Favourite posts out of 100 PPSC blog posts


Last week we published our 100th post on the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) blog, which has now been running for just over 2 years. I’ve used this opportunity to ask my colleagues and students in the PPSC team at IDS about their most favourite post in the last two years. Here are the responses (sorted chronologically by time of the post):

Egypt: Growing anger with western opinion by Mariz TadrosRichard_Douglass200
Richard Douglas: ‘I like that this post’s focus is on issues that resound across the Middle East and it is a perspective that reflects a view that is not normally stated in the main stream media.’

Moving beyond the North-South ‘development-divide’  by Katy Oswald
Hamsini Ravi (student MA Participation, Power and Social Change): ‘As a student of Development, who’s spent a year dissecting, researching and reflecting on several questions of Hamsini Ravidevelopment with a diverse cohort, it is astonishing how much we stereotype and ‘box’, despite being thinking individuals. We like categories, we like looking at things as ‘black’ and ‘white’, because they make our lives and thoughts simpler. But Katy offered a pertinent perspective, and pushed me out of my comfort zone, and made me less lazy about labels like ‘first world’ or ‘developing’.’

Is this that time? (Será este aquele tempo?) – Images from Brazil, words for Sue_Schirmer200everywhere by akshay khanna, Luan Citele and Renan Otto
Sue Schirmer: ‘I like the idea of using creative arts (photography and poetry) to reflect on development issues.’

The crisis of Brazilian democracy, as seen from Mozambique by Alex Shankland
Jessica Kennedy (MA Participation, Power and Social Change Student): ‘Alex’ piece is Jessica Kennedy imagethe one I remember the best. Why? It was relevant, touching on something I was interested in, cared about, but felt I did not have enough of an understanding about – and related to other themes I was exploring, namely the apparent wave of ‘unruly’ popular protests happening this year. It was global, looking at Brazilian ‘manifestations’ from the view of a Brit trying to explain the nature of an entirely different type of riot to Mozambican colleagues. And it promised more – more blogs, more analysis and more reading.’

Jane_Stevens200States of Exception, a Tragedy in Unceasing Acts: Development Encounters by Patta Scott-Villiers
Jane Stevens: ‘Patta’s beautiful, poignant piece on her experiences in Palestine and Israel brought a place, a people, an almost impossible situation, alive in a way no other blog ever has. At once I was there, I could smell, feel and breathe it… and those ordinary, yet utterly extraordinary, people of both territories simply picked themselves up from the page in  front of me and moved around my office laughing, gesticulating, passionate… And I was left wondering how can they and we can move forward to somewhere better? And who are we to truly understand as we drift in and out of situations leaving behind, as Patta puts it, a “faint trail of idealism”?  Whilst the reality of the huge, complex, divisive tangle of it all settled in my head with a soft thud, this piece and the people in it left me feeling reflective, humbled and with eyes full of tears.’

Three things the crisis (should have) taught us about women’s empowerment by Stephen_Wood200Naomi Hossain
Stephen Wood: ‘I particularly enjoyed this piece from Naomi Hossain, which exploded a few myths around the presumption in development that paid employment amongst women is a straightforward stepping stone towards agency and independence. Her piece crystallised an increasingly loud critique of the aid industry’s dependence on
women’s unpaid care to take the strain of economic shocks and served as a rallying call for sustainable social protection for women and care-givers.’

What do kelp forests and Cape Town’s Regional Home Affairs Office have in common? Power and democratic mediation in South Africa


Jessica Kennedy imageJessica Kennedy

For the last four months I have lived and worked in Cape Town, South Africa as part of a ‘work-based learning placement’ for the Masters course in Participation, Power and Social Change at IDS (MAP). I am one of eleven Masters (MA) students scattered across the globe who are currently trying to undertake action research or learning projects to further our understanding of concepts of power, participation and social change.

I think the emphasis is on ‘trying’. Many of us faced challenges setting up action research inquiries or learning circles in new contexts; others struggled to keep focus on learning amidst the rush of action. Soon we shall each attempt to synthesise these experiences into a coherent, reflective paper. Wish us luck!

My focus has been on understanding the concept of democratic mediation. Those interested in social change have done much work to unpick the concept of power and reinforce its importance. In my interactions here, however, I see that our usage of terms and ideas can stick in unhelpful characterisations. Recognising it is useful to see power as everywhere, located in interactions, we still talk of ‘powerful’ or ‘haves’ opposed to ‘powerless’ or ‘have-nots’. We talk about ‘uppers’ and ‘lowers’ in different situations; really, are these identities not far more fluid and dynamic, changing over time and with different interactions? As a young British woman linked to a prestigious institution, interning at an activist organisation in Cape Town, am I powerful or not? Perhaps a better question is, ‘how am I powerful, in what situations and through what interactions?’

We often talk about power structures. This can be helpful: if you are in a position of relative powerlessness, this can expose the structural nature of your situation. You might then express your sense of powerlessness better, or start to explore how to work around those structures. It is important to recognise structural inequalities where they exist.

Yet this language obscures the dynamic nature of power – that relationships of power are affected by the interactions of various individuals, as they are by societal structures.

