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Meetings with Remarkable Women: Lan Mercado’s Journey from Megaphone to Microphone

Duncan Green's picture

Lan, the megaphone years, circa 1985A while back, I wrote about some amazing Oxfam women I met in East Africa. Here’s another, this time from the Philippines.

Lan (real name Lilian, but Filipinos never use real names) is one of those quiet but effective (and very determined, and maybe not so quiet….) women that abound in development work. She was formerly our country director in the Philippines, but has now moved to head up a project on ASEAN (more on that below). She is also yet another Oxfam woman with a remarkable story. In 1988, as a 28 year old Communist Party activist in the Philippines civil war, her own Party denounced and arrested her on trumped-up charges of being involved in an intra-Party assassination. They held her for 6 months in the mountains, blindfolded and handcuffed in a cage. She and the other prisoners were tortured physically, mentally and emotionally. At least she avoided the fate of prisoners in other camps, who were forced to play ‘eeny meeny miny mo’, with the loser taken out, killed, and their blood smeared over the remaining prisoners.

Development Theory v Practice: Visiting Oxfam’s Work in Mindanao

Duncan Green's picture

For me, one of the most fruitful aspects of ‘field trips’ such as last week’s visit to see Oxfam’s work in the Philippines is the exchange it sets up in my head between the academic literature and debates I’ve been ploughing through in the UK, and the reality of our work on the ground. A good trip confirms, improves or adds to your thinking, and occasionally shows you that you have got it all wrong. This was particularly true on this occasion as our staff and partners in the Philippines are both real thinkers (one guy passed a long car ride by listening to a lecture on Hegel on his laptop ‘for fun’) and activists (more on that tomorrow). The quality of discussions in a Manila seminar on active citizenship and food justice was truly impressive – nuanced and open minded, with no sign of the dogmatic, fissiparous Left I saw on my last visit in 1998 (when I had to give the same lecture twice because different fractions refused to sit in the same room). First some (relatively minor) new insights from all these interactions:

In the Philippines: Does Oxfam’s Livelihoods Work Go Beyond Traditional Income Generation?

Duncan Green's picture

Last week I visited Oxfam’s Philippines programme. Such trips follow a pretty standard format - our national staff and relevant partners with the moringa farmers whisk me through a series of site visits and conversations with farmers, civil society organizations, local government officials and anyone else who’ll talk to you. For a few days, I’m engrossed, wrestling on multiple levels, first to understand the intricacies of the projects, and then to try and get at the meta-questions: what are the strengths and weaknesses in our work? What could we be doing better? Is there a clear power analysis and theory of change? Discussions continue in vehicles to and from the visits, over dinner and (sometimes) in the bar, as everyone grapples with the incredibly difficult business of ‘doing development’. It’s intense and definitely the best bit of the job.

I went to Mindanao, one of the poorest and most conflict-ridden islands in the Philippines archipelago, and home to 23m of its 94m population. The focus was our livelihoods work (I hate the term, but can’t think of anything better to describe the complex ways poor people find to put food on the family table). Such work forms the backbone of many of Oxfam’s programmes. In Mindanao, we’re working with women farmers to introduce new crops or upgrade existing ones:

Can Theories of Change Help Researchers (or their funders) Have More Impact?

Duncan Green's picture

Got dragged into DFID this week for yet another session on theories of change. This one was organized by the DFID-funded Research for Development (R4D) project (sorry, ‘portal’). A lot of my previous comments on such sessions apply – in DFID the theories of change agenda seems rather dominated by evaluation and planning (‘logframes on steroids’), whereas in Oxfam, it is mainly used to sharpen our work in programmes and campaigns. But the conversation that jumped out at me was around ‘how do we influence the researchers that we fund to use theories of change (ToCs) to improve the impact of their research?’

It’s risky to generalize about ‘academics’, but I'm going to do it anyway. Let’s apply some ToCs thinking to academia as a target. Applying ToCs to try and understand why academics don't use ToCs may feel a bit weird (like the bit in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich enters his own brain), but bear with me.

