Saturday 14 November 2015

OpenGov: emotions, complexity, power & partnerships

Human beings are complex, volatile and often irrational creatures. That is all the more so in environments characterised by the use of violence, corruption and where the dominant narrative around them is one of ‘them and us’, often expressed through ethnic identity. The idea, therefore, that in our approaches to opening up government we can design interventions and structures that think about homogeneous ‘citizens’ engaged in transactions with a machine-like ‘State’, and that all we need to do is produce data and tools with which to use that data to improve that relationship is absurd.

A useful piece of research recently published by IDS underlines that point by examining people’s perceptions of those in power around them, the effect that has on their psycho-social state and the choices they make as a result. In this study, Jethro Petit has produced a powerful account of how existing power relations inhibit ‘citizens’ from acting on information and engaging with the State. But he goes further and illustrates the psycho-social impact of multiple forms of exclusion, reinforced by patronage and violence. Here’s a critical passage:
“…these multiple dimensions of poverty and exclusion took the form of stress, depression, despair and low self-esteem. Many people showed signs of undiagnosed and untreated trauma and mental illness generated by these conditions, in addition to more overt domestic and/or political violence. This stress and trauma affected people's disposition to engage in civil society or politics. 
Our Reality Checks exposed intimate and emotional effects of poverty and exclusion often missed by more conventional research focused on material or legal deficits”.
It’s a strong piece of research and one I hope gets the traction it deserves. It echoes what I was told by a teacher in Turkana, Northern Kenya last year in my own reality check:

“This is a forgotten school. And a forgotten place. Maybe because our village doesn’t have a strongman, that’s why they don’t listen to us”.
He was despondent, angry and frankly depressed. Getting him to even talk to me about opening up relationships with the new County level government there was an achievement in itself. That's the voice of a marginalised individual that is all too frequently missing from open government discussions and approaches. He's just as divorced from the reality of his own countrymen and women who are highly educated open data or civil society innovators in capitals as he is from his own government. How could either of them hope to understand what he thinks, feels and is likely to respond to? This is a case some of us have been making for a while now.

School governors in Turkana - citizens in need of data?
But it does beg the question: what to do? Perhaps not much in the case of SIDA who commissioned the research as they shrink their budget by 60%. But for the rest the answer to my mind is to be found in how we engage in fragile states where the features Jethro is talking about are most pronounced. Yet the literature usually referenced by those within the governance sphere has little connection with the body of work that has already been done on the psycho-social impacts of conflict and fragility and which points to some of the possible answers. So we need to widen our evidence base, widen the conversation among practitioners, and apply it to how we think about the ways in which structures such as OGP and others could better understand and respond to the complexity of real people. A good starting point is Sri Lanka, newest member of OGP, but the lessons we learn from fragile states are highly replicable elsewhere. 

Sri Lanka illustrates where the factors Jethro is talking about can end up. Ethnic conflict. As people suffer exclusion they become susceptible to narratives that play on group identity, reinforced by genuine ties to land, culture, religion and customs. Elites who manipulate the structures that reinforce such exclusion can themselves become trapped in a spiral of competing and mutual chauvinism that can take on an unstoppable momentum and end in war. Some history. The independence movement in Sri Lanka was multi ethnic, indeed it was led by a Tamil. But the inheritance of the British majoritarian winner-takes-all Westminster electoral system was an unmitigated disaster. It guaranteed power for the majority, and exclusion for the minority. The rest is highly contentious history but what is not in dispute was the growth of ethnic politics and its expression in policies, practices and discourse associated with violence and ultimately falling into the abyss of war in 1983 from which the island has only just emerged. The point here is that as a relatively progressive administration reaches out and joins OGP, there is a profound need to tread carefully and consider how the legacy of those traumatic decades will need to be navigated. Failure to do that and carrying on with business-as-usual, much of which was on display at the OGP Summit in Mexico recently, risks reinforcing and entrenching the very marginalisation and exclusion that gives rise to conflict dynamics. Naivety comes at a cost, which will be paid by the most vulnerable.

IDS advance the phrase ‘rational passivity’ to explain the phenomena of citizens apparently being compliant in systems that are against their self-interest, often confounding theories of change underpinning projects and programmes. The idea being that they make rational choices, anticipating the reaction of those in power and wanting to avoid it. The authors argue we need to check assumptions but also Western liberal ideas of what success actually looks like. This is where we part company. The idea that basic freedoms, and aspirations for democratic choice, transparency, accountability and the other goals represented by initiatives like OGP is a ‘western’ model is patently untrue. For that you need only to look at what much of Southern civil society has been advocating for years in the context of the post 2015 debates. The question is how best to get there. And this is where the IDS piece gets very woolly and difficult to understand. For example here’s one of the top three recommendations:
“Supporting civil society and its power as a field rather than as organisations, through processes of capacity mobilising to release existing energies”.
I genuinely have no idea what that means. I get it on one level but what do you actually do, then? What does the ‘capacity mobilising’ look like? What are these ‘existing energies’? It is so vague and open to widely differing interpretations as to be less than helpful. 

This surely is where we need to consult the body of peacebuilding and conflict transformation experience, literature and expertise that is so frequently lacking in these debates. Both fields have a huge amount to learn from each other – in both directions. With the majority of the poorest set to live in fragile states, and the expansion of OGP into those fragile contexts that is no longer a nice-to-have, but a must-have. It will mean donors adopting new internal structures so that their own staff can better work coherently across disciplines – not the case at the moment. It will mean practitioners with very different backgrounds coming together and creating new approaches that get to the heart of these dynamics and work with the grain rather than against it. Rarely found. And it will mean fundamentally rethinking what we mean by ‘open government’, the timescales in which we conceive of it and the methods with which we pursue it.

The price of getting this stuff wrong in fragile states is scary. But the opportunity of learning about what can be achieved if we can start to engage with citizens in all of their emotional, political, cultural and historical complexity is huge.

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