Who engages with whom? Who is accountable to whom? Can the development sector learn from the humanitarian sector?

20/03/2014

Robert ChambersRobert_Chambers200

Wow! The 29th Annual Meeting of ALNAP in Addis. This was memorable and eye-opening. But what is ALNAP? The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. Rather less memorable in full than as an acronym. But a vital orientation and a remarkable organisation. This annual meeting brought together for two intense days 170 people engaged in the sector. From a great range of over 100 organisations, with NGOs more than any other category, and international agencies, governments, universities, and the private sector in smaller numbers. An astonishing range of experience to have all in one room, and the largest ALNAP annual meeting so far.

And why was it memorable? For me it was one of those Rip van Winkle re-entries which for some reason seem to come my way more often these days. My time in the sector was long ago in UNHCR as its first evaluation officer in the mid 70s, and then in 1986 in a team evaluating the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies drought relieve operations in Africa in 1984-6. How radically things have changed since those days of relative amateurism and ignorance. In the mid 70s UNHCR was faced with many millions of rural refugees in Africa and did not have a single health, nutrition, agricultural, sanitation, water, settlement or other specialist. Though lots of lawyers, good at law. There were some large refugee settlements, but it was convenient to believe that most African refugees were best off left to fend for themselves. African hospitality would take care of them. Often not, I concluded, the case. And as for 1986 we wrote in our evaluation report that people had ‘a basic human right to be protected from incompetence’.

What a different universe it is now!
People in this conference were far, far more professional and experienced. Their concerns for accountability and performance have spread, deepened and evolved almost beyond recognition. There are now many guides, protocols, critical reviews and even organisations preoccupied with accountability to those affected by crises, outstandingly ALNAP itself.

The theme for the meeting was great – Engagement of crisis-affected people in humanitarian action. The overview and background paper by Dayna Brown, A Donini and Paul Knox-Clarke is excellent. The subject is vital because of the misfit and tension between urgent action to save lives and minimise suffering on the one hand, and listening, sensitivity, responsiveness, and supporting not undermining what people are doing and can do for themselves. And the many contexts and types of emergency or crisis challenge standard solutions. All this is pretty well known, so let me jump to what hit me in the face.

Top-down measurement versus accountability to people.
Paradigms are in tension. Underlying current debates and practice in the sector is a tug of war between the (Newtonian) paradigm of things, which is top-down with control, measurement, standardisation and upward accountability, and the (complexity) paradigm of people in which we find discretion, judgment, diversity and downward accountability. And there are contrasting concepts, language, values, methods and processes, relationships, mindsets and personalities that go with these. Top-down is driven and sustained by the real or imagined imperatives of crisis.

Take language. Beneficiary belongs to top down. It patronises. It begs a basic question, implying people do benefit. It ‘others’ those affected by crisis. It misfits equality, respect, listening and learning from people. Other words and phrases have been tried – crisis-affected people, and citizen (but this does not work so well for UNHCR with refugees). But again and again beneficiary is the word that is used. It is deeply, deeply embedded. And I dare say many see nothing wrong with it. One organisation has even appointed a Beneficiary Accountability Officer. Can’t we do better than this?

Then there are donors’ demands and ‘the system’. There was a view that to be ‘evidence-based’ the case for engagement and participation had to be supported by measurement. Others, myself included, felt the case was already overwhelming. When someone asked how many had read evaluation reports which blamed ‘the system’, a forest of hands went up. And participants lamented their experiences of how data demands forced them into gathering data for upward accountability at the cost of action, learning, adapting and accountability to affected people. Yes, a tragic trade-off, just as in the development sector.

