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June 22, 2012

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June 22, 2012

When does accountability work have an impact? The importance of Implementation Gaps

June 22, 2012
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I’ve been reading the set of papers Oxfam recently published on local governance and community action (see previous blog) and was Mind the Gapstruck by how central the issue of ‘implementation gaps’ is in our work.

An implementation gap arises when a set of institutions (often via decentralization), policies or budgets (or all three) exists on paper that should benefit poor people and communities, but is having almost no impact on the ground.

Such a situation provides a particularly good entry point for an INGO like Oxfam because it reduces the political risks of being accused of being a politically interfering foreigner (you are supporting the implementation of what the state has already agreed). What’s more early wins are likely to be easier to achieve and can have a galvanizing effect – plucking a few low-hanging fruit is great for morale and motivation. In terms of power analysis, this is about making the most of ‘invited spaces’ rather than creating new ones.

If the state is particularly effective, then a lot can be achieved through evidence and reason, perhaps facilitating dialogue with excluded minorities, as we did in Vietnam. Or through helping poor people gain access to their legal rights, for example through legal aid – I’m often struck how much of this kind of work we do, and yet it features fairly low down in our wider communications.

If the state is more chaotic, then a greater level of activism and confrontation may be required to get official attention, as in our campaign on access to medicines in Malawi. In South Africa, I have seen our partners organizing ‘toyi toyis’ – a very loud and musical form of war dance – outside the courtroom to pressure the judges to act.

In either case, as Jo Rowlands points out in her overview paper on the country cases studies, there is a need to balance both the supply and demand side of the accountability equation, supporting officials to respond to growing citizens demands, and working to prevent conflicts and breakdowns breaking out between the two sides. Always recognizing, that many activists cross the border between supply and demand, moving from jobs in the state to activism in their communities.

The time horizon for such work is relatively short – this is about lots of mini-victories through which poor people and their communities begin to make the most of their invited spaces and legal rights. It’s not about maximalist demands for total revolution that, to be honest, hardly ever prosper.

Bardiya village mtg lowresIn most cases, the right place for an INGO is behind the scenes, supporting local civil society with funding, capacity building, access to information etc. Where civil society is particularly weak, INGOs may have to be more of an actor (as in the Vietnam case).
I guess this is an example of what I meant when I wrote recently about the potential progressive interpretation of the political economists’ insistence on ‘going with the grain’ of local contexts, rather than seeking to impose outside blueprints.

But the programmes go well beyond merely ensuring that governments implement their laws and policies – the trick seems to be to combine working on the implementation gap with something more (to use the fuzzword du jour) ‘transformational’, i.e. helping to unleash the agency and organization of hitherto excluded groups (on the basis of gender, caste or ethnicity) as part of the project. That seems to combine the benefits of lasting change, with the morale-boosting effect of quick (or fairly quick) wins.

As a reminder, the five case studies are:

‘Nothing is impossible’: Women’s rights in Nepal

‘Missing medicines in Malawi’: campaigning against ‘stock-outs’ of essential drugs

‘Where does the money go?’: citizen participation in Turkana, northern Kenya

‘No longer sitting quietly’: building community participation in Vietnam

‘Citizens Wake Up’: The Chukua Hatua programme in Tanzania

This post also appeared on the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog

5 comments

  1. //In most cases, the right place for an INGO is behind the scenes…//

    Completely agree.. but.. therein lies the trouble, does it not?

    If you stay behind the scenes, you don’t get ‘credit’ and / or you cannot raise the resources you need to keep your work going on.

    Trick question for INGOs is

    What is primary, ‘Change’ or ‘their participation in change?

    Where both possible – there are no issues but where only one of them is possible?

  2. I have a couple of points to make on this. First, I find it slightly odd that you seem to have only just recognised the importance of implementation gaps. The accountability work that I’ve been doing for the past 6 years has been almost all about holding government to account for doing what it said it would do. Citizen monitoring of public services is a very powerful instrument of change, particularly when done very publicly (e.g. with strong media involvement). Public Expenditure Tracking, Citizens’ Report Cards, satisfaction surveys, etc. are all about implementation gaps.

    Second, when I read the reports when they first came out and was tempted to comment then about the recommendation that you should work on both the supply- and the demand-side. Now that you’ve also highlighted the point, I feel I should respond.

    I’ve noticed that there is a real danger of state capture when working on both the supply and demand sides. I have seen this in many cases, where government officials use their power as gatekeepers of supply-side work to block or undermine demand-side work. I have also seen many cases of NGO staff being more comfortable with the less confrontational nature of supply side work, and thus focussing very little of their demand-side efforts.

    Working solely on the demand-side gives clarity to your role and gives you much greater freedom to speak out. (Though it is useful if there’s some other organisation working on the supply side who can help government officials find solutions to the problems you’ve raised.)

    1. Thanks Ben, you’re right of course, implementation gaps are certainly not an original idea, but it jumped out at me so strongly from the case studies that I thought it worth repeating anyway (Fidel Castro once said that repetition is a revolutionary virtue….). Good point on the dangers of trying to do supply and demand (or of any combined insider-outsider strategy, for that matter) and the idea of a tacit division of labour between demanders and suppliers is interesting one. However it can lead to a lot of polarisation that isn’t always v productive. In other contexts, Oxfam is doing some really interesting work acting as a broker to bring both sides together in an environment that helps them sort out differences and agree actions.

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