Post 2015: What do policymakers know about poverty?

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Danny BurnsJoanna Wheeler

Joanna Wheeler and Danny Burns

Whose knowledge should really count in decisions about the future of development?  As members of the post-2015 UN high-level panel meet today for the first time, we want to know how they can be sure the decisions they take will be informed by the perspectives of those most affected by poverty.

For policymakers to really understand the complexities of lives led by people who are marginalised and living in poverty, they need to experience in a real way the choices that people have to make on a day-to-day basis. For example: what are the risks a woman living in a city slum has to negotiate to go to the toilet? Why can’t people with disabilities access their local health clinic? Why do some children in rural Uganda have to give up school to get clean water? What happens when your village is swept into the sea by coastal erosion and all of the land behind it is owned by someone else?

The high-level panel, which is co-chaired by Liberia, Indonesia and the UK, will make its decisions based on how members of the panel understand poverty and its causes. And yet, the experience of poverty is very distant from the lived realities of most of the members of the panel.  There are many ‘experts’ in development, but those that have the most important knowledge, rooted in direct experience, are the people that live in poverty themselves. Yet these people are systematically left out of decisions on global development structures.

To help address this, the Participate initiative (a global collaboration between the Institute of Development Studies and Beyond 2015) invites members of the high-level panel and senior decision makers in the post-2015 process to join our programme of ‘immersions’ in order to come face to face with these realities, and to enter into dialogue with members of communities living in extreme poverty.

An ‘immersion’ involves living, eating, sleeping and working with people living in poverty for a number of days and nights. The process gives decision makers the opportunity to relate to people on a personal level and to learn firsthand from their experiences. It can offer unexpected insights into the realities faced by communities living in poverty.

Participate will also organise a ‘ground level-panel’ which, like the high-level panel, will deliberate on the future of development. The participants will be dwellers of city slums, pastoralists who walk with cattle across bush lands in search of water, refugees from war, and small farmers whose crops have failed in response to climate change. Mirroring the high-level panel, the ground-level panel will produce their own recommendations.

The Participate initiative is working with civil society organisations and NGOs to draw together an extensive body of participatory research in more than 25 countries, to ensure that a future development framework reflects the priorities of those directly affected by poverty and injustice. We hope to create spaces for people living in extreme poverty to pose their own questions and share perspectives based on their own experiences about how sustainable change is possible.

As Co-Directors of this initiative we are excited about supporting a different way of engaging with global policymaking processes. We’ve launched Participate in response to substantial criticism of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDG) framework – that the process of designing and implementing it was driven by a development elite, and as a result had very limited ownership, failed to engage with crucial issues, and adopted an approach that often further marginalised very poor people. By ensuring marginalised people are a central part of the post-2015 process, we hope to ensure a new framework doesn’t make the same mistakes again.

Joanna Wheeler is a Research Fellow and Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

This post was originally published on Participation. Power and Social Change blog

Remembering the Poll Tax: lessons for contemporary political movements

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Danny Burns

Danny Burns

You may be interested in a programme that I participated in, on the resistance to the Poll Tax in the UK. It was broadcast on Sunday 2nd September 2012, is repeated on Friday and is downloadable as a BBC iPlayer podcast. The program is one of the Reunion series on BBC Radio 4 where protagonists in contemporary historical events are brought together to discuss those events some decades later.

What was striking to me in recounting these events of 22 years ago is how few young people have ever heard of the Poll Tax. Yet the anti-Poll Tax campaign was the biggest civil disobedience movement in UK history. 10 million people refused to pay the tax, there were riots across the country and a government was brought down. This people’s movement succeeded against opposition from every major political party.

It is crucial that we don’t forget our political history. There are important lessons for the contemporary political resistance movements that are emerging across the world today, and we have a responsibility to pass on this knowledge to the generations that follow.

For those that have a deeper interest in this movement, I published a book in 1992 ‘Poll Tax Rebellion’, which is still available through Amazon.

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

This post was originally published on Participation. Power and Social Change blog

Are we ready for an “academic spring”?

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Danny Burns

Danny Burns

The Wellcome Foundation recently announced that it would be taking steps towards open access to information. It is unhappy about the dominance of three academic publishers who according to the Guardian account for 42% of journal articles, and it proposes to set up its own online journal. It is also keen to ensure that research gets out within six months avoiding the absurdly long lead times of some academic publishers. Harvard University is “encouraging its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls”.

These are important steps from large and influential institutions, and I applaud them, but this is only the start of a much bigger revolution in knowledge generation and dissemination that needs to happen. The model of knowledge that is represented by academic journals is outdated, exclusive and ineffective.

Innovative and creative thinking is most likely to emanate from diverse collaborations. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) pushes academics toward the production of single authored papers in elite journals. Stephen Curry quoted in the Guardian says that although the adjudicating panels have been instructed to ignore the impact factors of journals, no one believes that “it is remotely possible to do so”. Journals are largely disciplinary and yet most real world problems are inter-disciplinary. It is really hard to get good cross disciplinary reviews of research.

Even the idea of peer review needs to be challenged. Who are the peers? Are they affected in any way by the research? Even if we accept the legitimacy of academic ‘peers’, their insanely busy lives mean that they are usually reading these articles on the bus or the train, or crammed in between other things that they are doing. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is the elite talking to the elite.

While peer review is supposed to ensure good scientific method, the controversies over scientific climate change research clearly show how the perspectives that people bring to these analyses fundamentally impact on their assessment. When it comes to complex social issues, interpretation and sense making are critical. Knowledge that is co-generated and critiqued by those people that will be affected by it, is likely to be much more robust than knowledge extracted by external researchers; Knowledge that can pass freely across the internet can be interrogated and subjected to a much more diverse arena of scrutiny; Knowledge that is written in straightforward language that is meaningful to more diverse populations will be triangulated by a far more diverse community. Knowledge that is generated iteratively and continuously, and tested in action, is likely to make a far greater impact on complex social problems than knowledge crystallised in journals long after the event.

The internet provides other ways of validating research. As the Guardian points out downloads, numbers of bookmarks on social networking sites etc may much better indication of research quality than where it is published. Similarly initiatives like Google Scholar which can track who has cited or used work across a much wide range of outputs offer exciting possibilities. I want to know if my work appears in policy documents, books, pamphlets, films etc. I want to know how it is being used is to impact on poverty and vulnerability. I don’t want to know if an elite journal thinks that I am worthy of publication, and I don’t believe this serves society.

Academics have long assumed the position of “experts” in our society because they have had unique access to information and intellectual argument. This is no longer true. The internet makes access to information ubiquitous and opens that information up to the many different expert voices that have a right to reflect upon it. The more that we open up the knowledge that we generate the more society can benefit from the many views and perspectives which can give it meaning. It will not be an easy journey to find new models of knowledge distribution which allow real access and interaction. These will inetivably evolve rather than be constructed, but many people are starting to think about this and many initiatives are already well underway

There are clear implications for me. We should not stand on the sidelines and say that while we believe in new ideas about knowledge, we will continue to participate in the old system and legitimise it. We should stand up for a new vision of open knowledge generation. Many academics might not want to walk this road because to threaten the status quo might threaten their career progression. But if we believe in the social change that we espouse in our writings, this is exactly what we should be prepared to do.

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

This post was originally published on Participation. Power and Social Change blog

Reflecting back upon the PPSC team’s activities in 2011

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Danny Burns

Danny Burns

As 2012 begins, I want to take this opportunity to wish you a happy (and stress free) New Year. In this blog I want to talk offer a few flavours of things that members of the team have been working on; others you will see from recent contributions to the blog; more will follow over the next weeks…

An increasing area of interest for development actors at all levels, from grassroots movements to major donors, is how to better understand the complex, shifting and multi-layered social and political environments in which development and change occur. Many organisations are searching for more relevant tools of context analysis. Jethro Pettit and others have been working on new tools for power and political economy analysis. Popular frameworks like the Powercube (developed by John Gaventa)are being adapted and combined with other approaches. Recent learning partnerships on power have included Oxfam, Novib, Hivos, Christian Aid, the Swedish Cooperative Centre, and Trocaire. Work has also been carried out within the UK voluntary and philanthropic sector with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Carnegie UK Trust, Trust for London. This work has included three, year-long action learning processes with dozens of participants from these foundations and more than 20 of their partner organisations Training modules on power have adapted into Spanish and French and facilitated by IDS staff in universities and workshops in Spain, West Africa and Latin America.