Highlights and reflections

  • To bypass recurrent rush. In sudden onset emergencies, many agencies carry out similar rushed and biased assessments (close to airport, only meet the leaders, men etc.). After typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines a non-operational team did a slower more interactive and representative assessment, hearing other voices, and found unrecognised needs: who would have guessed that old women needed underwear? Could UNOCHA (UN Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs) try this dedicated team approach to test whether it should be standard practice?
  • Participatory statistics. Dawit Abebe and Berhanu Admassu presented their participatory impact assessment work with pastoralists which generated participatory statistics. Dawit and Andy Catley have a chapter in Jeremy Holland’s Who Counts? The power of participatory statistics. Great stuff and huge potential. But who will pick it up? I recommend the guide which has just been updated. It is an eye-opener.
  • Definition of terms? We did not spend much time on definitions. This was sensible. There was more interest in action. But engagement is a good word. And engagement of crisis-affected people was a move in a good direction.
  • Personality and recruitment. The background paper considered skills (the word so often used), but then went further with behaviour and attitudes. I wonder, though, does personality go even further, and somewhere we need to go? Some saw recruitment procedures with interviewing face-to-face as critical. If the sector needs people who are good at listening, empathetic, participatory, they must be sought out, and trained. Also, institutional cultures, personality and relationships interact, so that for good engagement with affected people, with sensitive listening and respect, these must be part of good engagement in organisations at all levels.
  • Learning what affected people are doing already came over as important. What are their existing organisations? What are they already doing? These were priority questions, as they have been for decades.
  • The Who? Whose? questions. These were as relevant as ever. Who participates in whose project? was asked in the background paper. Who engages in whose action? Do they engage in ours or do we engage in theirs? Several times in the meeting someone asked ‘How do we want to engage with them?’. But further steps are ‘How  do we find out how they would like us to engage with them?’ This was raised but I did not hear it much discussed. A future agenda? To ask them? As standard good practice?
  • Listening and learning. We often say and hear that we must ‘go and talk to [sic] people’. Talk to at least involves meeting, but when will we habitually say listen to or learn from? Or listen to and dialogue with? The training the day before the meeting was on evaluation. Next year, a training on listening? But would anyone sign up? Or be able to persuade their organisation to give the extra day to be trained to do something we all know how to do (when we talk to people)?
  • Time with people. In a panel session on Building Accountability to Affected Populations into Humanitarian Evaluation, it was proposed that those engaged in the evaluations 9 months or so after an emergency should have to spend 50 per cent of their time with the affected people. Yes. Good idea.
  • Accountability to whom? At that moment, a penny dropped with me. I wondered and still wonder, is the humanitarian sector ahead of ‘development’ in accountability to people? If so, or if it appears so, is this because the need is greater? In any case, what can the development sector learn? I suspect, quite a lot. But if so, where should we go from here?
  • Gems for reflection from Luz Gomez Saavedra (Oxfam Intermon, formerly with MSF in Niger):
    • ‘Nothing can replace presence and proximity’
    • ‘The most amazing tool, sitting down under a tree with people’
    • An old woman who said: ‘If you want to know who is poor and who not, don’t count goats – ask who is receiving remittances from a relative in Calgary’
    • When she asked people how she could do her work better the reply was unanimous: ‘Don’t change but keep smiling’

Will this meeting transform the sector?
That would be asking too much. But intensifying the shift in the agenda to examining ourselves more (and this is in line with the World Development Report 2015 on Mind and Culture), yes, one can hope for that. And it may countervail against the magnetism of upward accountability which afflicts both humanitarian action and development, and reinforce actions and policies for accountability downwards to crisis-affected people, and learning more about and appreciating their realities, and what they want and need. And what they already do and can do, perhaps often much more than outsiders suppose.

Some in the sector are already onto all this. Could many, many others join them in putting into practice two PRA slogans which fit here as signposts and reminders:

ASK THEM              THEY CAN DO IT

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

Read other blog posts from Robert Chambers:


Top PPSC blog posts in 2013

28/12/2013

Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

As we’re approaching the end of 2013 I would like to use the opportunity to highlight the top ten posts of the Participation, Power and Social Change blog, as well as some other interesting posts, that you might have missed.

This year we had an interesting array of posts providing commentary on events around the world, such as political change in Egypt, riots in Brazil, tragedies and revolts in Bangladesh, as well as presentations of outputs from some of our main research programmes and initiatives. Bloggers included researchers from the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change team, some of our partners, working with us on a variety of projects and some students associated with the team through our MA course in Participation, Power and Social Change and through our PhD programme.

