What have we learned about Empowerment and Accountability in fragile/violent places?

For the past few years I’ve been one of Oxfam’s researchers in the Action for Empowerment and Accountability programme, studying how E&A function in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings (FCVAS) – a more exact category than ‘Fragile/Conflict States’, which recognizes that it’s not always whole countries that are fragile/violent. This week we had a brainstorm to try and distil the overall narrative from the growing pile of research, primarily from Pakistan, Myanmar, Mozambique,  Nigeria and Egypt (here’s a full list of publications so far – A4EA Publications 2016-2018). Here are my entirely selective highlights (A4EA colleagues, feel free to add your own).

Working in FCVAS means thinking about emotions and their impact on activism. In particular, fear – what is the legacy of past atrocities, or the impact of current threats on people’s interest in changing their situation? What are the different kinds of fear and what impact do they have on the likelihood and nature of social and political action? How are trust and social cohesion destroyed and rebuilt? How does agency emerge, or, as A4EA researcher Katia Taela put it, based on her work in Mozambique: ‘how do people come to the point of sitting and deliberating on possible courses of action? We still know very little about how that happens.’

Bring Back Our Girls march

These feel like huge blind spots in a sector still based primarily on assumptions that giving people access to information and channels for action should be enough for them to step up. Instead action emerges from swirling clouds of emotions and relationships – fear, love, rage, trust, hope and resignation, all of them off/below the developmental radar.

You can see these as a kind of ‘enabling environment’ for action –the emotional and normative ecosystem that must be in place before action is likely. For both scholars and practitioners, that means getting new disciplines into the room – psychologists for a start; it also means deepening the growing interest in norm shifts and how to bring them about.

This got me harking back to the paper on donor theories of change that I wrote at the start of A4EA. One of the findings of that paper was:

‘Today, donor thinking on E&A in FCVAS is at something of a crossroads. One current of thinking advocates deeper engagement with context, involving greater analytical skills, and regular analysis of the evolving political, social and economic system; working with non-state actors, sub-national state tiers and informal power; the importance of critical junctures heightening the need for fast feedback and response mechanisms. But the analysis also engenders a good deal of scepticism and caution about the potential for success, so an alternative opinion argues for pulling back to a limited focus on the ‘enabling environment’, principally through transparency and access to information’

At the time, I felt very divided on this – my heart was with the first group, hence all the stuff on this blog about

E&A meets hip hop – Mozambique

thinking and working politically, doing development differently etc etc. But my head was with the second, even though in practice it was advocating a rather laissez faire, hands off approach; and I’m a sceptic on the value of transparency unless loads of other stuff happens.

This week’s conversation pointed to a more exciting alternative – a more ambitious approach to the enabling environment, that targets the emotional and normative pre-conditions for action. So instead of concentrating on changing particular laws and policies, how do we build the enabling conditions for more action to emerge, driven by local people and communities? How do we help them overcome fear, change norms on the value of action, build leadership and confidence? That sounds like an agenda worth pursuing.

A second thought-provoking discussion was where to look for success. The programme thus far has looked at a few well-known past success stories, but when it has tried to follow current events and social movements, success has proven hard to spot. Most activism doesn’t get very far in these settings, it seems.

That surely makes a case for a bit of positive deviance – how do we trawl current events more systematically to find those social movements that are getting somewhere, and see what we can learn from them? We identified at least four ways of doing this:

  1. Networks – aka researchers, practitioners and activists swapping notes on interesting stories they have come across
  2. Ethnography, or its cheaper cousin, Governance Diaries, which can spot micro-levels of action as they emerge in particular communities
  3. Big data: as more and more people go online, can we trawl social media for spikes in the use of words like ‘meeting’ ‘protest’ or ‘I’ve had enough’?
  4. Crowd Sourcing: how about running the activist equivalent of Facebook’s 10 Year Challenge. Paint a picture of your community ten years ago and now, and then see what patterns emerge?

Approaches based on the enabling environment or positive deviance both pose major challenges to business as usual for aid donors and organizations. Predicting and measuring results are much harder, as is proving impact. But the emerging findings of the research suggest we should at least be taking these ideas seriously, if we really want to support empowerment and accountability in messy places.

