Barcelona: The conflict of Can Vies and its political significance

06/06/2014

Alison Carney and Maria Olivella Quintana

‘Politics is the art of resolving problems and here a problem has been created, instead of being resolved, at many levels: a security problem, the destruction of a meeting/cohesion/training space… With many people being thrown out of the system, Can Vies was not part of the problem, but part of the solution.’ (Gemma Galdon, Political Scientist, University of Barcelona, Interview with El Pais 29th May 2014)

One week ago the Catalan police entered and evicted the famous squat and community centre in the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona, called Can Vies. This event, and the disproportionate brutality used by the police against demonstrators later that day, have sparked some of the biggest riots and public demonstrations in Barcelona since the Indignados in 2011. The social significance and strength of the movement that is loudly protesting the eviction of Can Vies is far greater than this one incident. Although the significance of these demonstrations and resistance is being discussed in Catalan and Spanish media, sadly the English speaking media around the world has limited their coverage of the event and continuing movement to some very short, page-three articles that fail to even address the complexities and potential of what is happening in Barcelona this past week[1].

The building that is now known as Can Vies[2] was constructed in the 19th century is located near the Barcelona Sants train station. It is owned by the TMB (metro) company in Barcelona and by the 1990s it was abandoned. In 1997 a group of young people occupied the building and organised it so that part of the building was used as a living space, and the other part as a social centre that has been used as a political organising space, and a community centre for dance, music and other activities[3].

In 1998 and again in 2007 the TMB company filed complaints against the squatters in Can Vies in an attempt to evict them. After both of these complaints were rejected by the courts, the TMB company filed complaint again in 2013 and the Can Vies Assembly[4] has been negotiating with the city council since. The negotiations continued until the day before the eviction.

Can Vies is one of a number of occupied buildings throughout Barcelona (and Spain) that serve as community centres and political gathering places that are completely unmediated by the state. These centres provide resources and alternative spaces to communities that the city council has failed to provide.

Image of Can Vies before the eviction

Can Vies before the eviction

The Eviction
In March 2014, the city council and the court made a joint decision that the TMB company could evict Can Vies. TMB had already stated that when they evicted Can Vies they would tear down the building and leave an empty lot. This eviction happened first thing in the morning on Monday, May 26, 2014. The police were extremely aggressive towards the neighbours and supporters of Can Vies who gathered outside the building in solidarity with the occupants. A large demonstration was organized for 8 pm Monday evening to denounce the eviction and protest the destruction of the building.

The demonstration had not made it more than 500 meters before the Catalan police cut off the march and dissipated the crowd by driving their fleets of vans into the middle of the demonstration, with armoured police officers jumping out of the vans and beating anyone near them. People were forced to run into the narrow streets in the neighbourhood, chased by the armoured police officers who were wielding weapons. Conflicts with the police broke out as a result.

Image of demonstration

Demonstration against Can Vies eviction on the 26 May 2014

On Tuesday morning, the TMB company brought a bulldozer to the Can Vies site and immediately began to tear down the building. In reaction, people gathered around the site, banging pots and pans to draw attention to the issue[5].  This resistance lasted most of the day and at 11 pm, half of the building had been torn down, the police had finally left, and protesters set fire to the bulldozer. This led to more police violence and riots in neighbourhoods throughout Barcelona. The police were incredibly aggressive in the neighbourhoods. Militarization in dealing with demonstrators and angry citizens has been a growing problem in Catalonia.  Armoured police who are armed and who do not hesitate to beat any person in their way is common at any public political gathering. This level of violence is what sparks riots and more violence, not the other way around[6].

During the week, as demonstrations continued to be organized throughout the city in different neighbourhoods and the numbers of supporters grew to over 20,000 at a demonstration on Saturday, police violence escalated. By Friday, over 60 people had been arrested, 1 of them in prison and more than 200 people injured.

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27 May 2014

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27 May 2014

The Significance
The significance of this public fight and demonstrations goes far beyond simply wanting to protect a building. The city council and TMB have claimed their right by the legal argument of the ownership of the building, but it seems that this claim is only a façade for a deeper intention to discourage political organising that challenges the traditional government spaces. As we can see, the building has already been mostly destroyed, and yet the numbers of supporters of this movement continues to grow daily. We see this fight and the demonstrations as symbolic of support for alternative solutions to the current crisis in Spain (and elsewhere for that matter).

A well-known political scientist in Spain (Joan Subirats) has argued that the destruction of Can Vies is a destruction of a symbolic capital for a certain type of population. This type of social capital is extremely important. In the context of crisis (as in Spain), it is significant that citizens have not stopped self-organising.  There are centres like Can Vies all around Barcelona that demonstrate a resistance and coping with the crisis that is outside the market, the individual and the state. These spaces are a network that has found a way to exist and support a community precisely because they exist outside of the state rules. The growing solidarity and demonstrations since Monday is proof that people are perplexed by why the council is threatened by such a space as Can Vies (aside from the private property issue), and it is symbolic of the growing need and support for such spaces.

In addition the rise of alternative political parties in recent elections such the CUP[7] in Catalonia or Podemos[8] in Spain demonstrate that the politics of self-organisation is gaining traction and presenting alternative options to the traditional politics in Spain. We see that more and more people are drawn to self-organised politics, rather than party driven or state mediated politics.

The movement that has led to the growing support for self-organised politics in Spain has a long history, has taken enormous work and is far from being spontaneous. The creation of alternatives that strive to exist outside of the market and of traditional politics is not something that can happen overnight, or without a lot of building. Although the context and history of this type of organizing in Spain, and even specifically in Barcelona, is particular, there are lessons to be learned by communities in other countries who are equally fed-up with the same old political options that have driven many of our counties to this point of crisis and abhorrent social conservatism.

Maria Olivella Quintana and Alison Carney are both IDS alumni.
Alison is a sport and development consultant, social activist and researcher.  She has extensive experience working with sport for social change, as well as research on the role of sport for supporting the realisation of gender equality and sexual rights.
Maria  is a feminist activist currently carrying out PhD research in Anthropology in Spain, on the transition from ‘family planning interventions’ to ‘sexual and reproductive health’. She is part of Gap Work (http://sites.brunel.ac.uk/gap), a European research project addressing gender based violence, homophobia and transphobia in educational spaces. She has a MA in Gender and Development from IDS and has been part of the Unruly Politics thinking since then. Feedback welcome at:  M.OlivellaQuintana@ids.ac.uk

 

[1] The New York TimesThe Guardian:
[2] For more information about the community center you can check Can Vies website
[3] Almost all squats in Spain are social centers, providing a space for youth to meet and organize, which was something that was missing in the 1990s.
[4] The Can Vies Assembly is the name for the community group that orginizes and engages in politics.  They are based at Can Vies, this includes squatters who live there as well as other community members.
[5] The banging of pots and pans is a tradition in the region as a way for a community to show their solidarity during demonstrations – video
[6] Documentary filmed by the Guardian on the campaign “Ojo con tu ojo” that has denounced the use by Catalan police of rubber balls as an anti-riot weapon
[7] The Popular Unity Candidates (Catalan: Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) are left-wing Catalan independentist political party active in Catalonia. The CUP have traditionally concentrated on municipal politics, and are made up of a series of autonomous candidatures that run in local elections. More information here 
[8]Podemos (meaning ‘We can’ in Spanish) is a Spanish political party created on 11 March 2014 by Spanish leftist activists associated with the 15-M movement that emerged from the 2011–12 Spanish protests. More information here

 

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What does it mean to be an explorer in development? Review of Robert Chambers’ recent book

03/06/2014

Pauline OosterhoffPauline profile

It is rather rare these days to find optimistic books on development. Robert Chambers’ latest book is a welcome change. Into the Unknown: Explorations in development practice does not shy away from sharply critiquing development paradigms that have proven ill-suited or counter-productive over the past five decades. This includes, Chambers ruefully acknowledges, some of those he has been part of himself, in his nearly half century in development work. But he remains enthusiastic about the capacity of development initiatives to succeed when they avoid being co-opted by powerful gatekeepers, and incorporate the knowledge and agency of poor people themselves.