Welcome to all those that joined our follower-list in 2013. We now have over 450 people following our blog and compared to 2012, we have more than doubled our views, which is excellent news. We hope you have found our posts interesting and even enjoyable. Please feel free to invite others to join our follower-group and find out what we’re up to.

Top 10 blog posts:

1. Participation for Development: Why is this a good time to be alive? By Robert Chambers

2. Bangladesh: Rana Plaza is a parable of globalisation by Naomi Hossain

3. From making us cry to making us act: five ways of communicating ‘development’ in Europe by Maria Cascant

4. The Marriage Trap: the pleasures and perils of same-sex equality by Stephen Wood

5. Bangladesh is revolting, again by Naomi Hossain

6. Storytelling in Development Practice by Hamsini Ravi

7. Missing the pulse of Egypt’s citizens? by Mariz Tadros

8. I’m (still) hungry, mum: the return of Care by Naomi Hossain

9. The crisis of Brazilian democracy, as seen from Mozambique by Alex Shankland

10. Heteronormativity: why demystifying development’s unspoken assumptions benefits us all by Stephen Wood

Other interesting blogs that you might have missed:

To give a different nuance to our commentary and research, we’ve also introduced some visual blog posts this year, showing videos, photographs and cartoons. Have a look:

Finally, on behalf of the Power, Participation and Social Change Team at IDS, we wish all our readers happy holidays (if you’re celebrating) and a good start into 2014. We will be back with more blog posts in early January.

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS.


Can the protests push Brazil to rediscover democratic innovation?

01/07/2013

Alex ShanklandAlex_Shankland200

In an earlier blog article I argued for the need to look at both the state and the citizen sides of the democratic equation in order to make sense of the recent unrest across Brazil. Here, I argue that the Workers’ Party (PT)’s period in national office may turn out to have been a period of dangerous stagnation on the ’state side‘ of the democratic innovation equation.

At first sight, it seems absurd to speak of ‘stagnation’. Since President Lula came to power in 2003, the number of national policy conferences – large-scale deliberative-democratic processes that engage literally millions of citizens in discussing priorities in different policy sectors – has grown significantly. Public investment in training and resources for the tens of thousands of participatory management councils that oversee health, education and other services across Brazil’s 5,500 municipalities has also been boosted. At a conference I attended in Brazil in April on ‘Participation, Democracy and Public Policy’, the Director for Popular Participation in the President’s Office, the highly-respected former civil society activist Pedro Pontual, outlined the government’s commitment to enshrine in law a ‘national system of popular participation’.

Where is the next generation of innovations?
The conference reflectedthe vibrant state of Brazilian research and practice in the field, through a mass of well-attended panels and a rich series of plenary debates. Yet, despite its positive atmosphere, I felt a certain uneasewhich stemmed from the fact that most of the research discussed at the conference had focused on well-established forms of participation. Where was the next generation of the innovations that we have come to expect from Brazil, as the world’s leading laboratory for participatory democracy? The policy conferences, deliberative councils and participatory budgeting processes analysed were mostly based on models that have been around for the best part of two decades. Despite the massive social, economic and political changes that Brazil has undergone during this period, they still follow much the same format as when they were introduced.

The PT governments of the 2000s have helped these innovations from earlier decades to gain greater solidity and scale, but they have neither enabled them to fulfil their potential as sites for genuine deliberation nor matched them with further innovations in participatory governance in areas that are now being contested by the protestors – a gap that is particularly crucial in the infrastructure sector, as Leonardo Avritzer has pointed out.

Even the impressive promises of the ‘national system of popular participation’ seemed to emphasise more of the same rather than radical new departures. Above all, the proposed system seemed to assume that Brazilian citizens would continue participating in future as they had done in the past: either discussing face-to-face in neighbourhood participatory budget meetings, or accepting that their engagement with the state would be mediated by the collective actors of the post-1988 settlement: progressive political parties and labour unions, or community associations and social movements that have adopted the formal structures that are required for the state to recognise them as part of ‘organised civil society’.

