5 Emerging Lessons from new research into Empowerment and Accountability in Messy Places

A second instalment on the recent conversation with DFID’s Social Development Advisers (see here for first instalment). John Gaventa summarized the emerging lessons from the DFID-funded Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme, which he coordinates. A4EA is trying to work out whether the stuff we know about E&A in more stable places is different from what happens in fragile or violent places, focussing in particular on Myanmar, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mozambique and Egypt.

Synthesizing dozens, of papers, articles etc (academics sure do pile up the wordcount), John identified 5 lessons from the research, with implications for DFID and other donors – boom! A listicle! So here you go:

Emerging Lesson 1:  closed, violent and authoritarian contexts pose fundamental challenges to possibilities or form of ‘voice, choice, and control’

Our findings point to the importance of:

Implications for E and A support

  • Programming can’t just be about institutional channels, but must help overcome legacies of fear and internalised sense of lack of agency, as a precondition for E and A
  • Opening, protecting, and maintaining spaces are fundamental to allow E and A to emerge effectively
  • Small interventions may be necessary to build or rebuild trust in the possibilities or efficacy of action

Emerging Lesson #2:  Despite the difficult contexts, agency and action do emerge but not always in ways we see or recognize in the more formal ‘E and A’ field

Our findings point to the importance of:

Implications for E and A support

  • Importance of finding the ‘islands’ of agency and action, in local settings
  • Need to broaden our understanding of ‘voice’
  • Understand the ways in which large scale, unruly and episodic protests contribute to empowerment and accountability

Emerging Lesson #3: Accountability is about holding institutions – usually government – to account, but in FCVAS, we need to re-understand the nature of authority

Sure you may be the Public Authority round here, but can you fill in a logframe?

Our findings point to the importance of:

Implications for E and A support

  • Need to understand ‘institutions’ and ‘authorities’ as perceived from the bottom up – we need political economy analysis from below
  • Search for accountability alliances, going beyond the ‘citizen’ – ‘state’ dichotomy, and
  • Search for the entry points which can create new models and cultures of accountability. Sub-national points of entry may be just as important as national or ‘going to scale’ too quickly

Emerging Lesson #4: Women’s leadership can be particularly important for E and A

Our findings point to the importance of:

Implications for E and A support

  • Support for gender equality offers an important entry point for E and A, even in difficult
    south sudan women’s protest


  • Outside funding is a two-edged sword – in Pakistan we found it was critical to building women’s participation, in Nigeria #BBOG has refused external funding to protect its domestic legitimacy
  • Avoid binaries when talking about women’s movements – mobilisations may not be under’ feminist’ or ‘religious’ banners, but around community issues

Emerging Lesson #5:  The role of donors working in these spaces is a tricky one

Our findings point to the importance of:

  • In each country, there are large scale E and A programmes, but despite donor efforts to link across levels of government, centralised, informal, and unpredictable decision-making processes make this challenging
  • E and A programmes are plentiful, but often segmented across governance, sectoral (health, education) and economic (e.g. EITI) departments. There has been little effort to join up the lessons and opportunities across them
  • Some policy mandates for leveraging citizen engagement are available, e.g. the World Bank Citizen Engagement Policy, but these have rarely been used

Implications for E and A support

  • Re-think scale, focusing on those which can spread horizontally, not only which can be scaled vertically.
  • Seek more joined up approaches, combining social, political and economic work in the same areas and programmes
  • Strengthen civil society and governance actors to use policy levers to open new spaces

Really great synthesis of the kinds of ideas that are emerging as we head into the next phase of the research.

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