For the past few years I’ve been one of Oxfam’s researchers in the Action for Empowerment and Accountability programme, studying how E&A function in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings (FCVAS) – a more exact category than ‘Fragile/Conflict States’, which recognizes that it’s not always whole countries that are fragile/violent. This week we had a brainstorm to try and distil the overall narrative from the growing pile of research, primarily from Pakistan, Myanmar, Mozambique, Nigeria and Egypt (here’s a full list of publications so far – A4EA Publications 2016-2018). Here are my entirely selective highlights (A4EA colleagues, feel free to add your own).
Working in FCVAS means thinking about emotions and their impact on activism. In particular, fear – what is the legacy of past atrocities, or the impact of current threats on people’s interest in changing their situation? What are the different kinds of fear and what impact do they have on the likelihood and nature of social and political action? How are trust and social cohesion destroyed and rebuilt? How does agency emerge, or, as A4EA researcher Katia Taela put it, based on her work in Mozambique: ‘how do people come to the point of sitting and deliberating on possible courses of action? We still know very little about how that happens.’
These feel like huge blind spots in a sector still based primarily on assumptions that giving people access to information and channels for action should be enough for them to step up. Instead action emerges from swirling clouds of emotions and relationships – fear, love, rage, trust, hope and resignation, all of them off/below the developmental radar.
You can see these as a kind of ‘enabling environment’ for action –the emotional and normative ecosystem that must be in place before action is likely. For both scholars and practitioners, that means getting new disciplines into the room – psychologists for a start; it also means deepening the growing interest in norm shifts and how to bring them about.
This got me harking back to the paper on donor theories of change that I wrote at the start of A4EA. One of the findings of that paper was:
‘Today, donor thinking on E&A in FCVAS is at something of a crossroads. One current of thinking advocates deeper engagement with context, involving greater analytical skills, and regular analysis of the evolving political, social and economic system; working with non-state actors, sub-national state tiers and informal power; the importance of critical junctures heightening the need for fast feedback and response mechanisms. But the analysis also engenders a good deal of scepticism and caution about the potential for success, so an alternative opinion argues for pulling back to a limited focus on the ‘enabling environment’, principally through transparency and access to information’
At the time, I felt very divided on this – my heart was with the first group, hence all the stuff on this blog about thinking and working politically, doing development differently etc etc. But my head was with the second, even though in practice it was advocating a rather laissez faire, hands off approach; and I’m a sceptic on the value of transparency unless loads of other stuff happens.
This week’s conversation pointed to a more exciting alternative – a more ambitious approach to the enabling environment, that targets the emotional and normative pre-conditions for action. So instead of concentrating on changing particular laws and policies, how do we build the enabling conditions for more action to emerge, driven by local people and communities? How do we help them overcome fear, change norms on the value of action, build leadership and confidence? That sounds like an agenda worth pursuing.
A second thought-provoking discussion was where to look for success. The programme thus far has looked at a few well-known past success stories, but when it has tried to follow current events and social movements, success has proven hard to spot. Most activism doesn’t get very far in these settings, it seems.
That surely makes a case for a bit of positive deviance – how do we trawl current events more systematically to find those social movements that are getting somewhere, and see what we can learn from them? We identified at least four ways of doing this:
- Networks – aka researchers, practitioners and activists swapping notes on interesting stories they have come across
- Ethnography, or its cheaper cousin, Governance Diaries, which can spot micro-levels of action as they emerge in particular communities
- Big data: as more and more people go online, can we trawl social media for spikes in the use of words like ‘meeting’ ‘protest’ or ‘I’ve had enough’?
- Crowd Sourcing: how about running the activist equivalent of Facebook’s 10 Year Challenge. Paint a picture of your community ten years ago and now, and then see what patterns emerge?
Approaches based on the enabling environment or positive deviance both pose major challenges to business as usual for aid donors and organizations. Predicting and measuring results are much harder, as is proving impact. But the emerging findings of the research suggest we should at least be taking these ideas seriously, if we really want to support empowerment and accountability in messy places.