Considering a Masters course? Interested in participation, development and questions around power and social change?


Susanne Schirmer

This week the IDS students for the 2012/13 course celebrated their graduation and I thought this is a good opportunity to introduce the MA Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) based at IDS.

The course is particularly geared towards professionals with at least three years of voluntary or work experience. It will enable students to critically reflect on their own practice and to explore the challenges of participation and power relations and what it means to facilitate change through an action learning project. Students come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, including community organisations, NGOs, social movements, governments, businesses and consultancies. They are based in the global South or North and work on diverse issues such as agriculture, health, HIV-AIDS, natural resources, climate change, youth, gender, community development, governance, communication, planning, evaluation and policy-making.

What makes MAP unique is the combination of academic study, practical experience and personal reflection. Two terms of teaching are followed by a four month period of work-based action learning or research, which could be in any country. Academic supervision for the placement is provided throughout by an IDS researcher. Devika Menon and Jessica Kennedy, two of last year’s MAP students, have blogged about their learning through their placements in India and South Africa.

To find out more about the MA Participation, Power and Social Change, watch a short video:

Visit the recently launched IDS Alumni blog to read about student’s experiences at IDS and how their time at IDS has influenced their careers.

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

Read other blogs about the MAP course:

On Openness: What’s holding back efficient collaboration on complex issues in international development?


Hani MorsiHani Morsi photo mini

It is high time the development research community started learning from computer scientists, who have long realised that tackling complex problems is most optimally done by distributing effort and resources. In the computing world, the term ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving‘ (CDPS) refers to a system whereby, a network of independent, often geographically distant, computing devices can work together to solve a given problem.

In my research, I look at how some of these new modes of technologically-catalysed collaboration influence relationships in spheres of political contention, specifically in environments experiencing tempestuous transitions and high degrees of uncertainty. Networked communities and the exponentially evolving information and communication technologies are increasingly providing better means for:

  • collaborative knowledge production
  • distributed problem-solving
  • flattening hierarchies of leadership and decision making.

Disciplinary islands

Development academia is cognizant that adapting to an increasingly complex world requires tapping into new, or at least unconventional, approaches to participation. There is no shortage of studies on addressing complexity, participatory knowledge creation, and technologically-facilitated collaboration in contemporary development literature. There is also plenty of innovative thinking going on, but the problem is that this thinking often seems to be happening in disciplinary islands without much interconnectedness, which is something that I have alluded to in a previous blog post. Yet I want to highlight that the greatest limitation to the formation of such networks of collaboration is not a dearth of willingness of those concerned, but restricted access to the necessary channels of knowledge.

picture of lonely island

photo credit: Sinead Friel, creative commons license

Research behind paywalls
As much as the notion of ‘openness’ pervades contemporary discourses in development, there is perverse, almost deliberate, disregard to the fact that much of the research on ‘open development’, open data, access to knowledge and other relevant themes is, paradoxically, behind paywalls. A researcher succinctly bemoaned this in this recent tweet. Indeed, there are increasing voices of discontent, but what is still missing is a more vocal critique of this glaring dissonance.

Amartya Sen observed that the main culprit of food shortages is not the lack of food, but the inequalities inherent in how food is distributed. The same observation rings true if we consider the problem with the economy of ideas in international development research. Innovative thinking and possibilities for collaborative research and knowledge production are not scarce, yet the disconnected knowledge silos in which bits and pieces of the puzzle are scattered, largely due to the outmoded academic publishing systems, are  holding back the realisation of a big part of this potential. That is, the aging and now irrelevant distribution channels of knowledge are the main problem. The elephant in the room of development research is the false openness which is only starting to be, somewhat timidly, acknowledged by a small but increasing number of academics.

So, the main constraint-to a truly inclusive global collaboration on the world’s most pressing issues-is access, not willingness. To further illustrate this, let’s extend the parallel between distributed computing and emerging paradigms of knowledge sharing and collaboration. For a ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving’ system to work, the most fundamental requirement is openness. That is, inputs to the system must not be centrally stored or controlled. Applying this imperative to collaboration in development research, it quickly becomes obvious that the inputs (mostly western-produced research) are heavily centralised, mostly behind publishing paywalls. While there is a rapidly growing interest in open access publishing, the fact that restricted access to research is probably the largest bottleneck to a true co-production of knowledge still doesn’t seem to be adequately recognised.

