When accountability is life or death: reflections from the city street

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Joanna Wheeler

“You continue to ask me where does that information come through. But if it comes up through the wrong people, people get assassinated. That is life.” Delft community safety group member

‘Accountability’ can seem to be a boring, technical term, far from the most important issue in peoples’ lives. But when you start to dig below the surface, as we have in the SLF pilot for Participatory Monitoring and Accountability for the SDGs, it becomes clear that real accountability is not just a ‘nice-to-have’:  the lack of accountability, for people on the margins, is a life or death kind of problem.

In the post-1994 (post-apartheid) settlement of Delft, in Cape Town, South Africa, there are deep frustrations. More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, exclusion runs deep. In Delft, which is ‘mixed-race’ in the categories of apartheid, levels of violence have reached epidemic proportions. Research conducted by SLF with the Delft Neighbourhood Watch between 2014 and 2015 found a homicide rate of 40 people in 6 months, from a population of only 36,000. Currently gang-based and police-based violence is on the rise, alongside already very high levels of interpersonal and intimate partner violence. Community activists and honest police officers are being threatened and targeted.

Representation of safety issues by Delft community member

These acts of violence occur within a wider system of profound insecurity and uncertainty: opportunities for formal employment are low, and political parties mainly operate through patronage and populist strategies that leave post-election hangovers without doing much to improve conditions.  This social and economic exclusion sits alongside an invisibility of Delft in the media and public discourse. When people die in Delft, we just don’t hear about it.

Within this context, SLF has been exploring how to build accountability through an action-learning pilot as part of the on-going Participate initiative. We have focussed the pilot on Goals 5, 11 and 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular on the theme of community-based safety. Since January, we have been working with a group of about 15 residents from Delft, including members of the Neighbourhood Watch, young people, and community leaders.

The group went through a powerful process of telling their own personal stories about their experiences of safety and insecurity in Delft. Together, we analysed their stories in order to better understand the structural roots of their experiences. Now the group is busy making two films about themes they have chosen and developed. The ideas within the group about how to address community safety have evolved, and we are working together to develop a shared strategy to address the lack of accountability they face.

Here are some of the emerging findings around what it will take to bring about accountability in the context of a South African township:

Bringing corruption into focus

Making sense of the insecurity issues faced in Delft

A striking finding throughout this process is the extent of the effects of corruption. Corruption filters into the everyday lives of people living in Delft and is a major contributing factor to the erosion of social fabric and legitimate leadership.

What has become very clear is that there are actors within the township that can influence the outcomes of an accountability process through their relationships with other power-holders, but their ethics are often questionable:  they may be aligned with gangs, factions of the police using brutal force and extortion, or drug dealers. So people from the research process who are seeking a more accountable form of political leadership and want to see transformation happen are forced to choose:  make bargains with those who have the power, or be side-lined and keep hold of their principles.

The compromises that participants and we, as researchers, are having to make within contexts of corruption and violence are a reflection of the reoccurring need to face impossible choices – the question is how far are we willing to go to make a shift happen, and how can we set ethical boundaries we can keep.

Gaps in representation and uncertain legitimacy

In our pilot, a key issue has emerged around gaps in representation at the local level. To constitute legitimate representation at the grassroots level is difficult for a number of reasons: entrenched patterns of party politics; the influence of armed actors including the police and gangs; and the daily struggles to survive and to make ends meet for leaders and their families. It isn’t necessarily the case that grassroots representatives have legitimate political power to speak on behalf of others in their community, and constructing that legitimacy is not easy. Through the pilot, there have been some important and promising developments:

  • Participants describe how they feel more able to speak to others in their community about issues of community safety, and their sense of their capacity to represent issues in their community is growing
  • The action learning process is contributing to the necessary conditions to build the basis of legitimate representation in order to build answerability and enforceability for accountability
  • We have all seen the importance of constructing a more equitable basis of representation that doesn’t leave out certain voices and experiences (which is what is happening through the formal political process). We have all become more aware of the issues of people being silenced and or edited out of the process

Accountable political leadership and the action research process

Creative methods support discussions on safety and accountability in Delft

On the other hand, we have also encountered the precariousness of political alliances and promises, and there is still much to come in terms of what we can learn about how more accountable political leadership can be sustained in Delft and in South Africa.

