Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Sentry: tackling conflict?

The Enough Project has produced a very slick, if spoiled by a blockbuster-style soundtrack, video to publicise its latest offering in a string of innovative approaches to tackling conflict in Africa. And in developing The Sentry the good folks at Enough have pioneered some steps by the conflict transformation community into the world of open data. Good for them.The problem is they seem to have fallen into the trap of so many tech initiatives that have gone before: the tech gets placed ahead of the conflict with hugely inflated claims of the impact the data will have - and is apparently being led exclusively by well intentioned Americans, while as others have pointed out for a project about Africa there is not an African leader in sight in this video, only the victims. Plus George Clooney.

Clooney: closing down conflict in Africa
Clooney and the Enough Project make a number of grand claims of what an approach to following the financial flows associated with some of the most protracted conflicts in the world might mean, both in terms of holding international corporates accountable and even more in terms of changing their behaviour. The project builds on the work supported by donors including the Open Societies Foundation and African innovators in the use of open source data, such as Justin Arenstein, to create a cadre of analysts and reporters who can then use that information to expose illicit flows, sanctions evasion, smuggling of natural resources and so on. But you don't see any reference to those African innovators already doing this work, which is a shame because Africa is not short of these people.

In response to this criticism Sacha Lezhnev of the Enough Project said that they were working with "a number" of these civil society and media actors who preferred to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

To achieve the sort of change this project calls for it will need to take place globally and locally in the countries affected by conflict themselves. My main questions on this project are twofold and relate to both of those levels of change.


Which companies are we talking about, here? Africa is the world's fastest growing region for FDI, with a 5% increase in 2014. A third of that was for extraction, principally oil and gas. And the majority of that investment came from China, with USD198.5 billion and rising in 2012. US FDI by comparison was USD 108.9 billion and falling in the same year. My point here is that Follow the Money style projects are likely to have very different impacts on a publicly listed company in New York or London, by comparison to an essentially State run enterprise in Beijing. But this is lost in the razmatazz of the project's publicity which does not refer once to China. This is not to argue that these projects have no purpose - they really do, as the work of OpenCorporates and others have already shown, but it may be wise to temper expectations, and plan for the long term rather than promising short term transformative change which is simply unrealistic.


To achieve change locally requires local people. So how is the introduction of data in this way different to the work that has already been produced by organisations like Code for Africa and others in the development of data journalism? Because these people have not only experience but valuable learning which it would be wise to reflect on, in the extent to which data can be used by citizens to hold power to account.

Here's Code for Africa, on the as-yet unfulfilled promise of open data:
"Open Data & Open Government Are Revolutionary. They promise to change the power dynamics that govern our societies, giving ordinary citizens more and deeper information in real time, along with digital tools for engaging with fellow citizens and with those in positions of power.

So, why are so few citizens using either the data or the tools -- despite generous funding and massive institutional support?

The problem, Code for Africa believes, is an issue of supply versus demand. Much of the focus by the civic technology movement to date has been on governments and activists pushing data and services at citizens, rather than listening to what citizens really want or need".
They go on to suggest how this could be redefined, taking a bottom up approach and listening to the citizens themselves. You have to wonder how much of this learning is reflected in the Enough Projects new venture into this arena. Judging by the video and the website not much. So it would be interesting to know more about how they plan to build on and learn from the experiences of the real innovators in this field who have been pioneering this work quietly, often at great risk to themselves for several years already.

Partnerships for change?

If we could see real partnerships being forged between international organisations and those innovators operating at the heart of the conflicts, building on the learning that this cutting edge work has already generated; and combining it with the knowledge of those citizen groups already involved in peacebuilding and conflict transformation on the ground who are usually absent from these projects, we might start to realise some of the tantalising potential that this sort of work holds out for genuinely altering conflict in Africa.

