What have we learned from four years’ research into empowerment and accountability in fragile/violent settings?

I’m still reeling from my first serious zoomarathon – 12 hours on zoom over 3 days (plus prep), with 50 researchers around the world from the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) consortium.

I can report back that unfortunately, my mood swings are much the same as in conferences (but with added anxiety/grumpiness from struggling to manage combo of four different tech platforms – Zoom, Miro, Slido and Teams). But at least on Zoom you can turn your camera off and wander about the room/chew the carpet if it all gets too much.

A4EA is approaching its final year, so we were taking stock. It is churning out research – 70 papers and counting, plus lots of non-academic output (stuff like this blog) and even an animation summing up the findings of the first few years. so that was no easy task (see bottom of this post for some previous posts on its work). Some impressions (plus questions we still need to ask):

The bits of research I got most excited about were the ones that told me something a bit new, surprising or brave (there’s a separate discussion on the value of research that confirms what we already thought, but let’s park that for now). Top of my list:

The importance of intermediaries: A4EA identified that, whether through fear or lack of trust or access, truly marginalized people almost never try and resolve their problems by talking directly to the authorities. Instead they approach a range of intermediaries – elders, retired officials, religious leaders or local politicians. These in turn try to resolve the problem at the most local level possible – speed often takes precedence over justice for poor people choosing who to turn to. The intermediaries are unpaid (corruption klaxon?), and often dynastic – they are the sons (and sometimes daughters) of previous intermediaries. There is a huge research agenda here, which A4EA is just starting – When are intermediaries genuine brokers; when are they predators? What is their link with those in power? Can poor families shop around, introducing some kind of accountability to the process?

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

Diaries rock: The work on governance diaries continues to impress – it identified the importance of intermediaries in resolving disputes and promptly set up a diary process with intermediaries themselves. In some places, it was able to pivot to some really interesting work on Covid diaries. They create a bottom-up way to check what is really going on and spot issues and actors that have been missed by other research, and to follow up interesting cases/stories or insights in real time (as with the intermediaries). Why not expand them to diaries of street level bureaucrats, women or youth leaders, religious leaders, donors and other players? 28 page working paper on the diaries approach here.

Turning the power lens on the good guys: Progressive research (such as A4EA) often uses power analysis to dissect the forces behind the status quo, but gives a pass to social movements and ‘the community’. But here we had researchers exploring whether empowerment is necessarily positive sum, or sometimes zero sum (one group’s empowerment disempowers others). What is the hierarchy of protest movements – who are the foot soldiers, who the captains (with apologies for military metaphor)? What role do class connections play in protecting the leaders of women’s movements? If protests manage to block the removal of fuel subsidies, who really wins and loses?

Norms: Particularly in A4EA’s excellent focus on gender and accountability, the importance of norms keeps coming up, but I started getting frustrated with the vagueness of the concept. Some norms are resilient – in one conflict-affected area of Myanmar, women leadership emerged partly because speaking out in public was just too dangerous for men. But as soon as the danger receded, men reasserted their control. Other norms seem to be morphing rapidly in response to issues like access to education or urbanization. Building on Christina Bicchieri’s distinction between moral and social norms, how can we better unpack the concept? Who are the ‘norm intermediaries’ who determine how norms are reproduced or changed?

Bring Back Our Girls – one of the A4EA Case Studies

The gulf between empowerment and accountability: The research often found‘a fleeting sense of agency during and immediately after protests’ – protesters were inspired by taking action, and winning apparent victories. But often the state backtracks once the people have left the streets, and nothing much seems to change. In other cases, the better-off groups captured the benefits and then stood down the protesters. Energy-related protests have failed to create much of a legacy in terms of organization. But sometimes protests create longer term impacts – fables and narratives that inspire future action, some kind of cumulative sense of possibility – what determines their legacy? How about taking the diaries approach properly longitudinal – a 10 or 20 year study of the cumulative impact of protest movements on protesters themselves, wider society, norms and the politics of accountability?