Previously I mentioned the situation of asylum seekers trying to access documentation at the Home Affairs Department’s Regional Office in Cape Town. With regular police checks on people who look foreign, and the risk of deportation, detention or fines if papers are not up to date, documentation is central to the lives of people seeking sanctuary in South Africa and other migrants. I have focused in Cape Town on understanding what happens in the spaces around the Home Affairs Department: where desperate individuals jostle with middle men, security guards and government officials – and others, such as myself – to get inside the office and leave with up-to-date papers.

Cradled by two oceans, Cape Town is surrounded by incredible marine life. In the aquarium you can see a controlled example of the vibrant kelp forests. Sharks, fish, kelp, sea urchins and phytoplankton jostle and feed off each other. Through my supervisor’s support, I started to see all the complicated, ambiguous interactions outside the Home Affairs Department as an ‘ecosystem’. Each element is sustained by and sustains each other, even if an individual aims to get out of that situation, or exploit someone in it. Each new interaction changes dynamics. Everything changes when a diver with a camera drops in, scattering fish and bringing curious sharks closer. I think I might be a remora, a fish that sucks onto another, swimming behind it.

You can take the metaphor too far. For me, it revealed something important about what was happening at Home Affairs. People’s interactions with each other were situated in a context that constantly changed through these interactions. Power dynamics were fluid. What seemed central was democratic mediation. Relationships appeared predicated on an individuals’ ability to provide access to something: a corrupt Home Office official; an extension to an asylum permit; inside the building; information about changes to policy; the wider public; or money. I was embedded within this ecosystem. A relational view of these interactions, recognising their complexity, allowed me to make better sense of what people were doing and saying.

For me, the concept of democratic mediation has been a ‘lens’ to shed light on these interactions. If I were to continue working as an activist to challenge injustice in the asylum system in South Africa, I am convinced that this understanding would allow me to design better strategies to increase people’s access to documentation and hold public actors to account. It would enable me to appreciate how any intervention exists in a complex, changing ecosystem, requiring a flexible approach. It would ensure I see everyone I interact with as an agent in this system, and understand how different actions can take someone from ‘powerful’ or ‘powerless’ towards mediating others’ access.

I have been fascinated by how an in-depth look at a particular situation, and my role within it, has revealed aspects of concepts I understood theoretically but not experientially. This action research placement has an invaluable opportunity to take concepts of power, participation and social change out into ‘the real world’. For me, the familiar context of social action around the asylum system and new situation of South African society, community and politics heightened my learning. I can’t recommend enough the experience of this MA as a way to deepen knowledge and learning. Only, maybe don’t ask me that in a month’s time, when the paper is due.

Jessica Kennedy is a student at IDS, currently undertaking the MA in Participation, Power and Social Change.

Post 2015 agenda – Listening to the voices of people living in poverty


Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

‘If democracy binds us as a family, then why do we get excluded and treated differently?’ asked the panelists at a recent Ground Level Panel meeting in India. Meanwhile, their counterparts in Egypt commented on one of the reasons for exclusion: ‘To those who did not educate us, may God forgive you.’

Panelsts in Egypt sitting round tables and talking

Ground Level Panelists in Egypt discussing their vision for development

As the target date for the Millennium Development goals is drawing closer, the UN has established a High Level Panel (HLP) to discuss a new global development framework beyond 2015. In order to bring the voices of those directly affected by poverty and marginalisation into the debate, the Participate initiative, has established a Ground Level Panel mirroring the work of the High Level Panel. During July 2013, meetings were held in four countries bringing together people living in poverty and marginalisation from a huge variety of backgrounds and enabling them to voice their thoughts and recommendations for a new development framework. The blog entries about the meetings give a fascinating insight into what poverty means for people that are directly affected by it – and their views on how this could be changed.

The meeting in Brazil was characterised by the diversity of the people attending it, and each of the participants had different experiences of what ‘extreme poverty’ means for them. The diversity is also expressed in their message to policy makers. Combining an indigenous and a Banto African expression to highlight the interconnectedness of life and the importance of including everyone: ‘Awêre para Kisile’ – ‘That everything goes well for those who don’t have a name yet’.

In Egypt, the Ground Level Panel was not only rich in terms of the content produced, but also it provided a transformative space where panelists were able to challenge their capabilities and self-hindering beliefs. They explored reasons for their marginalisation and found the space to voice their stories and opinions. The process was not only able to prove that citizen’s participation is a right that enlightens, but also it provides a more stable alternative for expression. It also moves the hearts and hands towards a locally-owned change.

In India, panel members from across the country discussed reasons for exclusion and marginalisation, like disabilities and poverty. They then went on to look at the role of different players, stumbling blocks, a way forward and institutional mechanisms for bringing about change.

The panelists in Uganda identified common challenges that their ommunities faced, like access to health care and issues around land and peace. They then expressed their shared hopes for their country: ‘Our Vision for Uganda is that it respects the rule of law, human rights, and transparency to ensure that services are delivered to everyone equally without any segregation or misappropriation of national resources.’

Panelists in India giving a presentation on a podium

Indian panelists presenting their views

Find out more and read the communiqués from each of the panels on the Participate blog.

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the  Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS. Participate is hosted by the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS and Beyond 2015, it provides high quality evidence on the reality of poverty at ground level, bringing the perspectives of the poorest into the post-2015 debate.

Read other recent blogs about Participate: