Working with creativity to empower women and children

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Vivienne Benson

Every year on 8 March, thousands of events are held around the world to inspire, celebrate and empower women to mark International Women’s Day (IWD). This year on 6-7 March, it is directly preceded by the President of the General Assembly to the United Nations (PGA) High Level discussion on The Contributions of Women, the Young and Civil Society to the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

At the centre of the PGA discussion are the challenges that continue to impede groups from participating fully in society and from having the scope to ensure the accountability of decision-makers through their actions and voices.

Empowering marginalised women, men and young people to speak for themselves on issues of equity and rights should be a primary objective of the UN and other global decision makers. Key to that objective is developing the skills and capacity of women, men, young people and civil society to use different tools for creative expression in order to support people to speak through the medium that is most relevant to them.

Telling their own stories
Participate’s partners have worked with participatory methods to facilitate processes where people living in poverty and marginalisation can tell their own stories about how and why change happens in their lives. The Middle East Non-Violence and Democracy (MEND) works to promote active non-violence and open media in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. They have worked with marginalised women from these areas to share their reality through film.

Palestinian women share their stories with the world through participatory film-making: Credit: MEND 2013

MEND worked with a group of women in the village of Al Jib. The group learnt how to make their own films, from behind and in front of the camera. Reflecting on this process the women involved explained that they were ‘happy because we have a voice and we can send our message out’. In making their film, they are able to talk about what is most important to them: ‘there isn’t a single word in the world or in the dictionary that can express my anger and sadness [about the Wall that encircles village] and the tragedy because it really has no limits’. The clarity and poignancy of this message is expressed in their short film – Unhappy Birthday.

 

The participatory video process enabled the women to build relationships and learn from other women in their community. It has supported them to build the confidence and belief that they can and have the right to express their aspirations for change, ‘what I gained from the project the most was that I have more self-confidence, I am more strong and more sociable now’.

The Participate Initiative has 18 partners within 29 countries, all of whom have worked with the poorest and most marginalised communities to communicate the issues that are important in their lives, on their own terms. The Seed Institute, Kenya, Nairobi worked with children in Mwiki to conduct their own research on the experience of children living with disabilities. In their findings they explained that these children were forgotten and ignored. Using participatory video, they voice their concerns and identify practical solutions to improve the lives of children living with disabilities, and their families.

International Women’s Day and the PGA discussions should stand as a reminder that women and children should be heard in their own voice. The use of video and other creative mediums are effective ways to empower communities to find their own voice and speak their unfiltered message locally and globally.

Vivienne Benson works as Research Administrator at IDS and is the Events Coordinator for the Participate Initiative.
This blog was originally published on  the Power, Participation and Social Change blog from the Institute of Development Studies.

 


Participate’s landmark exhibition ‘Work With Us’ makes it to the United Nations

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Vivienne Benson

The Work With Us exhibition is back up (3-7 March) and this time we’re inside the UN headquarters in New York. The exhibition, hosted by Participate in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations and supported by Irish Aid, coincides with a busy time for UN policy-makers meeting this week to discuss their next steps towards a post-2015 development framework. While the Open Working Group (OWG) for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is expected to begin the serious business of identifying specific goals and targets, the President of United Nations General Assembly (PGA) will be debating the Contributions of Women, the Young and Civil Society to the Post‐2015 Development Agenda.

The Work With Us exhibition is a timely reminder of the importance of placing the voices of those most affected by poverty and exclusion at the heart of global decision-making processes. Through documentary, participatory video and photography, it tells the stories from people living on the margins, and de monstrates the obstacles, complexities, and impossible choices of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in developing countries. The exhibition strives to bring these stories to policymakers in a creative and thoughtful way, while keeping the message as honest and undiluted as possible.

Work With Us Exhibition in UN

Work With Us displays the vision for change of those that experience living in poverty and marginalisation – the very people that should be influencing policy. Now that the exhibition, is inside the UN, we’re hoping their voices are that bit closer to being heard.


What’s missing from the data revolution? People.

