Micro, bottom-up research can shed new light on power and politics in fragile places, but it’s REALLY difficult!

July 22, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Another intense couple of days hearing back from the 30 or so researchers in the Action for Empowerment and Accountability research consortium, as it approaches the end of its programme. I was returning after a couple of years’ absence (I did some work on adaptive management in an earlier phase) and it was great to hear where people had got to.

The impact of ‘research from below’

My overall impression is captured in the blog title. The speciality of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which runs the research consortium, is to combine a good grasp of theory with a commitment to deep, bottom-up listening and participation. ‘Power and politics from below’, in the words of Anu Joshi. This has produced some fascinating findings.


In Mozambique, it showed the effect of ‘micro-political action’ – protests of just a couple of dozen people in some cases – in changing lives and creating a sense of agency and possibility.

In Pakistan, it showed the importance for women’s activism of ‘male gatekeeping’, which has proved remarkably resilient, even when other aspects of women’s lives (jobs, education) have improved. Even educated, employed women must seek male permission for key activities, because men continue to control key resources (time, transport, communications). Women’s continued fear and insecurity in public spaces pushes them even more towards those gatekeepers. Autonomy is seldom an option.

Norms and Men's enabling actions

The researches came up with a potentially important typology that could help donors and activists understand when collaborating with such gatekeepers is/isn’t necessary for a given activity. Original source here.

A fascinating programme of research explores energy protests, which kick off when fuel/transport/electricity prices suddenly rocket. These have occurred in many countries because governments are under intense pressure to remove fossil subsidies, so the protests are easily portrayed by donors and outsiders as essentially reactionary responses to unavoidable climate action (as well as getting rid of subsidies that overall are overwhelmingly pro-rich). That’s not how they look from the bottom up – fuel subsidies are one of the few tangible benefits poor people get from the state, and protests when they are suddenly taken away (often with little or no compensation) have an important impact on the social contract. We need to understand them in their own right, for example why/how they differ from food protests – they seem to erupt more rapidly and be more violent.

Challenging binaries

IDS likes nothing more than to blur a boundary, and A4EA has done a fair bit of that. In Pakistan, women leaders get involved in protests with ‘one eye on formal politics’, then move across when conditions permit. If there’s a crackdown in formal politics, they revert back to social activism.

Similarly in the home, it’s not just about women’s personal empowerment increasing their ability to take part in social and political action; the reverse is true – being recognized as a political player leads to better treatment in the household.

But perhaps the biggest blurring is that not much of what actually goes on in the fight for accountability is direct. People seldom storm the winter palace (and if they do, they’re not sure what to do next). Instead, everything is mediated by gatekeepers and ‘intermediaries’ – a network identified by the wonderful governance diaries work as those individuals (retired civil servants, faith leaders, rich local, almost invariably men) who poor people turn to to intervene with the authorities when they need something. If donors want to promote social accountability, they need to understand that ecosystem of intermediaries far better (and not try and turn them into a project, by the way).

Diaries show the institutions that matter: state; God; hospital; family; NGO; healer; Prophet

Paradigms and Priors are sticky

Some caveats. Despite the researchers’ best efforts, some ways of thinking just keep bouncing back

  • State centrism
  • Conflating ‘civil society’ with organized ‘civil society organizations’

Both of these can lead to artificial and intellectual dead ends if they create blinkers to what is actually going on in parts of the world where the state, CSOs and large private firms are absent, and instead power lies in the hands of traditional leaders, faith organizations, secret societies or armed groups – the kind of terrain that Centre for Public Authority in International Development at the LSE has tried to illuminate.

Maybe the problem is with the very word ‘accountability’ in the A4EA title – it’s hard to thihnk about accountability without defaulting to some rights-based notion of ‘rights holders’ and ‘duty bearers’, with the latter role essentially played by the state. We could try and divorce our understanding of accountability from the state (power is power, whoever holds it), but it does seem hard to get that to stick in people’s heads. Bit late to rename the project, unfortunately.


Bring back our girls
Bring Back Our Girls – one of the A4EA Case Studies

Some gaps are also remarkably hard to fill. We’re still not really clear what is unique about ‘fragile and conflict settings’ compared to more stable places, or even what the name really means. Isn’t everywhere a bit fragile? Isn’t conflict of some kind universal? Even if you accept that both concepts are a spectrum rather than a binary, the pressures of research push you towards the safe end (easier to get to, less risky, people more ready to talk), as we found in our adaptive management work.

I could say lots more. It’s almost required for speakers to blow smoke and say what a ‘rich conversation’ this has been, but this one genuinely was. Will try and keep you posted as the project starts churning out its findings.

And here’s my post on last year’s equivalent get together, with links to lots of previous A4EA-related posts.

July 22, 2021
Duncan Green