Work with us: Community-driven research inspiring change


Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

‘People are sick and tired of being subjects of research. We are doing action research so people are becoming subjects of transformation.’

For me this statement from Walter Arteaga, one of the partner researchers in the Participate Initiative, sums up the creative approach my colleagues in the Participate Initiative are taking to engage those that are most affected by poverty and marginalisation in change and to bring their perspectives into the post-2015 process.

The Participate Initiative, recently launched a new short video which showcases some of the exciting participatory research the team has been undertaking with their partners in 29 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe in the past year. The team has been using participatory videos and digital storytelling – together with other participatory research methods –to make excluded voices heard in the UN debates around a post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework.

Watch the 20 min documentary and be inspired:

Alternatively, if you’re pressed for time check out some of the shorter films:

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

Read other recent blogs about Participate:

A sense of insecurity – violence, gender and agency in South Sudan


Marjoke OosteromMarjoke_Oosterom200

In South Sudan, people’s sense of insecurity tells us something about the bottom-up view of the political settlement of the new nation. People feel the (new) state doesn’t offer sufficient security, so they continue to use some of the tactics they employed during the civil war to protect themselves and their families. How they act upon this feeling also tells us about gender relations in the post-war context. Here is a taster of my ongoing research in South Sudan; one of the case study countries in the project Power Violence, Citizenship, and Agency.

South Sudan gun in front of hut

The high number of arms in the community is considered a major cause of violence escalating. These are allegedly provided by politicians, who are therefore accused of instigating violence. Yet it is the decision taken at village level to use arms against other communities, even when only a few men are involved.

This story is based on in-depth case study research among the Latuko of Eastern Equatoria State, in the south-east of South Sudan. In the post-civil war era and since South Sudan’s Independence, the Latuko experience various forms of violence and insecurity. Land and border disputes between communities, often between different clans over their territorial boundaries, are common. Cattle raiding is common among various ethnic groups in Eastern Equatoria. Raids are usually accompanied by severe lethal violence that claims many victims. In the villages where I work, an everyday form of violence is physical fights among the men, and alcohol plays a strong role in this. Women I talked to ranked domestic violence as the most frequent form of physical violence they experience in daily life.

A sense of insecurity went beyond the violence that was actually taking place in people’s home area. Feelings of insecurity were deepened by news about the Murle people who infiltrated the northern part of Eastern Equatoria and kidnapped children. News could be fragmented and rumours were enough to concern people. A sense of insecurity was also deepened by news about the Yao Yao insurgents in Jonglei state – a long distance away. The men said: ‘It can be like a bush fire. Any moment it can quickly come your way.’

Tactics to keep safe
Their sense of insecurity reflected how citizens at the local level perceive South Sudan’s political settlement from below. A sense of insecurity was compounded by the perception that the state was not capable to resolve those conflicts. Moreover, people felt many conflicts were caused by politicians. Thus, since Eastern Equatoria has its own politicians such conflicts might just as well happen here.

woman adding herbs to a kaleba (drinking vessel)

The picture shows the kalebas. After settling a dispute all parties involved will drink from the same kalabebas with these herbs added to the drink.

For these reasons, people felt they had to rely on their own mechanisms for protection. Tactics have their roots in customary institutions and were used during the civil war. Both men and women were always looking out for signs of ‘enemies’ in the area. Men discussed news about any form of insecurity, far or near, in the Amangat – the place where the council of adult men meets. They discussed they should be vigilant and always united in case they needed to face the enemy one day. They would tell the women to look out for strangers when they went to fetch water or firewood. Women are not supposed to move after 8PM. To some fathers, a sense of insecurity is a reason to keep girls at home instead of sending them to the school that is a long walk away. Protection, in practice, becomes restriction. Tactics that were used during the civil war are used today.

Women’s security and strategies
Customary authority forbids women to enter the Amangat. Thus, formally they are not allowed a say on security matters. But they have their ways. They’ll sing songs to call for peace or to encourage men to fight. A senior woman may call a man from the Amangat and whisper the view of the women in his ear. But they are not the ones that take the decision whether to fight or to talk. Therefore, women often use avoidance tactics to stay safe; don’t walk far distances alone, avoid the ‘bush’ where robbers might hide.

In the context of a developing nation there is a lot of talk about how women participate at all levels of government, including on security issues. Take for instance the National Action Plan on UN Resolution 1325. Equally important for women in rural areas is how they can gain influence over those other authorities play a strong role in women’s security, as long as the state is perceived to leave gaps in the protection of its people.

Marjoke’s work in South Sudan is part of the programme on Power, Violence, Citizenship and Agency at IDS. This case study is funded by ICCO and carried out in collaboration with Voice for Change. The case study report on South Sudan is expected in April 2014. The report will discuss how men and women exercise agency in response to each form of insecurity, including land disputes and domestic violence. It will highlight the roles of state, customary and social leadership.

