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How can aid agencies promote local governance and accountability? Lessons from five countries.

May 31, 2012
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This post also appeared on the World Bank’s ‘People, Spaces. Deliberation‘ blog

Oxfam is publishing a fascinating new series of papers today, drawing together lessons from our programme work on local governance and community Bardiya village mtg lowresaction. There are case studies from Nepal (women’s rights, see photo), Malawi (access to medicines), Kenya (tracking public spending), Viet Nam (community participation) and Tanzania (the ubiquitous Chukua Hatua project), and a very wise (and mercifully brief) overview from power and governance guru Jo Rowlands. Here are some highlights:

“Governance is about the formal or informal rules, systems and structures under which human societies are organised, and how they are (or are not) implemented. It affects all aspects of human society – politics, economics and business, culture, social interaction, religion, and security – at all levels, from the most global to the very local.

Most people experience the most immediate impacts, fair or unfair, of governance at a very local level. It is where women experience gender inequalities most keenly, for example in the way that issues that particularly concern them tend to get de-prioritised and their participation obstructed. In most political systems, it is also the place where ordinary people should, in theory, be best placed to participate in governance, for example by voting for their local councillors, taking part in local committees or protesting against laws or actions that they don’t think are fair.

Local people may face barriers of language, ethnicity, gender, class, poverty, access to information, or simply lack the confidence to speak out. They face the visible formal and informal structures of power, such as village or neighbourhood committees, service user groups, tribal councils, dominant families or castes, and formal structures of local government. They also face power dynamics such as business interests or patronage relationships based on debt and obligation.

It is essential for anyone working on governance to make a thorough analysis of local power relations, drawing on history and culture, specific economic realities and the interests of different groups of people. This analysis can then shape the options and approaches that a development programme uses, informed by how change has happened in the past and might happen in the future.

Oxfam differentiates between three key aspects [see diagram, below]: people claiming rights, institutions willing and capable of delivering rights, and people in positions of power with the will to make it happen.

When you deliberately address these relationships and processes, i.e. the arrows in the diagram, interesting things happen to the way issues are tackled in practice. For example, in Kenya, very high levels of mistrust existed between local community members, local councillors and local authority officials. Although there were institutional structures of decentralisation for local decision making, neither community members nor local authority officers knew enough about them to successfully implement them. The tools of social auditing provided a mechanism to address the knowledge gaps and rebuild damaged relationships.

All the case studies show how it is essential to work with both citizens and people in authority in order to achieve positive change in local governance. This might be about finding or creating spaces for constructive engagement between people and authorities, as in the ward meetings organised by women in Nepal. It could involve working with citizens to raise awareness and knowledge about their rights and about how local governance works, so that they can make relevant demands and monitor effectively how resources are used and accounted for, as in Malawi and Kenya. It may require working with officials and elected representatives to increase understanding about how to work accountably and transparently and to understand the benefits of actively involving citizens in planning and monitoring, as in the Tanzania example. Or it might be about working with officials to understand how particular legislation or regulation should work, as in Kenya.

RTBH ToCA recurring theme across the individual stories is the importance of focusing action about local governance on the real, tangible interests of local people – health, education, livelihoods, water and sanitation. Women in Nepal moved into participation and leadership in committees and user groups on these issues; in Tanzania, communities became organised around setting up new market spaces for local women to sell produce, or around land rights.

Anyone working on local governance needs to be aware that in many contexts where there is not a culture of speaking out, individuals may be putting themselves at risk if they confront authority.  It is vital to ensure first that individuals who want to take that risk are supported, both from inside and outside the community, and that ideally the demands come from a group that has built the strength, skills and confidence to demand the changes they want to see. In Nepal, women did take a number of risks – facing opposition from husbands, and senior community members – but the support they received allowed them to prove themselves and to join with others in becoming change-makers within their villages.

Accountability and transparency are proving useful entry points for engaging the various actors and processes to help navigate the minefields of power relations. It is also clear that people who take on official responsibilities do not necessarily have the competency to carry out those roles. Therefore, well-targeted support and training for office-holders can go a long way in building better governance relationships.”

Jo identifies some particular ‘issues and challenges’, including:

Culture change: Making change in local governance often requires culture change as much as a change in structures, processes and representation. (particularly true on gender rights and women’s voice).

Access to information: As Maimuna says in the Tanzania case study, “Ignorance is a killing machine”.

Things can take time: Some changes can happen quickly, but the changes in culture and in deeper attitudes required to ensure system and process changes stick can take much longer (decades).

Risk management: Local and national governance are both about political processes, and carry significant levels of risk. This risk can include violence, fear, crack-downs on individuals or groups and a closing of space to operate for particular actors.

Areas where we need to do more thinking? How to deal with patronage systems, corruption and decentralization; improving our understanding of urban governance (the examples are all rural).

Final (very sensible) voice of experience:

“As well as being informed by good analysis, [future governance work] will also be informed by serendipity – watching for the chance combinations of the right person/people, the right moment, the right focus, the right alignment with other events – requiring good judgement and probably inevitably, whatever the expectation about how change will happen, a certain amount of sheer luck.”


  1. Good topic at the right time. THanks. Will read studies with interest. Looking at the language in the chart,] and your blog, is there still some discomfort?

    Certain types of power are zero sum game–who gets to decide how a budgetary dollar gets spent–and we aren’t going to redistribute power from elites to the marginalized unless we can talk in sophisticated and explicit ways around how to confront and ultimately disempower the powerful. We need to get better at using disruptive language and ideas, while protecting our own and our allies. .

  2. I agree with Paul, at least in the sense that challenging power relations is a zero-sum game that can face firm resistance by those who stand to lose out. This is not easy, and the temptation will always be strong to take the easy way out by focussing on technocratic / administrative processes rather than power and politics.

    One of the best levers to challenge local power relations, in my experience, is local media. The media carries much more weight than most civil society initiatives, which tend to be only weakly rooted in the community. It also reflects how decisions are actually made – i.e. “outside the room”, based on political influences – better than efforts to improve participation in formal planning processes.

  3. The study and discussion of governance has historically focused on formal structure and interactions, not the equally important informal ones. It’s good to see increased attention to the informal. And I loved the use of the concept of ‘serendipity’ in the last quote. Was discussing recently – are there ways we can strategically create conditions for positive serendipity to happen?

  4. I have only looked at the Tz case study. It would be interesting to know what it cost. Power is challenged and change made to happen by Tz organisations too. It would be interesting to see what was the added value of Oxfam and if it was worth the cost.

    In my experience, having designed and managed programmes of that nature, the cost benefit ratio is rarely attractive.

  5. I look forward to the studies. Governance, or ‘institutions’ are a tricky issue on which we do have some recent research that has been popularized to the general practitioner (like Acemoglu and Robinsons ‘Why Nations Fail’).

    The weakness of most of the recent literature is that is holds a macro-perspective on the issue, and don’t tackle local conditions and practical advice.

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