How do you make all voices count?

Katy OswaldKaty_Oswald200

‘If we provide the tools and the means, citizens will find their own ways to make their voices count’ was one of the messages coming out of a recent e-discussion hosted by the Research and Evidence Component of the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) initiative and led by IDS’ Rosemary McGee and Duncan Edwards.

This e-discussion took place as part of a week long event and explored four aspects of how to make all voices count.

  • Making: understanding of the conditions for fostering the right kind of innovation to Make All Voices Count.
  • All: the aim of inclusiveness in transparency and accountability (T&A) work, and within Making All Voices Count
  • Voices: the expression of citizen engagement with the state or corporate actors on issues related to transparency and accountability
  • Count: government responsiveness to citizens’ exercise of voice

Below is a summary that I wrote of the third discussion on ‘Which voices are heard and by whom?’. To read summaries of all discussions, visit the news section of the MAVC website.

Voices: the expression of citizen engagement with the state or corporate actors on issues related to transparency and accountability

Voice at different scales:
‘Voice’ can be articulated at several different scales, ranging from conversations between individuals to political organisations at a global scale. Different voices will be articulated at different scales, and the extent to which voice travels between scales depends on the context and power dynamics.

Voice can’t be separated from power:
When supporting ‘voice’ we need to consider if the activity builds ‘power within’? Will it build ‘power with’, or build the skills and knowledge and tools of ‘power to’? Legitimacy and representation, have to be considered in a context-specific way – they depend on who, where, when and why – including the context of who is exercising what kinds of power, and particularly, not forgetting the invisible power of the attitudes, beliefs and norms that dominate.

Sometimes the challenge is listening:
As a consequence of invisible power, it is a challenge getting those ‘in power’ to hear and listen to the voices of marginalised individuals or groups.  Hidden hierarchies make voices, especially in the margins, inaudible or illegitimate. The difficulty is getting Governments and other powerful organisations to really listen with openness and respect.

Alternative ways of articulating voice:
Often, in order to be heard, a voice needs to be articulated in an ‘acceptable’ way. It needs to be made in a rational argument, using appropriate language. This is often the language of the educated elite. Further, there are many other, less rational ways of performing voice, that still have political messages.

Forms of art, drama, poetry, humour, and also criminal acts can also be understood as ‘voice’. Such forms of expression, while often NOT directly ‘heard’ by the powerful themselves, can nonetheless disrupt and shift the cultural boundaries of power that constrain and silence people. These media can create new framings and put issues on the table that have been taboo.

Choosing not to use your voice:
In addition, some people, for whatever reason — their sex, religion, age, etc. — are encouraged/trained by society to not use their voice or to use it less or simply learn to be quiet. People who are marginalised may choose not to ‘give voice’ because they know it will be unheard by authorities; because they don’t have ‘fluency’ in the accepted language, accent, jargon, etc.; because they don’t have access to the right spaces or channels; and/or because they fear negative consequences (including online harassment).

How can technologies of media and communication open new channels and forms of expression where people do express themselves, feel heard, safe and ‘fluent’ in? Or at best, how can these technologies not reproduce and amplify the barriers, dominant narratives, and threats that maintain the silences?

The role of intermediaries and technology:
In reality this voice is often mediated by intermediaries such as civil society actors, media organisations – what does this mediation actually do to citizen voice?  The role of intermediaries is also related to the issue of self-authorized representation. The question is to what extent do these self-authorized intermediaries have mechanisms to absorb and promote the diversity of views that exist within the constituency they claim to represent?

Some could arguably claim that one of the advantages of technology is precisely the possibility of having large-scale, unmediated interactions (e.g. between citizens and governments), as is the case with government e-petitions and digital participatory budgeting experiences. In this case, still, intermediaries (and mainly CSOs) may play an important role (e.g. as convener, outreach, opinion formation), but the relationship is no longer mediated by them.

Making All Voices Count is a global initiative that supports innovation, scaling-up, and research to deepen existing innovations and help harness new technologies to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness. IDS is leading the Research and Evidence component.

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