Complicity in upholding the walled gardens of knowledge
I believe that we, as development researchers and academics, should actively advocate the open access movement and staunchly champion a more rapid shift in the aging paradigms of academic publishing. Otherwise, we concede an undeniable (if sometimes indirect) complicity in upholding these walled gardens of knowledge. We also risk letting ‘openness’ become yet another buzzword with a diluted, nebulous meaning. Choosing to publish your research in open access journals does not only facilitate the creation of new knowledge, but also has been shown to amplify research impact. The emerging technological facilitators of our hyper-connected world are rapidly relegating conventional modes of institutional knowledge production and brokering, which are not only restrictive but also resource-draining, to obsolescence. The desirable path forward is one where the notion of ‘openness’ oft advocated in contemporary development discourses is mirrored in the knowledge pathways through which such discourses flow.

Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can also be found on Twitter: @hanimorsi

Read previous blogs by Hani Morsi:

What does women dancing in public tell us about the pulse of the citizenry during Egypt’s constitutional referendum?


Mariz TadrosMariz_Tadros200

An unusual phenomenon was observed on the streets of Egypt on the first day of the constitutional referendum (14 January 2013): perfectly respectable looking Egyptian women were dancing in public in full daylight. It was spontaneous, clearly not planned nor a staged spectacle, nor could these women be shunned as agents of a ‘decadent’ West. In fact they were all veiled women, many in abayyas [long black robes worn over clothes as a sign of modesty]. These women came from across all classes – from the visibly wealthy upper class to the petit bourgeoisie and working class (whom made up the majority). None of the men on the street that stopped to watch sought to harass, condemn or rebuke these women, in fact some joined in. It was contagious, by the second day of the referendum, the dancing amidst the ululation and jeering was observed outside many polling stations.

In a country where political violence has reached extraordinary high levels, where prices have risen and people are worn out and tired, as displayed in their gloomy faces in public, these images of ruptures of joy merit special attention because they reflect the pulse of the street that when decoded can be highly indicative of the underlying power configurations at work.

A momentary rupture in the social conventions of women’s proper behaviour

So, how do we read these images of the dancing and ululating women? First, let us be clear, this is neither a sexual revolution nor the deviation of a select group of women from conventional rules of sexual politics. It is best explained through an analogy used by prominent writer Ibrahim Eissa: It is like when a pious proper mother who though she strictly observes the rules of social conduct would suddenly express her joy by dancing on her daughter’s wedding day. The constitutional referendum has led to a momentary rupture in the social conventions of women’s proper behaviour in public (as did the revolution of 2011 when women danced in Tahrir Square and slept in camps).  Feminists in Egypt have long struggled to get society to agree on the importance of women’s bodily integrity and their right to protection from violence, especially in public space. But women’s celebration through the uninhibited use of their bodies is another league altogether. It is a scene that makes many Egyptian feminists uncomfortable because it is anathema to their stance of associating the current constitutional referendum with militarism. However, if feminists are going to ever have a constituency endorsing women’s rights, they cannot afford to ignore these women’s agency- in particular when it is so overtly expressed through their voices and bodies.

Signs of a social contract with El Sissi

The rapture of joy expressed in these images can be interpreted as their response to the plea made to women by El Sissi to participate. It is in effect a public endorsement of a social contract between themselves and Minister of Defense El Sissi [not the state]. Note that not only were they dancing to the tune of teslam el ayadi [a song produced after the ousting of President Mubarak to praise the army for its intervention] but many clutched pictures of El Sissi, an indicator of his popularity in any presidential contest. When asked, many said – like this woman from El Mansoura – that they went down to vote ‘out of love for Egypt and out of love for El Sissi’. It has however set the bar very high in terms of people’s aspirations. If El Sissi does become president and fails to deliver on a national project that brings about prosperity and wellbeing, it is not unrealistic to expect another mass revolt. If he shows a responsiveness to the pulse of the street, it will be a huge blow (again) for political science experts who claim to have the keys to understanding political culture and street politics.

