Welcome to the Data Revolution Advisory Group – but will it be a revolution driven by people?

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Neva Frecheville

Article by Neva Frecheville, originally posted on CAFOD policy team blog, Serpents and Doves

A warm welcome to Ban Ki-Moon’s new independent expert advisory group on the data revolution. While the data revolution conversation has been bubbling away over the last year, it’s been difficult to see how it will be brought into the official post-2015 process. With the announcement of the expert group, that missing piece of the puzzle has become clearer. The group will be tasked to input to the UN SG’s much anticipated Synthesis Report, providing input into the fourth chapter on the accountability framework (the other three covering the background, goals and targets proposed by the OWG, and financing).

Benita, 4 years old, from Ruyenzi, Rwanda uses a phone

So far, so good. But looking at the press release, a couple of questions occurred to me. As I’ve previously pointed out, the data revolution is in danger of missing out on the key constituency who are meant to benefit most from the collective endeavour to create a global development agenda: the very people who on a daily-basis experience poverty, injustice, discrimination and exclusion. Yet reading through the list I failed to spot anyone who would obviously champion this perspective. When the Secretary General High Level Panel was formed in 2012, Graҫa Machel, among others, supported the perspectives of people living in poverty, and many Panellists reached out to engage with different groups.

This contributed to the strength of the Panel’s report, which understood that the post-2015 development agenda needs to place people at the centre and to hear their stories. (In comparison to the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, which was heavily criticised for failing to open its doors to stakeholder participation.) While I understand that the Data Revolution Advisory Group is planning to consult with civil society, how will it hear the perspectives of people on the margins within such a tight timeframe?

The expert group should remember that data is not just technical and that the data revolution should be more than statistics, new technologies, and number crunching. The data revolution must also be about power. Information without a purpose is meaningless but who and how that purpose is defined is inherently political. Qualitative data, gathered from people’s experiences, stories and histories, play an important part in understanding what sustainable development is and how it is delivered. The Participate initiative, which gathered knowledge from the margins for the post-2015 process, is a good place to understand this contribution.

The Data Revolution group is called to assess opportunities to strengthen accountability across the national, regional and global levels. The newly convened group would do well to remember that accountability should be towards people, and within the post-2015 process, it is our duty to hear the perspectives, experiences and realities of those who are most often ignored or unheard, who are most often powerless.

I was also surprised that there seem to be no representatives from countries who genuinely struggle with a lack of capacity in National Statistical Offices. Although the Panel has 24 members, I couldn’t find an expert from an LDC among them. I think this is a shame – if we’re serious about addressing the obstacles to implementing a new development agenda, we should hear from the countries that have the least resource to support it.

For what revolution was ever successful without people?

Three recommendations to the Panel to wish them well:

  1. Be open to learning from different perspectives that complement traditional data collection methodologies. Participate resources are a good place to start.
  2. Include an expert who will champion grass-roots realities and understands data collection from people’s perspectives. An organisation like Spatial Collective in Kenya is one option.
  3. Give enough time for civil society consultations for marginalised people to participate, not just large, well-resources NGOs.

Digital storytelling for transformation

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Participate has developed a number of innovations with the goal of collapsing the distance between the grassroots experience and global policymakers tasked with creating the post-2015 framework. Participate PRG members Gill Black and Pegalia Tusiime describe how sharing deeply personal experiences through Digital Story Telling (DST) can bring the real challenges of living in marginalisation and poverty to the attention of decision-makers.

Digital storytelling (DST) is a creative, participatory audio-visual process that brings people’s stories to life through the use of digital technology. A digital story is a short (two-three minute) film sequence made up of static images that is consciously prepared and told as a first person narrative, from the heart.

Digital Storytelling South Africa

Digital storytelling is a powerful self-reflective process that asks participants to share memories and emotions with honesty

DST has become an increasingly popular approach for development practitioners to work closely with community members. It is a way of gaining deeper understanding of the multiple and complex ways in which people’s lives are affected by social issues. The process is carried out with the intention of building new knowledge, skills, connections and self-confidence for the storytellers.

