‘Convening and Brokering’ in practice: sorting out Tajikistan’s water problem

January 18, 2013

Should we (and everyone in Davos) worry about extreme wealth? New Oxfam briefing

January 18, 2013

Why don’t people in power do the right thing – supply, demand or collective action problem? And what do we do about it?

January 18, 2013
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My last few days have been dominated by conversations around ‘convening and brokering’, including an exchange between assorted ODI wonks and a meetings Africabunch of NGOs on the findings of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and a ‘webinar’ (ugh), with our Latin American staff on the nature of ‘leverage’ (a closely associated development fuzzword). Yesterday I set out the best example of this approach that I’ve found to date, the Tajikistan water and sanitation network. Today it’s some overall conclusions from the various discussions.

David Booth from ODI described the question he is trying to answer as ‘why don’t people in power do the right thing?’ He thinks aid agencies (both official and NGOs) have moved from thinking that the answer is building capacity in government (supply side) to strengthening the voice of citizens to demand better services (demand side), but argues that both approaches are wrong.

The mistake, he argues is seeing power as a zero sum game, whereas often the barrier to progress is better seen as a collective action problem: ‘doing the right thing involves cooperating with others and people aren’t prepared to take risks and bear the costs of working with others, unless they believe that everyone else will do so too.’

That requires a different approach, getting everyone into a room to build trust and find joint solutions to a common problem.

ODI argues that on the ground, a lot of aid agencies realize this, and are doing it already. But the official line (often driven by donors’ funding decisions) is that they are exclusively building demand-side accountability, so their reports and narrative airbrush out all that ‘collaborationist’ activity with local government officials, politicians etc. That’s a problem because it inhibits their ability to share experiences and learn how to do things better.

As evidence, ODI cited an evaluation it did for Plan of a ‘Community Scorecards’ project in Malawi that was proving remarkably successful. The programme design was classic demand-side: entitlements, rights, holding duty bearers to account etc. But when ODI investigated, they found that reality involved brokering local-level reform processes and working with local officials to help them raise concerns with central government. Solutions included communities agreeing to help with school construction. In agriculture, problems included fertilizer subsidies being traded on secondary markets, sometimes for sex. The project brokered contacts with police and the courts to help sort it out. Little of this appeared in the official project narrative.

All well and good, but Oxfam’s Jo Rowlands argued that the NGOs’ approach is different to ODI’s in one important aspect. While ODI argues for ‘going with the grain’ of existing institutions and traditions, the NGOs are more normative – going with the grain but at the same time seeking to change it, through a kind of ‘affirmative action convening and brokering’ that ensures the voices of previously excluded groups are at the table. So for example, our work with protection committees in the DRC involves helping them build trust with local government and ‘armed actors’, but also ensuring the committees have an even gender balance, which has transformed the confidence and self-perception of many women participants.

would they get more results from a meeting?

would they get more results from a meeting?

This kind of transformative approach usually involves something additional to just convening and brokering (Tajikistan is a bit of an exception). In livelihoods it involves investing in technical assistance and building organizational capacity so that smallholder assocations can benefit from value chains. In women’s rights it involves building ‘power within’ as well as brokering the kinds of discussions the protection committees have in the DRC. Elsewhere it may involve running pilot programmes to demonstrate new solutions around which the discussions can take place.

Which leads me to a key dividing line between two kinds of convening and brokering. The more innovative kind involves acknowledging that there is a problem, but admitting that we don’t have a solution, and want to get everyone in the room to try and find one. That’s the Tajikistan model, but is still something of a rarity (NGOs often think they know the answer, even when they don’t….). That is very different from merely trying to build an alliance around a predetermined policy demand (a much more common approach).

Which all left some important questions and dilemmas hanging in the air. They include:

  • Given that social change often takes place through a cycle of cooperation and conflict (see diag), when and where is the ‘problem-solving approach’conflict-cooperation-cycle the best answer? Just during the kiss and make up phase, or more generally?
  • Is this approach easier in some sectors (children, water) than others (taxation, livelihoods)? Or is it easier in service delivery work (more pragmatic) than influencing (more normative)?
  • ODI argues that the trick is to pick the moments when the stars are aligned for some kind of collective action breakthrough, but how do you recognize such moments, apart from in hindsight (not a lot of use for practitioners)?
  • What kinds of people are good at this, and do they work for aid agencies? In my experience, lovers of ambiguity, policy entrepreneurs willing to take risks, and networkers happy to talk to people they disagree with or even dislike are in pretty short supply in the aid world
  • David Booth argues that ‘meetings are of the essence’, but what distinguishes useful convening-type meetings from pointless NGO gabfests. (JAM – Just Another Meeting)?
  • Which brings us to the role of donors. To what extent can they cope with the uncertainty over attribution and the long timescales involved in this kind of work? How do we take them with us?

Finally, we agreed to ask for your help. David Booth reckons we need a good snappy name for this new approach – open-minded on solutions, trust-building, convening and brokering, problem-solving etc. Any ideas?

And since ODI is funky and digital these days, here’s my 3 minute download, which they filmed straight after the meeting



  1. I feel this little thrill every time you write about Oxfam’s Tajikistan program. It’s like watching my friends get famous. Everyone in Dushanbe always knew that team does great work and it’s nice to see it recognized!