Dancing to spite the Brothers?

The image of the dancing women must also be read in relation to public sentiment towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Women represent a big bloc endorsing the constitution in both referendums (2012 under the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and now under the current interim one). I would argue that the image of women ululating, dancing and jeering in the streets is testament to the intensity of hatred that the great bulk of the Egyptian people have come to harbour towards the Muslim Brotherhood (women would find it very difficult to vote against their husbands’ will, for the most part). One woman dancing in Tahrir Square for example spoke of her endorsement of the constitution primarily in terms of displaying a stance against the Brothers.

Is this dancing which was clearly to spite the Brothers, because of the unmet promises and disappointments that women experienced under Morsi’s year in power? Or is it because of the Brothers’ refusal to accept the Egyptian people’s revolution of the 30 June and their insistence on their president above all else? Or is it because of the violence that citizens have experienced at the hands of the pro-Morsi camp since July 2013? Perhaps it is a combination of all of these. However, a word of caution, the images of dancing women were captured in Cairo and the Delta governorates where voter turnout was high. They did not feature in Upper Egypt where social conservatism is, where voter turnout was considerably lower than the rest of the country, and where the constituency of the Muslim Brotherhood is greater.

El Nour’s failure

It is critically important that the image of the dancing women not be read as a rejection of the outward expressions of religiosity. However, we can read the images of these ruptures in social conservatism on the streets of some parts of Egypt as testament to the failure of el Nour party (the Islamist political party representing part of the ultra-radical Salafi movement) to mobilize their constituency to endorse the proposed constitution. El Nour party had announced it would call upon its people to participate in the constitutional referendum. They had sought to gain leverage over the unfolding political process by demonstrating that they can fill the role previously played by the Muslim Brothers, namely, claiming the endorsement of the people on the street. However, the behaviour of these dancing women is anathema to their beliefs of how women should behave in public.

The images of women dancing in the constitutional referendum has shocked the Egyptian intelligentsia into realizing how disconnected they have become from the Egyptian public. Former MP Amr Hamzawy’s who is against Egypt’s roadmap and has openly lobbied against the military responded to the images of women on the streets of Egypt by urging groups that are committed to ‘defending democracy’ to ‘reconcile themselves with the people’ and not to ‘snub them’ all the while striking to arrive at alternative political visions for the future development of the country.

‘Please try to understand’

Western analysts and local experts would do well to head to the plea made prominent Egyptian writer Mohamed Fathi to try and understand what is happening on the Egyptian street. He urged in an article titled ‘please try to understand’ that there is a need to reach out to people because ‘it is the people’s will that makes things happen and not your own’. He beseeched ‘do not defy people’s will by imposing your agenda, your will and your priorities’ if ‘you have any hope of reaching out to them with your revolutionary vision’. This represented a far cry from what Fathi had written a day earlier suggesting that people’s ‘yes’ vote was predictable because they don’t like voting no. It was one which implicitly negated their agency in the process and had transformed them into objects being pushed on a football playing field.

In short, people may differ on the future prospects of a democratic order in Egypt and the situation at this moment seems very opaque. The results of the constitutional referendum showing a 98 per cent yes vote may seem highly suspicious, however, it is important to remember that this represents the voices of those who had gone to the voting polls. The pro-Morsi faction, members belonging to youth revolutionary groups had chosen to boycott the elections as well as citizens not interested in taking part would be represented in the 60 per cent or so who had not voted. The voter turnout at roughly 40 per cent is still higher than the turnout for the constitutional referendum of 2012 under the Muslim Brotherhood rule. There is therefore an urgent need to capture, understand and relate to the pulse of the street. We must develop a new lens to help understand and account for what is happening – starting from the signals we are receiving from street politics, such as the women dancing publicly on some of the streets of Egypt – at each particular juncture in history. As with any pulse, it changes over time, hence the need for many readings.

