never would have gotten my act together without Scott and Hafazeeh in Sunlight’s office, haranguing various embassies so that I could get my visas on time.
And finally because I know you are dying to know I traveled with just my IPad, a wireless keyboard, my iPhone, and a (new) Panasonic Lumix micro four thirds format camera. Soon I’ll post some pictures. (Here they are.)
It was really a privilege to take this trip and I am most grateful to all at ON who invited me to join and those who hosted us while we were there.