How can aid agencies help citizens reduce risks and fight for their rights in the middle of a war zone? Draft paper for your comments

May 13, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Over the next few weeks, I will be picking your brains on the drafts of a series of case studies I’ve been working on. These draw from Oxfam’s experience of promoting ‘active citizenship’, broadly defined, and examine the theory of change, results, wider lessons etc. The final studies will be published later this year, after incorporating feedback. After the fantastic response to last week’s post on Ben Ramalingam’s draft complexity paper, I’ve got high hopes for this form of unpaid consultancy crowd-sourcing.

First up, some really interesting work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which offers important lessons for how to promote active citizenship in chaotic and conflict-prone environments. The draft paper (12 pages) is here (DRC final draft April 14), and I would really welcome comments. Here’s a summary:

The work is based on Community Protection Committees (CPCs), made up of six men and six women elected by their communities. A “Women’s Forum” Awareness-raising-exercise-DRC-2012-620_0is also established to focus on protection issues that particularly affect women. In addition, “Change Agents” are elected from further remote villages or locations, in order to expand the geographical impact of the CPC’s work.

Oxfam and partner staff support these groups to help conflict-affected communities identify the main threats they face, and the actions they can take to mitigate them. They facilitate links with local authorities, and provide training to civilians and authorities on legal standards and laws relating to protection issues, as well as providing orientation to service providers.

There are many similarities in how men and women assess their overall insecurity, but the causes of insecurity and the type of threats they face – abduction, murder, arbitrary arrest, sexual violence, illegal checkpoints, forced labour – are often different.

Men are more at risk of being killed, tortured or abducted, used for forced labour, or imprisoned. We are frequently told that women are less likely than men to be abducted or killed when they go to the fields, but they are at high risk of rape – which often leads to rejection by their husbands.

The impacts of such protection programmes are hard to measure due to the multiple factors affecting the situation and the difficulty in identifying any form of causal chain. However, feedback from communities, including statistical data, has identified some tangible positive changes.

Some stories:

In the Kivus, a number of committees said their main concern was the illegal roadblocks, where illegal ‘taxes’ to pass are demanded,  men experience physical assault and women risk assault or rape. One protection committee negotiated the removal of 5 out of 7 of these checkpoints.

In the Hauts Plateaux of Uvira, people reported that there had been  an increase in girls enrolling in school  following awareness raising on women’s rights by local protection structures, and that they were treated more equally to boys. A woman’s group described how their confidence to mediate had reduced domestic violence: ‘If there are problems in the home, we go and get one or two men who are better behaved, who understand how to live with a woman. And the men talk to the husband while we talk to the wife, to sensitise them both.

Theory of Change: The core hypothesis underpinning the programme is that citizen action can improve men and women’s situation, specifically through improving accountability even in unpredictable and dangerous contexts such as those in eastern DRC. However, the thinking goes further in two important directions. Firstly, the project is clear that ‘gender’ is not synonymous with ‘women’: empowering women means including and empowering men too.

20120326-mpati-protection-team-training-71235-200Secondly, explicitly building the social contract between citizen and state in such high risk environments cannot be done through confrontation, which would carry unacceptably high risks for activists. Instead, the project suggests different approaches to cooperation. For instance, when a local State representative was exploiting displaced people (IDPs) to dig latrines or work the fields without pay, the local CPC invited him to meetings alongside IDP representatives, so that they could get used to talking directly with one another, and held a training session for both (plus members of the local community) on the guiding principles on the protection of IDPs. The training was a way of getting the message across without the local official losing face.

What is interesting is that this approach, which could be criticized as naive or over-optimistic, has produced results.

Wider Lessons?

Programmes for Complex Systems: The programme’s design allows it to adapt to a highly fluid and unpredictable environment – in other words, a complex system. According to Richard Nunn, Oxfam’s regional protection adviser, ‘It’s an approach, rather than a prescribed programme, so allows communities to adapt to events – it focuses on shifting local dynamics and feeds off that. It builds adaptive capacity, much like climate change adaptation work.’

By not tying the project to a clear “sector”, the programme was able to be flexible and adapt to fit the context, guided by what people said worked. By cultivating a culture of dialogue as opposed to confrontation, both sides have begun to understand one another, finding ways to generate solutions together.  In chaotic and complex environments, working on relationships may be more feasible than trying to target specific outcomes.

A programme can only respond in this way if it promotes continuous self-reflection among programme and partner staff and encourages constructive criticism, leading to a series of adaptive course corrections in response to the shifting tides of violence and politics..

Local Partners and Staff: The gains made by the project depend very significantly on community ownership and local authority acceptance of its content and action. The single most important factor in this is probably having local partners and staff who are fully engaged with communities. Community membership has shown itself to be of much greater benefit here than legal knowledge or qualifications.

Other key success factors include

• Acknowledging the abuses and violence perpetrated against men as well as women, their specific needs for care and support, and the positive role they play in supporting and representing their communities.

• Establishing a strong women’s forum that provides a safe space for women to discuss problems, and where they can gain confidence in a supportive environment.

• Promoting discussion about how rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence affect whole communities.

• Developing a code of conduct for each committee and thereby creating a safe space for men and women to discuss gender issues together.

• The community-led nature of the programme allows men and women to address immediate, short-term protection needs as a priority, but also longer-term barriers to women’s rights and without these being seen as a threat to men.

• Celebrating ‘small victories’ that are, after all, significant and life-changing for the individual (or individuals) involved.

Does this make sense? What more did you want to know? What’s missing? Over to you.

May 13, 2014
Duncan Green