Only a few speakers at the conference recognised that this assumption may no longer hold. One of them, a representative from the PT municipal government of Canoas said that the Canoas municipal administration was no longer relying on dialogue with collective actors and on the institutionalised ritual of the participatory budgeting cycle. Instead, it was now trying to link these into a much larger ‘ecosystem’ of participation channels (including an online ‘Virtual Agora’), as part of an attempt to elicit constructive engagement from citizens who are ‘both more atomised and more connected than ever before’.

Old-school participatory politics
President Dilma Rousseff’s  response to the protests did not suggest that she has taken the opportunity to learn from the experience of her party’s administration in Canoas. When the President finally made a televised address to the nation after more than a week of protests, she recognised that ‘in order to deliver more, institutions and governments have to change’. But her concrete proposals seemed either timid
or over-hasty: first offering to meet the heads of Congress and the judiciary
to urge them to work better together, then proposing to summon a Constituent
Assembly – only to downgrade this to the promise of a plebiscite on reform of
the party system.

The President spoke eloquently about the ‘need to inject oxygen into our political system’ and ensure that institutions become ‘more easily-permeated by the influence of society’, emphasising that ‘the voice of the street should be heard’ and priority should go to listening ‘to citizens and not to economic power’. But her first effort in this direction was all old participatory politics, based on the assumption that social movements necessarily have structures and leaders who can be engaged as partners in governance without losing popular legitimacy. Showing little awareness either of the reality of citizens, or of the protestors’ rejection of institutionalised mediation, she offered to meet in person ‘the leaders of peaceful protests, the representatives of youth organisations, labour unions, workers’ movements and peoples’ associations’.

A group from the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL, free transport movement), which called the initial protests at bus and metro price increases in São Paulo, did take up the President’s offer, but they left the meeting in Brasília on 24 June saying that they had found the Presidency ‘completely unprepared’ to discuss the economic feasibility of their demand for free urban transport, and stating that their willingness to hold a dialogue with the government did not mean an end to the struggle in the streets. The MPL stopped well short of an outright rejection of dialogue, but its representatives’ comments contain plenty of echoes of the scorn that the new voice of the Brazilian street has so far shown for all kinds of institutionalised political engagement.

Going forward
The national PT government will need to move beyond this old politics thinking if it is to recover the party’s reputation for skill and creativity in bridging ‘both sides of the equation’. It has already lost much of this reputation by allowing democratic innovation to stagnate while seeming to ride roughshod over local concerns in the drive to push through big infrastructure projects.

This is about much more than the fate of a single political party, however: the Brazilian state as a whole badly needs to recover its capacity for democratic innovation, or the post-1988 flowering of effective strategies for institutionalising non-violent citizen-state engagement risks becoming a footnote in the country’s history rather than the turning-point and template for the future that many (including me) hoped and believed it to be.

Alex Shankland is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

This is the second post in a short serious of blog posts on the state of democracy in Brazil. Read other blogs by Alex Shankland:


The crisis of Brazilian democracy, as seen from Mozambique

26/06/2013

Alex ShanklandAlex_Shankland200

I’ve been in Maputo for the last few days, working with colleagues at IESE on some research into the riots that brought this city to a standstill in 2010. This work is part of a four-country comparative study of the ‘moral economy’ that underlies efforts to secure accountability for hunger, whether through institutionalised lobbying or through ‘unruly‘ popular political action. Rather than Maputo’s own riots, however, much of my time here has been has been spent talking to puzzled Mozambican colleagues about the massive wave of protests that has surged across Brazil.

My Mozambican friends can understand a protest being triggered by a bus fare increase – after all, it wasn’t only the price of bread but also a rise in the cost of the chapas (semi-formal minibus routes on which most urban Mozambicans depend to get to work) that set off the 2010 riots here, and threatened to do so again when another fare increase was brought in last year. The potential for anger at police brutality to intensify popular mobilisation, as happened in São Paulo in the initial phase of the Brazilian protests, is another familiar feature here. And they recognise that anger at corruption – another key issue for Brazil’s protestors – was a factor in the Maputo riots in 2010, and may yet trigger more violent protests here, as a tiny elite continues to hoard the rewards from Mozambique’s mining and energy boom.