Marjoke Oosterom is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.

Read previous blogs by Marjoke Oosterom

World Toilet Day: ‘We can’t wait to improve sanitation’


Petra Bongartz???????????????????????????????

The 19th November is World Toilet Day. The World Toilet Organization created World Toilet Day (WTD) to break the deadly silence around sanitation and to raise awareness of the struggle of the billions of people in the world who still do not have access to adequate sanitation. It is a day to draw attention to the many challenges this brings to their daily lives and the dire consequences for their health and wellbeing. A day to encourage discussion about what needs to be done in order to tackle the sanitation crisis! It is a call to action, a call for everyone to get involved in changing behaviour and policy in order to end open defecation and thereby change the lives of billions of people for the better.  And it is also an occasion to recognise and celebrate the efforts and achievements of organisations and individuals in bringing about positive change in the area of sanitation and hygiene.

Woman standing outside a latrine in Malawi

Latrine in Malawi, photo by Edson Baptista

This year, the first year of the 19th November being officially designated World Toilet Day by the United Nations (despite it having been ‘unofficially’ honoured since 2001), the theme is ‘We can’t wait to improve sanitation’.  And with 2.5 billion people around the world still lacking appropriate sanitation, the call for action is as urgent as ever!

The Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) Knowledge Hub at IDS is marking the occasion with the launch of a new publication series Frontiers in CLTS: Innovations and Insights – a series of short notes offering practical guidance on new methods and approaches and thinking on broader issues. The first issue looks at participatory latrine design. A methodology that can ensure that users participate in creating and selecting sanitation technologies that are appropriate for their needs.

Petra Bongartz is the Coordination, Communication and Networking Officer for the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) Knowledge Hub, based at the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at IDS.

Read more about CLTS:

What we talk about when we talk about patriarchy


Carolina Maldonado Pacheco??????????

On International Men’s Day, I reflect back on the international symposium ‘Undressing Patriarchy: Redressing Inequities’, organised by a programme on Gender, Power and Sexuality at IDS in September. It had the goal of exploring new ways of thinking about patriarchy and challenging superficial conceptualisations of gender.

Described as ‘an unlikely encounter of unusual suspects’, the symposium lived up to the expectations bringing together researchers and activists working on feminist movements, masculinities, sexual rights and queer theory, among others. Rich and lively discussions took place, ranging from the definition of patriarchy and how and why should men get involved in gender justice, to how sex workers challenge traditional gender roles and how to use media, art and technology for gender equality.

The discussions between people with different perspectives, histories and ways of thinking were bound to hit disagreements at some point. However, the symposium was proof that dialogue and empathy are the best way to build bridges between people with different perspectives.

One of the biggest surprises for me was seeing how difficultit is to reach common understandings even around the same cause. Everyone in the symposium was – without a doubt – unhappy with the current patriarchal structure that they see in the world around them, in their own personal lives and even in their jobs and organisations. However, two main disagreements struck me the most:

  • Defining exactly what patriarchy is and the supposed division between theorists and pragmatists around it.
  • The role of men in the struggle against patriarchy and the extent to which men can be feminists.

Defining ‘patriarchy’
On the first case, arriving to a more nuanced definition of patriarchy and how to undress it proved to be extremely difficult. For example, the participants discussed whether the term patriarchy correctly encompasses the different axis of discrimination that people face, which go beyond gender to class, caste, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and others. Moreover, it was clear that if we were to properly undress patriarchy, we needed to explicitly bring power and privileges into the conversation.

There was also a division between those who thought that we couldn’t move forward without a clear, deep theoretical understanding of the concepts we were using, and those who thought that it was more important to think in practical terms about what organisations can do in ‘the real world’ to end patriarchy. I was part of one of the most practical teams during the group discussions, and I agreed with the need of coming up with practical ways in which we can foster change in organisations and projects. Nevertheless, having just finished my MA in Gender and Development at IDS, I also understand the benefits of having clear theoretical understandings of the limitations that patriarchy imposes on us.

Can men be feminists?
The second disagreement that I noticed was about who should be involved in the discussions around gender equality – that is, what roles can women and men have when working towards gender justice. It was clear that there were some misunderstandings and a reluctance to work together between sectors of the feminist movement and from those who work with men and boys towards gender justice.

This seeming conflict made me think about my own history with feminism and men. Ever since I ‘discovered’ feminism and got involved with women’s movements, feminist men have been around me. Oddly enough, most of what I know about gender and feminism has come from conversations with two very important men in my life. Having male teachers and a male convenor during my MA did not seem out of the ordinary. Only after deeper reflection and a better understanding of the struggle of the various feminist movements around the world, I have realised the difficulties of bringing feminist and masculinities movements together.sign saying 'pragmatism versus utopia is a false binary'

Luckily, these two disagreements were thoroughly analysed and people walked away with a better understanding of the dynamics in both situations. Two cards that were anonymously posted during the evaluation session summed this point perfectly. The first one said, referring to the most emotional moment of the symposium: ‘When we were asked who in the room considered themselves feminists, and everyone raised their hand’. The second one, on the most important learning for them: ‘Pragmatism vs. utopia is a false binary’.

