The Hydrology of Policy

10/09/2014

picture of Carlos CortezCarlos Cortez

As we move into a period of post-2015 ‘stock-taking’ in advance of the UNGA at the end of September, Participate partners have been critically reflecting on the participatory approaches they have employed in attempts to shift power in policymaking – including the engagement with the post-2015 process. This blog introduces the ‘hydrology of policy’ to help illustrate the complex process of bringing research into policy influencing.

Knowledge generated by people living in poverty and marginalisation flows across different influencing levels, feeds into different spaces, leading to potential changes in discourse (and sometimes practice) and in policy that revert to affect the lived reality of people on the ground. But this is not a one way process: changing discourse can open new spaces, and changes in practice can influence discourse. Local level changes can proliferate ‘horizontally’ to other communities; and likewise ‘vertically’ these changes can influence what happens at the national or global level. This can be understood as the ‘hydrology of policy’ (see illustration below).

IDS_Anthology_ Hydrology of policy

The ‘hydrology of policy’ shows how the ideas, needs, proposals for change and experiences from the poorest and most marginalised people can be represented as the water that starts from springs in the local isolated places where they live, flowing into little streams. These streams of ideas, needs, proposals and experiences join to create rivers that feed the big river that represents the global debate on the post-2015 themes. Most of the decisions are taken in places where marginalised voices are hardly heard, because the springs are far away from where the big river joins the sea. From the illustration it is clear that the rivers go through a winding route, with obstacles such as dams along the way that limit and control the flow of the water. This represents the challenges faced while trying to bring the voices of the poor and marginalised to the place where the decisions are taken. Often they only reach after an ‘evaporation’ in which their perspectives on the change they want has almost disappeared and are little considered by the decision-makers.

The results of the global debate are represented as clouds which depict the general discourse and practice of ‘development’ from the perspective of the decision-makers. The clouds move towards land and arrive back at the source of the spring as a ‘rain’ of projects, programmes or simple promises from government and social actors. As in the real world, rain can be light, causing drought, or can be heavy, like a storm, in both cases not responsive to the poorest and marginalised.

Bringing research into policy influencing at multiple levels is a complex process, and engaging across different levels to achieve changes in development that prioritise the poorest and most marginalised people is not without challenges. Demand for change needs to happen at every level of the system – from local to global and global back to local.

This blog is an edited version of Carlos’ contribution to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’.

 Dr Carlos Cortez is a member of the Participatory Research Group and is based at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico (UAM-X).

 


Perverse Payment by Results: frogs in a pot and straitjackets for obstacle courses

03/09/2014

Robert ChambersRobert_Chambers200

Perverse  adj. deliberately deviating from what is regarded as normal, good, or proper (Collins English Dictionary)

The Department for International Development (DFID) claims to be a world leader in developing results-based aid, and now Payment by Results (PbR).  PbR means that recipients will have to show results before they are paid. It will help to share risk, we are told, and radically re-balance accountability.  It makes sense for DFID ‘to take a tougher, more business-like approach by requiring results up front before payment is made.  Better sharing of risk in this way will drive value for money as partners become more incentivised to deliver’.

The drift of the past two decades away from participation and towards top-down controls and upwards accountability has been continuous and gradual, a heating of the water in the pot. The logframe, results-based management, upwards accountability, delivering value for money, business cases… these are motherhood and apple pie words with their mantras and procedures.  They have to be good.  More of them has to be better.  But what has been happening to the frogs in the pot as these procedures intensify and heat it up?

Inside the DFID pot, am I right? More managers have been recruited who have no experience of development. Total staff numbers have been reduced while budgets have increased! (Before he became Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell said in public on two separate occasions at the University of Sussex that to do this would be ‘ridiculous’). But it is worse than this.  The staff to funds ratio has declined while in the name of accountability and value for money internal procedures have become more and more laborious and staff intensive.  Not least of these is making the business case for a project, which is much the same time-consuming effort for £500,000 as for £50 million, 100 times as much.  So staff are more tied than ever to their headquarters and offices, have less and less time for ‘the field’ and actually grounding and learning the truth for themselves of what is going on, at a time when aid is going out in bigger dollops.  Value for money? The DFID frogs in the heating pot have forgotten (or the recent tadpoles never knew) what it used to be like. The frogs already there socialise them into acceptance. And how can they jump out?  They need the water – work, careers, and (unspoken) the power that comes with increasingly stringent upwards accountability.