Local community leaders from the research group are exploring how they can move into political roles, and they have been using the action research process as a platform to gain political legitimacy. This raises tensions between the potential for co-option of the research process and need for legitimate political representation at the local level.

Within the action-learning group, there are divisions along lines of political affiliation that are at odds with an emerging shared position in terms of the issues facing Delft. It is difficult for members of the group to align with party positions that are motivated by struggles for national political control and are contrary to what they see and want to change in Delft.

As we move into a more public engagement and dialogue with policy makers and community residents, we will continue to explore how to contribute to the shifts needed for greater accountability. For the group in Delft, and for many others living on the margins in South Africa, these shifts are what really matter.

Are we already left behind? Participate at the HLPF for the SDGs

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Thea Shahrokh

The Participate network contributed to raising the issue of participation and accountability at the High Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development July 11-20, 2016- UNHQ, New York.

Participate was one of many civil society actors to co-create a Together 2030 side event “Are we already left behind? The role of civil society and stakeholders on national reviews of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

Knowledge from the margins to the HLPF

Sophia Kitcher from the Ada Songor Salt Women’s Association – ASSWA and Radio Ada in the Ghana Community Radio Network spoke to this forum through video intervention, sharing perspectives and issues around monitoring and accountability of the SDGs from women marginalised in their communities on issues of resource extraction and equitable development. In Sophia’s words:

Sustainable development must mean development for all not for some. It must mean the improvement of livelihood, not their sacrifice for profit-making. In our case it must mean the return to communal assets and artisinal salt production in our Songor Lagoon. A message we encapsulate in the shout “Songor! For all!”


The side event took place on 15 July in the Expert Segment week and was organised in partnership with CEPEI, Sightsavers, World Vision International, Justice Development Peace Commission, Save Matabeleland Coalition, Philippines Social Enterprise Network, Participate Network, Bond, Norwegian Forum for Development and Environment and cosponsored by the missions of Colombia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines.

Radio Ada also created a podcast sharing the perspectives of citizens from the Ada region of Ghana and the complexity of governance of salt lagoons in the Ada traditional area, the challenges of sustainable development and the resulting marginalisation of women and their livelihoods.


The Participate initiative

From 2012-2014, Participate worked to bring the perspectives of people living in poverty and marginalisation into national and global consultations and decision-making spaces and processes, so that the post-2015 development agenda would be consistent with their realities, priorities and aspirations. People who participated in this research voiced a common desire: to be able to play an active role in developing their own futures, and in shaping, monitoring and implementing the policies and programmes that affect them.

In September 2015, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were formally approved by the United Nations General Assembly. The need for a participatory monitoring and accountability approach as an important component to the implementation of these goals has been acknowledged, and is the focus of this new phase of Participate.

The Participatory Monitoring and Accountability (PMA) programme (2015-2017) engages with this urgent agenda of the participatory monitoring of the SDGs. In alignment with the ‘leave no one behind’ framing within the post-2015 development agenda, the PMA programme is working with groups of people living in poverty and marginalisation to strengthen processes of citizen-led accountability. It builds on Participate’s global participatory research network, and its track record in demonstrating the value of participatory action research – in its many forms and approaches – as enabling people living in poverty and marginalisation to exercise accountability.

Storytelling to tackle HIV stigma and increase accountability in Egypt

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Mohammed Farouk

Early in her life, Safaa lost both her parents and has since lived with her grandma and uncle in an economically strained and marginalised family in Cairo. When she was diagnosed with HIV a couple of years ago Safaa’s life reached a turning point, forcing her to say goodbye to her childhood and embark on a life shaped by isolation and stigmatisation.
Holding hands. Image relates to Ground Level Panel in Egypt held as part of the Participate Initiative. Credit - M. Farouk - CDS

One day, Safaa, suffering from severe toothache and in increasing pain, rushed with her uncle to several dentists. They all sympathised, but as soon as her uncle informed them of her HIV status they refused to extract the infected tooth or intervene in any way.

“Desperate, I extracted Safaa’s tooth myself”, said her uncle to a social worker visiting Safaa a few days ago. This is a shocking story, but a real one.

According to UNAIDS, around 500 children are living with HIV in Egypt, with many more hidden by social stigma. Safaa’s toothache story made me wonder: how can the voices of such a marginalised, highly stigmatised and vulnerable section of the population be brought into the light, heard and taken into account by healthcare policy makers? How can this ensure that they get full access to healthcare services without any kind of discrimination?

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

With current global discussions around the SDGs, the previous question links directly to SDG 3 “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”and its eighth target “Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all”

The Center for Development Services (CDS) is currently working on a unique initiative, in collaboration with the UNICEF Egypt Country Office, to understand and address the needs and aspirations of Children and Adolescents living with HIV (+CHAD). The question of how to ensure and sustain the long term access of this marginalized group to decent healthcare services was always a hard one to answer given that the healthcare agenda in Egypt is full of other priorities.

Furthermore, people living with HIV in Egypt suffer a high level of negative social stigma even at the level of healthcare service provision. This stigma and de-prioritisation has deeply hindered equitable access, and quality of services provided, to this group.

As part of the Participate initiative our analysis is that SDG 16 “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” provides an important platform to respond to this issue, specifically its seventh target “Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.

Participatory monitoring and accountability

CDS believes that an effective participatory monitoring and accountability (PMA) process would provide opportunities for +CHAD and their caregivers to voice their needs and interests, reduce their suffering, improve the services they receive and help mitigate the health hazards associate with HIV. This process involves nurturing a collective of +CHAD and their caregivers. With the support of an alliance of actors we aim to inform the relevant government bodies and decision-makers of access problems and service quality, ultimately to enhance their accountability for improved services to +CHAD.

Using Digital Storytelling to support change

To support this process we are developing an approach called Collective Digital Storytelling (CDST), which aims to visualise the +CHAD experiences and realities in a manner that is ethical, empowering and collective at the same time. In creating a space and process for +CHAD and their families to express how they experience care, the lived experiences of +CHAD and their caregivers will be located in the heart of advocacy to influence change in health service provision.

The CDST process itself is expected to impact the lives of +CHAD participants, through a creative and novel participatory experience that allows them to express their own realities living with a chronic illness. Importantly, the process will also engage +CHAD caregivers: important actors who influence the lives of this group and the possibilities of positive change.

The relationships between +CHAD and their caregivers form a crucial alliance, which will also be investigated as part of the PMA process. Creating a sense of collectiveness in the storytelling will accordingly steer and shape the advocacy discussion in the context of health care delivery for children living with HIV/AIDS. The children, adolescents and their families will visualise their own experiences through the CDST which is an engaging structured activity.

We are excited about this initiative and eager to share with you our progress in a series of critical reflection blogs. However, we cannot conclude this discussion without highlighting that challenging and shifting discriminatory social norms and stigma is central to this process, as those who are answerable for the access and quality of services provided to +CHAD are themselves sometimes prejudiced against this group.

Hence the question remains, to what extent will this approach be effective? Will the accountability mechanisms and drivers be different given the social circumstances? Central to our work therefore is understanding how and why participatory monitoring and accountability approaches that promote the engagement and voice of marginalised youth can find traction in such a complex social and political context.

Image credit: M. Farouk – CDS

Participation and post-2015 goals: Rhetoric as usual?

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Tom Thomas

As global governments begin to negotiate and agree on a framework for a development agenda post-2015, it is heartening to note that unlike the MDGs that were developed in a top down manner, development of the post-2015 framework has been consultative, at least via CSO mediated processes. Efforts such as Ground Level Panels (GLPs) by Participate and Praxis attempted to push the consultation to the next level of direct talk by people living in poverty. A wealth of inspiring, deep and not always inward looking recommendations have emerged from people living in poverty. Equity and equality stand out as the core of people’s concern, and ‘People, Planet and Participation’ have emerged as the three most important pillars on which to build the post-2015 framework.

These welcome beginnings notwithstanding, the larger question that begs an answer is how participation will be placed in the post-2015 framework. Rhetoric as usual or will the UN and governments be more imaginative to infuse into the framework a participation that has the potential to deepen democracies and produce superior outcomes?

To not miss this opportunity to push participation up by a few notches at the minimum, it is imperative that we ask some key questions:

 1. Whose participation?

While it is desirable to have all citizens participate, the critical non-negotiable ones are whose lives the framework is meant to directly impact – the most marginalised and excluded communities. Aggregating the entire group of people experiencing complex layers of exclusion and marginalization into a single entity of community has always been problematic and it will need to be unpacked for deepening participation.  It must be recognized that there will be many sub population groups that will be normally invisible and ignored, even through ‘participatory processes’ – both by commission and omission. While a certain amount of discussion has taken place over the past decade about the invisible sub groups like the disabled, the elderly, the lower caste, religious minorities, women, etc., not enough has been said about the ignored population. Youth and children are a classic example of groups that get ignored as many of the processes are designed with an able bodied adult male as the active participant. As we move forward, it is important to recognise and include both the invisible and ignored population in the framing of post-2015 and beyond.

2. Participation in what?

Are we talking about participation in just framing the post-2015 goals and targets? Not unless we want to relegate people living in poverty as mere recipients of welfare measures doled out by a benevolent world. Raising communities to the level of active participants and partners in the framing, roll out and monitoring, will not merely make the targets more achievable, but also raise the self esteem of communities, an essential factor to help them stay out of poverty and better theirs and their communities’ lives.

 3. What kind of participation?

If equity is a concern and reducing inequalities is a goal, it requires participation of a different kind and not the one that limits it to an invited space[1] to pick from a pre-decided menu. It would require a participation that can challenge and change the way production relations are tilted in favour of the elite, a participation that can subvert the power equation in favour of the poor and a participation that can also challenge and make consumption more equitable. Participation must be seen as a ‘means’ and as an ‘end’ in itself. The first, ‘as a means’, is easy and has been universally accepted. Even the most ardent supporter of the ‘top-down’ approach would agree that participation of users will enhance efficiency. I don’t think we will see a disagreement on that from anyone, irrespective of whether you are left, right or centre. But what we need support for and champions from the member states, is to move participation from a mere ‘efficiency coefficient’ to an ’empowerment coefficient’. It is not just CSO speak, but a well documented and accepted fact that an ’empowered citizen’ is better equipped to move herself/ himself into better health, education and livelihood. Unleashing the empowerment coefficient of participation has the potential to, as Thomas Isaac, ex-finance minister of Kerala[2], says “engage at ’empowered deliberative democracy’ in an attempt to, produce superior outcomes to a traditional representative-techno bureaucratic democracy”, in promoting equity and improving the quality of citizenship, to keep the government accountable, the state equitable and society alive and kicking.

Capacity and costs are often cited as excuses for making participation a ‘good thing to do’ but not an ‘essential’ one. Let me cite an example where Praxis used community members as evaluators for a pan Indian UNDP programme: The cost was fractional to that of a parallel evaluation by ‘experts’ and the insights achieved were far more grounded and actionable. There are some think tanks that put the cost of monitoring the ambitious post-2015 goals and targets set out at a whopping USD$254 billion! But, are they talking about community and participatory monitoring? Not one bit. The estimates are for expert led monitoring that as the authors themselves admit will finally at best yield estimates. The question then is: Do we want a monitoring process that gives us accurately wrong information by experts or approximately correct information led by communities? Participatory monitoring not just gives you approximately correct data, it also engages communities in understanding and analyzing data thereby making them active partners.

And on capacity, the myth that people living in poverty cannot think or imagine beyond their daily needs would be busted by even a cursory reading of the GLP reports or the Participate synthesis reports of the various participatory processes with poor communities from across the globe. These are testimonies of people’s capacities to vision for a future that is achievable. One of the members of the GLP organised by us, an elderly urban poor person said, “we stride forward in the hope of success despite being weighed down by our predicaments”. But yes, for those hardest to reach it will be a challenge that we must embrace if we want to ensure that we leave no one behind. I would like to close with a quote from another panelist, a person who is paraplegic and hence, speech impaired, who asked: “Is it that the government doesn’t know about our issues? They do, it’s just that they don’t care”.

I think the post-2015 framework offers us the opportunity to emphatically say, ‘yes, we know, we care and we are serious about leaving no one behind’. If a space for a deeper participation is not envisioned in the post-2015 framework, it will be important to train our guns at helping communities and even CSOs to claim those spaces. It doesn’t take much genius to know that a business as usual post-2015 framework will fail the big push and people miserably.

