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?

1 comment:

  1. We - Global Integrity - are up for it. Our new strategy is all about supporting country-level learning.

    Here's a summary: https://www.globalintegrity.org/posts/our-revised-strategy-learning-to-open-governance/

    Exploring what that might mean in countries that are not going to be members of the Open Government Partnership any time soon, as well as in countries that have made commitments to more open governance, is a conversation that needs to be had.