The team’s work around “unruly politics” has been growing steadily through the “Summer of Unruly Reading” group facilitated by Akshay Khanna. We have been building a collective conceptual analysis within the team, and growing a work programme with Hivos and their partners. We have also been building connections with people in the Occupy movement. Mariz Tadros continues to be closely engaged with the emerging situation in Egypt and other parts of North Africa.

PPSC has been contracted to engage in a number of new programmes this year. These include:

  • a three year programme on gender and sexuality funded by SIDA (Sweden)
  • a three year programme with SDC (Switzerland) –on participatory methodologies and developing the resource centre as a hub for materials on participatory methodologies
  • a three year programme with SDC working with the IDS Governance team to support the work of their Decentralisation and Local Governance Network
  • an extension of Gates Foundation funding for our Community Led Total Sanitation Hub

The PPSC team played a major role in designing and delivering the Bellagio initiative on the future of international development and philanthropy in pursuit of human well being which comprised a series of global dialogues, commissioned papers and a major international summit. PPSC fellows – Danny Burns (Delhi and Kinna, Kenya), Patta Scott-Villiers (Kinna, Kenya), Alex Shankland (Sao Paulo) and Mariz Tadros (Cairo) – facilitated four of the global dialogues. Georgina Powell Stevens co-ordinated the summit participation of around 200 participants. In June of this year Alex Shankland and I, will be facilitating another Bellagio conference on Indigenous health with colleagues from KIT (Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam).

Rosemary McGee has recently carried out a major review of accountability and transparency initiatives with John Gaventa. Naomi Hossain continues her longitudinal work with Oxfam and others on food price volatility; Joanna Wheeler, Peter Clarke and I are working on a six country action research programme with VSO and the international volunteering network FORUM on the impact of volunteering on poverty; Joanna Wheeler and Tessa Lewin have been working on a range of participatory video initiatives; Marzia Fontana has been working with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce of Lao PDR on a project which has brought Lao-based women’s groups and international organisations into dialogue with each other. Rosalind Eyben has been organising The Big Push Forward – an international initiative that links practitioners and researchers to identify and share strategies and approaches for fair assessment and evaluation. Patta Scott Villiers is leading a programme of action research in Karamoja Northern Uganda funded by Irish Aid. Alex Shankland is opening up new areas of work on the role of emerging powers in reshaping development especially through civil society.

Pathways to Women‘s Empowerment in the Middle East hosted a UN Women organized conference on “Pathways for Women in Democratic Transitions: International Experiences and Lessons Learned” in Cairo. The meeting featured Michele Bachelet and others discussing legal reform, women’s movements and gender-responsive accountability systems. Mariz Tadros was a speaker on the panel “Building Strong Women’s Movements in Democratic Transitions”.

The team has recently published a number of IDS working papers and bulletins and will publish a bulletin on Action Research in International Development this spring.

Finally I want to say a huge thank you and good luck to John Gaventa and Kate Hawkins. John has been an inspiration to the PPSC team for more than a decade. He has joined the Coady Institute in Canada as their new Director. Kate Hawkins our sexuality programme convenor who has initiated and developed a great deal of exciting work within the team will be leaving IDS (but will continue to work with us as a free lancer). I would also like to welcome to the team Research Fellow Jerker Edstrom and Jas Vaghadia who will be working on our gender, masculinities and sexuality programmes. Welcome also to Naomi Vernon who is joining our CLTS team.

As I say, just a few flavours of the many different things that are happening. If you want to find out more, follow the links, or contact us directly.

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and will be publishing IDS Bulletin

43.3 ”Action Research in Development” in May 2012

This post was originally published on Participation. Power and Social Change blog