In the forthcoming SDG era where data is set to be king, there's a genuine opportunity to think creatively about how we harness the power of that data at the levels we will need to effect change. But I think projects like this, who deserve real credit for even trying, will need to be a little more humble, a lot more integrated and involve much wider collaboration to do that.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Power blindness, conflict & governance: an appeal for joined up learning

Parents at a school in Turkana,  Kenya
Why do so many projects and programmes aimed at tackling problems created and sustained by powerful elites, fail to deal with the power dynamics that are driving those problems? In my view this is about easy assumptions, theories of change that bear little reality to the messy realities of human affairs and a short-termist approach from the donor community which dis-incentivises learning and the application of that learning to what practitioners in the field can do. So what’s the solution? I believe the only way to turn this around is to invest in programmes that are centred on learning as an objective in its own right, to have an honest conversation about the uncomfortable conclusions that that learning might present to well-established approaches and to expand that learning community to include the two disciplines that need to come together more than most: those that deal in ‘governance’ and those that pursue conflict transformation. I've spent time on both sides of that divide, most recently at Making All Voices Count and the division is both clear and largely pointless, hobbling efforts to effect genuinely transformative change from both perspectives. With the majority of the poorest and most vulnerable set to live in fragile states where, by definition, governance is at its weakest, we are collectively letting down the poorest and most vulnerable in who's interests we claim to be working.


If we build capacity then citizens will advocate for peace. If we publish data on services or resources then citizens will hold their governments accountable. The two broad assumptions that lie behind the majority of programming in the worlds of open government and peacebuilding. The problem is they are both wrong, as these parents in Turkana, Kenya who gave me a welcome and blunt reality check could have told you, if only they'd been asked. Change simply isn't that simple.

Trailblazers who are determined to prove this to be true are few and far between. But thankfully they do exist and long may they provide discomfort to the rest of us. Much has been made, rightly, of Twaweza’s role in highlighting the limits of data in inspiring citizens to act, even when the futures of their own children are at stake. An excellent article from Charles Kenny of CGD here compares the learning from Uwezo and India’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) , the latter of which highlights the lack of action that can be the hallmark of the State’s response to data too. Having established the woeful performance of that country’s educational outcomes, with one fifth unable to read a Grade 1 text, little actually happened as a result. This seems counter-intuitive. But if you are a citizen that has never been asked for your opinion or worse still live in a fragile context where expressing your opinion can be dangerous, why on earth would you? And as for the powerful elites within the Indian State, here’s what a senior Ministry of Human Resource Development official told the authors of the ASER report:
“Government always knew that learning levels are poor in public schools. We did not need ASER to tell us this fact which to us has always been self-evident.” 

 In other words, so what? It’s a fair bet that the children of that official didn’t attend a public school. And without incentives to challenge what might be vested interests, why would we expect powerful elites to change? By failing to acknowledge this in so many open government programmes and initiatives, in particular those that focus solely on technology, we risk exacerbating these factors rather than altering them. One reason why the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States has underperformed so dramatically and the Open Government Partnership still doesn’t seem all that relevant to real people in real places like Amina. This matters: nothing that emerged from the Financing for Development conference the other week would suggest the next development agenda will be any more explicit about the role of power in sustaining poverty, retarding equitable growth and promoting violence.

Theories of change 

One of the most frustrating things about making this case is that nobody disagrees with you. It’s all obvious. Then why do we still see so many open calls with linear 'A will lead to B and then C will happen' thinking? And why do we still see that thinking pervade the heights of senior decision makers within institutions that (a) should know better based on what their own reports tell them and (b) have the capacity to create either great harm or great progress? To me this practice is encapsulated in the ‘feedback loop’ idea that dominates the discourse around governance reform and to a lesser extent conflict transformation work. Seen most dramatically perhaps by the launch of the World Bank’s report on ‘closing the feedback loop: can technology bridge the accountability gap?’. To which, in my view the answer is no, it can’t, if tech is your starting point and not the power dynamics that govern the relationship people have with their governments.

The problem is, as we saw in this debate, the Bank seems to think the answer is yes. Vice President Sanjay Pradhan told us in April 2014 that the Bank sees governance as essentially a transaction between citizen and state, in which the citizen offers feedback on the service and the government responds. He even gave a project in the DRC (of all places) to illustrate this. To say such thinking ignores power is an understatement. To reflect on the size and impact of the spending power informed by this superficial and ill-informed analysis is terrifying. In fairness the Bank continues to invite critiques of its work, and its own reports hve highlighted the fallacy of this sort of approach with at least the World Development Reports of 2004 (on service delivery in a context of power) and 2011 (on developmental progress in fragile settings) underlining where they’re going wrong. But the problem is they seem to carry on regardless.

