Don’t build stuff – get people talking

A roundtable discussion of the practical implications of the African Power and Politics research


  1. This event was organised by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) to bring together academics and practitioners to debate the practical implications of the APPP synthesis report which argues that, ‘governance challenges are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better. They are about both sets of people finding ways of being able to act collectively in their own best interests. They are about collective problem solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust’.

    This note is a summary of the discussion that took place between Duncan Green (Senior Strategic Adviser, Oxfam) and David Booth (Director of APPP) looking at the implications of the APPP synthesis report, and a breakdown of the key themes that came out from the discussion that followed.

  2. Don’t build stuff – get people talking
    Don’t build stuff – get people talking
  3. Duncan and David discuss the APPP synthesis report       

    David Booth: Over the last 20 years we have had two variants of the “one set of people getting another set of people to behave differently or better” idea:


    1. Public sector reform: National governments have carried out good sectoral reforms, but now they need to reform the state, and the problem is getting civil servants to comply with government reforms.

    2. Emphasis on the demand side of governance: We need to help citizens and service users demand services from their politicians and their service providers.


    The second variant, which we are following now, is an insufficient response to the actual problems that are found on the ground because all of the actors involved do not act in their own best interest and, in particular, they face problems in acting in their collective best interests.

    Duncan: Is this a collective action problem or are power holders unwilling to relinquish power?


    David: People who have wealth and power will often want to hang onto it, but often the reason why people don’t act in the collective best interest because it would involve cooperating with others and people are not prepared to take the risks and incur the costs that are involved.


    Duncan: Cynics felt this report sounded like an excuse for NGOs to have more meetings.


    David: NGO supported activity in Sierra Leone is a good example of how to resolve the “free-rider” problem described above. This can’t easily be solved by the participants themselves, a third party needs to be involved to facilitate, and this tends to happen in the form of meetings.

  4. Don’t build stuff – get people talking
    Don’t build stuff – get people talking
  5. NGO examples of convening and brokering

    Oxfam in Tajikistan

    In Tajikistan, Oxfam’s convening and brokering work focused on water problems born from bad governance. Oxfam had been working there for several years since 2001 and after an evaluation highlighting the programmes failures was published, other NGOs admitted to having similar problems. The Swiss government (SDC) funded Oxfam to work on the problems over the course of 10 years. Oxfam’s idea was to get the key actors in a room and discuss potential solutions to the problems. 


    - If you don’t know the answer to the issues you can still do something

    - Being operational is important for the sake of credibility

    - Success is often born from acknowledging failure

    - Brand helped – Oxfam known as neutral, international and independent

    - Finding existing laws etc. and building on them saves time and hassle

    - Flexibility is needed both in terms of planning and funding


    CAFOD in Ethiopia

    In 2005 Donors were rethinking how to fund basic service provision in Ethiopia due to the political crisis around the elections. They concluded that the best solution would be to fund local levels of basic services, but with a guarantee that the government would use the money as demanded by civil society.  Donors brought in an element of social accountability to a context where people saw the government as something to be served, rather than something that served them.

    CAFOD worked with various faith based groups to help them engage with issues around accountability and help facilitate the discussion at a local level. They soon found that a confrontational style of dialogue was not going to work because it would result in more conflict due to the fractured nature of both the government and opposition, so they adopted a “facilitation and dialogue” approach which began with working with the local governments to make them feel safe about coming into a space for dialogue. CAFOD worked with the local population to ensure the space for dialogue didn’t become a place where people brought all of their grievances against the government, but instead focused on one set of issues.


    - Often problems come from higher up, rather than from local level governance

    - State systems wouldn’t allow local actors to challenge anything coming from the top

    - Demand side model can be useful to challenge people’s concept of government

  6. Don’t build stuff – get people talking
    Don’t build stuff – get people talking

  7. In Malawi, Plan has a score cards programme which has been producing positive results. Plan asked ODI to come in and find out whether there were any transferable actions that could help them achieve similar results in some of their other country programmes. ODI looked at how the programme was working and found their documented theory of change spoke to people’s entitlements but didn’t actually reflect what was happening on the ground.

    What did ODI do?

    ODI began to develop their theory of change capturing what needed to happen, in terms of programming and dialogue, for the score cards programme to be effective.


    - Key to the programmes effectiveness was the use of collective action, but Care’s theory of change didn’t reflect this.

    - The key to their success was having locally connected and politically smart individuals involved who could work within the existing processes.


    Naming the process

    The convening and brokering process needs a name to enable practitioners and academics to capture how it is working in practice, because at present it is not in line with the reporting requirements of funders and NGO’s and is not seen as a valid piece of work in and of itself.


    NGO’s role

    It's important to recognise that NGO’s aren’t impartial actors in this process. When creating space for local problem solving and facilitating collective action it’s important to ask in what kind of spaces, whose problems are we trying to solve, for whom and by whom, and who should we involve in that process? Should NGOs put aside their organisational interests to find a collective interest? Does this need a radical change within cultures of donors and organisations? Is having an agenda or interest a bad thing? e.g. Children are a good convening issue, especially in difficult country contexts and enable Save the Children to talk about other things from that platform. NGOs can be guilty of being distrustful of NGOs perceived as "free-riders". They also need capture what they are doing in terms of brokering as ends in themselves.


    Elite bargaining

    Why do some elites make their money by growing their economy, while others make it by essentially destroying that economy? One answer the report provides is that strongly performing neopatrimonial regimes have ‘a system to centralise the management of economic rents and to orient rent-generation in the long-term, but this isn’t the complete answer. ‘Leaders’ in Ethiopia or Rwanda are able to centralise rent management because no other group has the power to veto what they decide. In many other situations, there are ‘spoilers’ who have sufficient power, who may not always want to talk.



    The public good aspect of water and sanitation services means that both the supply and the demand side needs to be addressed by NGOs. In-depth specialist knowledge is crucial because it enables NGOs to convene and broker solutions at community level, district level or national level.



    Some NGO partners focusing on water have a natural tendency towards technical rather than a political diagnosis of ‘the problem’, but it is important to understand the interests of different stakeholders and the risks and costs associated with collective action. There is a lot of potential for cross learning and collaboration between sector and governance advisors but there has been little to-date. The tendency has been to impose generic governance frameworks on the sector rather than investing in understanding sectoral dynamics within wider development trajectories. Sanitation is fundamentally a local problem but action is required across multiple different sectors (water, health, education, housing, and environment) and the benefits tend to accrue long term. This makes dialogue less confrontational but also limits the appetite for risk taking, which means progress can be slow and incremental. WaterAid are using a potentially more interesting approach called the NPRI which is a small catalytic fund under Sanitation and Water for All which aims to convene government, donor and NGO partners in those countries are ‘most off track’ to work together intensively to diagnose and remedy sector blockages.


  8. Don’t build stuff – get people talking
    Don’t build stuff – get people talking
  9. Management challenges

    Programme cycle management can be an area of challenge, particularly when recording convening and brokering styles of programming e.g. within Oxfam’s operational and accountability requirements they are required to function in a system which works in a particular way so it took months to get the Tanzania project onto Oxfam’s database because it was evolutionary and unlike any of their other projects.


    Staff skill sets  

    A new programme framework published by Save the Children has seen some resistance by country programmes that are unsure of what it means in practice. The document leaves it open for country programmes to capacity build actors, but also includes flexibility in terms of programming frameworks so there is scope to conduct analysis, bring together different sections of society, and look at what the key child right and governance issues are and then decide what to work on. NGO skills sets also need to shift so the focus is not only on technical specialities, but also on diplomacy skills and the ability to work in an environment of uncertainty.


    Post event reflections from Duncan Green...

  10. Duncan Green: Don't build stuff - get people talking.m4v