Arguing about a revolution


Rosalind EybenRosalind Eyben photo mini

Last week I was in Bolivia where I had lived ten years ago before joining IDS. When I last visited in 2008 the country fizzled with the excitement of the dramatic changes experience following the election of a social revolutionary government led by Evo Morales in 2005. It felt like being in Paris in 1789 or Petrograd in 1917. Most striking was the sight of indigenous women shopping, as of right, in the posh part of La Paz where previously the only indigenous women you saw were domestic employees or street sweepers.  It was clear then that even should the political revolution fail, there was irreversible radical social change. Four years on, this is visible everywhere. In a recent interview with the Bolivia Information Forum (recommended for keeping up to date with events in Bolivia), the General Manager of Bolivia’s principal domestic airline commented how in the past better-off indigenous people didn’t use to fly.

‘It wasn’t a problem of purchasing power, of income, it was a problem of not feeling that it was for them. …..  All those people today take the plane. It’s very gratifying to see on a flight, any flight, people wearing traditional clothes without it being in any way unusual. A great diversity of people, reflecting this country’s make-up, is [now] flying.’

So now in 2013 I am enjoying dinner with old Bolivian friends, descendants of European settlers and ‘intellectuales’ (as you would say in Spanish). When still students in the 1970’s they were political exiles during the military dictatorship and on returning to Bolivia after the re-establishment of democracy had devoted themselves to the cause of social justice. In 2005, they had all voted for Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism. But now most of them were angry and bitter about the Morales government, accusing it of clientelism, of authoritarianism, and incompetence. ‘Everything is in chaos’, says one of my friends. ‘It’s all a mess’. Just one person at the table seeks to present a more dispassionate, balanced analysis of both the positive changes and what is going wrong. She concurs with the messiness but wonders what else to expect when a country goes through such a major upheaval. She talks interestingly about the government’s struggles to implement a rights-based approach when its different political constituencies are struggling amongst each other for access to land and water. She notes the irony of the government’s socialist rhetoric and capitalist practice. She agrees that there is a lot of incompetence – but then what else would one expect when those now in power are having to learn how to govern after 500 years of oppression? Look at all the good that is also happening, she urges, citing the new social programmes to reduce poverty and inequality.

But the others don’t want to listen. For them, it has all gone wrong. I listen quietly but ask myself whether their sense of grievance comes from them no longer having a role in the process. Before 2005, they were the white middle class interlocutors with government for the socially excluded. Today, it is the representatives of these excluded who are running the country – and who are no longer taking my friends’ advice. Is this why they are disappointed with a new bunch of politicians who turn out not to be perfect? Is the dream of revolution more comfortable than the reality?

Participation, power and social change! It’s all happening today in Bolivia. And has left me wondering about us – the PPSC team at IDS. Not all white (though the majority of us are) but, otherwise, like my Bolivian friends, middle class progressive intellectuals and like them committed to social justice – in our case on a world, rather than a national stage. How will we feel when the people whose interests we argue for no longer want our advice and we have lost our role? Will we congratulate ourselves for the past contribution we have made? Or will we feel aggrieved that the tide of history has left us high and dry on the beach?

Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and her Twitter account is: @rosalindeyben

Previous blog posts by Rosalind Eyben:

Julie Burchill, silo mentalities and international (trans)gender equality


Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

In the last week or so, the British newspaper “The Observer” has been drawn into a controversy after it published an aggressively trans-phobic opinion piece by serial-controversialist commentator Julie Burchill. The abusive nature of her rhetoric has served as a salutary slap to the complacency of many who viewed the transgender experience as neatly folded within the recent incremental progress made in the UK towards sexual equality. There have been some fascinating responses from the likes of Paris Lees, Roz Kaveney and Brooke Magnanti that have really opened this debate up to wider scrutiny.

In truth, the furore around Burchill’s incendiary comments has highlighted one of the quietly unremarked realities of work around sexual rights. For much of the time when we talk about LGBT equality, the transgender and bisexual rights agendas are viewed as marginal or quietly ignored in favour of the “broader” gay equality agenda. Even within this narrow definition of LGBT, lesbians find themselves struggling to be heard, lending credence to the argument that the onward march of the gay rights movement often leaves gender inequality untroubled in its wake.

In the international sexual rights arena, this blind spot is even more damaging to the life chances of transgender people. As the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme has argued in the past, there is a stark correlation between marginalization and poverty. The denial of sexual rights can contribute to poverty, whilst poverty can make people more vulnerable to sexual rights abuses. Pushed to the margins of society, some groups such as the ‘third gender’ hijra (South Asian communities that transcend simplistic conceptions of physiological sex, gender presentation and performance, presenting a challenge to preconceived notions of a gender continuum) have built their own community support structures, such as self-defined households led by an older feminised guru, in which they gain work as dancers or sex workers. For many however, this can lead to them being involved in risky sexual behaviours with little or no access to condoms or sexual health advice.