WDR2011: directly contradicts feedback loop thinking and challenges policymakers to think about conflict & power
One explanation for this might be in the short term-ism of so many donors in the open government and conflict transformation arenas. Projects that are restricted to one or more years duration with little or no provision made for the sort of long term, flexible, adaptive approaches we know are necessary to really get to grips with the underlying dynamics that need to change – captured perhaps in the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation or Positive Deviance schools of thought – are unlikely to get very far. And so we carry on.

What to do? 

The evidence base for what works and what doesn’t in goverance and conflict transformation is thin, for a good reason – it simply hasn’t been a priority by comparison to traditional forms of technocratic development encapsulated by the MDG era of the last 15 years. The only way of learning is by doing, but by this approach we will on occasions fail. I am not advocating the sort of ‘Fail Forward’ approach adopted by some in which failure seems to be actively celebrated, but I would humbly suggest that the development industry needs to adopt a much greater tolerance of risk.

Secondly we need an honest conversation which includes donors, practitioners and reformers alike. What we learn is likely to be challenging and uncomfortable. But honest conversations can and do happen as I was privileged to see in Jakarta last year at the Transparency & Accountability Initiative Learning Week on the subject of learning, limits and power. We heard directly from some of the trailblazers so far, including the former head of Twaweza now seated under his new desk at the Ford Foundation. Expanding that conversation beyond the few currently involved would be a massively positive step.

So, who’s up for it? Can we establish an active learning community drawn from across the open government, conflict transformation and donor communities that seeks to work out how to create space for risk, to learn from the good and bad it creates and innovate together?

Friday, 15 May 2015

OGP Africa: does it pass the Amina Test?

Amina lives in Dar es Salaam. It's not her real name. The fact that I can't tell you her real name is the basis for the question I ask about the Open Government Partnership's regional meeting for Africa taking place this week, May 20-21. I'm a big believer in the potential of the OGP but I worry it will miss living up to that potential by not grounding itself sufficiently in the real-life experiences of people like Amina, and what 'government' really looks like to them.

The choice of Tanzania for the regional meeting was controversial. It was borne, I am told by those organising it, simply out of necessity. The original plan (Sierra Leone) had been scuppered by the outbreak of Ebola and as the clock ticked no other country was apparently as willing as Tanzania to host the high profile event. There are presidential elections in that country in October.

Yet the location goes to the heart of some pressing and uncomfortable questions about what OGP is actually for. Tanzania has recently banned a newspaper and threatened journalists and bloggers with prison should they use what the government deems to be the 'wrong statistics'. This is not the bright dawn of openness shining through. And yet, and yet. Should OGP not hold the meeting there, then? My instinct is that to do so risks undermining the credibility of the initiative - but a very strongly held counter view by some is that this is precisely *why* the OGP should host their meeting there, enabling civil society in particular to vocalise the problems and put the government on the spot.

Time will tell whether that actually happens, and I respect the views of those who think that this is the best thing to do. 

But whatever happens here's a challenge I'd like to throw out. The Amina Test. I met her last July in a slum in Dar es Salaam. She is a highly intelligent and passionate woman who wanted to study as a nurse and won a place at a local college to do so. But when she turned up, ready to forge a career, and better both her own circumstances and that of her fellow citizens in doing so, she found that her place had been sold to someone else - who did not have the same qualifications as her, but had better political connections instead. Her future had been traded away. There was no question of appealing, or being able to do anything whatsoever about it. Amina now lives in the same slum, is not a nurse and has no hope of being so but continues her vocation by working alongside an older woman in a kind of apprenticeship for traditional medicine; helping women give birth who cannot afford to use the local hospital among other treatments. 

A bridge too far for really responsive government in Dar
Amina lives in a place that is regularly flooded, with a water mark high on the walls of her home, and rarely sees any local government officials. Standing down the path from her home, past the piles of rubbish festering in the heat, is a broken bridge that for me symbolised what government looked like to her. The bridge, which connected two halves of the area, had been broken by a flood several years ago. Despite regular promises to fix it, usually at election time, it still stood broken, with the villagers having constructed a hazardous plank across. Below them is a river that doubles as a clothes washing facility and a latrine. Amina's comment as she looked at the bridge was that the only thing the State seemed to be efficient at was collecting her taxes. Failure of citizens like her to pay them on time resulted in fines or prison, both very efficiently levied. 

A year on what I remember most about meeting her was the sheer level of cynicism she and others had toward both local and national government. It's not hard to understand why. And my reason for recounting this is to wonder just how connected the topics of conversation at the OGP Africa meeting will relate to how the world looks through the eyes of Amina. Because it needs to, to be relevant and stand any chance of being as transformative as it seeks to be.