Realities beyond the pot

And outside the DFID pot, the recipients or would-be recipients are facing obstacle courses of complexity, emergence and unpredictability.  This applies markedly with NGOs and with research – NGOs work in highly risk-prone environments, research would not be needed if the results were known – but  DFID funding has increasingly become a dysfunctional demoralising nightmare with escalating risks and transaction costs. Goals and targets have become more rigid, measurement has taken over from judgement, linear Newtonian thinking and action denies and obliterates non-linear realities, motivation has to be ‘incentivised’ by carrots and now with PbR the sticks have no carrots at all, relationships have become distant, trust, discretion and flexibility have gone out of the window and reporting becomes more of a misleading nightmare.  And as aid monies go in larger lumps to consortia so transaction costs are transferred from inside to outside DFID, and unsuccessful bidders suffer disappointment, distress and costs…  Am I wrong?  I invite rebuttal.  Let’s be evidence-based.

Take rural sanitation.  We have learnt a lot in the last decade:  the top-down building of toilets for people doesn’t work as CLTS (Community-Led Total Sanitation) has shown – people have to want to end open defecation, have to want toilets, and have to use them, keep them clean, and maintain and improve them; the astonishing spread of CLTS in African countries and elsewhere and its adoption by over 20 governments is evidence enough – despite problems common to all programmes that go to scale it is dramatically more cost-effective than earlier approaches, and this is well known in DFID.  But we all know that with good and enduring participation, you cannot predict speed.  Perversely there are evidently now targets, paid by results, for toilets.  Forced to achieve targets for payment after results, organisations may have to choose: abandon participation and do what they know won’t work, or go bankrupt, or lie (well, massage facts, gloss realities, mislead, report on what was planned not learn from what happened…).  I know a participatory organisation with an excellent track record which is being bankrupted through one of these contracts: the senior management have had no remuneration for six months.  If it goes under, this will be a result of PbR, evaluators please note, and please ensure, DFID, that negative externalities like this will be identified, costed and reported in all evaluations of PbR.

The rise of PbR – to what end and at whose cost?

Standing back, let’s ask:  what is going on?  How far will this go?  At what gratuitous cost to people living in poverty, and diminished cost-effectiveness of our tax payers’ money?  Is this what we had in mind when we campaigned for 0.7 per cent?   For the obstacle course of development, are straitjackets now to be de rigueur?  Brave new world.   And who is accountable to whom?  There isn’t the faintest whiff of accountability to poor people.  Has that been utterly forgotten?  And how many aid managers have development field experience (and by field I don’t mean in other capital cities)? Do they confuse accountability – the words are similar – with accountancy?  DFID is proud of meeting its spending targets!  Who in DFID recognises that not spending budgets can be an indicator of participation and empowerment?  That it is good to save money? Who rewards those who save money or spend it slowly because they are empowering people through participation?

The perversities of PbR and related approaches are set to diminish value for money:

  • Misfit with complexity. PbR and fixed goals, targets, milestones misfit complexity, unpredictability, flexibility, adaptability. Strait jackets for obstacle courses? Less that is good will be achieved. The Secretary of State has claimed that ‘DFID is … becoming a world leader in pioneering innovative Payments by Results programmes for tackling complex development problems’ (my italics) It is precisely with complex development problems where PbR’s misfit is most stark and tragic, and worst value for taxpayer’s money.
  • Misleading reporting.  Incentives can be perverse incentives to report results. Shoddy work: do what the numbers demand, never mind sustainability, ownership, empowerment – you can’t measure those so easily.  Bias to the measurable. DFID  ‘ …being paid by results… (drives up) performance standards, management and measurement {sic]’.  Yet Andrew Naitsios, former head of  USAID said ‘ …those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable’ (No surprise that infrastructure is so much the rage – it can be measured)
  • View of human nature.  ‘Incentives’, ‘incentivise’ – in PbR there is an unspoken implication that people working in ‘aid’ are doing it for the money  (an insulting view of what drives people in development NGOs and research).  That is not what motivates the vast majority of the people I know.  They work in development because they actually care and want to make a difference
  • Disbursement targets.  It is a matter of pride that DFID is ‘meeting its spending targets’. Spend the budget by the end of the financial year.   Get the money out of the door in time.  Tick.  But too much aid too fast is a widespread complaint from recipients.

I could go on. In the world of NGOs and research at least, and probably much more widely, the effects of PbR seem set to be cruelly perverse.

In any case, where is the evidence that PbR is better than alternatives? Until PbR is soundly evidence-based, while DFID may  be a world leader in payment by results, for aid to be cost-effective, and for the sake of people living in poverty, let there be no followers.  If DFID want to be a world leader, perhaps this could be in honest, insightful evaluation of PbR which goes deep into its externalities and  the realities of all who are affected.

Alternative paths to the PbR highway

And let us note that outside the DFID pot, there is another, thrilling, world evolving.  Last month I was at the biennial Development Cooperation Forum in New York, convened by the Economic and Social Council of the UN.  There was talk there of ‘trust-based inclusive partnerships’ ‘horizontal relationships’, ‘South-South collaboration’ and the sense of a new dawn, a re-recognition of the vital significance of relationships which are not distorted by power.

So in PbR, where is the understanding of people, of communities, of participation, of complexity, where is the listening, where are the relationships in this world sanitised of humanity, and of people, of the personal?  Read the wonderful book Time to Listen: hearing people on the receiving end of international aid (Anderson et al 2012) whose researchers listened to almost 6,000 recipients of aid.  And what did they say? They said they appreciated aid but would prefer not to need it.  They said it comes too much and too fast.  They said they want and need relationships with donors, face-to-face, but contact is rare, if ever, and then rushed. They said they had to divert time and energy from action to demoralising and misleading reporting and upward accountability.  Again and again, they point to hidden transaction costs….  And the Time to Listen researchers found that wherever there was a good initiative or project there was always a person.

To conclude:  To give better value for money, please DFID

  • radically simplify and streamline your internal procedures and free up staff time,
  • recruit many more staff with grassroots field experience and who understand development realities, and free them to be in touch with the rapidly changing realities outside their pot, and
  • put PbR on hold until a few examples can be evaluated in depth over time.

If you did these three things, you would indeed, truly, be leading the world.  And there is one more thing.  To deliver astronomical value for money (and without a business case) the Secretary of State could authorise the purchase of 2000 copies of Time to Listen and send them to all DFID staff.  As a starter, I am mailing her a copy.

Robert Chambers is a Research Associate in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other blog posts from Robert Chambers:

 


Picturing gender, ethics and health systems: a competition for photographers

20/08/2014

The aim of this competition, organised by Research in Gender and Ethics (RinGs), a new cross-RPC partnership between Future Health Systems, ReBUILD and RESYST, is to capture the everyday stories of the ways that gender plays out within health systems around the world. The winning entry will be exhibited at the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, and be used to illustrate our website, and in other published materials with full credit to the photographer.

Gender-sensitive health policy is a feature of international commitments and consensus documents and national-level normative statements and implementation guidance in many countries. However, there are gaps in our knowledge about how gender and ethics interface with health systems. Our project shines a light on some of the ways that gender and health systems come together in a variety of settings. We are looking for photographers who can help us communicate this area of work visually. We welcome images of people of all genders from all areas of the health system, all around the world – be creative!

The deadline for entries is the 1 September 2014.

The judging

Photographs will be judged by a panel of gender specialists and a representative from the creative industry. They will be marked according to:

  1. Their content, i.e. their relevance to subject.
  2. Their ability to tell the story of gender and health systems, i.e. the message they contain, their creativity. We are looking for original and authentic visual representations of health systems in action.
  3. The technical merit of the photo, i.e. exposure, focus, colour, lighting etc.