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Neva Frecheville

I find the post-2015 data debate both fascinating and disappointing, failing as it does in one key area.

It’s ignoring power.

The UN High Level Panel report on the post-2015 development agenda confirmed that the data revolution is high on the political agenda by including it as one of their five transformational shifts.  Since then, the conversation has snowballed, with some heavy weights adding their support.

But I’d argue that at present, the data revolution is too technocratic to change the world. While they’re right that the lack of adequate data is a serious obstacle to good evidence based policy (and practice), the right statistics alone will not change the world.  Without looking at the power dynamics behind this ‘revolution’, very little is transformational.  Serious questions need to be asked about whose data is captured, by whom, and who has the ability to access, define and interpret it.  Whereas the wider open data debate has cottoned on to the importance of citizen empowerment and participation and frames the debate as participation, accountability and transparency, it’s too little referenced in the post-2015 arena.

Who are the people who are meant to benefit the most from the post-2015 development agenda? We all have a responsibility to ensure that those most disenfranchised from decision-making are at the centre of the post-2015 debate.  This means those living in the greatest poverty and experiencing the greatest exclusion – especially if we want to achieve the other rallying cry to ‘leave no one behind.’

One of the biggest criticisms of the MDGs is that they were created in the dark corridors and behind the closed doors of global politics at the end of the millennium. Ostensibly, the world is different now – the global conversation, outreach that has seen 1.3 million people share their priorities, and negotiations broadcast online are testament to an increasingly connected world . But this is a conversation that has to include those at the margins in a way that understands the unequal labyrinths of power in which they operate.

Unless we have a better understanding of the data revolution in the context of power dynamics it will not succeed in delivering real, positive change on the ground. During Participate’s participatory research in 29 countries, people living in poverty articulated their aspirations as freedom from discrimination and oppression, the ability to participate in the decisions which affect their lives, social inclusion and a sense of hope. In a world of rising inequalities, people describe poverty and marginalisation as the denial of the rights that confer equality and dignity. But tick box exercises, or even formal legislative recognition of those rights, do not automatically translate into concrete outcomes. For the poorest, the reality experienced through the behaviour of government officials and institutional representatives is one of discrimination and intolerance.

The testimony of one participant from Chennai in India bears witness to the lack of ownership that marginalised people experience when articulating their reality: “Our rights of privacy, freedom are not respected… In fact, the society knows that we are not heard. Often the view is that what we say should not be taken at face value… Even our truths get interrogated.” Without ensuring that people have control of what data is collected, how it is represented and used, and the decisions it is used to inform, this dynamic is not going to change.

So what are the solutions? Participate findings have shown that a participatory approach to governance, that engages with local knowledge, strengthens people’s voices, and enables people to have influence and hold decision-makers to account, has the potential to be transformational. But the meaningful participation of people living in poverty in the creation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation won’t take place if the data which determines policies and priorities is extracted and does nothing to strengthen their hand.

The data revolution must be built from the bottom up, linking local to global. This means investment in community organisation and capacity development, and enabling spaces for the collective action of marginalised communities to emerge. This means empowering citizens – especially the poorest and most marginalised – to participate in the data revolution by developing the skills and capacity of people living in poverty to define the rights that matter most to them, capture and make use of this data, be included in creating, monitoring and implementing policies, and hold institutions to account based on this data.

 

This article first appeared in the Post2015.org blog. Neva Frecheville is Co-Chair of Beyond 2015 and Lead Analyst Post-MDGs, CAFOD.


Work with us: Community-driven research inspiring change

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Susanne Schirmer

‘People are sick and tired of being subjects of research. We are doing action research so people are becoming subjects of transformation.’

For me this statement from Walter Arteaga, one of the partner researchers in the Participate Initiative, sums up the creative approach my colleagues in the Participate Initiative are taking to engage those that are most affected by poverty and marginalisation in change and to bring their perspectives into the post-2015 process.

