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August 23, 2016

Please comment on this draft paper: theories of change on empowerment and accountability in fragile states

August 23, 2016
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theoryofchange-300x300Ouch. My brain hurts. I’ve spent the last month walled up at home writing a paper on ‘Theories of change on empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict-affected states’ (acronym heaven – ToCs on E&A in FCAS). Pulse racing yet? It’s one of a series of inception papers for a big research consortium on E&A in FCAS, which Oxfam is a member of (IDS is leading, plus various other partners – more detail as the work progresses). The deadline is next month, but I’m off on holiday next week, then swanning around Myanmar, so I thought I’d put up a pretty rough 10,000 word draft and invite FP2P readers to contribute some free consultancy their insights. Here it is – ToCs for E&A in FCAS, Duncan Green, draft for comment, 19 August 2016 – comments by 9th September please, to dgreen[at]

Headlines? Aid agencies (both big donors and INGOs) tend to conflate how endogenous change happens in the social, political and economic system (theory of change) with the process of designing their own interventions (theory of action). There is little apparent interest in how E&A occur in the absence of aid, or in what we can learn from history – basically, it’s all about us.

The lack of attention to context matters because such an institutionally self-centred approach has led to a series of weaknesses and oversights in the design of interventions, which a proper theory of change could help correct. In particular, the greater relative importance in FCAS of critical junctures, non-state actors and informal power.

It's been a while

It’s been a while

There is very little overlap between the literature on FCAS and that on E&A – in fact they routinely ignore each other. That’s part of the rationale for the research programme of course (and props to DFID for spotting the gap and funding the research).

Turning to the Theories of Action, there’s a big gap between theory and practice – aid agencies may talk an increasingly good talk on flexibility, being politically smart and locally led etc, but with the exception of a few highly publicised Potemkin Projects, there’s an awful lot of bog standard E&A work going on with questionable impact. Institutional barriers within the industry are probably the main obstacle to closing the gap.

All the standard approaches to E&A are more difficult and risky in fragile states – citizens shouting at governments (aka demand side) are more likely to be shot, seminars for civil servants don’t work if they have no interest in serving the public in the first place (though I’m sure they’re grateful for the per diems). The responses to that seem to fall into two broad camps – ‘do more’ and ‘do less’ (IDS is going to hate that level of simplicity!).

Do more: Regular FP2P readers will be familiar with this approach: thinking and working politically, doing development differently etc. Study the system, abandon blueprints, find out how things actually work and then ‘work with the grain’ to strengthen E&A when you can.

Do less: two responses here. Either pursuing E&A is a fools’ errand when the risks are this high and the chances of success so low, so just concentrate on influencing ‘elite bargains’ and cross your fingers that stability and growth will eventually lead to ‘trickle down E&A’. Alternatively, abandon the insane hubris of assuming that outsiders can come in, identify the appropriate entry points and engineer reforms in the right direction and concentrate on the ‘enabling environment’, eg via access to information.

The paper is trying to come up with some hypotheses to test in the course of the project – here’s my first stab:unity-is-strength-cartoon

Critical Junctures: E&A work in FCAS will be more effective if it gives greater priority to detecting and responding to critical junctures (whether predictable or not) as drivers of change

Positive Deviance: Including positive deviance as part of due diligence in programme design will lead to a wider range of potentially effective ToAs

Non-State Actors: If different external aid and development agencies can overcome their institutional and ideational obstacles to working with NSAs, their E&A work will have more impact

Theory v Practice: The main obstacle to turning evolving theories of action into programme practice is the institutional design of the aid business. There are examples of re-engineering of incentives and processes that can help overcome these barriers

Lessons of History: More research on the politics and critical junctures that gave rise to ‘turnaround states’ could contain valuable lessons for current approaches on E&A in FCAS

Over to you


  1. Might be helpful to clarify somewhere upfront that when you talk about accountability, you’re talking about the “politics” relationship in the WDR04 terminology

    When I talk about the importance of accountability in education systems, I’m usually referring to the top-down “compact” or “management” relationships, but people often assume I mean the bottom-up “client power” relationship.

  2. At the risk at over simplifying a complex task, I say identify those who wield power in society. I have found that it is usually a relatively small percentage of the population that have the power to influence change. There are often an associated collection of the wealthy, big politicians, religious and military leaders. For real change to occur, it would appear to me that these people need to be on board but getting them onboard if it is not in their interest to do so, is a huge challenge.
    I’ve also found over decades of development and humanitarian assistance work in Africa, that human nature and ingrained habits and beliefs are a very difficult to change. The only time I really saw profound change was when people had no choice but to transform their lives and change for the better. Sadly, this would often mean they had become so desperate that they had no option but to change, It is discouraging some times to see that needed changes do not occur until the damage has been done.

  3. Duncan, rich and thought-provoking as usual. If a comment is worth making it is this. You (rightly in my view) make a big deal about the difference between theories about endogenous change and donor programme- or action-theories. You criticise donor literature on E&A for absence of history. But Section 2, devoted to endogenous change, is fairly short and a bit patchy, while the bulk of the paper is about action. Hence, you could be accused of doing what you criticise. You could beef up the illustration of what it means to think about how change happens ahead of thinking about external action, by paying more attention to Brian Levy’s stuff on trajectories, Khan on precapitalist settlements, some of the ESID outputs on what is explicable by political settlements and what isn’t, North et al 1 and 2, Seth Kaplan’s Fixing Fragile Stes (still the best of the books with that kind of title), and (my current favourite) The Long Process of Development, by Hough and Grier. There may also be relevant stuff in the Tarrow and Rosser sources you cite but without indicating what they say and hence what challenge they might pose for the external action options you usefully discuss later on.

  4. What about local organisations? In Pakistan in the conflict and fragile regions its the strong local intermediary organisations that have been successful in negotiating a difficult environment and managing to work on the ground with communities on empowerment and accountability issue.. International organisations are nowhere around. European Union is now using local institutions to implement their largest programmes. It would be interesting to start talking about such examples which have grown with very little international assistance despite the rhetoric. The programme they are running can compete in quality with that any international organisations would have been doing in terms of upward accountability to the donors; but they additionally are very strong in working on the downward accountability side, working with grass root communities. I spent last week in an area where I had worked in the late nineties and wanted to see how all all the changes in the development rhetoric and modalities had been for the people for whom it was meant. When I look at the journey it began with working with communities without the log frames to hinder you, to log frames and then result made management, governance and devolution, budgetary support, theories of change and now social protection, a story repeated in different forms over a decade. What did all this mean to the communities whom it was all to reach. They would be pretty bewildered if they could understand the development gibberish. For them it was all about a decent road that would reach them, electricity and water in their homes, schools and hospitals for their children and food and security. It has not changed all the while. Somethings have improved, some have worsened. Development has impacted them. Why not start looking at it from their point of view, of reaching them, of making them part of development. The management contraptions and project designs tend to make a simple process very complicated and make them more inaccessible.. It could have all worked had development remained simple and all about them. Accountability and Empowerment should begin and end with them i guess

    1. thanks Masood, that’s certainly the intention of the overall research project of which this paper forms part – lots of action research involved

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