A4EA’s strength is its country teams in Nigeria, Myanmar, Mozambique and Pakistan, with top national institutions, activists, donors and researchers driving the work. But that strong foundation also creates a challenge – beyond nuanced, country-specific analysis, how much effort do we put into identifying overall patterns and narratives beyond the ‘listicles’ in the links below? By doing so, could we end up downplaying the importance of local context? But I don’t think we have a choice in the last year of the project – if the research is to ‘cut through’ outside its immediate academic circles, it needs to come up with a product – a big new idea or term, a unique graphic, something that will stick in people’s heads. We aren’t there yet, so need to spend time and energy on it.

This is just a taster – there was lots more going on that I don’t have room for in this post, but I will be back with more as the programmes synthesizes its findings.

Past posts on A4EA:

Update on Governance Diaries and a methodology post

Feet on the ground allowed a good initial take on impact of Covid

For donors, Eleven Recommendations for Working on Empowerment and Accountability in Fragile, Conflict or Violence-Affected Settings.

For wider readership, 8 key Messages on Promoting Empowerment and Accountability in Messy Places

Self Reliance, Hip Hop, Resistance and Weapons of the Weak: do we need to rethink Empowerment?

Are fuel riots the food riots of the 21st century?

At a country level:

How Aid has helped Pakistan’s Women’s Movement achieve Political Breakthroughs

Bring Back our Girls in Nigeria

Thanks to John Gaventa, Anu Joshi and Emilie Wilson for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

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8 Responses to “What have we learned from four years’ research into empowerment and accountability in fragile/violent settings?”
  1. Duncan, when you suggest the research needs to ‘cut through’ outside its immediate academic circles, do you mean in the North (or countries around the North Atlantic)? Or do you mean in Nigeria, Myanmar, Mozambique and Pakistan? And what would cutting through entail in practice? Changes in practice of NGOs, funders, community groups?

    • Duncan Green

      Fair point Ajoy, I fear I was thinking in the old way, of ‘cut through’ with northern aid organizations and wider academia. The research teams are so strong in the four countries that I suspect cut through at that level will come anyway to some extent from their networks and relationships, but if you want to reach the wider policy making and academic community in, say, Nigeria or Pakistan, doesn’t it help just as much to have a clear message and ‘product’? Wd be interested in your thoughts

  2. Sue Cant

    Great update, but just to note that intermediaries are not that new – Fletcher Tembo identified these ‘interlocutors’ quite a while ago. There is a big gap in this research program in not including DRC where a lot of innovative work is progressing despite the context.

  3. Masood Ul Mulk

    I find that in many of the fragile and conflict environments where accountability and empowerment programmes are implement do not have the respect, function and credibility that literature often claims for them. Communities without water, electricity, a decent school or health center are being taught how to influence the government through organisation and advocacy. Well if the government was capable of being influenced it would have happened long time ago. These areas are too remote and too marginal in terms of politics to get the attenion even if they make a lot of noise. NGOs descending into these villages, finding a group of people who would readily join their programme, as they do with every such programme that comes up, and help them fill up their the log frames doesn’t add to empowerment although the press may be full with statements and there may be plenty of seminars but this only derives derision. Why cannot empowerment and advocacy programmes be built around actual problems in these locations and make a concrete difference in the lives to the people they are working with. In one of the areas I work in with communities I find that every community group of 30 or 35 has 25 people carrying cards as representative of the press, a result of empowerment programmes. Nothing ever gets done because all you now get is blackmailing to cut corners in everything you do by these new powerful people. We need to look at the negative impacts of what we do a great deal. Good activists in communities who are willing to give time and sacrifice for the commu!!nity end up as hijackers!!

  4. David

    Agree – I’ve half followed this research because it should be relevant for my work, but every time I’ve read a blog post or been to a presentation I’ve just thought ‘meh’. Everything feels a bit bland and I don’t feel like I’m learning anything new.