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Ebola: How a people’s science helped end an epidemic

Duncan Green's picture

Guest book review from Anita Makri, an editor and writer going freelance after 5+ years with SciDev.Net. (@anita_makri)

I’m sure that to readers of this blog the Ebola epidemic that devastated West Africa a couple of years ago needs no introduction (just in case, here’s a nice summary by the Guardian’s health editor). So I’ll cut to the chase, and to a narrative that at the time was bubbling underneath more familiar debates about responding to health crises – you know, things like imperfect governance, fragile health systems, drug shortages.

All of them important, but this narrative was new. It was about fear, communication and cooperation – the human and social side of the crisis (explored in a SciDev.Net collection I commissioned at the time). There was also an unsettling undercurrent to it – one that conveyed ‘otherness’ and ignorance on the part of West Africans, fuelled by reports of violence against health workers and of communities resisting expert advice against risky funeral rites.

But if you listened closely, you could just about make out the voices of anthropologists trying to dispel notions that these reactions were about exotic or traditional cultures. Paul Richards was one of those voices, and luckily he’s put together a rare account of evidence, theory and experience in a book that should trigger real reflection on how we can do better in handling similar crises (hint: more listening).

Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic tells the story of the epidemic through the eyes of someone with intimate knowledge of the region and the rules that influence human interactions – very much an anthropologist’s perspective, not an epidemiologist’s. The book turns the mainstream discourse on its head, putting what Richards calls “people’s science” on an equal footing with the more orthodox science behind the international response. It captures how people and experts adapted to each other, falling into a process of knowledge co-production.

Why/how should corporates defend civil society space? Good new paper + case studies

Duncan Green's picture

I saw some effective academic-NGO cooperation last week, and even better, it involved some of my LSE students.

The occasion was the launch of Beyond Integrity: Exploring the role of business in preserving civil society space, commissioned and published by the Charities Aid Foundation and written by Silky Agrawal, Brooks Reed and Riya Saxena, three of last year’s LSE Masters students. They researched and wrote the report as part of a student consultancy project, and CAF were so impressed that they decided to publish it. Result.

First the content: the authors went looking for cases where businesses had got involved in defending civil society from attacks by government, and identified four really interesting cases (see table). They interviewed a number of the players in each case.

They found some ‘key learnings’ (bit depressing to see them already adopting the barbarisms of aidspeak!):

  • Firms in consumer-facing industries are responsive to large-scale social movements that raise awareness regarding human rights abuses;
  • Privately owned companies with strong ethics and values tied into the core business model, led by engaged leaders, are likely to respond to civil society;
  • At times, privately held dialogues between key stakeholders and host governments can be more effective at initiating positive action than a public challenge, as the respect and dignity of each stakeholder is maintained;
  • Leveraging formal and informal cross-sectoral networks is instrumental in convincing corporations to act on behalf of civil society.

How do you make aid programmes truly adaptive? New lessons from Bangladesh and Cambodia

Duncan Green's picture
Lisa DenneyDaniel HarrisLeni Wild

Following on from yesterday’s post on adaptive aid, a guest piece from Lisa Denney (far left), Daniel Harris (middle) and Leni Wild (near left), all of ODI.

A swelling chorus of the development community has been advocating for more flexible and adaptive programming that can respond to the twists and turns of political reform processes. They argue that in order to achieve better aid outcomes, we need to do development differently. As part of this agenda, ODI and The Asia Foundation, with the assistance of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, tracked and analysed three programmes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Mongolia. These programmes explicitly sought to work politically in practice, using a relatively small amount of money, a relatively short timeframe, and a focus on tangible changes. We followed attempts to achieve environmental compliance and increase exports in the leather sector in Bangladesh, and to improve solid waste management in Cambodia and Mongolia; issues identified for their potential to make important contributions (economic, health, environmental, etc.) to the wellbeing of citizens. Two of our case studies were released this month, telling the story of how the reforms unfolded and shifted strategy to better leverage the incentives of influential stakeholders, as well as the mechanics of how the Foundation supported adaptive ways of working.
 

