What did I learn from 2 days of intense discussions on empowerment and accountability in messy places?

I wish I was one of those people who can sit zen-like through a two day conference, smiling and

Pakistan

constructive throughout. Instead I fear I come across as slightly unhinged – fidgety; big mood swings as I get excited, irritated or bored in rapid succession.

The most recent example of my failings was a two day discussion at IDS last week on the role of ‘external actors’ (aid agencies of all stripes) in building empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict affected settings (part of the A4EA programme). I’ll kick off with some overall impressions, then drill down on a couple of issues in subsequent posts. It was Chatham House rules, so I’ll anonymise both people and countries.

Closing Civil Society Space: since the start of the A4EA project a couple of years ago, closing space for civil society activity has become more and more of an issue. I’m not sure that advocacy or research has kept up with the pace of events. Some of the research themes that cropped up were

  • What do successful defensive strategies look like, whether at local or national levels. Is there any role for external actors in preventing crackdowns and repressive legislation, and if so what?
  • How are civil society organizations adapting to shrinking space: is it just weakening them, or might it actually have some positive consequences (eg in reducing their dependence on aid, or forcing them to build broader local coalitions)?
  • If the political arena previously occupied by formal CSOs is being shrunk, what new players, if any, are expanding into it? Are they good or bad guys in terms of their attitudes to inclusion, equality etc?
  • Which kinds of CSOs or activity are more vulnerable to shrinking space, which less. I imagine that human and women’s rights organizations are likely to be most vulnerable, but it’s at least worth checking
  • What are the implications for research methods? We heard that in some countries, even the word ‘research’ is verboten – seen as roughly equivalent to ‘spying’ by suspicious intelligence services. Does closing space change the relative merits of using local v international researchers?

Does ‘thinking and working politically’ have a built-in self-destruct button? Becoming more visible, whether through bigger budgets, or the kind of research we are doing, may be a double-edged sword for TWP. Size and publicity can increase impact and uptake by new organizations and individuals – the start of a movement, perhaps. But increased visibility is likely to draw unwelcome attention from governments who see it as spilling over into interference in national sovereignty – after all (just to be provocative), doesn’t Russia stand accused of ‘thinking and working politically’ in the US elections? More parochially, we heard how increased size brings greater scrutiny from donor HQs, who are more likely to demand short term results, and less likely to tolerate a long phase of thoughtful experimentation. Maybe there’s a good reason why all this stayed below the radar for so long.

Get the right Metaphor: On one level, a two-day gabfest like this one is a group of people chucking multiple ideas, words and metaphors into a common pool. You then see which ones get picked up and echoed in the conversations. I was struck by the uptake and versatility of Donella Meadows’ metaphor of ‘dancing with the system’: it’s difficult to be a good dancer when they keep changing the music. You learn by going to dance classes (mentoring, exchanges, shadowing), not reading a book about dancing. The thing about fragile states is that you have a wider range of dance partners (traditional authorities, armed groups etc). You get the picture. That matters because the metaphor comes with assumptions and ideas attached, in this case the importance of responding to feedback, scepticism about pre-agreed plans etc.

Research and Practice: We had a brilliant mix of researchers, practitioners, and many who are both. Even so, I heard a rumbling undercurrent of discontent: ‘why do these academics take what we instinctively do as good aid workers, then dress it up in such complex language?’

There’s an awkward trade-off: Intellectualize an issue and you keep the donor happy (‘thanks for your framework – it helped satisfy DFID’, said one practitioner), and the researcher’s academic career gets a boost. But even if they learn to speak the new jargon, practitioners feel alienated and disempowered – you’ve taken our work and turned it into something unrecognisable. On the other hand, if practitioners communicate in their own language and vocabulary, they may feel empowered and can spread the word, but DFID doesn’t get it and neither does the academic incentive system.

Getting the balance right is enormously difficult – as Einstein once said, ‘Make things as simple as possiblebut not simpler’. Cheers, Albert.

We’ve all bought into the standard critique of not pushing cookie cutter solutions to different contexts. Context is king. But then, how much context is enough? For some at the more anthropological end of the spectrum, you can never delve deep enough – there is always more to understand about context. But that carries a high cost – nowhere can be compared to anywhere else; everything is unimaginably complicated. Eyes glaze over.

Finally, as Kate Raworth so brilliantly demonstrates in Doughnut Economics, diagrams and toolkits are the way the aid sector frames its thinking and practice. So they are a vital way in which new ideas can be packaged and spread. Unfortunately that can also carry the seeds of its own destruction: as subtle new ideas are dumbed down into checklists and adopted as part of compliance, they kill innovation and creativity, rather than the opposite.

All in all, a pretty stimulating couple of days. And I even got to swim in the Brighton sea before breakfast!

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.