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5 Responses to “What have we learned about Empowerment and Accountability in fragile/violent places?”
  1. Thanks Duncan- useful summary and some great thoughts in there. Agree entirely that we need to rethink things and support local psychologists and ethnographers- these processes are deeply complex. On targeting emotional and normative pre-conditions- you include a photo of Refila Boy. Music is a fantastic way to do this- rappers in particular are seen as role-models for the younger generation and authentically channel many of the hopes and fears you mention. We’re currently running a music competition for 1st time artists in Nigeria with Chocolate City- one of the biggest music platforms in the country- around participation and the upcoming elections. It is yielding some useful lessons around all of this: http://www.voice2rep.ng and twitter.com/voice2rep Happy to put your colleagues working on Nigeria in touch if helpful.

  2. Hi Duncan, interesting post.
    how do we build the enabling conditions for more action to emerge, driven by local people and communities? How do we help them overcome fear, change norms on the value of action, build leadership and confidence? I’ve been fortunate to engage in learning journeys with a range of organizations that are focusing on these dynamics. For instance, the experience of i-watch in Tunisia captured in this Global Integrity/ TI collaboration. Understanding individual-level decision-making, called for linking macro-level optimism, apathy and pessimism as well as the function and changing forms of social mediation. Intuitively, I-Watch’s work built actions consistent with our abstractions https://www.globalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/From-Grievance-to-Engagement-How-Citizens-Decide-to-Act-Against-Corruption_Reduced.pdf
    There are insights about the dynamics you are interested in, in a series of research and evaluations published or in the pipeline. The insights are there. Sometimes they are “buried” or don’t always make it to the publications. So, please, if the agenda moves forward, take the risk of opening the conversation.
    From this “biased” set of cases: it need not be a zero sum dynamic between public sector and bottom up efforts. Quite the contrary, check out what we learned with and from some PSAM partners pp.32+ http://copsam.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Beyond-Fundamentals-PSAM-paper-dd-August-2017-final-for-posting.pdf
    These lessons are consistent with GPSA’s experience in many projects in the portfolio, TI Tunisia and Georgia’s examples, the explosion of anticorruption action in Brazil ( https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3251441more coming up digging deeper into specific formal and informal networks and efforts)
    So, please, don’t build a required zero-sum dynamic between approaches!
    Some organizations, strategies, operational considerations mean that certain groups are best places at certain junctures to focus on grassroots only processes, but others are better placed to find win-wins. We are all better off, if we don’t delegitimize the alternative that does not work for our current theoretical, normative or practice position.

  3. Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

    I´m all for the 10 year challenge idea! I remember a few years ago Christian Aid´s LAC team went back to visit communities from the Landless Movement in Brazil, to see what progress had been made over 10 and maybe even 20 years. The shifts from precarious land occupation and violence, to settlement, establishing schools, clinics, and vitally, agricultural cooperatives became much clearer over the longer timeframe. The remaining challenges were just as insightful, many of them internal organisational challenges related to a shift from a period of confrontation, to a period of establishing working communities.

  4. Christian Aid is doing long term research again – so the ten year challenge works for us.
    I also really agree with the idea of getting into the psychology (community and political) of how change happens – we scratched the surface of these highly influential power relationships at community levels, across State networks and into the line Ministries, alongside SAVI and other programmes in the Christian Aid Nigeria V2P Doing Accountability Differently research paper (inspired by the work of Fox and Aceron and others in MAVC etc) https://www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-03/Doing-Accountability-Differently-V2P-Governance-January2018.pdf – but its hard to do this research without knowing your way around (as the local programme staff and academics did). The other interesting angle from V2P is overcoming fear and mistrust through faith-based relationships – also an area that deserves more study. Look forward to reading more, thanks!

  5. Regardless of the process utilized, one sustained aspect of inadequacies is the inability to guarantee the length of involvement by governments, organizations and individuals. Physical infrastructures can be built quickly, but their maintenance and repair takes longer to instill. Attitudes and behaviours take at least a couple of generations to be adopted and adapted. Aside from missionaries and the odd non-mish development worker, few stay in the same community long term. Most confirmed funding tends to be for 5 to 15 years max. Many may stay in the same country but change their host organization. Should any conflict arise, people know that outsiders can leave almost at will, which can be acceptable for safety, of course; but the necessary continuity with locals is then broken and it is highly improbable that new staff arriving later can continue at the point where progress had been established.