The process invites participants to explore their personal experience through a creative and expressive lens, and many have experienced DST as empowering. The collective process of sharing honest emotions, being reflective and working creatively builds a bond between participants that enables both personal strength, and also the identification of collective challenges to be overcome.

The application of DST is far-reaching; the resulting stories can be used, for example, to evaluate learning, generate research material, and spark discussion and debate at local, national or global levels. Collective viewing of digital stories can be an effective approach for inducing reflection and action of community actors, organisations and institutions. They can also facilitate the understanding of policymakers.

The Kawempe action research on slum health issues and health research engagement by HEPS Uganda, encouraged community members to engage with each other, local authorities and policymakers to increase the visibility of health needs in their communities using DST. Community researchers created four digital stories around the health work and their own perspectives in the slums.

Gilbert, who lives in the slum, shared his story during the drama presentation in Katanga community. He expressed how he is confronted with multiple issues and daily challenges that impact on his health and wellbeing. Gilbert’s story places emphasis on the positive impact of the digital story telling initiative on the development of his community, in particular how it is changing the environment around him. The storytelling process has also helped transform Gilbert’s negative perceptions of Katanga, and there is an opportunity for a shift in the perspectives that the wider society have towards people living in slums as well.

Being poor in the poorest slum in Uganda means being invisible in plain sight of power, wealth and millions of fellow citizens. Digital stories have been a powerful and empowering way to tackle this invisibility by the slum dwellers themselves. By conveying people’s experiences, a more socially accountable form of urban slum development has been encouraged which involves citizens in an evaluative role, and supports citizen action for social change.

Knowledge from the marginsThis blog is an edited version of Gill and Pegalia’s contributions to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’ .

Gill Black is the director of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) and works in community-based TB and
HIV research.

Pelagia Tusiime is Community Empowerment Program Manager at the Coalition for Health Promotion and Social Development (HEPS), Uganda.

Pathways of participation in policy influencing

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Lisa Van Dijk

Ahead of the UNGA post-2015 stock-taking events this month, Former Director of Programs for the Center for Development Services in Cairo, Lisa van Dijk describes the ‘pathways of influence’ taken by the Participate initiative to bring the voices on the ground into global policymaking. What have these pathways looked like, and what are some of the key lessons we can learn from these?

The past two decades have seen a proliferation of opportunities for the perspectives of people experiencing poverty and marginalisation to input into global policymaking. So far these efforts have been contested, with attempts to embed participatory methodologies falling into many pitfalls. While Participate was built on learning from previous attempts 
to influence global policy, we aimed to further understand participatory processes, and advance practical ways for participation at every level of decision-making, from local to national and global.

The knowledge generated through Participate has been used at a variety of levels in different policy spaces, creating multiple policy-influencing pathways. The map illustrated below was developed by several members of Participate’s Participatory Research Group (PRG) to illustrate some of the multiple pathways in which knowledge from participatory research was used 
to influence policy processes at local, national and global levels.

System map

People’s capacity

Central to the policy influencing process presented
 in the system map  below is the capacity of people living in poverty and marginalisation to create knowledge as ‘evidence’ of their own issues, and to recognise the value of that knowledge through participatory research processes. The research methods and approaches that were used to generate this knowledge are discussed in other sections of this anthology. Participatory research, such as Participatory Video (PV)Digital Storytelling (DST), and in-depth participatory inquiry aims to enable local people living in poverty and marginalisation to do their own research for social change on their own terms.

The participatory research methodology aspires to a proactive role for local people at every stage of the research. As well as designing the research, people living in poverty and marginalisation collected and interpreted the information. Through the research initiative, participants created their own space in the debate by engaging with their own community members as well as external stakeholders. For example, in Ghana, children identified lack of knowledge around sexuality as a key driver of teenage pregnancy, and used video to present their findings to their peers and community in an attempt to change attitudes. Testimonies prepared by a group of sexual minorities in India using participatory video were shown to their own members during their Annual General Body meeting, as well as being displayed at the ‘Work With Us’ exhibition at the United
Nations (UN) headquarters to influence the global post-2015 debate. Where people in poverty and marginalisation generated evidence of their issues and priorities, they often felt increased ownership and were motivated to use this evidence to drive change at local and global levels.

