Introduction

Saed is shifting the mindset of communities in the Levant region of the Arab World from focusing on short term survival issues, to thinking for the long term for the general community prosperity. Saed is creating a movement where citizens can have a more active role in public life. He is promoting freedom of expression and mobilizing citizens to demand their rights to access to information from decision makers.

Saed is creating platforms that give community members of the Arab region—especially youth—hope, and motivates them to channel their anger and frustration into positive, constructive energy. Communities, particularly in the Levant region, plagued by sectarianism, conflict, strife and occupation tend to focus on short term means of survival and overlook opportunities for long term strategic development. As a consquence, community members neither have legal recognition of their rights as citizens nor see the point in civic participation. Saed is re-configuring the role of citizens by mobilizing the community to engage with social, political and economic causes. He is shifting the residents’ role from mere witnesses of public events and passive recipients of aid to active reporters and advocates of the change they wish to see.

Saed is creating a supportive environment for enhancing the culture of transparency, accountability and the right to access information. He is doing this by promoting freedom of expression online and its associated rights, particularly the right of access to information. Through access to information and the spread of a culture of changemaking and accountability, citizens are empowered to engage with the plans of decision-makers and their execution as well as the allocation of state resources.

Saed is achieving his vision through a two pronged approach. First, with a focus on youth ages 16 – 35 years old, he is empowering all citizens with advocacy, reporting and campaigning skills through trainings and mobile blogger buses which tour the country to mobilize citizens to document their daily lives. Second, he created a free and interactive online platform named YouKnow. The platform directly links citizens to decision-makers and intermediary groups such as Citizen Sector Organizations (CSOs) and media personnel; citizens can then interact with these groups: advocating for changes, demanding information from decision makers and conveying the harsh realities of everyday life. The platform displays user-generated content from the citizens who document their experiences using skills gained from Saed’s organization. From digitally recorded instances of corruption, discrimination, nepotism, misuse of public resources and state abuse, online awareness campaigns are created to amass witnesses and then directly reported decision-makers through interactions on the “You Know” platform. Decision-makers are accountable people inside ministries, municipalities, public institutions and private companies who interact with the public through Saed’s platform. Three ministries, the National Police Authority and fourteen municipalities have already signed on to Saed’s platform and interact with the citizens.

Saed’s plans for the future are to advocate, lobby and mobilize citizens to pressure the governments of the Levant region to pass and recognize the law of “access to information” which guarantees citizens’ rights—a law that has been in preliminary stages of institution for years. Additionally, he plans to continue developing the culture of transparency among citizens by overseeing the implementation of the “access” law and encouraging its use for the creation of positive change across all walks of public life and interactions between the citizens and the state.

Besides Jordan, there are no legislations guaranteeing freedom of access to information for inhabitants of the Levant region of the Arab World. Throughout the Levant sub-region of the Arab world, the culture of social accountability and transparency is under-developed and there is a lack of monitoring and evaluation systems regarding governmental pledges, decisions, and legislation. Meanwhile, in Jordan, the law of access to information is written with vague language, the majority of citizens have no knowledge of the law, and very few have tested the government’s willingness to be more transparent. Consequently, decision-makers are not legally required to consider citizens’ opinions. Moreover, there exists no culture, let alone mediums, of direct interaction between decision-makers and citizens. Usually, decision-makers hide from the public and assign representatives to deal with citizens.

The media, traditionally centralized and under heavy intrusion from the State, offers little opportunity for citizens to engage in the political process. In the Levant, heavy censorship exists in the media as journalists and media outlets are discouraged from reporting on sensitive issues and there are few alternative platforms for journalists to publish articles. Additionally, the majority of media outlets are partisan and heavily state-controlled.

This context undercuts the social accountability and citizen participation that are fundamental to good governance. When citizens are enabled to articulate their needs and be fully included in activities of government, quality of public services and governance are improved.

Without the right to access information, citizens remain unable to hold decision-makers or institutions to account for their actions or make informed electoral choices. Public information is required to create and foster a culture of empowered and informed citizens. The level of engagement between Arab governments and Arab citizens is limited. Information tends to flow one way only: from government to citizens, with significant difficulties in accessing information any other way. In the Levant region, widespread skepticism exists in relation to the government’s accountability and willingness to tackle social and political problems such as corruption and poor services.

