Seeing the world through a different lens


Danny Burns2 photo miniDanny Burns

The Secretary-General of the United Nations was expected to publish his report to the General Assembly on the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda on 12 August. How much of his insight will have been informed by listening to the voices of the poorest and most marginalised?  Participate partners have been critically reflecting  on the participatory methods they have employed in attempts to shift power in policy making.  One such approach, the Participate Ground Level Panels (GLPs) created a participative space for people living in poverty and marginalisation to deliberate what is needed from the post-2015 global policy process.

 In 2013, Participate partners hosted three deliberative meetings between those living poverty and those with political authority through Ground Level Panels (GLPs). The idea for a GLP aimed to provide a mirror to the deliberations of the United Nations (UN) High Level Panel (HLP) but from people who lived in extreme poverty or marginalisation.

The Ground Level Panels took place in Egypt, Brazil, Uganda and India. Each panel comprised a group of 10-14 people with diverse and intersecting identities including urban slum dwellers; disabled people; sexual minorities; people living in conflict and natural disaster-affected areas; people living in geographically isolated communities; nomadic and indigenous people; older people; internally displaced people; and young people. Each panel created relationships, shared experiences, connected the local level to the national and international development contexts and provided a critical review and reality check on the five transformative shifts as outlined by the UN High Level Panel.

The GLPs saw the world through a different lens to the HLP. The people in the Panels understood the dynamics of change facing people living in poverty and this gave them the ability to say if these policies were meaningful. While economic growth is an unchallenged assumption in the HLP for the Brazilian GLP it was seen as part of the ‘death plan’. For the Brazilians the critical issue is not ‘poverty’ per se, but ‘misery’ and ‘dignity’. While the HLP focused on service provision, the Indian Panel’s desired goals largely focus on social norms, behaviour 
and discrimination.

There were some common themes which emerged in all of the Panels. People want to feel that they have meaningful control over the influences that impact their lives. In all cases structures for equal participation were highlighted as foundational. In almost all of the Panels there was a recurring theme of ‘self management’. People don’t want aid. They want the means to generate and sustain their own livelihoods. So if we are serious about moving ‘beyond aid’ in the new development agenda then empowerment must become the priority.

One thing that struck me was the difference in composition of the HLP and the GLPs. The HLP was made up of people largely from an elite political class. There was the odd member of royalty and a few interesting academics thrown in, but by and large they were high ranking politicians. There was very little diversity in the group, and the interests were narrow. The GLPs on the other hand were highly diverse. Slum dwellers sitting side by side with pastoralists, transgender people, and people living in refugee camps … It is easy to stereotype people as ‘poor’and see them as a huge sprawling undifferentiated ‘category’, but they bring far more diversity than people who hold power.

What defines the success of a Ground Level Panel? Is it the response of the national government or within the UN process, or is it also influence on policy at the local levels? For Natalie Newell who led the GLP in Uganda on behalf of Restless Development, the experience demonstrated the importance of the local level. 
”It is important to be clear with all involved about what can realistically be achieved from the GLP process. This includes considering the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and what it can add to the policy debate. From the perspectives of those that participated in the Uganda process, the changes at the community level and for them as people were an important success.”

Listen to Nava and Richard’s reflections on the Uganda Ground Level Panel.

Read more about the Ground Level Panels in Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence.’

Danny Burns is a Co-Director of the Participate initiative and Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter at: @dannyburns2

Read other posts from Danny Burns

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


Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

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

Panelsts in Egypt sitting round tables and talking

Ground Level Panelists in Egypt discussing their vision for development

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

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

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

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

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

Panelists in India giving a presentation on a podium

Indian panelists presenting their views

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

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

Read other recent blogs about Participate:

Spices and women’s empowerment: I have been surprised


Devika MenonDevika Menon

I’m currently undertaking a work-based learning placement as part of the IDS MA course in Participation, Power and Social Change and it has been one and a half months since I have started working at the Masala Center, or Spice Center, located in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. The aroma and feel of the spices is making this experience even better. My favorites are cumin seeds and dry mango powder.

I have developed bonds of friendship with the 14 women who work here. I have been documenting oral narratives, trying to gauge whether working here leads to their empowerment – at an individual and collective level. Many women at the center have been working here for over 15 years, spending most of their adult lives at the center. I had come in with many questions and the notion that the center would have sub-standard working conditions, the workers would have no knowledge of their rights, and would be completely disempowered. My time here has proven me wrong and I have been surprised by the women’s empowerment through their jobs

To begin with, working at the center is economically empowering. Through the money they earn, women are able to both run their households (in the case of female headed households), as well as support their family income. Expenses include rent, rations[monthly provisions], school fees, etc. They also have bank accounts, with savings facilities. As said by Roopa Devi, 40 years, ‘(Out of a monthly salary of Rs. 7900-approx. 88 pounds) I spend it all on rations, Rs. 500 (approx. 6 pounds) goes to the bank. I will make a house in my village with this money’.

Apart from these routine expenses, women are also able to use this money for themselves. Seema Devi says, ‘I can say that I am no longer dependent on anyone for money, I don’t need to look elsewhere. I can make my own clothes and jewelry now’.

This suggests that working at the center has enabled their children’s education, given them freedom of choice and made them more economically independent.

Another facet of individual empowerment is the value and respect these women get in society for their work. As Seema Devi further says ‘My relatives actually respect me for this work, because I can run the house with the money I earn at the centre. I am no more frightened of anyone, whether it is someone senior or junior to me’.

She is supported by Prem, 40 years: ‘No one is desperate once they start working, they can stand on their own two feet, and my children are being educated and well brought up. It’s good that I work, my needs are being met’.

This work is also emotionally empowering as well, as the center provides a space forinterview picture resized these women to vent their frustrations and share their joys and sorrows. Some of them come from troubled homes or from single income families, others they have children with health problems and some suffer from depression. By coming together and talking openly about their problems, these women are able to overcome their grief.

In the words of Gyani Devi, ‘When I come here, my tension reduces. When I go home, the same problems start again. A married son should be able to run the house, but there is no one to do that as he is ailing. All the money goes in his treatment. Laughing and crying is a part of life. But why should we cry? What is the point of that? When I come here, we laugh and make jokes together. That is why I never take holidays’.

The physical space is quite large and airy. The women have individual grinding wheels and enough mortar-pestles and sieves to work with. They also have a courtyard where spices are packed as well as a terrace for drying them. This goes against my initial viewpoint that they have sub-standard working conditions.

As far as workers rights are concerned, many of these women have joined the organised sector for the first time. They are able to raise their issues with the management, and have managed to considerably increase their wages over the years. This clearly shows their collective empowerment.

Apart from working at the center, I have also interviewed other women like my grandmother, two female chefs, one domestic help, and one working woman. Their views have also provided interesting insights into preparing and sharing food. All these women gain respect through sharing and preparing food, but for those whom cooking is livelihood, the relationship is different. They feel that cooking is a job for them, whereas for women who cook at home, it is also seen as an avenue to release their tension.

I still have a lot more questions to ask – do these women at the center have any attachment to any specific spice? If they were not doing this work, what would they like to do? Is there anything else that they want to tell me?

I hope these questions are answered by the time I write my next blog entry…

Devika Menon is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change. A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of month, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

Watch a short video about the MA Participation, Power and Social Change and read other recent blogs:


Preparing and sharing food – co-creating new recipes for women’s empowerment


Devika MenonDevika Menon

Can preparing and sharing food lead to women’s individual and collective empowerment? Does food have the power to enhance women’s agency, give them a voice, and enable their decision-making power?

As a student on the current MA Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) programme, and having a strong passion for preparing food and a background of working for women’s rights, these questions have been running through my mind ever since I came to IDS last September. However, I previously always considered preparing and sharing food as an interest, and not something I can conduct research on. The MAP programme, and my experiences with peers and faculty at IDS has enabled me to also think about these questions from a research point of view, and has given me clarity to carry out my current field placement.

I am currently in New Delhi, working at a masala[1] center, a space where women come together to grind spices and pound flour. The masala center is a part of the activities of the Servants of the People Society, a well-established Indian NGO. The NGO employs fourteen women at the center, and is giving them a livelihood, along with promoting a small-scale industry. The entire process is done by hand, from pounding the spices, to sieving them once they are pounded, and then packing them up for sale.spices

Since the spices are made by hand, their quality is much better than other products in the market, but it is really hard work, and the women work long hours at the center.

My aim through this research is to understand what this space means to these women. Apart from giving them a livelihood, how else is this center contributing to their lives? Does this space give them the chance to reveal what they are really feeling, or do those feelings get hidden because some women may be dominating the space? I am also interested in understanding who has ownership and control over the space, whether it is the women themselves, or other staff members.

Along with visits to the center, I am also developing my knowledge on women’s empowerment, and reflecting on my own practice. Publications at IDS, brought out through the Pathways to Women’s Empowerment programme are proving helpful in this research journey.

As a young woman researcher, I have a lot of battles to fight. One of the women asked me how talking to me will help her in any way, and resisted to having me in her space. Other staff members are also intrigued by my research, not fully understanding the process. One of the ways I am overcoming this is by seeing this research as a co-learning endeavor, where all actors involved learn from each other.

I am also interested in the sensory aspect of food and how spices add to that – the feel, taste and touch of the spices, the aroma they add to food, and the many conversations they nurture. This is also related to communal eating, another concept I am greatly interested in.

For this purpose, along with visits to the center, I also plan to engage in conversation with strong women from my family, and other professionals who are involved with preparing and sharing food. Their experiences, along with my own cooking exploits in these months, will surely make for very interesting research.

Devika Menon is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP). A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of months, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

[1] ‘Masala’ is a hindi word for spices