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March 3, 2015

What would persuade the aid business to ‘think and work politically’?

March 3, 2015

How can research help promote empowerment and accountability?

March 3, 2015
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Accountability - notIn the development business, DFID is a research juggernaut (180 dedicated staff, £345m annual budget, according to the ad for a new boss for its Research and Evidence Division). So it’s good news that they are consulting researchers, NGOs etc tomorrow on their next round of funding for research on empowerment and accountability (E&A). Unfortunately, I can’t make it, but I had an interesting exchange with Oxfam’s Emily Brown, who will be there, on some of the ideas we think they should be looking at. Here’s a sample:

What do we need to know?

On E&A, we really need to nail down the thorny topic of measurement – how do you measure say, women’s empowerment, in a manner that satisfies the ‘gold standard’ demands of the results/value for money people? And just to complicate matters, shouldn’t a true measure of empowerment be determined by the people concerned in each given context, rather than outside funders? We’ve made some progress on such ‘hard to measure benefits’, but there’s still a long way to go.

I’d also be delighted if DFID would push a positive deviance approach on E&A: instead of NGOs or researchers promoting their preferred brand of E&A snake oil, could they first go and study the existing state of E&A, say across municipalities, and then try and understand the outliers that do particularly well/badly, as Jonathan Fox did to such good effect in Mexico?

Then there’s the question of what works – the current orthodoxy (at least in my Doing Development Differently bubble) is that purely supply side approaches (train the officials) and demand side (stoke up the protests) don’t work in isolation, so now it’s all about ‘convening and brokering’, ‘collective problem solving’ etc. But superficially at least, that contradicts other research (including Fox’s) on the importance of conflict and contestation in triggering change. Could DFID help us get to a better understanding of how the dynamics of episodes of conflict and reform interact with the process of collective problem solving?

Are Fragile States different?

accountability-to-whoIf you believe Andrew Rogerson and Homi Kharas, the aid business will be increasingly focussed on fragile states, which just happen to be the hardest to work in – so there’s a big research agenda here, including on E&A.

Our experience is that it is often more productive to design programmes (and possibly research) in fragile and conflict states at local (community, village, municipal) rather than national level. Even in meltdowns like the DRC, we have been able to do really interesting E&A work at community level.

Beyond the question of scale, it may be that more evolutionary programming is required in fragile states (lots of multiple experiments + fast feedback and course corrections, then see where you end up). How can donors like DFID better understand and fund that sort of work? In fragile contexts, investing in people and processes may be at least as (if not more) important as the actual results at any given moment, since nice neat project outcomes can so easily be swept away by the next event.

The crackdown on civil society space

There are increasing restrictions on civic space in dozens of countries. What can outside aid agencies and INGOs do to defend domestic civil society’s license to operate? How can E&A approaches be adapted to still achieve impact when political space is minimal? One idea we are currently developing is ICT solution to map, track and respond to such restrictions.

Joining up with Governance

There’s a bit of a gulf between the way E&A people talk and the governance conversations in Doing Development Differently/Thinking and Working Politically meetings. The latter are drifting towards an alarmingly (to me) top down approach, which seems more interested in using politics to get better results – ‘small p’ rather than the big P of empowering marginalized groups. Nowhere is this more evident than on gender, which routinely goes missing in the DDD/TWP discussions on the more macho themes of institutions, reform etc, whereas gender is customarily at the heart of E&A discussions. It would be great if research could both help us understand the reasons for this disparity, and then get rid of it.

Getting NGOs to talk to Researchers

In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework, through which the government funds university research, places increasing emphasis on impact (bit of Pre-Accountability-Era-cartoon-600x402a nightmare if your topic is 12th Century East Anglian field systems, but there we go). That ought to be pushing researchers and NGOs together – they do the research, we both have boots on the ground, and are rather good at all that noisy message and comms stuff. But there is still a gulf in ways of working, language, respect, incentives, timescales etc that makes such partnerships really difficult – could DFID consciously promote such partnerships, for example by giving brownie points to joint funding applications?

And of course (Emily would kill me if I don’t say this), they should definitely fund research linked to Oxfam’s fantastic Raising Her Voice project on women’s empowerment, which Emily manages (see below for funky RSAnimate style intro).

And if you have any other E&A related research issues you want to raise, feel free – we can always pass them on. [and a big thanks to Jo Rowlands and Ross Clarke for their additions to this post].



  1. Thanks Duncan-great that the conversation is starting and you raise very good points that we will digest more in the meeting tomorrow. For anyone reading this and who would be interested in joining, please contact me today on I’d also be very happy to receive any comments/thoughts by email…or blog!

  2. Thanks Duncan for raising those excellent points that many of us in the NGO sector can relate to, and I am reminded again of the first recommendation in ICAI’s report on DFID’s learning, namely that its ‘consistent and continuous’ learning should be ‘based on the experience of DFID, its partners and contractors’, later on noting that the knowledge of ‘beneficiaries’ should also be ‘deliberately and consciously’ listened to. So while the scope of the research should look beyond the impact of E&A interventions that DFID currently funds, for it to be of value to practitioners it has to tackle head-on the fact that the state of E&A in many contexts is very much a factor of historic interventions by the development community. And listening very carefully to how these interventions have impacted on communities, and what they really value from outside actors, has to be at the heart of the research. As World Vision we really welcome this investment, its comparative approach and explicit commitment to include fragile states (where as you point out it’s very possible to programme in, but more challenging to publish research on). There are pros and cons to World Vision’s approach to E&A, characterised by operating at scale with some core models that are adapted to context but with some features held constant (our Citizen Voice & Action model operates in 43 countries, our Child Health Now campaign in 71) but it does force us to think comparatively and we look forward to this research programme helping us answer the fundamental questions that face us: how an INGO can most effectively support community empowerment in different contexts within the constraints of often restrictive government policies and sometimes less than helpful donor funding modalities.

  3. An interesting post, as usual. One left-field area that DfID (and academics) should consider taking a look at is child rights related work on Child-Friendly Cities. UNICEF originally developed this approach but local governments in both HICs and LMICs (as well as Save the Children) have taken it on to a greater or lesser degree. At their core, child friendly city initiatives seek to bring together civil society and local governance to realize the rights of children. So many of the issues Duncan has been blogging about are involved: what is a “result”, how do you measure the realization of a right, accountability–to whom and how, empowerment and participation. The latter is doubly difficult when talking about children’s rights: what kind of participation and by whom? Children? families? Adults on behalf of children? Anyway, the approach is no longer as mainstream as it once was, perhaps an unintended casualty of results-based management, but this has happened more be degradation and fashion change than anything particularly evidence-based.

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