Citizens lack the tools, capacity and effective communication links to organize themselves into a social movement and implement social accountability initiatives that address their frustrations with issues like: corruption, financial opacity, nepotism and unequal opportunities in the public and the private sector.

In spite of all the factors that have limited citizens’ capacity to engage with governance, the latent potential has increased dramatically because of technology. In the Arab region, 36% of the population uses the internet regularly which equates to 135 million users, with 71 million actively using social media. In total, there are over 400 million mobile devices in the region, equating to more than one device per person. It is estimated that by 2017 there will be 197 million Arab users of the internet, representing 51% of the population. In the Levant sub-region, 47% of youth regularly use smart phones and 23% of youth have access to the internet at work.

Saed is achieving his idea through a two-pronged approach strategy. First, for the purpose of youth engagement in the public arena and iterating citizens’ role as monitors of public goods, resources and institutions, Saed hosts workshops and trainings. These events empower and connect citizens, especially youth ages 16 – 35 years old, with the necessary tools and skills in writing, self-expression, idea generation, feedback loops, public questioning, campaigning, advocacy, demand for information, and storytelling. Tools that serve Saed’s mission are: blogging, social films and documentaries production, live streaming, creation of online advocacy campaigns, creation of public polls, creation of online presentations and infographics, uploading pictures and videos, updating and follow up on news and monitoring the impact and response and mobilizing the community towards a public issue.

To introduce the culture of community questioning and demand for information from decision makers, Saed launched the “Blogger Bus” initiative. The initiative is a mobile bus that tours one governorate every month. Any citizen can join the bus and blog from the area of its destination and get the stories of people to be heard. The initiative aims to build a platform for citizens and social media activists to come together and publish and disseminate their blogs and have their voices heard. Each person on the bus has the freedom to cover any story from the selected location; however, the participants are usually provided with one unified theme for their stories so the output can be disseminated in one common advocacy campaign for a social or a political issue. Subjects typically include: youth concerns, women issues, unemployment, political and social struggles. During the tour, participants receive training on how to use digital and social media tools and spread their blogs in a campaign format that allows the  voices of the people whom the bus have visited to be heard. Community members whom the bus visits are also trained on online and offline campaigning skills and tools.

Second, Saed created an online platform, “You Know”, that connects these empowered citizens to those who need to hear their voices and answer their demands—whether news outlets or decision-makers in public or private institutions. Saed’s main platform for achieving the previous connection is titled YouKnow.

YouKnow is a free, interactive portal that aims to provide access to information for citizens and increase accountability for politicians. The YouKnow platform is designed to bring activists, journalists, bloggers and citizens together in one place for direct interactions with decision-makers, including the Palestinian Authority (PA), healthcare providers, telecommunications, and businesses. Although several platforms encourage citizens to document their complaints online, there are none in the Levant region that allow the citizen to directly interact with a decision maker, suggest an action or request information and monitor the results.

On “You Know”, citizens post anything they want—without limitation. Complaints are documented through videos and photos or written cases of cases of corruption, favoritism or misuse of resources. The user selects the official to whom the report will be sent from a list of officials and ministries. It then becomes available for all users to see. Through an “upvote”, other users can support and endorse a visual report submitted by a citizen. On the other hand, after the report is posted, a “change” button allows the official to respond. They can either demonstrate that the issue has been addressed or explain that it’s not within their domain. The viral reach of the platform, even to marginalized areas of the country, presents an opportunity for media and decision-makers to have access to uncommon issues.

Coupled with the online platform, Saed conducts offline activities that focus on and raise awareness about the main issues raised by citizens on the platform. Offline activities are represented by radio programs and traditional media activities with eight partner radio stations in Saed’s network whose reach expand to all the Palestinian territories. Additionally, Saed conducts physical events like roundtables, panel discussions and open dialogues between citizens, media people and decision makers. Discussions are live streamed and connected to the online platform and social networks.