The Participate Initiative, recently launched a new short video which showcases some of the exciting participatory research the team has been undertaking with their partners in 29 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe in the past year. The team has been using participatory videos and digital storytelling – together with other participatory research methods –to make excluded voices heard in the UN debates around a post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework.

Watch the 20 min documentary and be inspired:

Alternatively, if you’re pressed for time check out some of the shorter films:

 

This article first appeared in the Participation, Power and Social Change blog at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). Susanne Schirmer is a Project Coordinator in the Governance team, and Communications Coordinator in the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.


Involving the world’s poorest citizens in the post-2015 agenda

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Joanna Wheeler

In September, the world’s leaders, governments’ representatives to the UN and representatives from civil society from many countries converged on New York for a Special Event on the future global framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. Nearby, civil society organisations talked about how to get the voices of the poorest and most marginalised through the barriers that cordon off the UN Plaza and into the post-2015 process.

The barriers are not only physical – in many ways the entire process of consultations and surveys is set up to keep those perspectives from having any real weight. There is no formal system of accountability where the people who are most affected can challenge the decisions made about global development. Yet the success and legitimacy of the post-2015 framework will rest on the extent to which it provides for their meaningful participation.

While there are success stories about how the MDGs have been achieved, these are not often the stories told by the world’s poorest and most marginalised. Development interventions can often have unintended consequences: a village built to house indigenous people in Mexico sits abandoned because of the poor quality structures and the lack of viable livelihoods.

The poorest and most marginalised people have not been reached because of prevailing inequalities, including economic inequality (the lack of sufficient income), geographic inequality (many live in precarious conditions without land rights) and identity-based inequality (for example, gender-based discrimination is pervasive).

These become entrenched in the lives of people living in poverty – and they mean that simple and one-dimensional solutions are inadequate. For example, in Ghana, providing places in school is of little use if children cannot attend because they spend much of their day walking ever-greater distances to get water due to drought.

The experience of poverty is also shaped by social norms and relationships of power that limit access to rights and services. For example, ‘city-makers’ in Chennai, India live on the streets, and are often unable to access services or their rights because they cannot secure formal identification. They are further discriminated against because they come from scheduled castes—making it more difficult for them to access dignified work or stable housing.

GCRN community meeting

GCRN Participatory Research: People in Ghana come together to discuss the issues that affect their lives and build plans to change their situation

In order to understand how people have been left behind by the MDG approach, we need to understand what prevents people from making the changes that they are calling for, and how they think that these obstacles can be overcome. Research carried out by the Participate network in 29 countries shows that future development processes need a different approach in order really to reach those who are most often excluded. This vision for global development provides an important reality-check, and is based on the following:

  • Rights and recognition for all. Rights are foundational for recognition and dignity. Being treated with respect by family members, public officials and representatives of the state, and wider society helps people see themselves as citizens. As citizens, they are able to act to demand greater fairness and access to the resources they need.
  • Inclusion, solidarity, collective action. The most marginalised people experience discrimination within their families, in their communities and their wider society. Collective action is needed to address these problems, and that requires us to address the barriers that stop people coming together to mobilise effectively.
  • Participation, accountability, democratic institutions. Institutions that are democratic and accountable will respond to the demands of the poorest and most marginalised, and participatory approaches to decision-making can help ensure this happens.
  • Services and policies that respond to the needs of the poorest. Services and policies that effectively respond to the needs of the poorest people are holistic, long-term and have a focus on quality. Dignified livelihoods are a necessary element of their success.

It is not yet clear what the new global development framework will look like, and therefore it is even less clear how the perspectives, voices and decisions of those most affected by poverty and exclusion will be included in the process. The current paradigms of development aid are breaking down, and the emerging framework could set out new parameters that put people at its centre and give them a real say in the decisions that affect them.

Meaningful participation needs to start now while the framework is being set – and continue throughout the implementation, monitoring and evaluation stages. Without this, the post-2015 process will become just another top-down example of UN member states failing to address the most pressing problems of our time.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2013 issue of New World, the flagship publication of the United Nations Association – UK