Some Exciting Progress on Governance Diaries

September 4, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

One of the things I do on this blog is float random ideas for how the aid sector could do things differently. I’m under no illusions that anyone is actually listening. The best I can hope for is usually that a couple of people express mild interest in an idea, before it floats off into the abyss to join all those other forgotten/ignored brainwaves.

So imagine my excitement when one idea – Governance Diaries – actually got somewhere, thanks to the enterprise of Anu Joshi and colleagues at IDS and Oxfam.

As with many ideas, I suspect, this one came up in a bar, in Yangon in September 2016. Anu and I were mulling over research ideas in Fragile, Conflict and Violence Affected Settings (FCVAS) for the new IDS-led research program, Action for Empowerment and Accountability, in which Oxfam is a partner. As we were chatting, I remembered a book that had a big impact on me, Portfolios of the Poor, which sent researchers to interview the same families every couple of weeks for a year, building trust and slowly uncovering a hitherto unknown ecosystem of financial management. Why not apply the same approach to other issues, like governance? I blogged about it, and then moved on.

Not so Anu, who is one of those entrepreneurial academics who spots ideas and makes them happen. Two years on, she is managing a 3 country governance diary programme, which will shortly start publishing country case studies and methodology papers. In each of them, local researchers are interviewing a number of families every month over a period of 6-12 months. I talked to some of the lead researchers to get a sense of how the work is evolving.

We mainly talked about methodologies, not findings, because they are still processing the interviews (but they did mention a few initial discoveries – see bottom of this blog). Some headlines:

The link to fragility and conflict: Diaries seem particularly well suited to messy places like FCVAS. Why? Partly because they are a cheaper, less risky alternative to standard ethnography. Instead of sending in some foreign anthropology PhD, Diaries work with local students and academics who already speak the language and enjoy a degree of trust in the community. They can come and go (handy if the security situation fluctuates) and are generally less obvious than foreigners.

But that doesn’t mean that diaries are risk free (which is partly why I’m not going to give the names of the countries). In all three, governments increasingly equate ‘research’ with ‘opposition’. ‘At the beginning, the local leaders used to follow us, and want to sit in on the interviews to know what we were asking about. So we started interviewing them to socialize the research, asking them what questions we should be asking.’

Due to concerns about risk, initial ideas of asking people to keep their own diaries had to be abandoned – not a good idea to have such things lying around the house.

Not one, but a basket of methods: The questions and methods have evolved over time, not least because both researchers and families got bored with repetition. Most recently, researchers have introduced visual prompts and institutional mapping, asking people to draw on sand or write on cardboard to show the institutions they turn to when they need to resolve a problem. All of the countries are using Nvivo, while in one, Oxfam is also using Sensemaker. There is lots of data to analyse – hundreds of interviews, interview transcripts and researcher notes in a range of languages.

It takes time: The researchers agree that it takes 3 or 4 rounds of interviews, before everyone relaxes and starts opening up. OMG. How many research exercises go back to the same people more than once or twice?

There’s a whole methodology required to work successfully with local researchers: They have local

knowledge and the trust of the interviewees, but that has its downsides:

‘They take a lot of things for granted, because they’re from there. We have to ask local researchers to imagine they’ve just arrived from Mars and need to observe and take notes on everything. In one area, they were interviewing a widow. They noticed she had bread and water and said. ‘oh no, I wasn’t eating it, I was just looking after it’. I asked them why they wrote it down, and they said in this area if you’re poor, you eat bread with water, so she was trying to hide her poverty.’

And a taste of some of the findings?

There are a multitude of public authorities: ‘In one place, people (due to a natural resource project) set up a committee that became a community-based organisation. This is becoming a kind of boss of the area – instead of going to the state, or the natural resource companies, everyone goes straight to the committee. One of the local chiefs was replaced because of the noise created by the committee – it has links to the provincial government, two levels higher up, and uses Facebook and social networks.’

Diaries expose previously unknown conflicts: In the same location, ‘We wanted to compare resettled families with a control site of families who were there before: one of the big surprises was that resettled families are better off. Tension is now emerging between the two groups. The original inhabitants see the electricity lines going straight past their houses to the resettlement. People have a saying for that – why have we been bypassed?’

Debt levels can be extreme and complex: in one household where the husband died, they owed money, so his widow repaid the loan by ‘giving’ her eldest (12 year old) son to the lender as a servant. Most debts seem to be with relatives or kin groups. And the people who lend the money know they won’t be able to repay, but do so anyway due to social bonds – a form of informal social protection. ‘They are your safety net, the place where you go to when things go wrong.’

Health care is erratic: ‘Poor people don’t go to the same person more than once. We’re not sure why – maybe they can only afford to go private once, or they change because the last person didn’t work, so they try something else.

Can’t wait to read the full findings as they emerge, and promise to link here when they do

September 4, 2018
Duncan Green