Through his work, Saed has trained more than 2000 young people on the skills and tools of public advocacy, campaigning and the right to access information—500 of which have paid their civic engagement opportunites forward aby training others. All youth have produced advocacy and demand of information campaigns and stories. Youth campaigns span topics like: the reality of social accountability and citizens relationships to governments, demand of access to information in fields of education, social justice, health, security and freedom of expression, productivity and monitoring and evaluation in public institutions, corruption and favoritism, the role of women and youth in fighting nepotism, expired food and the role of public institutions and businesses, students political involvement on university campuses, municipalities roles in providing infrastructure and other social services, national strategies for disabled, misuse of public goods and the allocations and spending of government budgets.

Prior to launching “You Know” in 2015, Saed spent two years lining up for and preparing stakeholders for the launch of the platform. He created tens of training workshops and meetings with stakeholders to get acquainted with the platform and its usage. Saed also built partnerships with local and international media organizations to publicize the platform to 40-plus media entities between radio, TV, newspapers and others who supported the outreach of the platform to both citizens and public officials. Additionally, prior to launch, three governmental institutions had already agreed to be the platform’s partner and use it to facilitate interaction between the institutions’ decision makers and the citizens. Since the launch of the platform, more than 14 local municipalities, 3 ministries as well as the Palestinian Police Authority and more than 400 online activists (most of which were trained by Saed offline) are using “You Know” and directly interacting together. YouKnow’s digital outreach attracted more than 1 million views and interactions. The platform started with a focus on municipalities, whose issues are of more relevance to peoples’ daily needs. Based on citizens’ complaints and requests for information, “You Know” encouraged documented and publicized action from municipalities. Indeed, the platform initiated a conversation between two sides who normally do not come together to converse. These positive results helped establish the platform’s credibility which is evidenced by the Thank You reports submitted by citizens after the decision makers responded to their complaints or requests.

 

Saed kick-started the platform from a financial prize awarded to him by Transparency International. Additionally, he received in kind support from the German Foreign Agency, the World Bank and Google as well as several international organizations that reliably support activists’ within the political participation and human rights domain—an area not well supported by domestic funding organizations in the Arab world. Although registered as a non-profit, Saed plans to reach financial sustainability for his platform through advertisements and billboards on both the digital platform and the mobile application. Other plans for financial sustainability include selling reports that document patterns and trends of citizens’ demands to media and research units as well as presenting legal services to citizens who wish to take their complaints beyond the online sphere.

 

In his future plans, Saed has a partnership with the biggest youth mobilizing organization in the Levant region–Sharek Forum, meaning “participate”—to train new youth activists and bloggers across the region on enhancing the culture of accountability and right to access to information. He is also planning to launch the platform on a smartphone application for easier access to citizens.  Saed envisions his shorter term plans to lead on the longer term to the successful lobbying for the issuing of the law pertaining to the right to access information for citizens, as well as a changed culture where sustained conversations between citizens and governments’ representatives and decision makers exist and where citizens participation enhances the status of strategic planning for the community.

Converting challenges and hardships into opportunities and avenues for hope has been Saed’s normal life pattern. Born to a Palestinian family within a refugee camp under occupation, Saed’s life was far from easy. During school, he was bullied and called an idiot. To make him feel special, Saed’s father took him to a music institute where he learned oud. This gave Saed self-confidence that allowed him to communicate and bridge the gap between himself and his peers. In five years, Saed transformed his social position amidst his peers from the so-called “idiot” kid to the loved, respected and clever kid.

 

Saed’s father, who was relatively well-off, lost all of his money in a financial crisis. During high school, Saed had to go out and work with the tradesmen in the market to earn a living and pay for his education. The experience taught him several things: the street language, how to be rid of his shyness, and patience. It also gave him a better understanding of the day-to-day life and frustrations of his community and advanced his communication skills. During university, where he studied media and communications, Saed had to work in a factory to pay for his tuition. Nevertheless, such hardships never managed to fade away Saed’s enthusiasm and engrained passion for hope and change. While at university, Saed founded an NGO that empowered and gave hope to children in refugee camps through music lessons. The NGO, “Kamanjaty”, is very well known across the Arab World and has empowered more than 7000 vulnerable kids who, instead of being frustrated and attracted to crime and violence, have now go on to represent the Arab world in the international arena.