Beads - Passion for Facilitation

Capacity development, learning, change, poverty/power/progress

Blog about learning/change, facilitation, systems: small groups and large scale processes, and poverty/power/progress.


Empowerment and Accountability in ‘Difficult Settings’ - message 1

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:

  • “I have lost 4 sons to the regimes of our country, so you can perhaps imagine that I fear speaking up…” A woman in the audience, at ESAP’s Theatre for Accountability, which demonstrated how the relationships between the local government (in this case health officials) and citizens tend to play out.
  • “We are watching them [the military and their cronies] closely and if need be we will go back to the jungle and fight again for democracy.” A 70-year-old male volunteer in a Myanmar local governance and accountability project when asked, after Aung San Suu Kyi was elected, if he believed in the promise of democracy.

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:

  • Focus groups in which vulnerable people can share their experiences, for instance with the safety nets program in Ethiopia (social security for the ultra-poor). Together they can find a voice: what are they willing and able to say? They think they will risk losing their safety net payment if they speak up about favoritism in the program. The front-line staff who interacts with these ultra-poor, is in turn afraid to share complaints upwards: he thinks he may miss a promotion or even risk his job. This cannot change, unless some fearless people try to find a solution together with the authorities. A small improvement will have to be made, and in my experience, the less we seek to blame the more likely it is that a way out will be found. Only then will people start to feel more comfortable to speak up to local authorities, and up-ward in the system.
  • In exchange visits, such small improvements can be shared with other communities and local authorities. Peers are the best teachers! The program can facilitate and where needed keep gently pushing the authorities to take note. It appears more difficult to protect the vulnerable from repercussion, as suggested. In my experience, people will know best what risks they are willing to take. As space opened up in Ethiopia, people started using the media to put pressure on authorities to act.
  • Many small changes do add up and when carefully brought together in multi-stakeholder settings, can inspire regional and national authorities to take action. This may be difficult for vulnerable people to realise, but communities know how to take care of their own. There are always volunteers, perhaps more educated and better off, who feel solidarity and will go out of their way to represent those who are too fearful or powerless.
  • An important additional lesson for me has been the need to work with elected representatives in local government to develop their relationship with more diverse groups in the areas they represent. In Ethiopia and Myanmar elected representatives in local government/municipalities respectively, tend to follow the messages from the party in the center. This is even true for Nepal, where a new constitution grants total autonomy to the local governments. We aim to balance this power of the party with the power of the people. Once elected representatives are in power, they stay in power by taking care of all people, not just those who voted for them. In ‘difficult settings’, it is very important that local politicians play a role in designing and monitoring social contracts: agreements between citizens and their government about what the government will do for the people, and at what costs (i.e. taxes and fees). This notion has been eye opening for elected representatives in Ethiopia. In Myanmar we have just started to test the waters.

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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