Lessons from deliberative democracy in Africa

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Lessons from deliberative democracy in Africa

August 25th, 2021

Citizen participation is at the heart of democracy. Around the world, a deliberative wave has been growing as innovative ways of involving citizens in policy-making have gained traction with governments and citizens. And Africa has not been left behind:  From deliberative participatory budgeting in Kenya, and addressing corruption in Malawi, to risk management in flood prone areas in Uganda, deliberative processes are certainly refreshing democracy in Africa.

How it works

Deliberative democracy is a process that brings randomly selected ordinary people from diverse backgrounds closer to the affairs of governments. The representative group gains access to a wide range of accurate, relevant, and accessible evidence and expertise on an issue of public concern. This gives them the capacity to have deep reflections and consultations on the problem at hand, and then make recommendations which are shared with decision makers.

The Constituency Development Fund (CDF) in Malawi’s Salima District is an example. In the district, just like throughout Malawi, the allocation of CDF involves the government, Members of Parliament (MPs), policymakers, councillors, district councils, and the community. However, the lack of accountability and transparency, lack of community participation, and perceptions of undue political influence in CDF’s implementation all impact public mistrust.

Group of people sitting on the ground during a meetingSeeking to build the missing public confidence, the New Democracy Foundation piloted Malawi’s first-ever citizens’ jury – a model of deliberative democracy – in Salima district. 20 individuals from each of the five constituencies in the district were randomly selected to take part. The goal: including people who are normally excluded from political processes in proposing workable solutions on making the CDF initiative fair, transparent, and effective. 

Photo collage of small groups of people deliberating

Participants deliberating on the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) in Salima District, Malawi

According to Edwin Msewa, a social accountability specialist and facilitator during the project, the process was highly effective, and the groups are on the verge of handing over recommendations to the leadership. Among the factors that Msewa attributes the effectiveness to is the availability of information and education on the subject matter to the participants.

People in sitting on desks inside a classroom during a meeting

“We noted that most of the people didn’t understand the way local governments operate. But after training, they began to understand that this instrument is created to be an interface between the central government and the commoner,” Msewa says. “We then put in how CDF works and how the money is transferred from the central government to the constituencies. Some people actually went to the District Commissioner’s office to ask for the budget and the DC’s office provided this information.” he adds. 

The different models

Aside from the citizens’ jury model that was used in Malawi, there are other types of deliberative processes that have been implemented in different parts of the African continent.

In July 2014, the Resilient Africa Network (RAN) and the Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD) at Stanford University conducted Africa’s first two deliberative polls in Uganda. The model was used to address the challenge of floods in the districts of Bududa and Butaleja in the Mt. Elgon region. The next year, in January 2015, the same organisations conducted Ghana’s first deliberative poll at the Tamale Metropolitan Area. Over 200 randomly selected citizens deliberated face-to-face for two days over issues of access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene, as well as livelihood and food security.

In 2016, deliberative participatory budgeting was used in Kenya to promote more inclusive and effective citizen engagement processes when it comes to budgeting. The model directly involves randomly selected local people in making decisions on the priorities and spending for a defined amount of the public budget. Five counties – Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet, Kwale, Makueni, and West Pokot – used this model to develop proposals and ideas from the village level up through to the county level.

Still in Kenya, the Youth Café was recently engaged by the Nairobi City County leadership in developing a youth policy. They conducted a citizens’ dialogue that culminated with an online youth engagement forum on July 23, 2021. The objective was to enrich the draft policy, which is going to provide a framework for implementing youth programmes and projects in the county. As David Mugambi, a projects researcher at the Youth Café, put it: “Bringing in the youth and letting them share their opinions and ideas that they wish to see in the policy gives them a platform to take an initiative in something that is going to impact their lives.”

These are just a few examples from the many democratic innovations taking place across Africa.

By using deliberative democracy: governance becomes more inclusive, citizens’ trust on governments is enhanced, policy outcomes become better, among many other benefits. Eva Sow Ebion is co-founder of the Innovation for Policy Foundation – an implementing partner of the first Global Assembly: a citizens’ assembly building up to COP26 that will engage 100 people in deliberating on addressing the climate crisis. She told us: “Our biggest strength in the African continent is the human capital. So, by creating space for people to have their voice heard, we are creating opportunities for development and growth.”


WFD and new Democracy Foundation have launched a guide for members of parliament on deliberative democracy. This is supported by a series of blogs on our different topics pertaining to deliberative democracy. For more information, get in touch with Julia Keutgen, WFD’s Senior Transparency Adviser.


Photos by: James Wiseman on Unsplash, and newDemocracy

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Lessons from deliberative democracy in Africa

Citizen participation is at the heart of democracy. Around the world, a deliberative wave has been growing as innovative ways of involving citizens in policy-making have gained traction with governments and citizens. And Africa has not been left behind:  From deliberative participatory budgeting in Kenya, and addressing corruption in Malawi, to risk management in flood […]