Capacity development, learning, change, poverty/power/progress
This blogpost is inspired by John Gaventa | EADI/ISS Blog Series
Over the last three decades, I have designed and implemented interventions focusing on ‘empowerment and accountability’, that aimed to contribute to a range of outcomes like good governance, equality and social inclusion. For the last 7 years, I worked with ESAP - the Ethiopia Social Accountability Program, as Social Accountability Expert, providing guidance to the capacity development and training team. Next to that, 3 years ago, I became involved with a Social Accountability program in Myanmar. Both countries are known as “difficult” – characterised by limited civic space, strong legacies of authoritarianism, violence and repression. In fact, I have often been faced with surprise or even disbelief when I spoke internationally about our empowerment and accountability work in Ethiopia and Myanmar.
The 2019 report published by Civicus, People Power Under Attack, found that 40% of the world’s population live in repressed settings (double from the previous year), and that only 3% of the world’s population live in settings which are ‘open’ – plural and stable democracies. How to achieve empowerment and accountability in more difficult settings, which appear to be the norm? The Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research programme (A4EA) investigated this question for the past three years. The programme recently published a synthesis of the first round of its research, which involved over 15 projects in Myanmar, Egypt, Mozambique, Pakistan and Nigeria. A number of lessons emerge, and I will make sense of these based on my own experience in Ethiopia and Myanmar. I plan to dedicate a few blogs to the 8 messages presented by Gaventa and Oswald in this paper.
Message 1: In these settings, factors like closing civic space, legacies of fear, and distrust challenge fundamental assumptions about the conditions necessary for many processes of empowerment and accountability, which assume that ‘voice’ on the one hand and ‘responsiveness’ on the other will underpin the formation of a social contract between citizens and the state. So how do we work with fear and legacies of internalised powerlessness?
Sense making - working with fear and powerlessness
Working with fear and distrust in Ethiopia and Myanmar, there are two quotes that stay with me:
It makes me think that even where fear dominates, there are fearless people too, and I have learned to be on the lookout for them. I do not mean the fearless, militant youth in Ethiopia, who scared the s**t out of a very open-minded and supportive colleague in one of the Ministries we worked with. Their violent intent will be hard to rechannel. I mean the respected, quiet NGO worker who handled the situation, and took the ministerial colleague to safety. These are people who believe in change and are dedicated to it. They know how to sit in the civic space, however limited that space is, make more out of it than anyone can expect, while never taking it for granted.
Gaventa and Oswald call, among others, for ”Small interventions which build on personalised relations of trust, create safe spaces for groups to come together, and for slowly engaging authorities are important for longer term and larger scale change and are important measures of success.”
This is very much my experience too:
In Myanmar, where the program is now expanding, we try to bring the whole local governance system into the training room: municipal officers, elected representatives, CSO’s, political parties, business community. This never succeeds immediately, but that’s ok, just keep trying to engage everyone, or at least informed. This training group selects something small they want to see changed in the municipality. The facilitator helps them to select, connect, think, decide, act together. It can go very fast or very, very slow indeed… Three years back, within a few weeks’ things started happening in one municipality, and within months, this municipality was sharing the budget in a public hearing, which they have kept up every since. In another town, it took more than a year of trying before they booked their first joint success. Three years on, this multi-stakeholder group has grown and helped the municipality to win the Asia award for clean city. And yes, last year they also shared the budget with the public.
A final reflection on Gaventa and Oswald implications for programmes. I find it difficult when programs are seen in isolation of the people that make them work. In my experience, it is the human factor that makes all the difference. The best program designs can become counterproductive in the hands of those who fail to see the invisible…
Picture from: Kathmandu Post 2/3/2020
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