How adaptation worked in practice

In each case, the programme teams (led by staff in the Foundation’s local office, and supported by a variety of contracted partners and a wider uncontracted reform network reaching both inside and outside of government) made significant changes to strategy during the implementation phase that helped to address difficult, multidimensional problems. In Cambodia, the team faced a complex and often opaque challenge in which waste collection is characterized by a single company with a long-term confidential contract that is difficult to monitor, a fee structure that does not encourage improved household waste collection, garbage collectors whose conditions do not incentivize performance, and communities that are difficult to access and do not always understand the importance of sanitary waste disposal. With a small Foundation team and limited funding, the approach relied on working with individuals selected as much for personal connections, disposition, and political know-how in working politically and flexibly, as for technical knowledge. The team began by cultivating relations between City Hall and the single contractor providing solid waste management services, then moved to work with the sole provider to improve their delivery, and finally, resolved to end the single contractor model in favour of competition.

Why collaborate? Three frameworks to understand business-NGO partnerships

Kerina Wang's picture

Nowadays, forming strategic alliances across sectors has become the new operating norm. But the blurring of sectoral boundaries among governments, businesses and NGOs makes it increasingly difficult to assess functions traditionally performed by a certain sector, since conventional boundaries have dissolved, and power and influence are distributed in networks. One sub-set of such collaborations – business-NGO interactions – has attracted much attention, as NGOs begin to move away from their informal, social roles and venture into economic and political territories.

Business-NGO collaborations may come in many forms: NGOs could partner with firms to function as “civil regulators”, primarily by addressing market and government failures through the development of soft laws, social standards, certification schemes, and operating norms; leverage social capital to transfer localized institutional knowledge to firms; mobilize collective action between governments and firms; and serve as information brokers to connect otherwise disparate groups.

How do we assess business-NGO dynamics? Why are they are established? And in what forms are they governed? I source a few inspirations from business, political science, and public administration theories and offer three theoretical lenses through which we can examine business-NGO partnerships.

How civil society and others achieved the Paris Climate Agreement

Duncan Green's picture

Michael JacobsA brilliant analysis by Michael Jacobs of the success factors behind last year’s Paris Climate Agreement appeared in Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal  recently. Jacobs unpacks the role of civil society (broadly defined) and political leadership. Alas, it’s over 4,000 words long, so as a service to my attention deficit colleagues in aid and development, here’s an abbreviated version (about a third the length, but if you have time, do please read the original).

The international climate change agreement reached in Paris in December 2015 was an extraordinary diplomatic achievement. It was also a remarkable display of the political power of civil society.

Following the failed Copenhagen conference in 2009, an informal global coalition of NGOs, businesses, academics and others came together to define an acceptable outcome to the Paris conference and then applied huge pressure on governments to agree to it. Civil society effectively identified the landing ground for the agreement, then encircled and squeezed the world’s governments until, by the end of the Paris conference, they were standing on it. Four key forces made up this effective alliance.

The scientific community: Five years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was in trouble. Relentless attacks from climate sceptics and a number of apparent scandals – the ‘climategate’ emails, dodgy data on melting Himalayan glaciers, allegations surrounding its chairman – had undermined its credibility. But the scientists fought back, subjecting their work to even more rigorous peer-review and hiring professional communications expertise for the first time. The result was the IPCC’s landmark Fifth Assessment Report, which contained two powerful central insights.

First, the IPCC report introduced the concept of a ‘carbon budget’: the total amount of carbon dioxide the earth’s atmosphere can absorb before the 2°C temperature goal is breached. At present emission rates, that would be used up in less than 30 years. So cutting emissions cannot wait.

The other insight was that these emissions have to be reduced until they reach zero. The IPCC’s models are clear: the physics of global warming means that to halt the world’s temperature rise, the world will have to stop producing greenhouse gas emissions altogether.