Tom Thomas is CEO of Praxis, Institute of Participatory Practice, a member of the Participate network; he forms part of the Steering Group. 

[1] John Gaventa, Power Cube – http://www.powercube.net

[2] An Indian state described as a ‘development wonder’ for its high ranking on social indicators despite low economic growth.

The Secretary General’s Report: My points of disappointment

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Mwangi Waituru

The United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) has taken a look at the progress made in articulating a Post 2015 development agenda and released a synthesis report- the Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming all Lives and protecting the Planet.

The report comes after close to four years of a multifaceted civil society campaign for a people centred Post 2015 development agenda; a poverty eradication agenda that engages people not only from their points of vulnerability but also recognises and harness their potentials.

If what I feel is a correct understanding of what the Secretary General is saying, then we– the civil society, have not been effective in placing people at the heart of the discussions. The general feel I get from reading the synthesis report is that the reports of the various consultations and negotiations that the Secretary General synthesised do not present citizens as active participants in the development process. For me, the ‘feel’ is that this process still treats people more as recipients of development than drivers of change.

My experience with the Post 2015 development framework has been one of struggling first for people’s participation to be recognised as essential and secondly for the member states to understand what participation actually means. Member states see participation as participation of the member states particularly in terms of the least developed countries (LDCs). Member States recognise the need of these states to be facilitated to participate in the determination of the content of the post 2015 development framework. Beyond that, there is the contested participation of the civil society in what is regarded as a members states processes. But what has been mostly out of the picture is the participation of the people who live in poverty. Wherever the two terms- people and participation are mentioned in the same breath, the space is occupied by the civil societies who are called upon to speak for the people. Over and above this anomaly, the greatest omission I have experienced is that of people’s participation in the development process; that is, people’s agency to act or active citizenship. This kind of participation has many routes of which volunteering either by community groups or individuals stand out. The strongest proposal by the secretary general is that this participation should be engrained in the texture of the framework: an inbuilt means of implementation.

Prior to my engagement in this process as the co-chair of Beyond 2015, I was part of a coalition of civil society organisations that carried out poverty hearings in four African countries. Teams of eminent persons (Clergy, Business, Media and Civil Society Luminaries) listened to people narrate their lived experiences with poverty. After listening to testimonials that were presented in dignity and honour, Arch Bishop Ndungane of the African Monitor, told me,

‘The greatest hope is in what the people are saying to us. They are not just seated waiting for charity. People did not ask for handouts, they are asking for an opportunity to eke out a decent livelihood for themselves.’

Beyond 2015 and the Institute of Development Studies were later to convene a research network of 18 organisations working with people who are in one way or the other suffering marginalisation to carry out participatory research: Participate. People excluded and marginalised were supported to frame and carry out participatory research amongst themselves using a variety or participatory methods.  For me, as I interacted with these groups, the supremacy of people’s agency to act and make decisions in their lives was evidenced again and again throughout the process. Of course the participants of the studies faced impossible choices in their lives and generally development including MDGs did not reach them, yet this did not dampen their spirit to take charge of their lives. All they asked was – ‘work with us.’

In the words of GCAP Co Chair, Marta Benavides:

‘it is not for these people to accompany development but for development to accompany these people’.

But, it is not just disappointment that I have to cope with after reading the synthesis report; I also have some traces of anger in me. When the secretary general listed the consultations that have taken place, he only listed those that were organised and driven by the UN system. Mention of civil society was only in as far as they participated in these UN controlled spaces. Having been part of initiatives initiated by the people, my anger is understandable. It is not only the governments that are providing leadership; the people have provided leadership too. In fact, just as the UN system and the Member states invited the people into their spaces, the people also invited the UN and Member states into their spaces. Reports from these spaces were widely circulated within the UN. You can therefore imagine how I felt when I read the list of consultation- High Level Panel, UN Task Team, Business led process and the Open Working Group process and the sentences end with a full stop before any mention of the Participatory Research that Beyond 2015 and IDS conducted, the National Dialogues that GCAP, IFP, CAN and Beyond 2015 organised or the September 2014 climate march.

What about the Campaign for People’s Goals? Are they doing their thing far away from the UN for the member states to take note? What happened to the transformational shifts proposed by the Africa Working Group on Post 2015?