8 key Messages on Promoting Empowerment and Accountability in Messy Places

Please read the synthesis report for the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) research programme – it’s written by John Gaventa and Katy Oswald, and is a model for how to communicate a large body of research in an accessible and practitioner-friendly way. (Full disclosure, I’ve contributed four papers to A4EA as part of my Oxfam role, but had nothing to do with the synthesis).

A4EA’s overarching research question was: ‘How and under what conditions does social and political action contribute to empowerment and accountability in fragile, conflict, and violence affected settings (FCVAS)?’

That’s important because ‘much of what has been learnt about [empowerment and accountability] approaches has been drawn from studies in somewhat stable, open and middle-income places around the world. Less is known about how empowerment and accountability are achieved through social and political action in more difficult settings – those faced by institutional fragility, conflict, violence, and closing civic space.’

Which is a pretty big gap in our knowledge because ‘Today, over two billion people live in countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence. According to the OECD, without concerted action the share of the global poor living in such settings is projected to reach over 80 per cent by 2030.’

The synthesis covers the first phase (2016-19) of research, largely focussed on Egypt, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria and Pakistan. It identifies 8 key messages for researchers and aid organizations:

Message 1: In FCVAS, factors like closing civic space, legacies of fear and distrust challenge fundamental assumptions about the conditions necessary for many processes of empowerment and accountability, which assume that ‘voice’ on the one hand and ‘responsiveness’ on the other will underpin the formation of a social contract between citizens and the state.

Message 2: Theories of change often assume the existence of ‘accountable and responsive institutions’, towards which voice may be directed, but in FCVAS, we need to re-understand the nature of authority and question our assumptions of who is to be held to account, and by whom.

Message 3: FCVAS are highly diverse, and constantly shifting. Opportunities for empowerment and accountability may present themselves at particular moments and in particular places, even while other places remain closed or difficult.

Message 4: Even in difficult contexts, action for empowerment and accountability may be present, but not always in ways we see or recognise, implying different entry points for thinking and working politically, beyond business as usual.

Message 5: In FCVAS, women’s collective action is an important driver of empowerment and accountability, through greater political empowerment in formal processes, as well as through more informal channels, social movements, and local actions which challenge gender norms.

Message 6: Donors, policy makers and external actors can make important contributions in these settings, but more careful and grounded approaches are needed, with more appropriate expectations and measurements of outcomes.

Message 7 Working in FCVAS requires an approach that is adaptive and flexible. This means giving frontline staff autonomy, recruiting entrepreneurial and politically savvy staff, and sometimes going against the grain.

Message 8: Understanding complex and highly political issues of empowerment and accountability in FCVAS requires new tools for political economy analysis and research that are sensitive to local dynamics, whilst also maintaining rigour.

Each message then gets a page of explanation, specific examples from the case study countries and implications for aid organizations and others.

The synthesis has helped shape A4EA’s phase 2 research questions, up to the end of the programme in December 2020. The four new research workstreams are:

Here are my papers for the programme, which you can find, along with dozens (hundreds?) of other papers on the A4EA site:

Not quite sure what I’ll be doing with A4EA in Phase 2, but I will definitely be covering its emerging findings here.

And here’s the 2 minute video version of the summary

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