  2. It isn’t snappy or self-explanatory necessarily but in my mind, it’ll be filed as the MED Approach (Multiple Equilibria Dynamics) for the time being.

    Multiple Equilibria for seeking to bring together interests and power in a more desirable way – and often supplying allocative and authoritative resources that can be drawn upon to upset the current probably.
    Dynamics for acknowledging that the world is in motion and interconnected, i.e. to exist, even ingrained structures are continuously being reproduced and are linked far beyond the immediate policy context, and so needs a ‘solution’ to be approached too.

  3. Thanks for the summary of a very interesting discussion Duncan. Can you – or even better, someone from DFID or one of the other donors – give at least an initial response to your question on the role of donors? If they were in the room, as you mention in the video, someone must have tried to push them on it! This obviously relates to other discussions such as the Big Push Forward initiative… if NGOs can get beyond the official project narratives and link these to some interesting successes, could this provide some of the evidence base that DFID etc want?

  4. Hi Duncan,

    You asked, “but what distinguishes useful convening-type meetings from pointless NGO gabfests”? I don’t have a crisp answer, but I’d suggest that it lies somewhere in the contribution made to agency by the meeting. If either its participants have agency, and can therefore through the meeting start to align towards a collaborative reform process; or its participants do not have agency and acknowledge this, and spend time/energy in the meeting identifying pathways to inclusion of those with agency, it seems to me it will produce momentum.

    If it is purely descriptive of “what should happen/what we recommend” or even “why it doesn’t happen” it will, in most cases, be choir preaching. Those are valued points, to be sure, but only as part of an event or process with responsibility to generate change, not if analysis or issuing recommendations for a vague audience of everyone that matters is the whole purpose.

    This also suggests an avenue for the transformative approach you mention – the meeting shouldn’t consist only of those with agency, or it will not contribute to inclusion and in fact may reify exclusion. This is a tension within the with-the-grain idea.

    Very curious to hear what others have to say about this, though. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I’d echo the last comment.
    What would make a donor contribute to this type of work ?
    I look forward to when I can see your video above as the new Oxfam TV advert

  6. I am particularly interested in this because my forthcoming book is one third about Tajikistan. Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina. (www.importingdemocracy.org)

    In terms of the questions you ask, take a look at the Good Governance Learning Network in South Africa, initiated by IDASA, a national (and indeed continental African) democratization NGO. However about 15 local democratization NGOs develop participatory tools that they use to make their local muncipal governments more accountable– and they share them with each other.

  7. Is it donors that you need to get on board with this approach or the people who vote for the politicians who decide what aid agencies are held accountable for? If we’re all really looking for quick fixes and silver bullets, there will always be people in power willing to offer them. For labels for the approach “A humanist approach to development”, or “Long-term experimental learning?

  8. David’s comment above about agency seems to be critical.

    Its worth noting that although it probably (definitely) increases the risks involved, building stuff isn’t always a distraction. Done in the right way it can demonstrate that beneficiaries/donors/governments/other actors do have meaningful choices, and as a result it can often both influence and enable the access to the range of powerholders needed for effective convening and brokering.

    We’ve found in a recent Consortium delivered resilient Shelter and WASH project (which used the opportunities coming out of a disaster as a catalyst for change) that the hardware element ticked a lot of the ‘traditional’ and less traditional boxes (Value for money, Measurable, Reportable and Verifiable spending that fits some of the requirements for Adaptation funding, very visible impact on lots of people) while also getting the attention of communities, government and donors, and demonstrating that substantive change is possible in a rapidly worsening environment where its easy to believe that nothing can be done.

    As a not insignificant additional benefit, being a large project it enabled us to pay for the meetings, staff and partner time needed for complex analysis, research, advocacy and strategic thinking.

    By delivering successfully we have really bolstered our allies in the National Government (which on the whole sees non-government action as expensive and ineffective) and supported them in their own debates within government about the most effective ways to respond to massive gaps in realising basic rights. Our partners on the other hand, see the limitations of even successful delivery, and are actively exploring how they can leverage it through communities and other programs to make a genuinely strategic contribution.

    Certainly won’t suit all situations, and its a long race after the official project ‘end’ to get the strategic changes needed, but the potential is real.

  9. There is a problem. The beneficiaries usually have no say in what happens next. Everything is negotiated on their behalf by people who claim to know what needs to be done. How do you improve people’s knowldge? Inform and educate. Simple messageslike water and sanitation made a difference to the developed world. We have not made this accessible to most poor people!!

  10. Thanks for this interesting post Duncan. In recent work I’ve done with Lant Pritchett and Matt Andrews, we’ve called this new approach PDIA: Problem-Driven Iterative Adaption. (See Working Paper No. 299 at the Center for Global Development. Our approach has elements closely aligned with those you’ve listed.) We are open to a better name, but let’s acknowledge that we are trying to name the same broad thing and settle on something so that the alternative to prevailing orthodoxy at least has a name.

  11. A new snappy name for the approach? How about Interlocution for the process and interlocutor for the agent? I see more and more examples of NGOs, and others, playing this type of role across many domains of social change. The label was first mooted by the ODI Mwananchi Study, and is now adopted in analysis by Johnatahn Fox of evidence about Social Accountability (See “Innovation in Institutional Collaboration: The Role of Interlocutors”, Working Paper, 584, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, Rotterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/1765/51129; “Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?”, GPSA Working Paper, No. 1, World Bank, Washington, D.C.)

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