Young activists' tributes to Nelson Mandela 
The people who will be at OGP Africa, from government, civil society and business alike, will be elites. As am I. But that includes many people from each of those categories who are deeply committed to doing what they can to transform the way that governments relate to citizens. I saw that at first hand during an inspirational session at the African Union in March, as civil society from across the continent sought to shape an African position on open data. Or at this meeting in South Africa as a post-post-apartheid generation sought to utilise the OGP platform to generate real change in the increasingly authoritarian politics of that country.

Inspiring backdrop to OGP South Africa meeting 
My point is that their collective challenge will be to ground each of their discussions - which will revolve around open data, reporting and participation - to the harsh realities of power, politics, marginalisation and inequality; not to mention the ever present threat of intimidation. These are frequently lacking from the open government discourse which often centres on tech, transparency and dubious assumptions of what citizens will actually do with data. If we see communiques and statements coming out of OGP Africa - signed up to by Governments and civil society alike - that demonstrably relate to those issues, setting clear and measurable goals to address them in meaningful ways, then the meeting will have passed the Amina Test. She has the right to expect that it does. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

My new job: at Saferworld

New horizons beckon once again! I am really excited to be joining the peacebuilding NGO Saferworld, as Head of Asia programmes. Saferworld have played a leading role in the policy debates on peace and security in recent years, and have a reputation for innovative programming which seeks to get to the heart of how you transform the dynamics which drive violent conflict in some of the most volatile areas of the world. I've worked alongside them on both levels in recent years; arguing for peace, governance and security to be part of the Post 2015 framework within the corridors of the UN and on programming in the field. It's a real privilege to join the team.

I'm returning to the peacebuilding tribe after spending just over a year with the governance reform programme Making All Voices Count (MAVC). I learned a huge amount in that 12 months and am grateful for having done so, particularly as it has strengthened my conviction that there is an as-yet largely unexplored nexus between governance and peacebuilding approaches that could and should be combined, to unlock the most transformative levels of change we know we need to achieve in order for real change to happen in a world of ever shifting complexity, power & politics. 

Putting that together with the very well established and ground breaking programming areas for which Saferworld is known, in security & justice reform, understanding gender, peace & security and promoting conflict sensitive development among others, I hope we can start to build on those areas while pioneering new approaches in the field that draw from a wider set of experiences, contributing evidence of what works and why. With that in mind I'm looking forward to working again with the many and excellent colleagues, friends and givers of wise counsel I have had the very great privilege to meet in the last year.

Exciting times ahead!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Africa Data Consensus: power & politics, not tech

It was a real privilege to be asked to help facilitate a group on what the data revolution could and should mean for Africa last week. A High Level Conference in Addis Ababa hosted by UNECA convened civil society, innovators from business and elsewhere to hammer out what an African position could look like. Groups included those looking at peace and security, public services and data for development.

Working with colleagues from Hivos our own group was reassuringly one of the largest and looked at what harnessing the power of data could mean for human progress in the coming generations. Frankly I was blown away by the power of the ideas that flowed, many of which are reflected in the final document (above). Participants included two young guys from openstreetmap in Cote D'Ivoire, a woman human rights campaigner from DRC and the former Speaker of Parliament in the Comoros.

What was particularly reassuring for me was that so much of the debate centred on the problems of real life, rather than the "there's an app for that" discourse so frequently found in tech or 'innovation' based conversations and programmes.

What did it mean for security and privacy? How could we harness the power of business at the same time as guarding against abuses? Could 'data' end up being the new extractive industry - with business making huge profits while not releasing data as responsible citizens. Huge questions with no easy answers but we arrived at a hard fought consensus on the key action points for the Ministers of the African Union meeting this week to consider. It will be intriguing to see which way that goes.