We are looking for images which challenge stereotypes, encourage the viewer to learn more and act differently, and which respect the integrity of any people who may be photographed. There is a rich discussion on the ethics of photography in international development which should help guide entrants. Further information can be found here and here.

Who can enter and how to submit?

Those who have an experience of, or interest in, gender and health systems are very welcome to send images.

Send up to a maximum of three photos by email to RinGs.RPC@gmail.com

Submission requirements:

  • Size: At least 1MB
  • Print resolution: 300 dpi
  • Format: JPEG or tiff only
  • Landscape and portrait images are acceptable
  • Although some digital enhancement is acceptable we cannot accept images that have been digitally altered to change what is portrayed.

Send each photo separately and include in your message the following information:

  • Name of photographer:
  • Photographer email:
  • Photographer phone:
  • Title of photograph:
  • Location (country and city/town/village where the photograph was taken):
  • The date (if unknown, please provide the year) each photograph was taken:
  • The level of consent provided from any people pictured in the photo (see informed consent guidelines for more information):

Submit your entry:

All images should be emailed to RinGs.RPC@gmail.com by 1 September. We look forward to receiving your entries.

For more details please download the entry requirements and terms. Information about informed consent and a sample consent form are also available.


Motorways to Nowhere?

19/08/2014

Jenny_Edwards200Jenny Edwards

International development agencies have been pouring money into one-size fits all interventions for women and girls’ empowerment. Increasingly the business case ‘Invest in a girl and the world benefits’ is becoming popular among donors, NGOs and private sector supporters. But quick-fix solutions are rarely either the answer or sufficient to deal with what are essentially complex and intertwined problems. The analogy we use within the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme is that agencies are building ‘motorways to nowhere’. In focusing on the destination down a zooming highway rather than journeys along more meandering pathways, development agencies may be missing the fact that women’s experiences of empowerment are not straight or straightforward: there are obstacles, they do not travel alone, routes are circuitous and there may be many stops along the way. Donors need to look beyond targets, destinations and tick boxes and explore the complexity of women’s lives and relationships. Feminisms, Empowerment and Development, one of a series of new books from Pathways published by Zed, debates some of these complexities and highlights lessons learned about how women experience change that were uncovered by our research.

What is empowering to one woman may not be equally so for others

One of the important findings from a survey of three generations of women in Ghana which researcher Akosua Darkwah talks about in the book, is this: education for the older generation guaranteed a pathway to valuable formal sector jobs, but this is no longer the sure-fire route to secure, decent work for a younger generation faced with a more unpredictable labour market. In Brazil, Terezinha Gonçalves’ research found that when middle class women employ a domestic worker, it frees them from their chores to pursue empowering professional careers. However, as these women often do not value domestic work as a profession they fail to provide decent pay and conditions to their predominantly, black female staff. These examples highlight the importance of context: geographical, historical, class, race etc. For interventions to be successful they need to be fully appreciative of women’s lived experiences and not see ‘poor women’ as one homogenous group. This need to pay attention to context is demonstrated in Pathways’ survey on work, where for women in Bangladesh and Egypt work outside the home was seen as empowering but not so for women in Ghana where this was something they had always experienced.

Hidden Pathways

The differing experiences of women and girls can be clearly seen in what Pathways’ researchers refer to as ‘hidden pathways’. Focusing only on economic, political and legal routes of empowerment through interventions such as micro-credit, quotas and law reform risks missing some of the less obvious but still important aspects of women’s lives. For instance, although representations of women on television and the media have sometimes proved problematic and disempowering, Aanmona Priyadarshini’s and Samia Rahim’s study in Bangladesh shows how television has captured imagination across classes. Women experience pleasure and hope for their own lives from shared viewing, but also choose, judge or disregard narratives depending on how they connect with them. In Pakistan, a participant in Neelam Hussain’s research explained how watching a woman in a job interview on television helped her to know how to behave in a situation she had yet to experience.

