Working Politically: Thoughts from the conference

Last week, international development practitioners and researchers convened at the European Union House in Dublin for a two-day learning workshop on governance, accountability and citizen empowerment in the global south. Participants discussed and learned from governance initiatives being implemented in Burundi, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, among others.

While much of the discussion drew upon experiences of implementing social accountability initiatives, which aim to enable citizens to hold governments and service providers to account by creating channels for civic participation in political decision-making, the challenges and lessons raised pointed to a fundamental need to recognise the role of power and politics in shaping development outcomes more broadly.

Organisations like the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) have in recent years demonstrated the problematic nature of attempting to transpose Western models of governance to disparate developing contexts. One issue is the tendency for such technical ‘cookie cutter’ or ‘best practice’ approaches to ignore the landscape of politics and power (often comprised of formal and informal institutions and relations) in which they are supposed to function.

As Alina Rocha Menocal, Research Fellow at the ODI, stated at the conference: “governance reform is about nothing if it is not about changing power relations”. Rather than aiming to apply a rigid model and expecting rapid change, governance initiatives should adopt a ‘best fit’ approach, based on a more realistic timeline of expectations and a deep understanding of the political context.

Although Ms. Menocal may have been speaking more specifically about governance reform, the need to understand and address the role of power relations in terms of shaping development outcomes is crucial in development planning more broadly.

The very idea of ‘empowerment’, which is found in the mission statements of many development NGOs, entails a notion of increasing the power of an individual or a group, or, in other words, their capacity to make choices and to transform choices into desired actions and outcomes (to paraphrase the World Bank’s definition). Although that definition focuses on the individual or group to be empowered, there is an implicit need to understand and account for the wider network of power in which they are embedded: how can you be sure that you are truly hearing the voice of the marginalized if you cannot account for the influence of those who are not?

Power is, of course, often quite intangible. It can be hidden, and exerted in discreet ways. However, there are tools and analytical approaches that can enable development practitioners and researchers to understand contextual power relations and their effects. The ODI, for instance, published a toolkit for civil society organisations for mapping political context, while DFID published an accessible ‘how to note’ for political economy analysis.

It is crucial, if development agencies are to understand and adapt to the context in which programmes are being implemented, that such tools are used to guide planning and decision-making on a continuous basis.

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