What does Governance look like ‘from below’?: great methodology; snappy format; fascinating findings; exemplary writing – please read.

January 11, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

The Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme (covered regularly on this blog) is drawing to a close in a welter of research papers summarizing their findings. I was particularly taken with the one from the ‘Governance at the Margins’ team, both because of the format and the content. Here’s the link (sorry, forgot it in first version of this post. Thanks John Gaventa and Meera Mehta for spotting!)

On format: it’s grazeable (is that a word?) – you can hop to each of its 5 main findings (fig 1) and from there jump straight to what interests you, e.g. research, examples or practice (fig 2). I’d be interested to know what research has been done to see if people retain more from these kinds of formats, compared to old-fashioned linear reports (or podcasts or videos, for that matter).

On content, it’s the latest iteration of the Governance Diaries approach, for which I am determined to claim a bit of credit, as I first suggested the idea to Anu Joshi over a beer in a Yangon restaurant in 2016. But since then, it’s been IDS, Oxfam and others that have turned it into something that I think is a really significant addition to development research methods (I found myself suggesting it to a team working with the Dutch government only last week).

Findings of research
Fig 1

Back to the paper. Some background:

Theme icons used in the paper
Fig 2

‘What does governance look like ‘from below’ – from the perspectives of poor and marginalised households? How do patterns of conflict affect that? These were the questions at the heart of the Governance at the Margins research project.

Over three years from 2017-2020 we worked to explore this through in-depth study in conflict-affected areas of Mozambique, Myanmar and Pakistan. Our research teams interviewed the same people regularly over that time, finding out how they resolved problems and interacted with authorities.

Here we connect what we found to the realities and complexities of development practice. We draw on the input of 20 experienced practitioners working in bilateral and multilateral development agencies and international NGOs.’

For a flavour, I’ll give you the title and exemplary first paras of the five main findings.

Multiple and diverse authorities matter for people’s decision-making and governance needs. These extend beyond the official government and are both formal and informal.

Many programmes and policies over-assume the importance of the government as the primary authority in people’s lives, and don’t engage with the diversity of actors and institutions that are taking real decisions that affect people, or indeed the messy ways in which these can overlap. Whilst these other authorities are sometimes acknowledged and engaged with in grassroots development practice, they are too often disregarded or rendered invisible in programme and policy frameworks.

Intermediaries are crucial to how governance happens. They work as the ‘navigators’ of diverse sources of authority, work across formal and informal local governance systems, and in some cases exercise significant authority themselves as ‘deciders’.

Many development programmes and policies assume that people can approach and connect with public services and officials themselves. We found it is more common that these contacts are mediated by key individuals. This challenges assumptions about how governance and services work in practice. The informal or unofficial nature of these roles, coupled with the fact that those playing them are sometimes unusual governance actors, means that despite practitioners often knowing how important they are, they are frequently missed out when programmes map what structures are in place and who is important.

Communities are governed through diverse local networks. ‘Standard’ local governance structures rarely apply, and there can be a lot of variation even within one region.

Development programmes and policies too often assume that there is one system of governance or decision-making across wide territories. There is also often an assumption that a linear hierarchy through national, regional and local governance institutions means that policy is adopted and implemented in the same way across those territories. That isn’t how real local governance works in our research locations. Many practitioners are very aware of this, but end up working with frameworks that aren’t flexible or nuanced enough to respond to it.

Self-provision and low expectations are common. People (including intermediaries) are very often incentivised to resolve things locally rather than involving higher level public authorities or duty-bearers.

Assuming a preference for state-run or centrally managed services and decision-making may not be in keeping with community views and practices and may be premised on a demand for service provision that doesn’t exist at a local level. This has a range of implications for public policy and development programmes.

Women typically need to engage with local patriarchal power structures. Despite this, women intermediaries are frequently viewed as successful.

The fact that women very often need to engage with or rely on men who hold greater power within both formal and informal governance structures is not particularly surprising. However, it is important to recognise explicitly if public policy or development programmes expect women to be able to access services or entitlements unaided or on an equal basis to men.

And the concluding six dilemmas:

  • Do we work ‘with the grain’ or challenge it – and at what costs for rights-based principles?
  • What does this complexity of governance actors and systems mean for where we focus our efforts?
  • How do we weigh up the risks around engaging in politics?
  • What does this mean for working at scale?
  • Supporting plurality or strengthening convergence? [of non state v state authorities]
  • Who benefits from the status quo? [Supporting informal solutions may be perpetuating bad guys in power.]’

Click through if you want to see examples, and implications for aid practitioners. It really is very good.

January 11, 2022
Duncan Green