Reports such as the UNDP-funded “Lost in Transition: Transgender People, Rights and HIV Vulnerability in the Asia-Pacific Region” are underscoring the paucity of action research taking place with the transgender community to develop service provision tailored to their needs. The authors argue strongly that HIV and sexual health care services will only become socially equitable if a greater amount of research takes place in partnership between governments, community-based organisations and the transgender community. With the caveat that research data remains limited, there is growing anecdotal evidence that the incidence of HIV amongst transgender people in the region is now exceeding rates recorded amongst men who have sex with men and in one South-East Asian city rose from 25% to 34% from 2004-2007.

In the same way as the transgender contribution to such moments of queer equality as the Stonewall Riots (proudly trumpeted by Obama in his second inaugural this week) has been written out of history, the needs of transgender communities are subsumed in the LGBT movements response to international sexual rights campaigning. Yet in common with Northern countries during the early years of gay liberation, transgender and transsexual people remain on the front line of this global struggle, more readily visible and by their very existence problematising received wisdom about fixed gender identities.

And that’s the key point here. Julie Burchill’s article stemmed from a misguided view that the only real woman is one who was born physiologically female (in the traditional sense). Exclusion of transgender women because they are not deemed ‘sufficiently female’ runs against the founding principles that I took from second-wave feminism: that gender is fluid, socially constructed and our struggle should be to broaden our capacity to understand what it means to be both a women and a man, or to live in the space between these accepted orthodoxies of male and female.

In recent years, there has been a sense that many of those engaged in gender and sexual rights in international development have retreated into separate silos so completely that an intersectional analysis of these overlapping forms of oppression currently feels too difficult to bridge. Under the leadership of Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone MP, the UK Government has historically published it’s first transgender equality plan and here the challenge is explicit – in spite of an excellent set of objectives, none of them require a Department for International Development (DfID) response, in spite of this Ministry doing a great deal of work around gender and sexual rights. Perhaps this is one of my New Year’s resolutions – to view this unpleasant episode as a catalytic call to arms for us to problematise the now-dominant assumptions around gender and sexuality in development and find common cause once more.

Stephen Wood is a researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood:
What were the PPSC blog’s Top 10 posts of 2012?
The stark realities lying behind the Ugandan Anti-Homsexuality Bill
• Putting pleasure into safer sex interventions
Diversifying our strategies for sexual equality

Participation for Development: Why is this a good time to be alive?


Robert_Chambers200Robert Chambers

Based on and abbreviated from a keynote to the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) conference in Canberra on 28 November 2012

For us engaged with participation for development, why is this a good time to be alive? There are so many negative trends in our world – in climate change, rising inequality, abuses of globalisation, the glorification of greed….and so much else. But for participation for development, I believe the glass is not half empty but half full and filling, because there are so many wonderful realities and potentials for making a difference for the better.

First, meanings. Participation in development-speak is used to cover a multitude of practices, some inspiring and good, and some depressingly bad. I shall not define it but simply say that participation has implications for power relations, personal interactions, and attitudes and behaviours – and that participatory can apply to almost all social contexts and processes, not least in organisations, education, research, communities and the family. For its part, development can be taken to mean good change, raising questions of power and relationships concerning who says what is good and who identifies what change matters – whether ‘we’ professionals do, or whether it is ‘they’ – those who are poor, marginalised, vulnerable and excluded.

In our contemporary context, four major trends are both significant for participation for development, and easy to overlook or underestimate. First, change accelerates for poor and marginalised people – changes in the conditions they experience, and changes in their awareness, aspirations and priorities. The revolution of the mobile phone in the past decade is one spectacular dimension, but more broadly social change, including changes in gender relations, appears to be more and more rapid. In consequence the challenge to development professionals to keep in touch and up to date is greater now than ever.

Second, development professionals are increasingly isolated from poor people. This applies especially to senior people in governments, aid agencies and NGOs. Many are caught in ‘the capital trap’ – capital cities in which they are imprisoned, held tight by meetings, visitors, internet and the digital tyranny of email, skype, webinars and the like. Field visits outside the capital have become more difficult to find time for and rarer. And when donor staff from OECD country headquarters say they are visiting ‘the field’ they often mean the capital city of a recipient country.

Third, tensions have become more intense between the Newtonian paradigm of things, design, planning and predictability (the domain of the left hemisphere of the brain) and the complexity paradigm of people, participation, processes, emergence and unpredictability (the domain of the right hemisphere). The buzzwords empowerment, participation, partnership, ownership, transparency and accountability all imply changes in power and relationships, but these are contradicted especially in aid by top down standardised demands and the mindset that goes with ‘delivery’ (a prominent word in AusAid and other aid literature). The Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness repeatedly talks of partners and partnership, which added together are used more in the Declaration than any other word or word root (my count is 96 times) and monitor, measure, assess, performance and results are very common, but poor, vulnerable, marginalised, people and power are not to be found anywhere. The 1990s were a time when people and participatory approaches were being mainstreamed; in the 2,000s the pendulum swung back towards things and preset planning and continues to swing in that direction.