Horizons of Possibility

Expanding the horizons of possibility is one of the key messages of the book. Although economic, legal and political interventions are important they are not enough on their own. The process of empowerment requires ‘creating consciousness’ or helping women to see themselves as equal citizens entitled to rights. Hania Sholkamy says that one of the key elements of a feminist social programme is to support women in recognising their citizenship rights. This importance is clearly demonstrated by Saptagram, a social mobilisation organisation in Bangladesh, the subject of Naila Kabeer’s and Lopita Huq’s chapter. A key element of Saptagram’s strategy was transforming women’s consciousness. As one of its members said ‘I have learnt about our rights. Now I understand I have the same rights as my husband… Whether I get my rights or not, I can still demand them’.

Pathways of Change

So is there an answer, or a solution? Many of Pathways’ messages are not new or earth-shattering but they bear repeating in an age of what Lisa VeneKlasen from Just Associates at a recent Pathways conference referred to as ‘clickivism’: the idea that just pressing one button will lift a woman from poverty. We need to listen to women’s experiences, learn from their lived realities on what works and what doesn’t. We need to support them in realising their rights and give support to women’s organisations to demand these rights. We need to tackle the issues of power that sustain women’s inequality; the deeper issues behind what hinders women’s unequal representation in parliaments and in the board rooms. We need to do more than just give a woman a cow and expect her to change the world. As Hania Sholkamy notes: ‘Alleviating poverty and enabling women to make some income can better lives, but the enabling environment that confirms the right to work, to property, to safety, to voice, to sexuality and to freedom is not created by sewing machines or micro-credit alone’.

Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme, based at IDS. 

Read other posts from Jenny Edwards:

A version of this blog was first published on The Guardian on 23rd July 2014 under the title “We cannot give a woman a cow and expect her to change the world”. 


Seeing the world through a different lens

14/08/2014

Danny Burns2 photo miniDanny Burns

The Secretary-General of the United Nations was expected to publish his report to the General Assembly on the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda on 12 August. How much of his insight will have been informed by listening to the voices of the poorest and most marginalised?  Participate partners have been critically reflecting  on the participatory methods they have employed in attempts to shift power in policy making.  One such approach, the Participate Ground Level Panels (GLPs) created a participative space for people living in poverty and marginalisation to deliberate what is needed from the post-2015 global policy process.

 In 2013, Participate partners hosted three deliberative meetings between those living poverty and those with political authority through Ground Level Panels (GLPs). The idea for a GLP aimed to provide a mirror to the deliberations of the United Nations (UN) High Level Panel (HLP) but from people who lived in extreme poverty or marginalisation.

The Ground Level Panels took place in Egypt, Brazil, Uganda and India. Each panel comprised a group of 10-14 people with diverse and intersecting identities including urban slum dwellers; disabled people; sexual minorities; people living in conflict and natural disaster-affected areas; people living in geographically isolated communities; nomadic and indigenous people; older people; internally displaced people; and young people. Each panel created relationships, shared experiences, connected the local level to the national and international development contexts and provided a critical review and reality check on the five transformative shifts as outlined by the UN High Level Panel.

The GLPs saw the world through a different lens to the HLP. The people in the Panels understood the dynamics of change facing people living in poverty and this gave them the ability to say if these policies were meaningful. While economic growth is an unchallenged assumption in the HLP for the Brazilian GLP it was seen as part of the ‘death plan’. For the Brazilians the critical issue is not ‘poverty’ per se, but ‘misery’ and ‘dignity’. While the HLP focused on service provision, the Indian Panel’s desired goals largely focus on social norms, behaviour 
and discrimination.

There were some common themes which emerged in all of the Panels. People want to feel that they have meaningful control over the influences that impact their lives. In all cases structures for equal participation were highlighted as foundational. In almost all of the Panels there was a recurring theme of ‘self management’. People don’t want aid. They want the means to generate and sustain their own livelihoods. So if we are serious about moving ‘beyond aid’ in the new development agenda then empowerment must become the priority.

One thing that struck me was the difference in composition of the HLP and the GLPs. The HLP was made up of people largely from an elite political class. There was the odd member of royalty and a few interesting academics thrown in, but by and large they were high ranking politicians. There was very little diversity in the group, and the interests were narrow. The GLPs on the other hand were highly diverse. Slum dwellers sitting side by side with pastoralists, transgender people, and people living in refugee camps … It is easy to stereotype people as ‘poor’and see them as a huge sprawling undifferentiated ‘category’, but they bring far more diversity than people who hold power.

What defines the success of a Ground Level Panel? Is it the response of the national government or within the UN process, or is it also influence on policy at the local levels? For Natalie Newell who led the GLP in Uganda on behalf of Restless Development, the experience demonstrated the importance of the local level. 
”It is important to be clear with all involved about what can realistically be achieved from the GLP process. This includes considering the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and what it can add to the policy debate. From the perspectives of those that participated in the Uganda process, the changes at the community level and for them as people were an important success.”

Listen to Nava and Richard’s reflections on the Uganda Ground Level Panel.

Read more about the Ground Level Panels in Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence.’

Danny Burns is a Co-Director of the Participate initiative and Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter at: @dannyburns2

Read other posts from Danny Burns


How can we achieve durable peace in Gaza and beyond?

12/08/2014

Lucy NusseibehOut of the appalling destruction and death in this latest bout of violence, what kind of future can be salvaged for Palestinians whether in Gaza or in the rest of the occupied territories? Wars, militarisation, and feelings of moral superiority do not bring security or solutions. On the contrary, the current war, and the ones before prove that overwhelming military force, and all other forms of violence, will never solve political problems.

The violence was as inevitable as it is unbelievable

What has been going on in the occupied territories (Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem) was unsustainable. The Israelis had it easy and comfortable, and were generally more concerned with social issues than with peace. Even the Palestinians had on the whole become so used to the 47 year occupation, that the focus of the dreams of many was more towards improving the economy than addressing the appalling human security situation.

But nevertheless you cannot continue to deny all rights and humanity to a people and expect that the anger and frustration won’t burst out

The need for a new vision for the future

One thing that is, or at least should be, clear to all, is that the future of the region will only be a peaceful one if it is a based on reciprocal respect that acknowledges that the region has to be shared.

Maybe it will be in separate states, or maybe in some other form. Whatever the case, the alternatives remain unthinkable, such as the total transfer or total annihilation of all the Palestinians or all of the Israelis.

Any viable future therefore needs new a vision to be built by both sides. Somehow, together, we have to work towards something that is based on inclusivity and awareness of the need for a shared future.

There needs to be a shift in mindsets away from the self-righteousness and the many misperceptions surrounding this conflict. At present each side focuses only on their own separate and exclusive needs and fears. We need change, not more of the same and worse. We need to move towards humanisation instead of away from it.

The time is now to learn lessons

One of the lessons, that have been very apparent to Palestinians at least, is that it is impossible, even with state-of-the-art barriers and concrete walls, and even with projects of “fragmentation” to undermine Palestinian social cohesion, to keep an entire population without basic human rights, without human security and without dignity.

Another is that as we move into August 2014, this current war needs to be the war that ends not only all wars between Israelis and Palestinians but also the long festering occupation.

Correcting some common misperceptions

  • That victimhood is the property of one group only. No – the discourse of victimhood, whereby one side claims all the moral high ground, and thereby pushes all the evil onto the other side, making them into monsters, not only cannot hold up, but allows for polarisation and dehumanisation.

As the numbers of Palestinians killed have reached nearly two thousand, with many of the casualties being women and children, and with the relentless destruction of shelters, schools, hospitals and the only power plant in Gaza, stopping the violence is urgent. But this latest ceasefire, must not be just a ceasefire that allows for more of the same and worse in another couple of years, it must be linked with an inclusive, realistic and creative approach towards establishing human security and justice, and thereby a lasting peace.