Lessons learned

Bringing the voices on the ground into global policymaking is a process of incremental change following multiple pathways with multiple types of engagement.

Participate aimed to bring the perspectives of those in poverty into decision-making processes, however this is not enough: the global decision-making processes must feedback to the local and national levels, and enable people living in poverty and marginalisation to take action and advocate for their rights.

If we believe that people have the right to have a meaningful say on the global policy that affects them, then it is our responsibility to learn how to do this in the most effective and ethical way. Participate was built on the learning from previous attempts to influence global policy.

Reflecting on whether we were successful in achieving what we aimed to set out to do: it is probably too early to tell. We were successful in getting local messages synthesised to the global level, and this has had some influence on the outcomes of the post- 2015 debate.

Knowledge from the margins

This blog is an edited version of Lisa’s and other partners’ contributions to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’.




Ground Level Panels: Seeing the world through a different lens

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Danny Burns

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is expected to publish his report to the General Assembly on the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda on 12 August. How much of his insight will have been informed by listening to the voices of the poorest and most marginalised?  Ahead of his report, Participate partners have been critically reflecting  on the participatory methods they have employed in attempts to shift power in policy making.  One such approach, the Participate Ground Level Panels (GLPs) created a participative space for people living in poverty and marginalisation to deliberate what is needed from the post-2015 global policy process. 

 In 2013, Participate partners hosted three deliberative meetings between those living poverty and those with political authority through Ground Level Panels (GLPs). The idea for a GLP aimed to provide a mirror to the deliberations of the United Nations (UN) High Level Panel (HLP) but from people who lived in extreme poverty or marginalisation.

GLP Egypt

Ground Level Panels were developed to bridge the gap between people living in poverty and national and global actors

The Ground Level Panels took place in Egypt, Brazil, Uganda and India. Each panel comprised a group of 10-14 people with diverse and intersecting identities including urban slum dwellers; disabled people; sexual minorities; people living in conflict and natural disaster-affected areas; people living in geographically isolated communities; nomadic and indigenous people; older people; internally displaced people; and young people. Each panel created relationships, shared experiences, connected the local level to the national and international development contexts and provided a critical review and reality check on the five transformative shifts as outlined by the UN High Level Panel.

The GLPs saw the world through a different lens to the HLP. The people in the Panels understood the dynamics of change facing people living in poverty and this gave them the ability to say if these policies were meaningful. While economic growth is an unchallenged assumption in the HLP for the Brazilian GLP it was seen as part of the ‘death plan’. For the Brazilians the critical issue is not ‘poverty’ per se, but ‘misery’ and ‘dignity’. While the HLP focused on service provision, the Indian Panel’s desired goals largely focus on social norms, behaviour
and discrimination.

There were some common themes which emerged in all of the Panels. People want to feel that they have meaningful control over the influences that impact their lives. In all cases structures for equal participation were highlighted as foundational. In almost all of the Panel’s there was a recurring theme of ‘self management’. People don’t want aid. They want the means to generate and sustain their own livelihoods. So if we are serious about moving ‘beyond aid’ in the new development agenda then empowerment must become the priority.

One thing that struck me was the difference in composition of the HLP and the GLPs. The HLP was made up of people largely from an elite political class. There was the odd member of royalty and a few interesting academics thrown in, but by and large they were high ranking politicians. There was very little diversity in the group, and the interests were narrow. The GLPs on the other hand were highly diverse. Slum dwellers sitting side by side with pastoralists, transgender people, and people living in refugee camps … It is easy to stereotype people as ‘poor’and see them as a huge sprawling undifferentiated ‘category’, but they bring far more diversity than people who hold power.

Uganda_GLP a

Ground Level Panel participants in Uganda discussed what they mean by ‘sustainable development’

What defines the success of a Ground Level Panel? Is it the response of the national government or within the UN process, or is it also influence on policy at the local levels? For  Natalie Newell who led the GLP in Uganda on behalf of Restless Development, the experience demonstrated the importance of the local level. 
”It is important to be clear with all involved about what can realistically be achieved from the GLP process. This includes considering the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and what it can add to the policy debate. From the perspectives of those that participated in the Uganda process, the changes at the community level and for them as people were an important success.”