UPDATE: 2nd April: The AU statement is out and it makes for underwhelming reading, I'm afraid. Highly state-centric, it concentrates on the role of national statistical agencies and "existing pan African inititatives. This is despite the civil society participants pointing out repeatedly that national government agencies could only ever capture a partial picture of people's lives and services, while there was an absence of any meaningful and holistic pan African data initiatives. Here's what the powerful had to say:
"High-quality statistical information and data are essential for the proper planning and measurement of development outcomes. Africa should generate its own data to enable it to better monitor and track economic and social targets, including the goals and objectives of Agenda 2063. A data revolution in Africa would afford our continent the opportunity to interact with diverse data communities and to embrace a wide range of data sources, tools and innovative technologies, which would enable the continent to produce disaggregated data, including gender-disaggregated data, for decision-making, service delivery and citizen engagement. An African data revolution should be built on the principles of openness across the data value chain and a vibrant data ecosystem driven by national priorities and inclusive national statistical systems. In this regard, we underscore the importance of strengthening existing pan-African statistical institutions, as well as other similar institutions agreed to by Heads of State and Government, to support the implementation of the first ten-year plan of Agenda 2063."
Disappointing, is my verdict.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

ODI goes retro: the backlash begins

Back to the future with ODI

David Booth of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) yesterday published a think piece which essentially questions the relevance of governance to developmental progress. Positioning himself as the little boy pointing out a naked emperor he draws on recorded history and one or two other writers in support of his argument, which is basically that economic progress happens first – everything else happens afterwards. He neatly tries to take apart the consensus, momentum and progress that has been made throughout the post-2015 marathon, during which citizens have consistently and in overwhelming numbers expressed their desire to see open, transparent, accountable and responsive governments, in the form of five ‘myths’.

This, to my mind, is a retrograde argument that belies where it comes from: from where I am standing it’s part of a backlash from those who would prefer that ‘international development’ (define that how you will) remains essentially an economists playground, and should be pursued through an economists, technical approach. All that governance, power and political stuff is just too messy, you see. Wouldn't that approach have worked by now, though? 

At the heart of David’s piece, in my reading of it, is the idea that ‘development’ is essentially economic growth alone. It is clear throughout his argument that David conceives of development as being solely about economic growth rather than, for example, political institutions. In fact he specifically dismisses them. So with such a narrow definition of development it becomes possible to make the case he does. Or does it? What sort of economic growth are we talking about? 72% of the world’s poorest people live in Middle Income Countries. In other words even when you have economic growth as measured by GDP you do not necessarily achieve equitable economic growth and, thus, the majority of people remain poor. And, in situations where violence is routinely used by elites, very vulnerable. Without a politically engaged and aware population, who are able to hold their governments to account through robust political institutions, that situation will not change any time soon and the glaring inequalities it creates and perpetuates will contribute directly to the potential for violence. Which will disrupt growth. Now how much “development” have you achieved? One of the reasons the World Development Report of 2011 linked jobs, security and justice was for precisely this reason – development is political as much as economic, and to pretend otherwise is a recipe for repeating the errors the report was concerned with, which has left over 1.5 billion people in conflict affected states as poor and vulnerable as they ever were at the outset of the MDG era. 

Now I’d like to respond to each of David’s ‘myths’, as he puts them, as a contribution to the debate.

1 Good governance is important for development.

David here disputes this basic premise and states:
"The history of human progress, from 17th century England to 21st century China and Vietnam, is completely clear on this point: governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round".
To make this case requires you to perform the not inconsiderable feat of ignoring recorded human history. The richest countries in the world achieved that status not through a focus solely on a set of economic goals, least of all goals imposed by donors, but through centuries of contested political ideas in which groups of people fought and died for rights, and elites sought to deny them. The context in which they did that might have been economic: for example the industrial revolution, but the battles themselves were about power and politics. The political happened in tandem with the economic, not in sequence. What emerged in the West were constitutional democracies, within which that economic growth and the emergence of the rule of law took place. And that is precisely the aims of those living in the states most affected by the absence either of good governance or economic progress and scarred by endemic violence, as can be seen by the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. Far from perfect, the New Deal nevertheless for the first time redefines ‘development’ as being as much about a participatory journey towards growth, between State and citizen, as well as a partnership of equals between donor and recipient. A similar definition is made by the Open Government Partnership.

2 Governance improvement is a good entry point for developmental reform.

David’s view here is apparently that this is bunkum too. Instead of focusing on governance, which he describes with a flourish as a ‘ghetto’, he states:
“All experience tells us that institutions and social norms change slowly at best. Aid-supported institutional change has a well-documented tendency to produce either ‘capability traps’ or purely cosmetic improvements. History, especially the last half-century in Asia, shows that very significant gains in economic transformation and human well-being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems. Reform initiatives should surely aim to repeat those gains by whatever means are to hand”.
He goes on to cite the excellent Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation line of thinking from Andrews, Pritchett and Barder as evidence of what actually works and argues that policies, not openness, hold the key to progress.