The economic community: But it was a second set of forces that really changed the argument. Since the financial crash in 2008–2009, cutting emissions had fallen down the priority lists of the world’s finance ministries. The old orthodoxy that environmental policy was an unaffordable cost to the economy reasserted itself. A new argument was required.

Tackling inequality is a game changer for business and private sector development (which is why most of them are ignoring it)

Duncan Green's picture

Oxfam’s private sector adviser Erinch Sahan is thinking through the implications of inequality for the businesses he interacts with.

Mention inequality to a business audience and one of two things happens. They recoil in discomfort, or reinterpret the term – as social sustainability or doing more business with people living in poverty. Same goes for the private sector development professionals in the aid community (e.g. the inclusive business crowd).

A good example is the UN Global Compact, which steers companies on how to implement the SDGs. They completely side-step the difficult implications of inequality on business and redefine the inequality SDG as boiling down to social sustainability or human rights / women’s empowerment goal. All good things that we at Oxfam also fight for, but these can all happen simultaneously with increasing concentration of income and wealth amongst the richest – i.e. rising inequalityWe know that rising inequality is one of the great threats to our society and economy. So why is business and the aid world so uncomfortable with tackling it head on?

Man picks tea leaves at Kitabi Tea Processing FacilityInequality is a relative rather than an absolute measure. This often makes it a zero-sum game – to spread wealth and income more equally, someone probably has to lose. But the intersection of business, sustainability and development has become locked into an exclusive focus on win-win approaches where there are no trade-offs and everyone gets their cake and eats it too. Addressing inequality often hits the bottom line – meaning changes to the prices paid to farmers, wages paid to workers, taxes paid to government and prices charged to consumers. But there is hope. Through a new lens (or metric) that should drive how business addresses inequality: share of value.

Don’t confuse this with Creating Shared Value, which is focused on the win-win (without commenting on how the created value is shared). What I’m proposing is a measure that compares businesses on how they share value with workers, farmers and low-income consumers. In fact the concept dates back to the original principles underpinning the fair trade movement some decades ago.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
 

Fourth most deadly year on record for journalists
Committee to Protect Journalists
In 2015, 71 journalists were killed in direct relation to their work, making it the fourth deadliest year since the Committee to Protect Journalists began keeping records in 1992, the organization said today.  Thirty of the journalists killed, or 42 percent, died at the hands of extremist groups such as Islamic State. Those killings came as more than half of the 199 journalists imprisoned in 2015 were jailed on anti-state charges, showing how the press is caught between perpetrators of terrorism and governments purporting to fight terrorists.  CPJ reported in December that 69 journalists were killed around the world from January 1 through December 23, 2015.

What next for poor countries fighting to trade in an unfair world?
Guardian
The setting was a lakeside in Geneva and the cast was as international as it gets, but the Doha round of world trade talks was scripted straight out of EastEnders, the UK’s long-running television soap opera: an endless recycling of worn-out story lines, interminable plots, and theatrical moments of hope punctured by comically predictable tragic outcomes. In case you missed the episode last week, the main character was bumped off in the corridors of a Nairobi conference centre by European and American trade diplomats. Launched in 2001 and intended to deliver a bold new world trade order, the Doha talks have stumbled from one deadlock to another. Last weekend, the World Trade Organisation’s 164 members ended their ministerial meeting in Nairobi with a communique that “declined to reaffirm” the Doha round – trade-speak for a death certificate.

Where has the global movement against inequality got to, and what happens next?

Duncan Green's picture

Katy Wright, Oxfam's head of Global External AffairsKaty Wright, Oxfam’s Head of Global External Affairs, stands back and assesses its campaign on inequality.

The most frequent of the Frequently Asked Questions I’ve heard in response to Even it Up, Oxfam’s inequality campaign is “how equal do you think we should be?”

It’s an interesting response to the news that just 80 people now own the same wealth as half the world’s population put together, and the best answer was that given by Joe Stiglitz to a group of UN ambassadors: “I think we have a way to go before we worry about that.”

