Big new research programme on empowerment and accountability in fragile settings gets under way – can you help choose its name?

Whatever happened to resting on your laurels?  The book’s just published, and I’m onto the next thing – a five year


research consortium on empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict settings (FCS). Spent 3 days recently with some sharp minds from an alphabet soup of project partners – IDS, ITAD, IDEAS, CSSR, PASGR and ARC, wading through a stack of initial analyses, including my draft paper on theories of change.

You’ll be hearing a lot about this project (my recent trip to Myanmar was also part of it). First job is to pick a good name – cue FP2P wisdom of crowds. Here are the top 3 candidates (you should have seen the other ones….):

Which name do you prefer for a research programme on empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict settings?

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accountability-notOver to you – please vote, and if you want to explain your choice (or suggest a better alternative), the comments section is always open.

Some of the interesting stuff from the discussion:

Shrinking space is not only about CSOs – traditional Western aid donors are also finding their room for manoeuvre shrinking. More competition from the likes of China and the Gulf States, with a very different/no interest in empowerment and accountability; rising anti-Western sentiment in countries such as Egypt. Should outsiders pull back from direct relationships with local organizations, for fear of damaging them by association? Focus on tech solutions and the ‘enabling environment’ as the World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan argues? And when should they just simply stay well away and let domestic processes play out?

We must stop equating civil society with formal CSOs: a lot of criticism of the aid business ‘NGO-ising’ hitherto accountable popular movements, and turning them into formal aid-hungry mini-me’s. Time to stand back, look much more broadly at the expressions of popular organization, many of them informal (funeral societies, sports clubs, cultural associations), and whether there is any role for outsiders in supporting them?

Violence is really hard to keep in focus. Conflict generally, and physical violence in particular, are a prominent feature of FCS – a spectrum from domestic violence to civil war. But it seems to be really hard for aid types to really engage with ‘the dark side’ – most of us are instinctively averse to violence, so we either talk about people being victims of it, and how it can be stopped (peace-building etc), or we keep forgetting about it in our desire to get back to empowerment and accountability and lots of basically peacetime activity. Typically people may start by talking about ‘violence’, but that rapidly becomes ‘conflict’, which is then reduced to peaceful protest – voila! Airbrushing completed; discomfiture avoided. But what about violence as a positive force for empowerment and accountability (‘the government only listens to us when we burn things down’) and what, if anything, can be done when violence is part of the ‘disabling environment’ but people still have to get on with their lives. Essay question: discuss


empowerment and accountability under Boko Haram.

What’s the link with the economy? Do we buy the ‘economic growth → middle class → political demands for accountability and good governance’ argument? When does economic empowerment lead to social and political progress and vice versa? Where does power fit in?

Working with the Grain is all very well, but what about when the grain sucks (e.g. on women’s rights)? Danger is that a Machiavellian fascination with hybrid institutions and political settlements leads external actors to abandon basic human rights and norms.

And some personal hobbyhorses that made me very happy when they got through to the all-important short list for the next batch of research papers:

accountabilityRole of faith and religion (not the same thing). Especially in FCS, where formal institutions are often weak or absent, informal ones are relatively more prominent. That includes faith groups, which is where values are shaped, and often services provided. Their impact can be good or bad (secular aid types always tend to focus on the latter). The project is going to take a look at how faith and religion operate in these environments, the links to empowerment and accountability (or their opposite) and possible implications for ‘external actors’ – i.e. us.

Fear/psychology. I’ve been increasingly struck by the extent to which development thinking stops at the mind’s edge. We barely go further than vague statements about ‘power within’. But in FCS issues like fear, suspicion and mistrust are crucial determinants of (dis)empowerment and collective (in)action. Conflict leaves a legacy of trauma that cripples some and galvanizes others – why? What is the role of culture in oppression, resilience and identity?

Positive Deviance: Identifying positive outliers that have emerged within the system is especially important when conventional solutions are hard to find – FCS definitely qualify. Glad to see a lot of discussion about the importance of looking hard for positive examples of empowerment and accountability in these places, before we steam in with our toolkits and project proposals.

Governance Diaries: v excited about these, but this post is already too long – more to follow.


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12 Responses to “Big new research programme on empowerment and accountability in fragile settings gets under way – can you help choose its name?”
  1. None of the three names you have suggested sound, to me, appropriate for a research project. They give too much of a top-down feeling. I would like to propose the name LISTEN.

    Since you insist that it be an acronym, how about either “Learning In Situations That dis-incentivize (or deny) Empowerment Naturally” or “Learning In Situations That affect Empowerment Negatively”?

  2. charlotte sterrett

    Perhaps choose something that is simple – that those involved in the research at the community level can understand. Not easy with all the development lingo-speak. EMPACT seems the most likely candidate out of the three, but I reckon you could do better.

  3. Stephen Jones

    I quite like REACH although some other programmes may have got there first… see “REACH: Improving water security for the poor” ( and “REACH Initiative – Informing More Effective Humanitarian Action (

  4. masood

    I would call it moving mountain. A non functional State is like a mountain very difficult to move. Peter Drucker once said wishes don’t move mountains bulldozers do. Similarly rarely do voice and accountability projects funded by international funding move mountains. But practical examples on the ground which change lives can influence policy and build empowerment.

  5. Laura Ahearn

    Good luck with this ambitious new project! Any anthropologists on board?

    Here are a couple of possible acronyms for it:

    EAR — Empowerment and Accountability Research (references the listening that Makarand emphasized)
    SPEAR — Social and Political Empowerment and Accountability Research
    PEACE — Political Empowerment and Accountability in Conflict Environments

    Laura Ahearn
    Learning Division
    USAID DRG Center

  6. Sharon Bell

    Is this blog the best place for those of us currently researching in this space to keep up with the research consortium? Taking off PhD researcher hat and putting on INGO hat for a moment – we’re observing interesting things at a small scale in an isolated church in a conflict-affected part of Myanmar. They have a development pastor – something we’d never heard of – so ahead of the game of NZ churches ;-). We’re grappling with how best to support their incipient projects, i.e. drug rehab centres in communities with extremely high rates of drug addiction – funded through business. (And more cognisant of human rights than centres operated by the ethnic armed organisation that I’m researching for PhD.) So I’ll definitely be watching your work on faith-based groups with much personal interest.
    P.S. Vinny Nagaraj of NZ MFAT pimped your book at a meeting of INGOs & Govt. here this week 😉 .

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