Listen to Nava and Richard’s reflections on the Uganda Ground Level Panels:

Knowledge from the marginsRead more about the Ground Level Panels in Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence.’ 

This article was originally posted on the Participation, Power and Social Change blog


Documentary film-making connecting policymakers to people living in poverty

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Led by Real Time, Participate produced a 20-minute documentary film ‘Work with Us’  to influence UN decision-making processes. The film drew stories together in order to powerfully communicate the participatory processes involved, and the importance of their contribution. Film-makers Jackie Shaw and Clive Robertson reflect on the role of documentary film making as a way to engage marginalised groups in informal and formal policy processes.

Our documentary production role involved film-making collaborations with ten Participatory Research Group (PRG) partners and communities in seven countries, to bring together some of participant’s research stories in a visually compelling way to broadcast standard.

The film’s purpose was to use actual experiences to make a case for why dialogue with marginalised groups is needed, how participatory processes can generate missing contextual insight, and how this contributes to the policy agenda in building more equitable working relationships. The stories communicated in the film emerged from the PRG partners’ participatory research processes, and exemplify the importance of their knowledge for development decision-making.

Collaborative film making

Collaboration is central to the participatory practice envisioned within Participate

From the beginning we intended that the documentary would be co-constructed with the groups we visited, and focused on the stories that people wanted to show and tell. It would place them at the centre of communications by filming them where they lived, speaking directly to the audience in their own language.

The stories included in the documentary grew in different ways depending on the context. What happened during film-making responded to the needs of the particular partners, the specific activities they were involved in, and the stage reached in the research processes when the documentary 
visit took place. For example, with PRG partners
the Seed Institute and Spatial Collective in Kenya
 and with Praxis in India, documentary narratives
 were storyboarded as part of participatory video processes. Cross-over 
with film-making visits provided the opportunity to record them on the broadcast equipment to include in documentary. In comparison, Ecoweb’s non-visual participatory research in the Philippines had already been completed – so we ran shorter participatory video processes with participants to build trust and working relationships and raise production awareness before filming.

Our intention to maximise ground level story authorship during documentary production, was reliant on the PRG partnerships, and the relationships they brokered with people living in poverty. The challenges of adapting the film-making process to context also arose in part from differences in the participatory approaches used, the stage of the research, the way the PRG partners perceived Real Time’s potential contribution, and how we responded. Learning from experience during pilot documentary collaborations with Praxis <link> in India and UAM-X in Mexico <link> enabled us to develop practice guidance that informed contextual adaptation in later visits.

Reflecting on the implicit dynamic created by our position as outside film-makers, we concluded that we were more likely to engender trust and informed consent, if there was at least a short interactive process between Real Time film-makers and participants living in poverty. This was to establish collaborative relationships before production, even on film-making only visits. This was also important to us in fulfilling our commitment to reflect people’s realities, because it gave space for film-makers and those who appeared to get to know each other, and allowed people’s most pressing issues, feelings and perspectives on what was needed to emerge.

We defined Real Time’s documentary making activity as collaborative to distinguish it from participatory production. We used the term ‘collaborative’ in recognition of the relationships with PRG partners that enabled us to build film-making partnerships with people living in poverty, and also to acknowledge the co-construction of the resulting materials with the communities concerned. However, documentary production activities also reflected a much more typical film-making dynamic: we took 
on a responsibility to produce and direct the process in order to deliver a broadcast standard product communicating the meta-narrative to decision makers within the timeframe. As such, we encountered a tension: how to maintain group narrative ownership of the stories filmed, whilst maximising the opportunity to influence international policy through communicating the films wider message.


Knowledge from the margins This blog is an edited version of Jackie and Clive’s contribution to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’. The anthology is a collection of honest accounts and critical reflections on participatory approaches to influencing policy – including the engagement with the post-2015 process.