Empowerment and Accountability in Messy Places: what’s the latest?

October 19, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Spent a fascinating two days at IDS last week taking stock of year one of a 5 year research programme: Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA). The aim is to understand how social and political action takes place in ‘Fragile, Conflict, Violence Affected Settings’ (FCVS) and the implications for ‘external actors’ (donors, INGOs etc, but the term always makes me think of Hollywood). The research is now getting started in the case study countries: Egypt, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria and Pakistan and, although it’s early days, some really interesting and important findings are starting to emerge.

So what, if anything, is different about the way change happens in FCVS? My overall conclusion is that to understand these places, thinking about complex systems and power, broadly defined, is if anything even more necessary than in more stable settings. As for what the aid business can do, the Doing Development Differently/Adaptive Programming agenda is definitely a good starting point, but with some intriguing and important additions/differences.

First the system. In FCVS, the nation state is weaker, and into that vacuum step a whole range of other political players: sub-national state authorities, international aid organizations, the private sector, non-state actors like traditional authorities, armed organizations and militias, faith groups and civil society organizations.

To grasp what is happening in these messy places you need to set aside assumptions drawn from more stable places, for example on how states and citizens interact. One of the most exciting A4EA projects is developing ‘governance diaries’ in Myanmar, Pakistan and Mozambique. Local researchers interview the same families over a number of months to build up a picture of ‘bottom-up governance’ – how do people fix the problems that crop up? Who do they turn to for help? What happens next? Anu Joshi of IDS has promised to write something for the blog on how the diaries project is developing.

When so many traditional aid approaches have failed in the past, there’s a particularly strong case for looking for ‘positive deviance’ – observe the system to try and spot where it has already found solutions (total or partial) to whatever it is you are concerned about – water, environment, women’s rights etc, and then see if such outliers can be encouraged to spread.

In contexts of insecurity and fear, social norms and levels of trust become more prominent: minor shifts (eg to feeling a bit safer) in attitudes and behaviours may have a greater and more lasting effect on wellbeing than the more tangible outcomes (crops, jobs, access to services) that are typically targeted by the aid business, but can easily be swept away in the instability that characterises FCVS.

So the ‘power and systems approach’ I set out in How Change Happens applies x10 in these places. For external actors, linear planning is doomed to failure – you’re only as good as your feedback loops and ability to adapt. But there are some important additions:

Things aren’t necessarily getting better: comparing our discussion with the first meeting of the researchers a year ago, we were struck by the relative optimism of 2016. Now we’re looking at what forms of social and political action are suited to a political downturn and climate of fear – a lot less is happening in public; people are spending more time on getting the framing and messages right so as not to trigger a backlash; where formal CSOs are being closed down, we need to be alert to other players expanding into the political space they leave behind. And it affects the way research can happen: A4EA projects in several countries can no longer invite media to discuss their findings – not great for your efforts to get your findings out into public debate.

The reputation of the Aid business is increasingly toxic in many places, often partly down to the West’s other foreign policy activities, such as counter-terrorism or pressure on human rights: we heard about security services coming in and saying ‘make sure there are no Americans at the meeting’; a case study of the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria was struck by its insistence that it receives not a single cent of funding from overseas.

Risk and Fear: even more than in other settings, external actors need to be acutely aware that the lives of their partners, staff and communities could be at risk if they do stupid stuff. This is not a sandpit; people are not lab rats. But also in a field dominated by political science and economics, how well do we understand fear, trust – the psychology at personal level of taking/not taking action?

There were also interestingly mixed messages on the gender dimensions of social and political action in FCVS. On the one hand the climate of fear can make doing women’s rights work much harder and more dangerous; on the other, conflict can disrupt patterns of gender oppression (women in Pakistani refugee camps suddenly find themselves more able to earn or leave the home) and activists can portray ‘women’s issues’ as less threatening to macho security forces and be allowed to carry on when other types of activism are being stomped on – I was reminded of the way ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ groups in 1980s Argentina and Guatemala were able to turn military governments’ rhetorical commitment to the sanctity of the family into space for political action.

These initial findings are fascinating themselves, but also because the future of the aid business lies increasingly in FCVS. That’s where poor people will be concentrated, and that’s where traditional aid recipes seem to be least effective. The research funding piling into projects like A4EA and CPAID (I’ll be attending a similar event on the latter next week) is in part a consequence of that realization.