Eleven Recommendations for Working on Empowerment and Accountability in messy/dangerous places

February 21, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

The Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme, which I’ve been sporadically involved with, is now digesting the findings of its first 3 years of research, and has identified some important ‘recurring themes’ across its 5 focus countries (Egypt, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria and Pakistan). The result? Eleven Recommendations for Working on Empowerment and Accountability in Fragile, Conflict or Violence-Affected Settings.

It’s only six pages of recommendations to donors seeking to support good stuff in some of the messiest, most dangerous places on earth. But for those for whom even that is tl;dr, here’s some highlights:

Think carefully about language: It has been helpful in some instances to use language that is less politically charged to convey similar messages; for example, to talk about ‘working together’ instead of ‘collective action’, or ‘creating positive change in people’s lives’ instead of ‘empowerment’. It has also helped to be as specific as possible about what is being advanced.’

Forgo the logo and publicity: Visibility can seriously undermine local partners, who are often struggling to survive on at least two fronts: their governments may be suspicious of any foreign funding that is not being channelled directly through them, and, other members of civil society may view foreign funding as a form of soft power being used to advance a Western agenda….. [But] In some contexts, it is a welcome signal to power-holders that local partners are well connected. Local partners are best positioned to advise.’

Do not confuse having a low profile with clandestine information-gathering: In many countries, local activists who take part in poverty reduction efforts can still be prosecuted under national espionage laws if they are seen to be sharing information which touches upon matters of national security.’

Put local partners at the heart of the risk analysis process: ‘Because an event for the A4EA programme was held in a public space in one focus country, it was assumed that it would be safe to hold a similar meeting a year later in the same venue. However, by the day of the event, this public space had become so intensely surveyed by informants, that it was risky for partners to attend. With earlier input from local partners, this could have been avoided.’


‘Support work on safe issues that contributes indirectly to empowerment and accountability: In all five fragile and/or authoritarian contexts, collective mobilisation around women’s rights has provided a pathway through which to raise grievances that go beyond the specific issue. For example, work to raise awareness about sexual harassment in Egypt’s public hospitals has led to wider debate about how to protect staff and patients. In Nigeria, the Bring Back Our Girls movement shifted its campaigning from an exclusive focus on the return of the kidnapped Chibok girls to broader questions about the safety of girls at school in certain parts of the country. In Pakistan, work around women’s political representation paved the way for exposing areas of the political system where greater transparency and accountability are needed.’

‘Support actors embedded in coalitions rather than those acting alone’ [given high levels of volatility]

Think of a ‘multitude of smalls’: [Donors love scale but] in highly fragile contexts, there are instances in which going to scale represents a major survival risk, as higher visibility makes it easier for actors and initiatives to be targeted…. external actors need to be willing to support a multitude of small-scale initiatives.’

‘Develop indicators of success that are appropriate to fragile contexts: In contexts where space is deeply circumscribed and there is a high risk of violence, survival in itself should be taken as a proxy for success. In other contexts, success may be best seen in terms of small-scale gains in people’s ability to demand their rights from local power-holders, or their ability to organise around interests and even just the act of voicing their grievances in a collective safe space. Consequently, the starting point of external actors should be to reflect with local partners on what success looks like.’

‘Be prepared to reconsider the content of the action plan [see last X FP2P posts on Adaptive Management like this one….]

Sunshine is not always the best disinfectant: Naming and shaming is a valued and recognised approach for exposing abuses of power. While this is important for accountability, it can have unintended consequences for vulnerable groups, who could experience retaliation as a result of weak law enforcement or social norms that condone discrimination against these groups.’

Use a differentiated approach when engaging with power-holders: In Myanmar as in Nigeria, local actors often find they need to navigate different layers, levels and functions of security power-holders. While at the national level, the state security apparatus may be seen as ‘the oppressor’, at the local level, it may in fact provide safe passage to dangerous areas controlled by non-state actors; for example, by supplying information on which roads are safe and giving the latest security update in particular communities.’

Maramba Clinic
Logotastic aid in Zambia may not always be a good idea in more dangerous places
Credit: Cordelia Persen (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This is really important stuff and poses a real challenge to donors. If they are serious about working in fragile/conflict-affected settings, they will have to rethink a lot of their standard operating procedures and be prepared to take more/different risks. Alternatively, they could decide that it is just too risky. In that case they will either import Business As Usual approaches that are less effective and may even endanger local partners, or they walk away altogether from the places where extreme poverty will be increasingly concentrated in coming decades. No easy choices, sorry.

February 21, 2020
Duncan Green