But many Mozambicans are perplexed by the other apparent triggers of the Brazilian protests  Why do the protestors seem to hate the Workers’ Party (PT), when under the recent PT governments Brazil has achieved ’zero hunger‘? Why are they so critical of public health and education, when the country’s expansion of access to these services is the envy of many countries in Africa and beyond? Surely Brazil’s recent programme of infrastructure investment is as necessary as that on which Mozambique has itself recently embarked, with Brazilian as well as Chinese assistance? And surely Brazil – unlike Mozambique – has a flourishing democracy in which the state has pioneered many new ways of listening to citizens, so that they don’t have to take to the streets in frustration? Or is Brazilian participatory democracy actually not all it’s cracked up to be?

Here, Brazilian democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting and local policy councils have become part of the good governance packages promoted by the donor community. The need for democratic reform in Mozambique has never been more apparent as a standoff between the government and the opposition party (and former guerrilla movement) Renamo turns dangerously violent, and the tensions that triggered the 2010 riots continue to build in the street markets, chapa stops and back alleys of Maputo. Brazil is ever more visible in and from Mozambique, thanks to a growing presence in the country that ranges from evangelical pastors and mining companies to soybean farmers and social movement activists. As Camila Asano has argued in a recent OpenDemocracy article, democratic Brazil ’is in many crucial ways in a stronger position than its fellow emerging powers to achieve great things on the international stage‘. It thus seems enviably placed to set an example for the future of democracy in Mozambique – but which example, exactly?

Working on both sides of the equation
Looking at Brazil from Mozambique, I’m reminded of the work of our former IDS colleague John Gaventa, who argued that efforts to promote democracy should include ’working both sides of the equation‘, and who led a decade of work under the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability which reached the conclusion that successful democratic change depended on ’blurring the boundaries‘ between citizen and state. Brazil was a model case, one to be looked to and learned from by anyone interested in a democratic future for countries like Mozambique. Now it seems to me that these protests represent the boiling-over of a frustration that derives from failures on both sides of the Brazilian democratic equation – and that they reveal how blurred boundaries have given way to a new divide.

Since the country’s post-dictatorship ’Citizens’ Constitution‘ came into effect in 1988, the Brazilian state, with leadership often coming from the PT, has promoted an unprecedented series of participatory and deliberative innovations. These have deepened and broadened engagement, and successfully kept a democratic conversation going despite the country’s vast size, glaring inequalities, endemic violence and corrupt electoral politics.

On the other ’side of the equation‘, since the mass mobilisations that marked the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, Brazil’s citizenry has opted for forms of collective action that could be linked with,though never confined to, an ongoing process of institutionalised dialogue with the state. Unruly political actions by marginalised groups – ranging from peasants’ land occupations to the invasion of government buildings by bow-and-arrow-wielding indigenous warriors – have continued throughout this period. But they have usually been deployed not as a denial of democratic dialogue but rather as a tactic to force the state to engage more fully in it, and to challenge the use of economic, bureaucratic and political power to close down its possibilities.

The latest protests have broken with this logic in two important ways: they have been led not by the hyper-marginalised rural poor but by middle-class urban youth, and they have systematically denied the legitimacy of institutionalised democratic engagement (whether through political parties or through formally-structured social movement organisations) as a means of converting popular political energy into policy change.

So what has happened and what does it mean for Brazil and other countries? In the next couple of days I will aim to reflect on those questions through a short series of blogs, analysing what has happened on both sides of the democracy equation in Brazil.

Alex Shankland is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.


Reflecting back upon the PPSC team’s activities in 2011

09/01/2012

Danny Burns

As 2012 begins, I want to take this opportunity to wish you a happy (and stress free) New Year. In this blog I want to talk offer a few flavours of things that members of the team have been working on; others you will see from recent contributions to the blog; more will follow over the next weeks…

An increasing area of interest for development actors at all levels, from grassroots movements to major donors, is how to better understand the complex, shifting and multi-layered social and political environments in which development and change occur. Many organisations are searching for more relevant tools of context analysis. Jethro Pettit and others have been working on new tools for power and political economy analysis. Popular frameworks like the Powercube (developed by John Gaventa) are being adapted and combined with other approaches. Recent learning partnerships on power have included Oxfam, Novib, Hivos, Christian Aid, the Swedish Cooperative Centre, and Trocaire. Work has also been carried out within the UK voluntary and philanthropic sector with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation,  Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Carnegie UK Trust, Trust for London. This work has included three, year-long action learning processes with dozens of participants from these foundations and more than 20 of their partner organisations Training modules on power have adapted into Spanish and French and facilitated by IDS staff in universities and workshops in Spain, West Africa and Latin America.