‘Written in the spirit of exploration’
In the preface, Chambers modestly introduces himself as someone who learned -during an exercise managed by a student- that he mainly sees himself not so much as a researcher but as an explorer. With that he sets the tone for a book ’written in the spirit of exploration.’ The book contains some older already-published articles, and some new more recent work. The first part of the book critically explores Chambers’ professional experiences, starting as a colonial field administrator in Kenya; the second contains reflections on learning and teaching as individuals; and the final section explores the future of development in a digitalized world.

Chambers is hopeful about poor people’s abilities to improve their lives, and sceptical about privileged people’s willingness to recognise the distorting effects of power. A recurrent theme is the system of incentives for framing the realities of the poor in ways that suit the powers that be. The book details many examples of perverse incentives in the development sector. In Chapter 3, which focuses on irrigation in South Asia, Chambers explains how a water distribution project with context-specific

into-the-unknown-cover-imagrequirements only available in the Northwest of India was nonetheless sold as an India-wide solution, ignoring farmers’ knowledge and needs. Chambers harshly criticises the use of research to document the ’successes‘ of such projects. Badly-designed large projects continue to be authorised, he argues, because ’on a personal and social level there [is] a self-sustaining nexus of professional, social and personal relations, with a political economy linked to careers and income.’ Donors and recipients have a common interest in approving large loans; national officers stand to gain secondments to international organisations if they approve their projects; development workers hope to win well-paying consultancies; and expatriates especially tend to be part of social networks  with shared schools, swimming pools and other recreations. Designing good projects takes time to explore, listen, and learn through open-ended consultations with the poor, time that career-driven development professionals often do not have. The next section of the book focuses on acknowledging failures, reflexive learning, and how it can be promoted among institutions, groups and individuals.

A stimulating read
Chambers writes with humour, wit, and a real verve for telling stories, including unflattering ones about the author for the benefit of the reader’s education. (This is part a deliberate tactic; what sticks in people’s minds, Chambers writes, is ’telling stories, best against yourself‘.) There are lots of other plusses in the book – tips for individual learning and self-reflection, activities to plan, organize and conduct large participatory workshops and co-generating knowledge (ensure people have time to meet in well-set up coffee breaks, neutralizing dominators, finding out experiences and resources in the group). It clocks in at a very readable 130 pages, structured into 3 parts and 7 chapters with key lessons learned over a career in development that spans almost half a century on exploring experience and learning on development. This manageable size, clear language and the light tone make it a stimulating read.

But the book would have benefited from more detail on how to deal with gatekeepers to the poor who are less interested in learning than in keeping their privileged status. In development practice there are many hurdles, including visa procedures and travel restrictions that aim to deter explorers. What do we do with people in positions of power who are not eager to learn and discover? Apart from whistleblowing, what can we do to support good governance and effective development practices? This is one of the crucial battlegrounds in development work, and to be honest, I would have appreciated more stories about when to choose a battle.

On the other hand, the author is quite aware of his tendency to be optimistic. If you can accept that you will have to figure out yourself how to deal with gatekeepers and other authoritarian figures, the book provides a wealth of insights into development practices that are likely to deliver more sustainable results than narrow logframes.

Pauline Oosterhoff is Research Fellow for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS.

 


What community dynamics encourage volunteering? Insights from Kenya

15/05/2014

Simon LewisSimon photo

Why is there a thriving culture of volunteering in one community while in another there’s hardly any voluntary action to be found? What are the community dynamics that encourage or discourage volunteering? These are some of the questions I have been trying to answer as part of the ‘Valuing Volunteering’ project. This is a global action research project, conducted by VSO in partnership with the Institute of Development Studiesto understand how, when and why volunteering affects poverty.

On a recent trip to Mombasa I was lucky enough to meet and work with members of the Volunteers In Action (VIA) Network – an umbrella group for volunteers on the Kenyan coast. The network looks to organise projects and events on issues of shared concern to volunteers and volunteer organisations; provides opportunities for volunteers to network and organically form their own groups and take forward their own projects; and puts on training directly in response to the needs identified by its members. It’s a passionate and enthusiastic group – something that cannot always be said for all similar groups in Kenya.

We looked to validate some of the findings that emerged from the participatory Systemic Action Research investigation conducted by the Valuing Volunteering Mombasa research group last year. During that exercise local researchers engaged people in three communities across Mombasa and found that the degree of volunteering taking place in each area varied greatly. Discussing this finding with members of the VIA Network, it came as no surprise.

Varying types of community produce different dynamics of volunteering
They see the varying dynamics of volunteering in different types of community across the city and appreciate that a community should not be viewed in isolation but also in terms of its interactions and relationships with other communities. For the purpose of this research project, we understand community to be very practically associated with a neighbourhood or an area that symbolically exists in the local consciousness (for example the local naming of neighbourhoods ).

The Valuing Volunteering research in 2013 found that, in Mombasa communities such as Shanzu and Kongowea, there was a limited amount of local volunteering taking place. Yes, there were some active local youth groups, but a resonating view amongst local community members was that development would not happen here. This collective sense of pessimism eroded social capital and discouraged volunteering. In contrast, research in Mombasa city centre revealed an active and vibrant volunteer environment with numerous volunteer involving organisations.

The discussion with VIA members supported these findings, but the interactions between communities in Mombasa (and the volunteers within them) exposed hidden layers of complexity. Deconstructing community dynamics in Mombasa, the group identified five broad categories of community and their relations to each other.

Five types of community diagram

 

1. Close knit-communities with high social capital– for example Frere Town in Mombasa, where residents feel a sense of personal investment in their community and often engage in volunteering within its boundaries (internal volunteering) for the good of the community.

2. Affluent urban centres– for example Mombasa city centre. Generally more affluent and home to higher numbers of volunteer involving organisations (particularly larger more formalised institutions) and businesses, the city exerts an influence on surrounding communities, pulling in migrants and commuters in search of work and volunteer opportunities.

3.Transitional communities–for example Mtwapa to the north of Mombasa where members are only temporary or semi-permanent residents. The high turnover of residents results in a lack of commitment to the long-term future of the community and acts to disincentivise volunteering.

4. Informal/less affluent urban and rural settlements– for example the two research locations of Shanzu and Kongowea. Critically, their existence is intertwined with that of the city centre, as residents are drawn to the perceived work and volunteer opportunities in central Mombasa. However, this adds depth to the initial finding that little volunteering takes place in such communities – it may be that there is little volunteering within the community but it is not the case that there are, by association, few volunteers. Instead, those volunteers are commuting to more affluent areas, such as Mombasa city centre, to take up more desirable and numerous volunteer opportunities. The effect is a drain on volunteers (particularly young volunteers) in the home community.

5. Rural/remote communities– cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa are the destination for many internal Kenyan migrants seeking employment, with many relocating from their rural homes. It is a common practice for Kenyans to support their families in the rural homestead through remittances, and some will return to the community to provide support, often in the form of volunteering, typically on a seasonal basis during holidays or later in life. Whilst some activities are successful and well-received, some returning volunteers have noted hostility to their acts of goodwill, particularly on cultural grounds as home communities perceive them as having changed or compromised their beliefs whilst away.

Analysing the dynamics of communities is useful in explaining why volunteering happens in some areas more than others. Crucially, it is not always the case that some communities have more volunteers than others but in some cases volunteers will commute or migrate to volunteer in areas where there are better opportunities or to avoid exploitation and being under-valued.

In the Kenyan context it is also critical to appreciate that the flows of volunteers are closely associated with the flows of people who move for employment opportunities – in fact volunteer and economic migrants/commuters are often the same people. When volunteers commute into the city centre from less affluent communities this is primarily because there is a greater pull factor emanating from the larger number and higher profile of volunteer organisations in the city centre that offer greater prospects for progression onto paid employment. The NGO sector is very desirable for paid employment in Kenya and, for many, volunteering represents a ‘stepping stone’ onto the employment ladder. As such volunteering in Kenya needs to be understood in relation to the factors that are driving the increasing urbanisation of its society and the complex relations and interconnections between its changing communities.

Simon Lewis is an international volunteer with VSO and the lead researcher for the IDS-VSO Partnership ‘Valuing Volunteering’ in Kenya. This is a slightly amended version of an article that previously appeared on the Valuing Volunteering Kenya blog.

Read more recent blogs from the Valuing Volunteering Project:


The Quiet Revolution of Participatory Numbers…

07/05/2014

Jane StevensJane_Stevens200

The very mention of statistics used to leave my mouth slightly dry and dredge up memories of unfathomable, confused hours in long-ago college lecture halls willing it all to be over. Mention participatory statistics however and the whole picture changes! Last week I heard more about this innovative approach to generating knowledge using numbers, at an IDS seminar given by Jeremy Holland, editor of the recently published book Who Counts: the power of participatory statistics.

It turns out that this quiet marriage of the qualitative and quantitative has been gently blossoming since the early 1990s, but is only now being considered by the mainstreams of research, monitoring and evaluation. Participatory research has long been established as a credible process that challenges ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge generation.  By repositioning ownership and control it respects local knowledge and facilitates local ownership whilst also enabling collective reflection and action. The generation of participatory statistics has increasingly been woven into these processes to create what Jeremy describes as a win-win outcome for development. He emphasised how empowering it is for local people to engage in the generation of quantitative data which has traditionally been highly extractive and externally controlled. At the same time this way of working produces reliable, cost-effective statistics rooted in reality for aid and development agencies and donors.

In addition it underpins and validates qualitative insights. We heard an example whereby an over-enthusiastic researcher in a community, looking for an exaggerated outcome to reinforce their own preferences, was kept grounded by the accompanying participatory statistical data.  In this way participatory statistics can ‘rein us in’, and complement, qualify and add to the validity and credibility of qualitative research.

So, what participatory tools can we use to generate statistics?
Many existing methodologies lend themselves to this process: participatory mapping and modelling; proportional piling; card writing, marking, sorting, ordering and positioning; matrix ranking and scoring; pairwise ranking; linkage diagramming and pocket voting. All these, and more, can be combined to provide valuable ways of counting, calculating, measuring, estimating and comparing. Together they can provide rich sets of data, based on local knowledge, community-owned and accessible by all.

And unsurprisingly, where processes are genuine, there are other benefits. The actual process can be as important as the outcomes. In the seminar Jeremy told us how police and youth had come together in Kingston, Jamaica, to analyse the frequency and cyclical nature of violence in their ghetto communities. The process of working together on participatory statistics engendered a greater respect of each other and the shared understanding of positions and issues. Power issues are challenged too, as the question of who counts, who analyses, who interprets and whose narrative matters is addressed.

Work with and on participatory statistics certainly needs to be nuanced: methodologies need to be contextual, and adapt and evolve to suit circumstances. Importantly this way of working offers a world where those in power are more in touch with grass roots realities via locally generated statistics. And, from the context in which I work, one particular benefit stood out in the seminar discussions – participatory statistics can be used to measure qualitative change. This allows aid agencies and donors to embed reflective learning practice into accountability programmes whilst coming up with accurate and credible statistical data. Donor’s goalposts have shifted in recent years and they are increasingly demanding reporting against quantifiable achievements. Could participatory statistics provide a way to satisfy them, whilst not compromising on the complexity of processes and ideals that lead to the transformative social change we all wish to see?

Watch the video-recording of the seminar:

Jane Stevens works as communications officer in the Participation, Power and Social Chang Team at IDS. This blog draws on notes taken at the Seminar and the introduction of the book Who Counts.

Read a previous blog piece by Jane Stevens:


Harnessing creativity to give marginalised people a voice: An example from Brighton

11/04/2014

Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

‘…. That’s the reason why I no longer want to be silent. I’m willing to speak up. As long as it raises awareness on what it is like to live with HIV. It means to live with HIV, the most important part of it is to live.’                 

Excerpt from one of the participant’s recordings in the Speaking Volumes project

On Wednesday this week,  IDS hosted a lunchtime seminar in which local Brighton drama practitioner Alice Booth talked about her experience with using ‘Theatre for Development’ in Uganda and Kenya, alongside her recent participatory project ‘Speaking Volumes’ in which she has been working with a group of people in Brighton, who are living with HIV.

While her experiences in Kenya and Uganda were somewhat mixed, it was the ‘Speaking Volumes’ project that grabbed my attention. When looking for best practice it’s so easy to look towards the more ‘exotic’ places and big donor-funded project and overlook the smaller really good participatory practice that is right on our doorstep. So I thought I’d introduce the project to you and I hope it will inspire you as it inspired me.

‘Speaking Volumes’ is a project that uses storytelling to allow the voices of hidden, stigmatised and marginalised people to be heard. Alice worked with a small group of HIV positive people to enable them to share their experiences of living with HIV. Before recording interviews with the participants, Alice used a portrait workshop, to enable participants to explore themes of identity and self-image and a story workshop to help them to discuss the story they wanted  to share. Participants’ stories were then recorded on a voice recorder (giving people the opportunity to remain anonymous if they choose to do so). Finally the participants worked with portrait artist Jake Spicer, to draw a representation of each of them for their record.

The stories are presented in an installation, with individually designed book covers housing each story.

book with one of the recordings

I will be heading down to Brighton Jubilee Library this weekend, where, the exhibition is exhibited until 8th June and the public can listen to the stories and explore what it means to live with HIV. The recordings can also be accessed online on the project website. Follow the project on facebook or on twitter@SpeakingVols.

As the installation flyer says: ‘Come, leave your pre-conceptions at the door and take five minutes to listen to the stories’.

Colleagues in the Participation, Power and Social Change team have done (and are doing) great work using creative methods. Find out more about how creative and visual participatory methods can be used to give marginalised and often overlooked people a voice  on the Participatory Methods website.

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

Read other blogs about using creative and visual methods:


The Sustainable Development Goals for post-2015: Economic Development or a Guarantee of Rights?

27/03/2014

Carlos Cortez Ruizpicture of Carlos Cortez

Earlier this month, the Participate initiative co-hosted its ‘Work with Us’ exhibition at the headquarters of UN in New York in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations. The exhibition coincided with two important events in the post-2015 calendar; the ninth meeting of the Open Working Group (OWG) for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the President of United Nations General Assembly (PGA) debate on the Contributions of Women, the Young and Civil Society to the Post‐2015 Development Agenda. During the same week, Participate Co-Director Danny Burns and myself met with members of the Open Working Group, including some of the UN Permanent Representatives.

These meetings were a good opportunity to present Participate’s research results; to further understand the complex process underpinning the Post 2015 agenda; and to gain some insight into the different positions and opinions on what should be included. We also discussed the serious limitations to getting the voices and perspectives of the most excluded and poorest heard in the global debate.

Different perspectives on poverty
The positions and proposals on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), expressed in the discourse and in the concepts used by some of the OWG members, show different perspectives on poverty, their causes and on the way to face the situation in the future. While some consider economic development to be the answer to reducing poverty, there are a few who see that the struggle against poverty and exclusion requires the guarantee of rights and a more complex perspective that includes cultural and social issues.

There are also differences between those who maintain that that the road beyond 2015 must continue towards realising the MDGs, and those whose consider the debate on the SDGs as an opportunity to have a deeper reflection on the general agenda – one which includes an open, participatory process from the definition to the implementation of the post-2015 agenda. Other differences appear to be between the pragmatic perspectives of those that want to define objectives and indicators and those who want to embed the rights of the poorest and more excluded social groups in new institutional and social approaches.

A lot more work to do
As members of Participate, we spoke of the impact of cultural and social norms on the existence of poverty and exclusion and the need for a different approach to deal with them. The differences between those who are more receptive and active around these issues and those that weren’t were clear.

For now it looks as though the proposal will be based on economic issues, with a group of targets similar to the MDGs. If the final document is to include the guarantee of rights, gender equality and the active participation of the poorest and accountability, we’ve got a lot more work to do.

Dr Carlos Cortez works for the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana Xochimilco (UAM), Mexico. He is also a member of Participate’s Participatory Research Group (PRG).

Read other recent blogs about Participate:


Who engages with whom? Who is accountable to whom? Can the development sector learn from the humanitarian sector?

20/03/2014

Robert ChambersRobert_Chambers200

Wow! The 29th Annual Meeting of ALNAP in Addis. This was memorable and eye-opening. But what is ALNAP? The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. Rather less memorable in full than as an acronym. But a vital orientation and a remarkable organisation. This annual meeting brought together for two intense days 170 people engaged in the sector. From a great range of over 100 organisations, with NGOs more than any other category, and international agencies, governments, universities, and the private sector in smaller numbers. An astonishing range of experience to have all in one room, and the largest ALNAP annual meeting so far.

And why was it memorable? For me it was one of those Rip van Winkle re-entries which for some reason seem to come my way more often these days. My time in the sector was long ago in UNHCR as its first evaluation officer in the mid 70s, and then in 1986 in a team evaluating the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies drought relieve operations in Africa in 1984-6. How radically things have changed since those days of relative amateurism and ignorance. In the mid 70s UNHCR was faced with many millions of rural refugees in Africa and did not have a single health, nutrition, agricultural, sanitation, water, settlement or other specialist. Though lots of lawyers, good at law. There were some large refugee settlements, but it was convenient to believe that most African refugees were best off left to fend for themselves. African hospitality would take care of them. Often not, I concluded, the case. And as for 1986 we wrote in our evaluation report that people had ‘a basic human right to be protected from incompetence’.

What a different universe it is now!
People in this conference were far, far more professional and experienced. Their concerns for accountability and performance have spread, deepened and evolved almost beyond recognition. There are now many guides, protocols, critical reviews and even organisations preoccupied with accountability to those affected by crises, outstandingly ALNAP itself.

The theme for the meeting was great – Engagement of crisis-affected people in humanitarian action. The overview and background paper by Dayna Brown, A Donini and Paul Knox-Clarke is excellent. The subject is vital because of the misfit and tension between urgent action to save lives and minimise suffering on the one hand, and listening, sensitivity, responsiveness, and supporting not undermining what people are doing and can do for themselves. And the many contexts and types of emergency or crisis challenge standard solutions. All this is pretty well known, so let me jump to what hit me in the face.

Top-down measurement versus accountability to people.
Paradigms are in tension. Underlying current debates and practice in the sector is a tug of war between the (Newtonian) paradigm of things, which is top-down with control, measurement, standardisation and upward accountability, and the (complexity) paradigm of people in which we find discretion, judgment, diversity and downward accountability. And there are contrasting concepts, language, values, methods and processes, relationships, mindsets and personalities that go with these. Top-down is driven and sustained by the real or imagined imperatives of crisis.

Take language. Beneficiary belongs to top down. It patronises. It begs a basic question, implying people do benefit. It ‘others’ those affected by crisis. It misfits equality, respect, listening and learning from people. Other words and phrases have been tried – crisis-affected people, and citizen (but this does not work so well for UNHCR with refugees). But again and again beneficiary is the word that is used. It is deeply, deeply embedded. And I dare say many see nothing wrong with it. One organisation has even appointed a Beneficiary Accountability Officer. Can’t we do better than this?

Then there are donors’ demands and ‘the system’. There was a view that to be ‘evidence-based’ the case for engagement and participation had to be supported by measurement. Others, myself included, felt the case was already overwhelming. When someone asked how many had read evaluation reports which blamed ‘the system’, a forest of hands went up. And participants lamented their experiences of how data demands forced them into gathering data for upward accountability at the cost of action, learning, adapting and accountability to affected people. Yes, a tragic trade-off, just as in the development sector.

Highlights and reflections

  • To bypass recurrent rush. In sudden onset emergencies, many agencies carry out similar rushed and biased assessments (close to airport, only meet the leaders, men etc.). After typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines a non-operational team did a slower more interactive and representative assessment, hearing other voices, and found unrecognised needs: who would have guessed that old women needed underwear? Could UNOCHA (UN Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs) try this dedicated team approach to test whether it should be standard practice?
  • Participatory statistics. Dawit Abebe and Berhanu Admassu presented their participatory impact assessment work with pastoralists which generated participatory statistics. Dawit and Andy Catley have a chapter in Jeremy Holland’s Who Counts? The power of participatory statistics. Great stuff and huge potential. But who will pick it up? I recommend the guide which has just been updated. It is an eye-opener.
  • Definition of terms? We did not spend much time on definitions. This was sensible. There was more interest in action. But engagement is a good word. And engagement of crisis-affected people was a move in a good direction.
  • Personality and recruitment. The background paper considered skills (the word so often used), but then went further with behaviour and attitudes. I wonder, though, does personality go even further, and somewhere we need to go? Some saw recruitment procedures with interviewing face-to-face as critical. If the sector needs people who are good at listening, empathetic, participatory, they must be sought out, and trained. Also, institutional cultures, personality and relationships interact, so that for good engagement with affected people, with sensitive listening and respect, these must be part of good engagement in organisations at all levels.
  • Learning what affected people are doing already came over as important. What are their existing organisations? What are they already doing? These were priority questions, as they have been for decades.
  • The Who? Whose? questions. These were as relevant as ever. Who participates in whose project? was asked in the background paper. Who engages in whose action? Do they engage in ours or do we engage in theirs? Several times in the meeting someone asked ‘How do we want to engage with them?’. But further steps are ‘How  do we find out how they would like us to engage with them?’ This was raised but I did not hear it much discussed. A future agenda? To ask them? As standard good practice?
  • Listening and learning. We often say and hear that we must ‘go and talk to [sic] people’. Talk to at least involves meeting, but when will we habitually say listen to or learn from? Or listen to and dialogue with? The training the day before the meeting was on evaluation. Next year, a training on listening? But would anyone sign up? Or be able to persuade their organisation to give the extra day to be trained to do something we all know how to do (when we talk to people)?
  • Time with people. In a panel session on Building Accountability to Affected Populations into Humanitarian Evaluation, it was proposed that those engaged in the evaluations 9 months or so after an emergency should have to spend 50 per cent of their time with the affected people. Yes. Good idea.
  • Accountability to whom? At that moment, a penny dropped with me. I wondered and still wonder, is the humanitarian sector ahead of ‘development’ in accountability to people? If so, or if it appears so, is this because the need is greater? In any case, what can the development sector learn? I suspect, quite a lot. But if so, where should we go from here?
  • Gems for reflection from Luz Gomez Saavedra (Oxfam Intermon, formerly with MSF in Niger):
    • ‘Nothing can replace presence and proximity’
    • ‘The most amazing tool, sitting down under a tree with people’
    • An old woman who said: ‘If you want to know who is poor and who not, don’t count goats – ask who is receiving remittances from a relative in Calgary’
    • When she asked people how she could do her work better the reply was unanimous: ‘Don’t change but keep smiling’

Will this meeting transform the sector?
That would be asking too much. But intensifying the shift in the agenda to examining ourselves more (and this is in line with the World Development Report 2015 on Mind and Culture), yes, one can hope for that. And it may countervail against the magnetism of upward accountability which afflicts both humanitarian action and development, and reinforce actions and policies for accountability downwards to crisis-affected people, and learning more about and appreciating their realities, and what they want and need. And what they already do and can do, perhaps often much more than outsiders suppose.

Some in the sector are already onto all this. Could many, many others join them in putting into practice two PRA slogans which fit here as signposts and reminders:

ASK THEM              THEY CAN DO IT

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

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