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The United States may have something to learn from Africa about democracy. People in Tanzania zeroed in on a problem with political polling. Pollsters commonly ask people questions about issues they know little or nothing about. Some people are so disengaged that if pollsters give just a tiny scrap of information as part of the question, that can change the answer. Leaders in Tanzania found out what happens when you first give people a lot of information before you poll them. Here's NPR's Nurith Aizenman.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: James Fishkin is a professor at Stanford University. He's devoted his career to convincing leaders to consult their citizens before making difficult policy decisions. But Fishkin says you can't just do a poll.
JAMES FISHKIN: If you have ordinary polls, people usually are not well informed. You don't want to follow public opinion when the public just has a vague impression of soundbites and headlines.
AIZENMAN: So back in the 1980s, Fishkin developed what he calls a deliberative poll. He's done about 70 of them in more than 20 countries. You gather a representative sample of a population for a one or two-day meeting. You give them tutorials on the issue, give them a chance to personally question experts from all sides. Then you send them home and poll them.
FISHKIN: The idea of the deliberative poll is to find out what people would think if they really had a good chance to think about it. We put the whole nation in one room under conditions where it can think.
AIZENMAN: This approach sounded very exciting to a Tanzanian economist named Abel Kinyondo. He specializes in the management of natural resources, like natural gas, and Tanzania has recently discovered some new reserves of natural gas. How much are we talking about? Quite a lot of it.
ABEL KINYONDO: A lot of it, a lot of it, a lot of it. And what has been discovered now is not even half of what the potential for gas in Tanzania is.
AIZENMAN: Kinyondo works at a prominent think tank in Tanzania. He worries his country could squander the profits from all that gas. The experience of other poor countries that hit similar jackpots is not promising. The rich become richer.
KINYONDO: The poor become poorer. And that, of course, will bring friction.
AIZENMAN: And he's convinced the best way to avoid this scenario is to involve regular people - farmers, street sellers, housewives - in the decision-making. So a couple months ago, he and some collaborators asked Fishkin from Stanford to help organize a deliberative poll in Tanzania with 400 people. This is the first time a deliberative poll has been done on this scale in Africa. And Kinyondo says it raised some particular challenges, like when the researchers fanned out across the countryside, saying to people, who in many cases had never studied past elementary school, never left their villages, hello, you've been randomly selected to come to Tanzania's biggest city for a meeting to give your opinion on natural gas. Well, it made people suspicious.
KINYONDO: It was like, why us? To them it was like, what is this?
AIZENMAN: What is this? There are a lot of rumors in Tanzania about satanic cults. People thought maybe this is one of them. About 40 would-be participants flat out refused to go. A lot of those who decided it was probably OK were still wary when they arrived. The site of the fancy hotel only heightened the tension. Some had never been on an elevator, never opened a door with an electronic card key. But Kinyondo says when they gathered in the grand ballroom and started discussions, people got really into it.
KINYONDO: Everyone was pumped up.
AIZENMAN: Pumped up and really serious. Stanford's James Fishkin describes mothers with babies, elderly people dressed in their finest, all talking so earnestly. When there was a sudden power outage...
FISHKIN: They just continued talking about the issue as if nothing had happened. They turned on their cell phones and used them as lights.
AIZENMAN: Now that everyone's gone home, the researchers have started calling them up to do the poll. They're mostly asking about priorities. How much of the natural gas money should be saved, and how much should be spent? And what should the spending focus on - roads, schools, health clinics? Kinyondo says he hopes Tanzania's government will use the results to inform its decisions, but he says the ultimate message for the country's leaders - in fact, for leaders everywhere - is this. It's worth the trouble to involve ordinary citizens. Who better to judge trade-offs than the people who have to live with them? Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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