For more analysis of the constitutional referendum in relation to representation, see Mariz Tadros’s recent article in Open Democracy:  ‘Egypt’s constitutional referendum: the untold story’.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

Our marriage: When lesbians marry gay men in China


Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

He Xiao Pei, a long-time partner and collaborator of the Sexuality and Development Programme and Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, recently launched a new documentary. I was lucky to attend a screening of the film at the University of Sussex just before Christmas. The film, Our Marriage, is an exploration of the lives of four lesbians who decided to marry gay men in order to secretly pursue their relationships with their girlfriends and at the same time fulfil their families’ deep-seated desire that they get married. The sense of respect and responsibility that the marriage partners feel towards their parents, and the avoidance of social ridicule and tricky questions about their child’s sexuality, also play a large role in their decision to stage elaborate and glamorous sham ceremonies. The film has already been shown in Thailand to positive reviews.

Heteronormativity in China
In China, as one of the women in the documentary explained, nobody is allowed to be single. Whilst a burgeoning lesbian social scene is becoming more visible in large cities, heteronormative attitudes force people, heterosexual and homosexual alike, into marriages which they would rather avoid. Marriage can provide social acceptance, but it also gives you certain economic benefits such as access to social housing. Whilst homosexuality is not illegal in China there are no plans to introduce same sex marriage. Activists like He have argued against campaigns for same sex marriage suggesting that the institution of marriage itself should be challenged as it supports patriarchal norms and is detrimental to all people, whether they are gay, straight or bisexual.

Searching for a spouse
The documentary is another reminder of the links between information and communication technologies and sexuality in low- and middle-income countries. Information about couples interested in a contract marriage and hook ups can be made online through QQ and other web platforms. These sites have also attracted heterosexuals looking for a contract marriage to reduce family pressure.

Getting wed
The film approaches the subject matter with a large dose of humour. In fact the documentary gently satirises and ridicules the institution of marriage itself. Usually plainly dressed women are shown in dramatic wedding dresses crooning love songs to their ‘fiancés’ in scenes that prompt giggles from the audiences. Stretch limos transport family members to huge, elaborate receptions. Displays of wealth and social networks are definitely a big part of saving face. But beneath the veneer of ‘respectability’ none of these marriages are real, and no legal marriage documents are ever signed.

That’s not to say that the couples involved don’t have a clear idea of the arrangement that they are entering into. Documents are drawn up by the marriage partners beforehand specifying that they will have no interference in each other’s finances and that they waive the right to inheritance, they agree to tell each other their whereabouts (as few couples actually live together after marriage), they discuss how they will raise potential children and where they would live, finally, there is an agreement that in the case of major illness the ‘marriage’ will be dissolved. No ‘till death us do part’ for these couples! But it is not like you can have a contract marriage with just anyone, being friends is important. One women’s potential husband asked her to have surgery to ‘fix’ her face so she would look pretty in front of his family and friends. Unsurprisingly his generous offer was rejected.

Accessing the film
To protect the identities of the lesbians in the film the documentary is not available online and it hasn’t been shown in China for the same reason. But the women involved felt strongly that they wanted their story to be told. Some feminists told them that they are cheats and liars for entering into contract marriages. That sham marriages are a compromise and that they should challenge convention by ‘coming out’. But these women wanted to document the difficult reality that they are facing. In many ways the documentary is a love story, a story of the love the women feel for their families and the lengths that they will go to in order to protect them. It deserves a wider airing. If you are interested in showing the film please contact He Xiao Pei directly on

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group. She is the Director of Pamoja Communications and recently co-edited Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins:

Long term relationships are not always indicators of dependency


Jody Akedjody

Dependency. It is the thing to be avoided in international development efforts. Positioned as the opposite of sustainability, it is explained as people living in marginalisation or poverty being in some way reliant on support or help from outsiders. I have noticed that in a sort of sleepy, languid way we have slipped into equating length of time working with a community as a proxy indicator of dependency. It is an unwritten assumption justifying short-term over long-term funding and it affects how we design our programmes. I wonder whose interests this assumption is benefiting.

As part of the IDS-VSO partnership project Valuing Volunteering in the Philippines, I have worked with volunteer programs in universities and locally-based NGOs who are struggling internally and externally to justify a relationship with a community that surpasses 10 years. The sorts of questions they ask themselves in our reflection spaces on volunteer programme effectiveness are:

’Have we created dependency? What should an exit strategy look like?’