So why is this a good time to be alive as a development professional? The fourth trend – the quiet revolution of proliferating Particpatory Methodologies (PMs) – is one reason. We now have an extraordinary variety of PMs. The named brands of the 1990s – PRA, Appreciative Inquiry, Reflect and many others – survive but increasingly now practitioners adapt and improvise their own ways of doing things to meet their particular contexts and needs. ICTs, most notably mobile phones, but also GIS and other technologies, have added to the ever richer range of participatory methods that can be combined with others.

Three Rs are relevant here– reversals, reflexivity and realism. For reversals there is now vast scope, with many ways of reversing adverse trends. Reality checks, pioneered in Bangladesh and used by AusAid for learning about basic education in Indonesia, are one: researchers live with families in representative communities for five or so days and nights, and then come together to compare experience and learning – revealing very rapid social change of which those in capital cities are often not aware. Participatory statistics are another with huge potential for win-wins – outsider professionals or local people facilitate the generation of upto-date statistics about qualitative changes, and those whose participatory analysis generates them themselves learn and change as a result. Behaviour, attitudes and facilitation are more and more recognised for their primacy as drivers for change in almost all contexts.

Reflexivity – becoming aware of and offsetting the biases and frames of one’s mindset and beliefs – is a key way forward, with each discipline looking at itself in a mirror and good professionalism being recognised to require this sort of introspection in order do better in development. It will be a great day when this is integral to all university courses.

Realism is the nub. It demands being in touch and up to date with rapidly and unpredictably changing grass roots realities. It requires recognising and rewarding those who learn from what works and what does not, acknowledging failure, and learning and changing fast. It means being constantly alert to learning from new insights, like those to be published this month (December 2012) as Listening for a Change. 6,000 recipients of aid were listened to, in some 20 countries. From these voices we hear strong appeals for smarter aid, and not too much too fast. We learn how bad the effects are of ‘proceduralisation’ with its log frames, lists, matrices and templates, closing off as they do the ‘spontaneous and respectful interaction’ that recipients want.

The primacy of the personal and personal relations comes powerfully. Very widely recipients would like their donors to be present and to have direct relations with them. Time to Listen reports that ‘Every story of effective aid told by aid recipients included a description of particular staff who worked in ways that developed respect and trust with aid recipients’. The implication is more donor staff, closer to the ground, with continuity, and continuous mutual learning of recipients and donors together. This reinforces a point much wider than aid – that each one of us can make a difference, and on a daily and hourly basis. Many big changes come from many small actions of many, many people. Before Palestine was recognised in the UN as a country, 1.8 million people had signed a petition on AVAAZ, each taking perhaps less than five minutes to do so. As Time to Listen concludes: ‘Every moment of business as usual is a lost moment for making change’ And Gandhi’s much quoted ‘We must become the change we wish to see in the world’ is as pertinent today as ever.

So across a wide front we have more and new challenges and opportunities – in participation for development and through its wide interpretation and implications. In our globalised world, and with all the innovations to hand, we have scope as never before to make a difference. Creativity, fulfilment and fun are there waiting for expression and experience. And we can show and know them immediately in this Conference. So let us make these two days, as we can, a time to share, to learn, to change and to enjoy, so that between us and individually, we can truly make a difference. And as part of this, let us make it a good place to be, and a bloody good time to be alive.

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

Read other recent blog posts from Robert Chambers:

What were the PPSC blog’s Top 10 posts of 2012?


Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

On behalf of the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team, I’d like to welcome back our readers to what we hope proves to be a fascinating year for our blog. Reflecting the outputs from several research projects and a number of pressing global debates and issues we are engaged in, the PPSC research team have some really interesting pieces in the pipeline in the next few months.  I hope you’ll continue to read and engage with the debates and discussion that arise from our articles.

However, in case you missed some of our blogs last year, I thought you might like to look at our Top 10 most popular pieces, as well as some of our articles that you might have missed! Please do share these with your networks, add comments if you haven’t already and as always, encourage others to subscribe to the blog!

Top 10 blog posts of 2012:

  1. “Just do women’s empowerment”  by Naomi Hossain
  2. “On having Voice and Being Heard: Participation in the Post-2015 Policy Process”  by Elizabeth Mills
  3. “Spring uprisings calling spring academics: #bring books out to the streets” by Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere
  4. “Global development: the new buzzword?” by Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere and Alex Kelbert
  5. “Eleven predictions for Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood (if they continue to remain in power” by Mariz Tadros
  6. “Post 2015: What do policymakers know about poverty?” by Joanna Wheeler and Danny Burns
  7. “No gong for Cameron’s Hunger Summit” by Naomi Hossain
  8. “Challenging attempts to silence civil society in Uganda” by Stephen Wood
  9. “Are we ready for an ‘academic spring’?” by Danny Burns
  10. “Digital activism in post-revolution Egypt: How relevant is online dissidence in the marathon for democracy?” by Hani Morsi

Excellent blog posts you might have missed in 2012:

Stephen Wood is a researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood: