Beads - Passion for Facilitation

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

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Empowerment and Accountability in ‘Difficult Settings’ - message 2

This blogpost is the second inspired by John Gaventa’s 8 messages from: Rethinking Empowerment and Accountability in ‘Difficult Settings’ If you missed the first, you can find it here.

Message 2 Theories of change often assume the existence of “accountable and responsive institutions”, towards which voice may be directed, but in ‘difficult settings’, we need to re-understand the nature of authority and question our assumptions of who is to be held to account, and by whom.

In Ethiopia, thanks to the government’s wholehearted embrace of the Millenium Development Goals, most people know the 5 basic services of the government: health, education, water and sanitation, agriculture and rural roads. Yet, also here we will find excluded groups that are not being served, either because they do not know that they too have rights to the service, or because the services are not catered to their specific needs. In rural areas, where disabled children are traditionally kept in the hut, an education office stated that they did not have a special needs school in the district because there was no demand. When a parent of a disabled child learned about the option, he went from door to door to discuss the situation and organized the demand for a special needs school in the district. A very marginalised group of pottery makers in the south of Ethiopia never knew the safety nets program was developed for ultra-poor like them. Women do not make use of agriculture services because the crops they grow are not in the extension packages, and they are never approached to discuss the  agricultural problems they face. In this case, because the services and their targeting are clearly spelled out, it becomes possible to demand for it and hold the state to account when the service fails.

In Myanmar, the state does not have a positive presence in people’s lives, if any. Research in municipalities shows that people have very limited understanding of municipal services. They help and organize themselves. In several municipalities where we work there is no town water, people have their own well. Waste management is handled by local committees. The municipality is only known for taxes, though people have no idea what they can expect from paying those taxes. In fact, people have no expectations whatsoever from the municipality. The only day-to-day contact they may have with the state is through the ward administrator, who they elected. These days a few may know the people on the municipal committee, who were (s)elected to listen to their needs. Point is, there is no ‘social contract’ which is essential for accountability. Even if there is a grievance, there is nobody to respond, or when the state does repond  (e.g. land issues) it will likely be repressive. In this context we can only ‘empower’ when we also address the willingness and ability to respond.

Gaventa suggests that in working with marginalised groups, we must focus “attention on how the marginalised and disempowered negotiate with the relatively powerful, build coalitions and alliances, and develop their own theories of power and political change to guide their political actions and choices”. In my experience, marginalized and very poor people can usually not even imagine negotiating with the powerful. It requires the ‘fearless’ in society (I wrote about them in my ‘message 1’ post), to care and to help find a way to overcome injustice and to rethink when ‘organising’ might be needed to get water, or deal with municipal waste. The solution might not always be found in formal state structures.

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