Using Valuing Volunteering’s systemic approach, we have been opening up conversations with lots of different stakeholders to learn from them. On a number of occasions I have asked the communities themselves,

’Isn’t it time after 10 years that the volunteers should go and support another community?’

Many will tell me about the importance of ‘bayanihan’ – a Filipino concept of everyone working together for a common goal. Others tell me about the boost or ‘lift’ external help provides people. It is an encouragement that brings energy to community efforts.

In other contexts my question about whether volunteers should move on has been met with dismay and visible distress. Some of the conversations that resonated with me took place with

  •  coconut farmers who have had their land compulsory purchased (at a very low price) by government to make way for a new airport in the province of Albay.
  • informal settlers in Metro Manila who have been living in a state of long-term uncertainty because of a major road building plan threatening displacement.
  • a People’s Organisation which looks after a Community-Based Forest Management Area in the Visayas. They were encouraged to sign a contract with a private investor to cultivate cash crops like pineapples for direct export to the Chinese market.

Listening to their concerns, I began to understand the scale of the development challenges these groups face. The self-organisation required of communities to create a space to voice concerns and rights in formal decision-making platforms when political and economic pressures are working hard in the background to silence or discredit them is an arduous and long process. It necessitates a sure-footedness and level of confidence to maintain a position at the negotiating table which is typically gained through years of grooming in corporate or political life. And overcoming set-backs requires a steadfastness and level of resilience not easy to come by.

It got me thinking how dependency is a convenient mantra for a global economic system that does very well for the word’s wealthy 1% through exploiting less powerful people and their assets for profit. It is interesting, for example, that as development workers we do not lay awake at night feeling anxious that oil companies have not managed to de-couple themselves from government subsidies to move their very ‘grown-up’ industry from dependency to self-reliance. At the same time we can be certain that we will be asked to demonstrate that our livelihood initiatives supporting communities to adapt to the effects of climate change can achieve sustainability within a few years.

What do we mean by ‘dependency’ and ‘sustainability’?
In one multi-stakeholder discussion with members of a community, volunteers and support staff we realised we need to unpick what we mean by dependency and sustainability to answer our questions. For sure, after ten years we should be expecting that communities can run their own meetings and take the initiative on the direction they want to go and how to get there. But to expect that these capacities can translate into being able to tackle deep-seated injustice by themselves is probably naïve.

At a societal level we seem happy to accept that governments can depend on one another for assistance. We describe these arrangements as bi-lateral agreements or ‘special relationships’. And we are comfortable when companies link with government sectors under the guise of public-private partnerships. Yet, we are uneasy when we talk about long-term partnerships to change the rules of the game, ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the people who are forgotten by the rising stars.

It is through Valuing Volunteering, which looks at the way volunteers work, that I am learning a more nuanced understanding of relationships for development. A more ‘human’ development that takes care of people is built on solidarity and friendship. This sort of relationship is not easily fostered within tightly defined project parameters. Yet it is an aspect of development that communities tell me is important to them. As one person said on her interactions with volunteers,

’We experience good relations as if we are almost relatives … what we feel, it becomes lighter because of the concern we experience.’

Volunteers may not bring tonnes of financial assistance. And they may themselves be limited when it comes to shifting wider systemic issues which act as barriers to community development. But the credibility or ‘symbolic capital’ afforded by volunteers and the organisations they represent is an important force for how communities feel about themselves and how others view them. As Lizzie (VV Researcher Nepal) summed up in one of our cross-country analysis sessions,

’Creating spaces where people are self-directed with others is really important … because you can be overwhelmed with what you face and change can feel so small, but with group processes it can feel very different psychologically.’

In an ecosystem where the motives of all those involved are not transparent, I have witnessed how a volunteering programme can result in a web of volunteer-community interactions that lead to trusting and lasting relationships built on shared experiences, different worldviews and a motivation to work for the common good. In a context where change at the political and economic level can be stubbornly slow I can see the potential for long-term relationships established in the spirit of volunteerism to be a foundation for resilience and adaptability instead of dependency.

Jody Aked works as researcher for the IDS-VSO partnership ‘Valuing Volunteering’ in the Phillipines. She is also a PhD student with the Participation, Power and Social Change Team