What makes a perfect short field trip (and a top village power analysis)?

February 7, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I had a pretty perfect one-week field trip to Tajikistan last week. Two days down in the South, talking to villagers, activists, officials, and our own local staff about the hardware part of our Tajikistan Water and Sanitation (TajWSS) project – working with local government to install water systems under their ownership and local Water User Association control. (I’ve already blogged about the software part – convening and brokering dialogues to sort out the institutional quagmire at national level). The conversations in the back of the car and over meals between visits are as important as the visits themselves.

The initial trip constituted an intensive two day immersion in all things Tajik, through which enough of a picture of Tajik society emerged to enable me to ask more (better) questions on day 3 – a tour of bilateral and multilateral donors back in the capital. Then all of that fed into the final two days – a workshop with staff and partners, scoping out some work on how to build social accountability in the crumbling water sector – funded under the World Bank’s GPSA facility.

How to get the most out of the two days? Stay alert, get some sleep, and talk to as many people as possible. But it pays to focus in the right areas too:

Official structures: These may seem tedious (‘so how does the village government related to the district, and then the province?), but is absolutely crucial. Any serious programme needs to understand the tiers of government and the division of responsibilities between them; their relative accessibility/sympathy with the local population; who listens to who; who jumps when who calls. That means talking to different kinds of people at different points in the food chain – lowly bureaucrats can be particularly insightful.

Village power map: Outsiders often see a power vacuum, or a monoculture, but it never is. Just keep probing. NGOs/civil society organizations may not be the best guide – we tend to only notice organizations that look like us. Wise individuals are good. Understand formal structures of power, but then probe for the informal ones – who does the population trust? What are the islands of mutual trust (social capital)? Where do men or women meet and talk? ‘Who you turn to depends on the issue: for policy you go to the village head, for health problems to the doctor, if you have bad dreams, you go to the mullah.’ Gender differences are crucial – and often difficult to investigate for men. The ideal is to talk to women directly, but what if only men show up to the meetings (which often happened in Tajikistan)? Best to ask the advice of female staff, maybe go with them to talk to women, or use secondary sources to fill out the picture.

‘Soft eyes’ (as advocated by Bunk in The Wire): Be open to noticing stuff in your peripheral vision, not just the extractive ‘I came here to find out about X’. What do people spend money on? How come so many village heads make their living as drivers? What are those new buildings for? Where do you see people hanging out?

Every day throws up a dozen mysteries, and ideas for things to try if you’re working on governance, accountability, water or anything else: test them through conversation and see which fly/get shot down. You’ll end up with a few suggestions worth investigating further.

Back in the Dushanbe workshop, we asked staff and partners to do a village power map, identifying stakeholders and locating them in terms of a) their level of interest in water and accountability (x-axis) and b) their influence over decisions (y-axis). The result is worth taking a look at. The dotted arrows are for possible influencing strategies – how to move particular stakeholders’ level of interest/influence to further the aims of the project. Just how to do that would require lots of further discussion. Fascinating analysis, I hope you’ll agree.

Table reads:

Stakeholder Level of Influence Level of Interest
Head of local Council (Jamoat) – appointed 3 2
Head of Village – chosen by villagers 3 3
School Principal 1 3
Mullah (religious leader) 3 2
Doctor 2 2
Respected village elders 1 3
Women’s Groups 1 3
Community Based Organizations 2 3
State employees 3 1
Educated People 1 3
Relatives (and lovers!) of powerful people 3 1
February 7, 2014
Duncan Green