The team’s work around “unruly politics” has been growing steadily through the “Summer of Unruly Reading” group facilitated by Akshay Khanna. We have been building a collective conceptual analysis within the team, and growing a work programme with Hivos and their partners.  We have also been building connections with people in the Occupy movement. Mariz Tadros continues to be closely engaged with the emerging situation in Egypt and other parts of North Africa.

PPSC has been contracted to engage in a number of new programmes this year. These include:

  • a three year programme on gender and sexuality funded by SIDA (Sweden)
  • a three year programme with SDC (Switzerland) – on participatory methodologies and developing the resource centre as a hub for materials on participatory methodologies
  • a three year programme with SDC working with the IDS Governance team to support the work of their Decentralisation and Local Governance Network
  • an extension of Gates Foundation funding for our Community Led Total Sanitation Hub

The PPSC team played a major role in designing and delivering the Bellagio initiative on the future of international development and philanthropy in pursuit of human well being which comprised a series of global dialogues, commissioned papers and a major international summit. PPSC fellows – Danny Burns (Delhi and Kinna, Kenya), Patta Scott-Villiers (Kinna, Kenya), Alex Shankland (Sao Paulo) and Mariz Tadros (Cairo) – facilitated four of the global dialogues. Georgina Powell Stevens co-ordinated the summit participation of around 200 participants. In June of this year Alex Shankland and I, will be facilitating another Bellagio conference on Indigenous health with colleagues from KIT (Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam).

Rosemary McGee has recently carried out a major review of accountability and transparency initiatives with John Gaventa. Naomi Hossain continues her longitudinal work with Oxfam and others on food price volatility; Joanna Wheeler, Peter Clarke and I are working on a six country action research programme with VSO and the international volunteering network FORUM on the impact of volunteering on poverty; Joanna Wheeler and Tessa Lewin have been working on a range of participatory video initiatives; Marzia Fontana has been working with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce of Lao PDR on a project which has brought Lao-based women’s groups and international organisations into dialogue with each other. Rosalind Eyben has been organising The Big Push Forward – an international initiative that links practitioners and researchers to identify and share strategies and approaches for fair assessment and evaluation. Patta Scott Villiers is leading a programme of action research in Karamoja Northern Uganda funded by Irish Aid. Alex Shankland is opening up new areas of work on the role of emerging powers in reshaping development especially through civil society.

Pathways to Women‘s Empowerment in the Middle East hosted a UN Women organized conference on “Pathways for Women in Democratic Transitions: International Experiences and Lessons Learned” in Cairo. The meeting featured Michele Bachelet and others discussing legal reform, women’s movements and gender-responsive accountability systems. Mariz Tadros was a speaker on the panel “Building Strong Women’s Movements in Democratic Transitions”.

The team has recently published a number of IDS Working Papers and Bulletins and will publish a bulletin on Action Research in International Development this spring.

Finally I want to say a huge thank you and good luck to John Gaventa and Kate Hawkins. John has been an inspiration to the PPSC team for more than a decade. He has joined the Coady Institute in Canada as their new Director. Kate Hawkins our sexuality programme convenor who has initiated and developed a great deal of exciting work within the team will be leaving IDS (but will continue to work with us as a free lancer). I would also like to welcome to the team Research Fellow Jerker Edstrom and Jas Vaghadia who will be working on our gender, masculinities and sexuality programmes. Welcome also to Naomi Vernon who is joining our CLTS team.

As I say, just a few flavours of the many different things that are happening. If you want to find out more, follow the links, or contact us directly.

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and will be publishing IDS Bulletin 43.3 ”Action Research in Development” in May 2012