My response to this is straightforward: not only do we know that institutions and norms change slowly (the World Development Report of 2011 talks in terms of 30 years for example), but we also know that pursuing the sort of technocratic approach to ‘development’ David seems to be proposing we continue, characterised by economic policymaking which ignores political contestation, social movements and endemic resource capture by elites will perpetuate poverty and increase the likelihood of violence. Evidence? Try the direct link between structural adjustment programmes and violent conflict in Sri Lanka. Or perhaps the fraying of social fabric in other countries, as political elites take full advantage of liberalisation. Sadly, we are not short of similar examples. And the beauty of the PDIA idea is the notion that practitioners should respond flexibly to challenges and changes as they arise, rather than ploughing on regardless because that’s what the donor logframe says. My point here is that the role of open, inclusive and legitimate political institutions are a critical enabling factor which cannot simply be ignored, as they largely have been to the detriment of the poorest by the old development paradigm David seeks to defend.

3. High levels of transparency, accountability, participation and competition sustain economic development.

David disputes this on the grounds, essentially, of a lack of evidence to prove the point in the developing world. I would gently counter that the rule of law, low corruption and participatory governance structures would seem to have rather a lot to do with the economic growth of the richer countries of the world.

4. Southeast Asian lessons about agriculture are non-transferrable because the Cold War is over.

David makes a point here that I don’t fully understand. Perhaps greater minds than mine, do.

5. African regimes can’t do problem-driven, adaptive development.

David rebuts this idea, and I agree with him. But I can’t help noticing a straw man in the room. Who is arguing this anyway? In fact, on the subject of African voices why don't we hear from Mthuli Ncube, Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank:
"Deliberate policies to reduce inequalities and promote inclusion are now needed more than ever before. It is time to focus on people’s expectations: decent work, a living wage, access to basic service, more democracy, and accountable governments...Governance is now one of the cornerstones of economic development. Good governance, in its political, social, and economic dimensions, underpins sustainable human development and the reduction of poverty, in that it defines the processes and structures that guide political and socio-economic relationships"
Rather a different take on things from an African perspective.

Lastly I take issue with David’s argument on an unashamedly moral ground. He states:
“…human well being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems”.
This is a pernicious argument of the sort we've seen before from the old school of development. I don’t claim it is made with malign intent but the effect is sinister. Quite apart from it being disturbing for a comfortable Western research institute to casually dismiss the hopes of the poorest to have the fundamental rights we enjoy in a cast off comment; the more dangerous implication of this argument is that we should carry on as usual, seeing ‘development’ as purely economic and people’s rights as nice-to-haves rather than must-haves. Music to the ears of strongmen and repressive governments everywhere. One of the reasons, perhaps, why citizens of developing countries have consistently, and in overwhelming numbers, placed good governance as among their highest priorities. This can be seen from the MyWorld survey, the High Level Panel process and the UN Thematic Consultations among others. That this has been reflected in the work of governments in the Open Working Group is to my mind one of the more inspiring aspects of the last few years. Citizens voices, calling for good governance, apparently being heard.

You have to wonder at the motives of those who propose to ignore them.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Can chaos & collision lead to the co-creation of innovative ideas?

Nathaniel Heller has charted the recent transformation of Making All Voices Count, drawing comparisons to debates raised in Steven Johnson’s latest book, which discusses the sources of ideas and the conditions that give rise to ideas that fuel innovation. Heller argues that the fundamental change Making All Voices Count, for whom I work, has made in its approach to creating these ‘idea friendly’ conditions echoes Johnson’s thinking about the need for less rigidity, more flexibility and the creation of spaces in which ideas and their owners collide. It’s a form of chaos, which leads ultimately to co-creation. Heller states that other Grand Challenges, the family of which this programme is part, should be:
“…watching these before-and-after results like a hawk”. 
No pressure, then.