The Inequality BusSo how far do we have to go, exactly? The good news is that inequality is no longer just the concern of a small number of economists, trades unions and social justice campaigners. It’s now on the agenda for the international elite.

That partly reflects a growing realisation that inequality may be a problem for us all, not just those at the bottom. The Spirit Level  raised questions about the impact of inequality on societies, and the rise of Occupy pointed to a growing political concern.

More recently, research papers from the IMF have demonstrated extreme inequality is at odds with stable economic growth, and that redistribution is not bad for growth. Significantly, this shift in focus from the IMF has been driven by Christine Lagarde. To the outside world, the IMF now officially cares about inequality, as do Andy Haldane at the Bank of England, Donald Kaberuka (outgoing head of the African Development Bank), and Alicia Barcena of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, to name a few.
 

The Politics of Results and Evidence in International Development: important new book

Duncan Green's picture

The results/value for money steamroller grinds on, with aid donors demanding more attention to measurement of impact. At first sight that’s a good thing – who could be against achieving results and knowing whether you’ve achieved them, right? Step forward Ros Eyben, Chris Roche, Irene Guijt and Cathy Shutt, who take a more sceptical look in a new book, The Politics of Results and Evidence in International Development, with a rather Delphic subtitle – ‘playing the game to change the rules?’

Politics of Results and Evidence in International Development book coverThe book develops the themes of the ‘Big Push Forward’ conference in April 2014, and the topics covered in one of the best debates ever on this blog – Ros and Chris in the sceptics corner took on two gung-ho DFID bigwigs, Chris Whitty and Stefan Dercon.

The critics’ view is suggested by an opening poem, Counting Guts, by P Lalitha Kumari after she attended a meeting about results in Bangalore, which includes the line ‘We need to break free of the python grip of mechanical measures.’

The book has chapters from assorted aid workers about the many negative practical and political consequences of implementing the results agenda, including one particularly harrowing account from a Palestinian Disabled People’s Organization that ‘became a stranger in our own project’ due to the demands of donors (the author’s skype presentation was the highlight of the conference).

But what’s interesting is how the authors, and the book, have moved on from initial rejection to positive engagement. Maybe a snappier title would have been ‘Dancing with Pythons’. Irene Guijt’s concluding chapter sets out their thinking on "how those seeking to create or maintain space for transformational development can use the results and evidence agenda to better advantage, while minimising problematic consequences". Here’s how she summarizes the state of the debate:

"No one disputes the need to seek evidence and understand results. Everyone wants to see clear signs of less poverty, less inequity, less conflict and more sustainability, to understand what has made this possible. Development organizations increasingly seek to understand better what works for who and why – or why not. However, disputes arise around the power dynamics that determine who decides what gets measured, how and and why. The cases in this book bear witness to the experiences of development practitioners who have felt frustrated by the results and evidence protocols and practices that have constrained their ability to pursue transformational development. Such development seeks to change power relations and structures that create and reproduce inequality, injustice and the non-fulfillment of human rights.
 

How can big aid organizations become Fit for the Future? Summary of my new paper

Duncan Green's picture

My navel-gazing paper on the future of INGOs and other big aid beasts came out last week. Here’s a summary I wrote for the Guardian. Thanks to all those who fed in on earlier drafts. Oxfam’s Deputy CEO Penny Lawrence gives a semi-official response.

UK International Search and Rescue teamA miasma of existential doubt seems to hang over large chunks of the aid industry, even here in the UK, where I’ve argued before that a combination of government, NGOs, think tanks, academics, media, public opinion and history constitutes a particularly productive and resilient ‘development cluster’. The doubts materialize in serial bouts of navel-gazing, worrying away about our ‘value add’ and future role (if any).

So when asked to add to the growing pile of blue sky reports, I decided to approach the topic from a different angle: what does all the stuff I’ve been reading and writing about systems thinking, complexity, power and politics mean for how international NGOs and other big aid beasts function in the future?

The result, published this month by Oxfam, is a discussion paper, Fit For the Future? But if you can’t face its 20 pages, here are some highlights:

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