These two cards, for me, summed up what the symposium was about: people with different views, but who are working towards the same goal, coming together through dialogue. Gloria Anzaldúa beautifully describes this sentiment – and my feelings after the symposium – in one of her essays:

’Not all of us have the same oppressions, but we empathize and identify with each other’s oppressions. We do not have the same ideology, nor we derive similar solutions. Some of us are leftists, some of us practitioners of magic. Some of us are both. But those different affinities are not opposed to each other

Carolina Maldonado is an MA graduate in Gender and Development at IDS.

Read more about the symposium

Fair markets and food prices – images from North Bengal


Naomi Hossain

A couple of days ago I wrote about the long shadow that the 1974 famine is still casting in Bangladesh today. While things have changed for the better, rising food prices are an issue of concern to many. These pictures were taken during my recent trip to northern Bangladesh, where our research team has been studying a ‘fair markets’ movement of small farmers and shopkeepers.

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

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

The long shadow of famine


Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain

Gobindalal Das was a young journalist when in 1974 he watched a passenger jump out of a train at the northern Bangladesh town of Gaibandha and vomit on the platform. What he saw next has stayed with him forever: another man ran up to where the passenger stood vomiting and ate it. He was starving. The story Das wrote for his newspaper Dainik Bangla went, we would now say, viral, and the world heard of the famine that killed up to 1.5 million people in the new nation of Bangladesh.

This story is well known in Bangladesh, but I first heard it from the author himself when we met at the Gaibandha Press Club in October. Das compresses decades of reporting on poverty and hunger into insightful commentary on what has changed here. The famine is never far from his mind. Some say it still casts its shadow on policy and its implementation here, and has driven a great deal of positive change. Das still writes on issues of poverty and hunger, but there is much less bad news on that front these days from Gaibandha. Only three years ago, news editors demanded stories of the seasonal famine – the dreaded monga for which the present Bengali month earned the title Morar (Deadly) Kartik. Kartik is no longer deadly. In fact, most of the news from this area seems good, now.


Agriculture is using more modern technology and more is grown for markets than in the recent past.

Agricultural development – driver for change
The main driver of change, our journalist friend stressed, is agricultural development. You can actually see this from the road – more diversification and more specialisation, clusters of vegetable and dairy production, modern processing plant, complex distribution and storage systems – all just a couple of km off the main inter-district highway.

The Jamuna Bridge has made a huge difference to the north in the past decade by eliminating the chaotic ferry crossing. Mobile telecoms make markets more accessible and remittances are contributing. The good news extends to the local chars (fertile islands washed up by river erosion, usually occupied by very poor people) which are growing new crops, more productively. The DFID-funded Chars Livelihoods Programme gets a positive name-check from the journalists for its work on dairy farming. A sign of the times is that mega Bangladeshi food corporations like Pran are said to be in supplier contracts with local farmers – a development worth watching, if true.

Famine politics are foundational
The Government has also sharpened up its food distribution mechanisms since the 2008 food price crisis. At the District Food Controller’s office we saw bigger better godowns for storing procured grains. Systems remain in place to know where and when to release staples into the market in order to bring prices down, allay jitters or deter speculators, and to ensure access for the poor. It’s a responsive system – transfers, sales, and procurement are triggered when prices are high or a shock occurs; while by no means perfect, the system is at least quick, and big enough to impact on food markets.

Famine politics are foundational in Bangladesh, which is why each government prioritises food production and distribution, no more so when crisis looms. They do so or else they don’t get a second shot. The targeted food and cash transfer programmes and the Open Market Sales or OMS and the willingness to dig deep in the fiscal pocket to import grains when domestic production falls short – all of these are there for a reason, shared among the Bangladeshi elite. It is fortunate that while Bangladesh’s political classes do not agree on many things, keeping famine at bay is at least one.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. She was in Gaibandha doing field research for the DFID-ESRC funded Food Riots and Food Rights project, 2012-14. On the 1974 famine, read R. Sobhan (1979) ‘Politics and Famine in Bangladesh’, Economic and Political Weekly vol. 14 no. 48. If you are interested in how famine has influenced food and food security policy in Bangladesh, see Out of the Shadow of Famine, edited R. Ahmed et al (2000), particularly Chapter 6. Naomi’s book Elite Perceptions of Poverty in Bangladesh was published by University Press Limited in 2005.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain: