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

The Development Prison: escaping gender, LGBT and sexuality silos


Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a live Guardian Development panel discussion on sexuality and development issues. It was a fascinating experience, bringing a rich set of mainly Southern voices to bear on a wide-ranging set of topics.

What became apparent throughout the discussions were that two issues are beginning to gain traction amongst those operating within this field: the risk that many facets of sexuality advocacy may be drowned out due to a focus upon LGBT rights and the retreat into a silo mentality by those working on gender and sexuality.

In these past few weeks, the frenetic pace of sexual rights activism has cranked up a notch – the obvious homophobic developments in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia, but also continual attacks on abortion, sex workers rights and women’s bodily autonomy. For those active in these movements, the sheer intensity of keeping up with and showing solidarity is a strain in itself, making it incredibly difficult to look outside of our backyards into the concerns of others outside our narrow area of expertise.

Considering the current climate, it isn’t surprising that minds currently race immediately to global LGBT rights when we talk about sexuality and development. The Ugandan Anti-Pornography Bill passed in December 2013, which risks criminalising women wearing mini-skirts or dressing in an ‘immoral’ way, received much less coverage or international condemnation than the reviled Anti-Gay Bill passed last month.

As a gay man, working to amplify the voices of LGBTI colleagues working in the Global South is an essential part of what gets me up to work in the morning, but sexuality is much broader than that. That is why the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme works hard to build intersections and alliances between very different groups, convening conversations that broaden people’s conception of sexuality and it’s relevance over many seemingly unconnected areas of the development world.

Limitations of LGBT identity politics

LGBT is a particularly Western term that whilst makes sense for a lot of people globally, can also fail to speak to the realities of people’s lives in many contexts. We need to problematise it, whilst hanging on to it for where it is politically useful or speaks to peoples experiences. Where development interventions use this framing as a mechanism by which citizens access rights or services, we run the risk of imposing an identity politics upon cultures that could be incredibly unhelpful to some.

The other note of caution is that LGBT rights are a particularly trendy topic at the moment with media attention and (in some cases) development funding available right now to engage with it. The wheel will turn, Governments will change and priorities shift – and unless LGBT movements for progressive change build common cause across these debates to identify allies – the funding and energy will eventually shift in other directions, potentially to less aligned beneficiaries.

Placing LGBT at the centre of sexuality issues also poses political problems for others within the field. There is a sense that it is creating discord amongst development professionals who work upon it by shutting down wider debate on issues around sex education, reproductive and sex work by association, where the assumption is given that sexuality is code for LGBT equality.

Consequently, conservative voices are using this a defensive position to argue against efforts to reform other crucial areas of sexual rights, such as education, access to services or spousal consent laws. More nuanced strategising between social movements is needed to avoid these attempts to divide and conquer.

Breaking the glass walls dividing gender and sexuality

Rightly, with equality for women and girls so far away from being a reality in many (if not all) parts of the world, there can be an understandable concern that bringing sexuality, including LGBTI people, into conversations around gender equality will mean hard choices around resources and that women will be the losers in that debate.

The cold reality is that these divisions may be due to NGOs being dependent on bilateral or international funding, so the silo mentalities we are witnessing could be a scramble to differentiate oneself for limited resources. As I’ve written recently, even within the fledgling LGBTI aid industry, there are unhealthy hierarchies of priority between groups that mitigate against collaboration.

Yet within gender research and advocacy, an essentialist, binary view of gender can still hold sway, ignoring the reality that oppression of sexual minorities very often stems from a visceral dislike of those who trouble their world-view of immutable gender roles. Within the development world, it often remains unspoken amongst donor agencies and practitioners that aid should be focussed on the ‘deserving poor’, those whose lives and choices do not challenge dominant moral codes. For all the focus upon conservative voices blocking progressive change in aid recipient countries, the mirror is rarely held up to confront the instances of judgemental and heteronormative behaviour from development professionals.

Consequently, gender work often focuses upon the empowerment of particular groups of heterosexual women, rendering invisible those who don’t subscribe to specific gender scripts, ignores the transformative possibilities of working with men, let alone transgender and gender-variant people. We need to re-open dialogue amongst those working on gender about the possibilities for deepened alliances and challenge some of these unspoken undercurrents and exclusions.

What can be done?

Voices need to be heard from NGOs on the ground to engage in and influence the evolving strategies of funding organisations, governments and philanthropic donors. Collectively, we need to ensure that mechanisms for support are developed in a way that discourages silo thinking, encourages self-reflexivity around gender identity and sexuality and places intersectionality front and centre. I’ve spoken to senior staff within funding agencies who bemoan the lack of lobbying coming from the grassroots – it doesn’t hurt to remember that we are not just recipients, we are key stakeholders they need and want to listen to.

IDS strives to ensure that our Sexuality and Development Programme avoids some of these problems by placing intersectionality at the heart of what we do:  building projects, alliances and campaigns that make those connections central to the process as well as the outcome. In much the same way as gender mainstreaming has sought to assess the impact of public policy upon women and men and catalyse fresh collaborations, we also seek to identify fresh entry points for sexuality engagement in issues such as housing, social insurance, education and poverty.

To point to specifics, our current DFID-funded programme on the links between sexuality and poverty has produced a synthesis report written by Kate Hawkins, myself and our partners, published this week, which gives an excellent snapshot of how consideration of gender and sexuality within the production of poverty-reduction policies are intimately connected.

Colleagues across IDS recently held a major meeting called “Undressing Patriarchy” which brought together development practitioners, activists, policymakers and researchers working across gender justice, feminist movements, men’s movements, LGBTI and sex worker groups to take time to re-interrogate what patriarchy means for our movements and activisms and to identify bridging activities we can take forward to tackle it.

At a time when resources are scarce, where gender and sexual rights movements are struggling to respond to fast moving and at times dangerous political contexts, it is a lot to ask for an investment in engagement with what many view as tangential issues. Yet at their core, gender, sexuality and LGBTI activists are part of a wider movement to safeguard pluralism and human rights and it is only through making common cause can we ensure that these issues remain firmly at the centre of mainstream social and policy agendas.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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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:

The stark realities lying behind the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill


Stephen Wood photo miniStephen Wood

For those of us working internationally to uphold the rights of sexual minorities, the reappearance of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on the agenda for the Ugandan Parliament has taken on a chillingly familiar air.

In spite of a successful campaign by the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CSCHRCL) within Uganda that prevented the Bill’s passage when it was introduced in 2009, the particularly pernicious elements of the Bill remain intact in this new assault on the human rights of Ugandan citizens. From what the Coalition can see, the worst excesses of the original legislation remain unaltered.

Increasingly though, on this occasion attention is being drawn to wider implications beyond the immediate impact of the proposed Bill. A pattern is recognisably emerging where it appears the flames of virulent homophobia are fanned at times when other issues more crucial to the interests of Ugandan citizens risk dominating public discourse.

Currently, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill lies in a queue behind another controversial bill that will determine who has access and control over Uganda’s lucrative oil resources.  Similarly, a number of high-level corruption scandals dog the Government, such as those within the Office of the Prime Minister and Ministry of Public Service, which have led in recent weeks to aid withdrawal from a number of countries, including the UK and Germany. Simultaneously, attacks on press freedom and civil society continue to occur.

Accusations that the Ugandan Government is diverting attention isn’t just a convenient conspiracy theory being propagated by opponents of the Bill, but has also received support from the most unlikely of places.  The National Coalition Against Homosexuality and Sexual Abuses in Uganda (NCAHSAU) have come out against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, arguing that current legislation on the statute books is sufficient to criminalise homosexuality. They also believe that the Bill is distracting attention from dealing with serious corruption in the country.

Alongside the headline “kill the gays” provisions within the Bill and an unprecedented intrusion into the private sphere of Ugandan society, the legislation also has troubling implications for other states within the international community and the ability for those of us engaging in development to operate safely and effectively with our partners in-country.

One of the under-discussed elements of the Bill is the provision for Ugandans who engage in same-sex activities outside of Uganda to be extradited for punishment. Considering the likelihood that if the Bill is passed, some Ugandan citizens may feel compelled to leave their country for sanctuary, this move represents a robust assertion by the Ugandan Government to take this political fight to the international community.  Yet how realistic and practical would this be? What level of intrusion into private behaviour in countries such as the UK would the Ugandan authorities be able to monitor in order to bring charges against Ugandans living here? Are countries with strong human rights provisions in their law likely to agree to extradition under this context?

I’m adding my voice to  the growing international coalition in condemning the current move to pass this dangerous, discriminatory and undemocratic Bill. As I’ve written previously, for an organisation working alongside partners globally on a variety of poverty alleviation and aid issues, this Bill represents a threat to our ability to support vulnerable communities in improving health, education, civic participation and economic outcomes in Uganda.

Stephen Wood is a researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood:

The real story after ‘Kony2012’


Marjoke Oosterom

NB: This post is an expanded version of a piece recently published on the African Arguments site.

The ‘Kony2012‘ documentary film was put online on March 5, by the US-based organisation Invisible Children. Within days the film raised $5m and within a week attracted 70m viewers worldwide. The film calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Acholi region of Uganda. Although the film shows the acute suffering of LRA victims, especially children, what really remains invisible are wounds of a society years after the LRA left.

Since its release, the film has been surrounded by social media hype and the film and the organisation behind it has been subject to much criticism. Concerns have been raised about Invisible Children’s finances; how the ‘slick Hollywood style’ plays straight into the emotions of the (American) audience when seeing children suffer; and how the simplicity of the story doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the war. Critics have made an effort to give details about the style of the campaign and have challenged the notion that a ‘US solution’ would be the right solution. Quite a bit has been said about problematic video advocacy and manipulation. But here is the real story for after Kony2012, as told in the recent film The Governance Gap to stop Kony does not put an end to the suffering of people.

The Governance Gap demonstrates the enduring – often invisible – legacy of the LRA war through the story of Nighty, a 44 year old Acholi woman. First of all, the Acholi developed a ‘survival mindset’ to cope with decades of violence, from both the LRA and the Ugandan military. Food and safety were people’s priority, not the ordinary governance processes. The conflict undermined the capabilities of the Acholi as citizens and their confidence to re-engage in democratic processes after war. Having lived in a militarised environment, people are still reluctant to raise issues they perceive to be sensitive. Moreover, they have little experience with a developmental state. For years, all they asked for was security and now that they have it, many won’t ask for more. This undermines the ‘demand side’ of governance; Acholi lack experience to actively engage in the reconstruction of their region and in decision-making. Nor are they actively invited to.

Second, it shows the gap in how Acholi perceive themselves as part of the country. ‘We are like slaves being brought into Uganda‘, Nighty says. The role of the Ugandan state is key in this. Acholi feel treated as second-class citizens. Current post-war reconstruction efforts do not sufficiently target these feelings.

Third, it shows the gap in post-conflict interventions in Acholi, which was one of the reasons to make The Governance Gap. Existing recovery efforts by the government and international donors focus on ‘hardware’; rebuilding physical infrastructure and services. This is important. Poverty in the Acholi region is far worse than in the rest of the country due to the war, and clearly visible. What is not visible is how the past experiences of war and life in the camps are carried on into the present. Interventions should therefore also focus on the ‘software’; building citizen capacities to re-engage in decision-making and democratic processes. And as The Governance Gap shows, reconstruction should include a process of national reconciliation in which the state acknowledges the atrocities committed by the military as well as its failure to end the war. Up to now citizens have few opportunities to have voice in the reconstruction process.

A campaign film such as ‘Kony2012’ may not be expected to provide the detailed nuance of a story. What it did, was remind the world of a ‘forgotten conflict’ where injustice had been done to thousands of people since the late 1980s (and don’t forget, not just by the LRA but also by the Ugandan government, and as some would argue… even by failing humanitarian actors). And true, Kony and his LRA continue to cause suffering. Every victim is one too many. They need to be stopped. They also need to be brought to justice, whether through the International Criminal Court or local forms of justice that seem more culturally accepted and appropriate.

But; if Kony is captured, the objective of Kony2012 campaign, this might solve a forgotten conflict, but not its aftermath. Since Kony left Uganda five years ago both the tangible and invisible consequences are still very real. And deserve as much attention as capturing Kony.

Marjoke Oosterom is a PhD candidate in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at the Institute of Development Studies. She works on citizenship and participation in (post)conflict settings. The film The Governance Gap is based on her PhD research in the LRA affected areas of Northern Uganda, where she spent a year in a rural village just 10km from the border with South Sudan.

See more insights from Marjoke Oosterom’s research.

Challenging attempts to silence civil society in Uganda


Stephen Wood

Barely a year after the murder of gay rights activist David Kato focussed international attention on the treatment of sexual minorities within Uganda, there is a sense that renewed attacks on freedom for these citizens are growing in momentum once again.

Yesterday, a conference organised by Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a campaign lobbying for the recognition of same sex relationships was ordered to close by the State Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, who threatened force against participants unless they dispersed. The Minister ordered the arrest of Kasha Jacqueline Nabagasera, a prominent LGBT rights activist, but she managed to escape the venue in time.

This follows at the heels of the announcement in the last couple of weeks that the “Anti-Homosexuality” Bill that prompted international revulsion last year, has now been reintroduced by backbench MP, David Bahati. Whilst details remain unclear on which elements of the Bill have been discarded aside from the headline-grabbing death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, it remains a fierce incursion into the lives of Ugandan citizens and a grave new source of human rights violations. For me, a particularly worrying element of the bill is the potential criminal penalties for those who know of homosexual behaviour, but do not report individuals to the authorities. Medical practitioners, teachers, relatives and aid workers may find themselves under threat of arrest.

The broader implications for civil society in Uganda are exceptionally worrying and play into a wider narrative of intimidation of those threatening the hegemony of the state, such as attacks upon journalists covering the presidential and parliamentary elections and the cancellation of similar conferences of organised sex workers. FARUG and the other participants are exercising the right to organise around sexual rights and the forced cancellation of this meeting undermines the right of citizens to freedom of expression and association in Uganda, rights guaranteed under national and international law.

In many ways, the treatment of the advocates for sexual minorities mirrors the silencing of oppositional political parties by the state, making it harder for their case to be heard and distracting attention from the real problems facing Uganda – accusations of Government corruption, poverty and the painful reconstruction of northern Uganda as a result of the armed conflict by the militant Lords Resistance Army. A more authoritarian approach is emerging from the Government, one that finds strength in targeting sexual minorities as a Western imperialist “enemy within” that plays to comforting nationalist tropes. These repressive events demonstrate even more keenly that the rights of sexual minorities are as important as all other human rights and that the methods used to suppress their political freedom are as pernicious and familiar as those experienced by other parts of Ugandan civil society. Building solidarity across these movements remains as important as ever.

As a gay man, I know through experience how important the fight for equality is for those people outside normative gender and sexual identities in shaping our sense of identity and self-worth. It fuels my commitment to development and the transformative impact of international aid in building sustainable communities that possess the confidence to support all their citizens. This current existential threat to the daily lives of sexual minorities in Uganda undermines their ability to participate in their communities in that manner and could also prevent their ability to work in partnership with international aid agencies, consequently undermining the viability of valuable work around poverty alleviation, health outcomes (including, but broader than HIV/AIDS) and access to education. The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme continues to focus our attention upon the links between sexuality and poverty and how heteronormativity in aid programming reinforces these inequitable structures in outcomes for groups within society. An essential part of tackling this involves working in partnership with community organisations in countries such as Uganda to reach these vulnerable populations, work also imperilled by this renewed intrusion into civil society by the Government.

As I’ve argued previously in an earlier post, these latest events present a challenge for the international community. I believe we need to see a nuanced, collective strategy that continues to build diplomatic support internationally for the human rights of all citizens, coupled with support on the ground for those NGOs with a proven track record in working with marginalised and vulnerable communities. International pressure should be available as a tool at the disposal of southern communities and exercised as their strategic political needs dictate. Their voices and needs should lie at the heart of our development policies, not least at a time when they are under sustained threat of being silenced.

Stephen Wood is a researcher for the Sexuality and Development Programme in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter at: stephenwood_UK