The story so far 

The story of this programme thus far is one of generating a collection of grantees who do innovative and unusual things to tackle age old governance problems. But it is also a story of realising that in order to tackle the unique sets of circumstances, challenges and drivers of change present in each of the countries where we work, we ourselves needed to adapt more to those contexts, rather than expecting others to fit into our model. Sounds obvious, but it is rarely done well in large, multi-country programmes – even after the principle of local ownership was finally agreed upon in Busan

Put that story together with our determination to find these change-makers in some of the hardest and most marginalised places in Africa and Asia and you can see the danger of simply relying on open calls and the language of technical solutions, or fixing feedback loops: all of this real life stuff is quite messy and the hard fact is that there are no quick fixes or silver bullet solutions that fit neatly into a logframe. Good governance, in its broadest sense, is about a citizen participation in a transparent contest of ideas, and the implementation of those ideas by institutions which are viewed as legitimate. However, just as perceptions of legitimacy are mutable, so the manifestation of good governance is different in every context, which takes us back to the question of how we can best support localised co-creation. 

So what has Making All Voices Count done to adapt? We’re pursuing a context-led approach, working to thematic country plans which have been written by people who live in the countries whose contexts they are analysing. This approach provides for a rolling process of granting and engagement, which aims to broker partnerships between people and organisations that would not ordinarily collaborate on governance issues, and to strengthen initiatives that are already transforming the relationships that ordinary people have with those in power. This is hard work, but the dividends so far are encouraging. 

We’ve started to find projects that fit into the ‘positive deviance’ mould – the idea that someone, somehow determines a new way of getting around an age old problem, usually by doing something that deviates from the norm of what has gone before. There is a real debate to be had here about what conditions create and build on positive deviance (a holy grail that anyone working in development would love to get their hands on) and indeed whether there is a common set of conditions that work across different contexts.

Logframes v reality 

Heller quotes Johnson’s magnificent metaphor of a “rich primordial soup” which conjures images of primary components floating together. I prefer a more prosaic take on things, which builds on the (by now well established) understanding that local people can analyse their challenges and solutions better than any outsider, and that a one-size-fits-all approach from a donor agency to something as complex as governance is likely to fail. Human progress is simply not that simple. 

What we can do is learn to leave our logframes and our rigid frameworks at the immigration desks and adopt an approach akin to the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation line of thinking. This is the idea that, as a programme, your strength lies in your flexibility and ability to adapt to circumstances as they evolve. Assumptions, theories of change and expectations, particularly when formed from afar, rarely survive the complexities of real life. The history of great inventions teaches that innovation is likely to come from adaptations of plans, as much as from plans in their original form: in other words, Plan D is quite often better than Plan A. 

This is why I believe Making All Voices Count is a genuinely exciting programme and one which has the potential to be a pathfinder for others in how we source and support innovation that makes both governance and government more participatory, transparent and effective. To find and shape those projects, we work to create spaces in which to broker those conversations between unusual partners and in that sense encourage the sort of collisions Heller cites from Johnson’s analysis. We also want to capture the learning generated by those projects we support as they seek to co-create new ideas in the ‘chaos’ that we are prepared to work within.

Parents at a school, Turkana, Northern Kenya 
Why is this important? 

Later this year, a new set of SDGs will be unveiled in New York, of which governance looks set to be a key part. The failure to include any element of governance in the MDG framework led, in the view of the 2011 World Development Report, to the poorest and most vulnerable being left behind. This is a significant shift: there was a reason why politics were left out of the MDGs, and that is because powerful vested interests would really rather not be held to account. The extent to which the inclusion of governance in the SDG framework actually addresses the relationship people have with their governments will depend largely on their detailed implementation in countries and communities. Failure to grasp that nettle will mean some countries will proclaim their adherence to international standards – the popular trick of passing regulations without actually implementing them is apparently not getting old – some international institutions will continue to define ‘governance’ in technical rather than practical terms, and all the while good governance will fail to actually materialise. 

In real terms, this means continuing to hear stories like that of Amina, a mother of three from Tanzania, who told us how an education official had sold her place at nursing college to a politically better-connected student. Or experiences represented by the bridge pictured at the head of this article from a slum in Dar es Salaam. Residents told me that officials were super efficient at collecting taxes but had not fixed the bridge in years. 

There is already some fascinating work on how data itself could contribute to the monitoring and support of SDG implementation, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the champions of change can be found within governments and business, as well as organised civil society and wider communities. As a programme, we hope that what we learn from our own approaches – guided by context, grounded in hard reality, flexible enough to adapt and willing to tolerate risk – is another contribution to that journey. The innovators are out there, and Making All Voices Count will support them in changing the relationships between government and ordinary people – even if that means fostering a little chaos.