Saturday, 29 March 2014

Transparency: Learning, Limits & Power

Just off Gatot Subroko road, next to the clogged periphery road looping around a severely congested Jakarta is an open sewer. It sits between gleaming towers of industry and near to an impressive looking Korean Embassy. I walked past it having arrived at the luxurious Gran Melia Hotel a couple of weeks ago, and saw a man wading through it, scavenging for plastic bags. That that was a scene of poverty is self-evident, but it is also a story of power; he has none while the business and political elites around him contest for more.

That theme was seam running through a fascinating week in Jakarta (March 12-15) at the second annualTALearn week for practitioners, researchers and other members of the emerging movement for transparency and accountability. The T/A Initiative deserve huge credit for pulling together such a rich mix of people who got to the heart of present challenges, limitations and new thinking.

Having an honest conversation
The T&A field is relatively new; and a key challenge to its overall effectiveness was laid bare by a presentation from Twaweza which, to me, got across the scale of what that lack of experience means in practice. This NGO had held a meeting, notably chronicled by Duncan Green, in which they openly discussed why it was that their theory of change had not in fact led to the citizen participation they had aimed for. It was a story of living the transparency message as they concluded much of what they had been doing had not worked, with Rakesh describing it as a “bucket of cold water”, and asked the advice and perspectives of others to help them work out new theories of how they might catalyse change.
What struck me was two things about this, apart from the obviously strong relationship Twaweza enjoyed with their core donors in order to even contemplate such an open debate: firstly that the challenge was as much to donors as Twaweza, and secondly that the question of how the movement deals with failure remains far from the mainstream.
For donors Rakesh Rajani had some tough love: he urged practitioners not to follow their whims but to challenge them to think differently, more in accordance with local realities. If they were unable or unwilling, he said, then perhaps they were not suited to be your donors anyway. I was interested in the reaction of my donor peers, who came from both private foundations and government agencies, who were happy to be part of the conversation, and quite prepared to be challenged. Yet I was left with the thought that this was easier said than done when the pressure to justify expenditure classed as “aid” to increasingly sceptical domestic audiences is, if anything, set to increase the impetus towards top-down linear theories of change with short term outputs that are predominantly quantifiable. This runs counter to everything we do know about how governance reform happens; the World Development Report of 2011 describes such change taking place iteratively and over three decades.
Dealing with failure itself remains a thorny issue. While it’s difficult to disagree with the idea of learning from what doesn’t work, and some have even gone to the point of organising “FailFests” to celebrate that approach, it is difficult to see how that becomes a mainstream approach in the short term. One of my colleagues at Ushahidi told me recently that innovators in the private sector accept a failure rate of 90% for all new projects; in order to realise the 10% that succeed. But a private sector product is a very far distance from a governance reform that might take years; and given the domestic context of most donors, this approach must surely remain an insurgent way of doing things in the aid industry for the time being.
And what constitutes failure itself was still open to question; I found it interesting that the academic researchers taking part questioned Twaweza’s own conclusion that they had failed. Actually, they said, their approach had created potentially hugely powerful datasets that yielding critical insights into how local people perceived their own contexts, and how best outsiders might support them. My own programme Making All Voices Count is more in line with this view, adopting a rigorous approach to learning and ensuring that learning is publicly available, as we seek to support innovation in the relationship between citizens and their governments.

Smog bound but beautiful Jakarta

Limits, learning and loops
Having debated, deconstructed and otherwise scratched our heads about limits of what we could achieve, we agreed on the critical need for shared learning which could in turn loop into new forms of interventions. But if there was a golden goose showing us the way forward we never quite found it.
There was, however, clear consensus on the need to further develop the community of practice represented by TALearn and much discussion was had on how to ensure we all learn from experience and contribute those insights to the common weal. Ways of ‘learning while doing’, sharing information and other ideas were part of the mix, drawing from the wealth of knowledge out there from specialists in the field; with specific presentations coming from Norma Garza of the World Bank Institute, Walter Flores of CEGSS and Chris Roche of La Trobe University; in each case sharing personal and organisational thinking about how to generate evidence that actually improves impact, within a context of competing priorities.
While there were real frameworks and insights to take away for participants, I was still left wondering about that last point; competing priorities. What we had in the room were the like-minded champions of reform; advancing the long-term, adaptive and local problem-driven approach the evidence suggests is the only way to effectively engage with complexity and power. But applying a reality check to whether their evidence of these champions about what could be done differently was sufficiently powerful to persuade the decision makers of the larger agencies was a different question. The other side of the reality check was evident in conversations among donors and grantees alike – with all agreeing it would be a good thing to share knowledge and co-ordinate efforts; but how, and what vested interests might that challenge in an environment where grantees were also potential competitors? The ever present risk, therefore, is a relapse into short term and predominantly quantitative approaches.

Rush hour in Jakarta: not that much rushing

That power thing
Which brings me to the power thing. We know, surely, that the only way to work in complex environments is to do so politically, aware of the distribution of power and how we might intentionally or otherwise influence that. Jonathan Fox, who has produced some first class work on this in recent years, argued alongside Hari Kusdaryanto of the Asia Foundation and Aranzazu Guillan Montero of U4 that the route to fundamental change was more about contestation within elites and between them and civil society in various forms; than it ever was about short term outside interventions. He effectively deconstructed the traditional language of T&A – particularly the idea that the relationship between Citizen and State could be fixed by a “feedback loop”; which implied that the problem was technical rather than deeply political. He saved the best till last with a polite question of the audience: which theory of change had ever proven that you could overturn centuries of power dynamics by the application of a time-bound technocratic project?
In this I was reminded of the similar thinking already having been done and often drawn upon by those working in the conflict & fragility field; Douglass North, Sue Unsworth and Jonathan Goodhand spring to mind. But I was also reminded that there were power dynamics among the sector too; specifically between donors and grantees that we would be naïve to avoid thinking about.
Encouraging innovation
Ultimately we all know that what we’re about is finding those small pockets of amazing new ways of doing things, that break the mould somehow, and have the power to re-fashion the ways in which people can make their views known, have them heard and for governments to respond. But while we know that finding, nurturing and supporting those locally led and specific initiatives can be the most transformative form of change, the key to doing so on a large enough scale is learning, doing things differently and renewing our collective efforts to make the case for such a different way of doing things among decision makers internationally.
The man under the bridge in Jakarta deserves nothing less.

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