 

Lucy Nusseibeh implemented a participatory video project for the Participate Initiative (which is based at the Institute of Development Studies) with Palestinian women in two villages (Jib and Nebi Samuel) severed from Jerusalem by the Israeli separation barrier. She is also the founder and executive chair of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND) and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University


Women in Politics: Beyond Numbers

24/07/2014

Jenny_Edwards200Following David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle, the UK government has moved from having three women in the cabinet to five: and these two new members are working mothers, a presence not there before. This still fails to improve the overall gender equity: according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union the UK currently ranks 65th globally for women parliamentary membership. Women comprise 22.6 per cen of the total UK parliament, compared to 51 per cent of the population. A focus just on numbers, however, doesn’t give us a complete picture. Even if countries have high numbers of women political representatives it doesn’t necessarily mean that the women are full, active members; they could just be there for window dressing, and they may not promote women’s rights once they get into politics. Recent research conducted in Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, India, Palestine, Sierra Leone and Sudan suggests that exploring women’s political pathways from the ground up may provide a more comprehensive understanding.

What do we mean by politics?

Lessons from the eight country studies suggest that we need to have a broader understanding of the history of women’s political activism before they entered formal politics. Most of the women interviewed had been involved in community support professions before taking up politics, such as teaching, nursing and NGO work. Quite a few of the women had also been involved in student politics. Community service and charity work were also significant aspects of their lives before formal politics. In Bangladesh many of the local women councillors interviewed had helped in providing emergency relief and welfare, building them a reputation for aiding the disadvantaged. In Ghana one woman councillor explained how her work with the youth was important for appealing to a key constituency as 15-24 year olds constitute almost a quarter of Ghana’s population. It is important that political empowerment training programmes recognise the full extent of women’s experiences and help them to draw upon this in building their constituencies and working in formal political spaces.

Where and when politics happen

Politics happens in private and public spaces for 24 hours a day, not just in parliamentary headquarters between the hours of 9 to 5. For young girls growing up in a political family this can provide an invaluable early immersion into the political world. A councillor from India explained how she had an open house growing up, ‘with endless streams of people coming and going’. She, ‘enjoyed meeting people, talking to them, learning about their problems, listening in how [her] father and uncles solved these’. It can also, however, be exclusionary. In a recent article for Contestations, Mariz Tadros asserts that parliamentary sessions and council meetings held late into the evening block access for those women politicians with unpaid care responsibilities. She contends that if we are to be serious about inclusive political representation, ‘Processes of deliberation and decision-making be they at the local or at the parliamentary level need to be sensitive to unpaid care responsibilities and how they feature in timelines’.

Family support?

For women in the case studies, family support was key to their ability to carry out their political duties. Husbands provided moral, organisational and campaign assistance, even cutting across party divides. Few husbands, however, provided childcare support and their motives were not always completely altruistic. Power and prestige for the family were motivations for many of them. The support given does however go against much feminist literature, which often casts men in a disempowering light. But let’s also not forget that family importance can be less positive. Maintaining political power in the hands of a few powerful families creates an elitist system. It also reduces the women’s autonomy in terms of what they do once they are in government. Nevertheless, women’s relationships are a significant factor in how they operate within politics and recognition of this and support for these family networks is important.

Supporting women’s politics from the ground up

If we are to move beyond numbers and women getting into cabinet being front page news (rather than just the norm), we need to support women much earlier in their political careers. We need to recognise that politics begins informally and to support women’s roles in this and also their jump, should they choose to make it, into formal politics. We need to move away from ‘projectivising’ political empowerment training and support programmes and provide help for women over the long-term, not just focusing on elections and then abandoning them once the vote is over. This also means following up on what worked and what didn’t and providing continued support for those women who advocate a social and gender justice agenda who failed to get elected. Most of all we should recognise the importance of relationships. This includes recognising and supporting the roles of family members in helping women in their political careers, but also taking into account women’s unpaid care responsibilities. If we take this much broader and also bottom-up approach to women’s entry into politics, perhaps then we will begin to see a much broader, comprehensive spectrum of society within politics.

Further reading: Women in Politics: Gender, Power and Development by Mariz Tadros.

Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme, based at IDS.