Comments

4 Responses to “What did I learn from 2 days of intense discussions on empowerment and accountability in messy places?”
  1. Lessons from civil society organisations in Pakistan which have surprisingly won space in fragile and conflict environments , while most have lost space is that space has to be grudgingly won in fragile and conflict environments. One very effective way of doing that is to develop a balance between “software” and hardware “programmes”. In a remote village where there is a problem of drinking water, providing funding and technical assistance for a drinking water project will win you space. This can be followed by the softer parts focusing on health and hygiene or women empowerment. Most civil society organisation want to do the latter while avoiding the former because it means getting their hands dirty, or having to develop competencies that take time and energy. If the civil society organisation begins with health and hygiene first in this village there is little hope that it would be given space to operate. There is a need to understand that the lens through which their activities are being watched and scrutinised are different to those which were there previously, These are not development experts who are judging them. Both organisations focusing on women empowerment and human rights will have to balance the hardware and software components which calls for a radical change in the way they operate. Where security agencies restrict space for civil society organisations it does not necessarily mean that the consequences is that everything is bad. There is a mushrooming of civil society organisations in fragile and conflict prone environments. Many of these have little credibility or track record to be proud off. Additional checks while creating problems for good organisation also lead to weeding out of many dubious organisations while the good can always find a way of coming back because of their credibility.

  2. Susan Watkins

    A comment on local accountability: A study of public primary education in rural Malawi found that there are no formal channels of accountability for poor learning either at the national level or the zonal or district level. Applying Pritchett’s “four by four” diagnostic tool for assessing the accountability of basic education systems paints a dire picture: the system cannot be said to be coherent with respect to promoting quality educational outcomes. Nor did we find evidence that the Ministry of Education or the District Education Manager consider themselves to be accountable for the quality of learning. However, collaborations among the Head Teacher, members of the elected chief School Management Committee, and the chief in the school’s area have led to the development of a set of emergent accountability practices at local levels that have the potential to improve the quality of children’s schooling.
    Although in principle primary education is free, parents must pay school fees and fees for things like hiring a security guard. The politics surrounding the extraction, expenditure, and accountability for these fees in local communities surrounding primary schools are extraordinarily complex in the particularity of their details. In broad outline, however, it is clear that no matter how impoverished the community, their usual financial contribution to local schools exceeds that supplied by the state in the form of School Improvement Grants.
    Trust is in short supply in Africa: the practice is to distrust others until you are sure they can be trusted. Particularly heated are the frequent charges that the Head Teacher or the DEM are “eating” [stealing] the money: in general, the Head Teacher is trusted, but there is no trust in the DEM at all. DEMs are assumed to put their own personal interests above the schools for which they have responsibility. Communities also are predisposed to distrust anyone collecting and managing these moneys. They therefore invest considerable time in establishing procedures for communicating between school authorities, local “chiefs” (village headmen and group village headmen), and parents, while monitoring expenditures and related works, as well as seeking restitution of misused funds.
    These politics are likely to be invisible to policy makers at the national level and at the international policy level, as evidenced by the otherwise excellent and authoritative Word Bank study– hence our naming them “micro-politics”. We have been unable to find any definitive accounting of the extent of these fund-raising efforts at either the District or national level in Malawi. Yet, we argue, these politics of funding reveal indigenous processes of accountability that policy-makers, and policy-implementers, at all levels would be well advised to acknowledge.

  3. Susan Watkins & Adam Ashforth

    A comment on accountability: Much of the talk about accountability in PtoP is accountability at the national level. A study of public primary education in rural Malawi, however, found that there are indigenous practices of accountability that should not be ignored.
    In Malawi, applying Pritchett’s “four by four” diagnostic tool for assessing the accountability of basic education systems paints a dire picture: the system cannot be said to be coherent with respect to promoting quality educational outcomes. Nor did we find evidence that the Ministry of Education or the District Education Manager (DEM) consider themselves to be accountable for the quality of learning. However, at the local level, collaborations among the Head Teacher, members of the elected School Management Committee, and the chief in the school’s area have led to the development of a set of emergent accountability practices at local levels that have the potential to improve the quality of children’s schooling.
    Although in principle primary education is free, parents must pay school fees and fees for things like hiring a security guard. The politics surrounding the extraction, expenditure, and accountability for these fees in local communities surrounding primary schools are extraordinarily complex in the particularity of their details.
    Trust is in short supply in Africa: the practice is to distrust others until you are sure they can be trusted. Particularly heated are the frequent charges that the Head Teacher or the DEM are “eating” [stealing] the money: in general, the Head Teacher is trusted, but there is no trust in the DEM at all. DEMs are assumed to put their own personal interests above the schools for which they have responsibility. Communities also are predisposed to distrust anyone collecting and managing these moneys. They therefore invest considerable time in establishing procedures for communicating between school authorities, local “chiefs” (village headmen and group village headmen), and parents, while monitoring expenditures and related works, as well as seeking restitution of misused funds.
    These politics are likely to be invisible to policy makers at the national level and at the international policy level, as evidenced by the otherwise excellent and authoritative Word Bank study– hence our naming them “micro-politics”. We argue that these politics of funding reveal indigenous processes of accountability that policy-makers, and policy-implementers, at all levels would be well advised to acknowledge.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.