The Importance of Implementation Gaps

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve been reading the set of papers Oxfam recently published on local governance and community action (see previous blog) and was struck by how central the issue of ‘implementation gaps’ is in our work.

An implementation gap is where a set of institutions (often created via decentralization), policies or budgets (or all three) exist on paper, but are absent on the ground. Such a situation provides a particularly good entry point for an INGO like Oxfam because it reduces political risk (you are supporting the implementation of what the state has already agreed) and the benefits are likely to be easier to achieve and can have a galvanizing effect – plucking low-hanging fruit is great for morale and motivation. In terms of power analysis, this is about making the most of ‘invited spaces’ rather than creating new ones.

How Can Aid Agencies Promote Local Governance and Accountability? Lessons from Oxfam’s Work in Five Countries

Duncan Green's picture

Community discussion class participants in Bardiya village talk about their plans for building a community clinic.Oxfam is publishing a fascinating new series of case studies today, describing its programme work on local governance and community action. There are case studies from Nepal (women's rights, see photo), Malawi (access to medicines), Kenya (tracking public spending), Viet Nam (community participation) and Tanzania (the ubiquitous Chukua Hatua project), and a very wise (and mercifully brief) overview paper from power and governance guru Jo Rowlands. Here are some highlights:

“Governance is about the formal or informal rules, systems and structures under which human societies are organised, and how they are (or are not) implemented. It affects all aspects of human society – politics, economics and business, culture, social interaction, religion, and security - at all levels, from the most global to the very local."

What's the Connection between Power, Development and Social Media?

Duncan Green's picture

I recently gave a talk about ICT and Development at the annual Re:Campaign conference in Berlin, organized by Oxfam Germany. Anyone who knows me will realize that this is a bit odd – despite being a blogaholic, I am actually Rubbish At Technology. In front of 300 trendy, young (sigh) i-thingy wielding activists, I felt like a Neanderthal at a cocktail party. Still, at least the fear of being shamed up finally got me tweeting two weeks before the conference.

I decided to make a virtue of necessity and set out some core processes in development, and then reflected on what ICT does/doesn’t contribute. Why take this approach (apart from being a techno-caveman, that is)? Because there’s too much magic bulletism in development –microfinance, GM crops and now ‘cyber utopianism’. What all of these have in common is that they are too often presented as ‘get out of jail free’ cards, delivering development without all the messy business of politics and struggle. At best, new technologies shift power balances, sometimes favourably, sometimes not, but they don’t replace the process of struggle in development.

Building Accountability in Tanzania: Applying an Evolutionary/Venture Capitalist Theory of Change

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve been catching up on our accountability work in Tanzania recently, and it continues to be really ground-breaking. Rather than churning out the standard logical framework of activities, outputs and predicted outcomes before the project even starts, the programme, known as Chukua Hatua (Swahili for ‘take action’) uses an evolutionary model of change (try out numerous approaches, drop the less successful ones, scale up and develop the winners). It’s more like a venture capitalist backing ten start-up firms knowing that most will fail, but some will win big. This has been possible partly because DFID has been willing to fund such an experimental approach as part of its ‘Accountability in Tanzania’ (AcT) programme (props to them).

18 months into the programme, it’s good to see that Chukua Hatua is, errmm, evolving, according to programme coordinator Jane Lonsdale.

The first phase piloted six approaches:

How Can Development NGOs Go Urban?

Duncan Green's picture

Just spent a fascinating week in Nairobi, taking part in a review of our three-year- old urban programme there. Like many large development NGOs, Oxfam is deeply rural – goats, irrigation, drought, that kind of thing - but the world has gone urban, and so in a few countries, we are dipping our organizational toes in the water. Some impressions on the challenges of urban work:

Perhaps most striking are the multiple centres of power and association compared to the rural world. Tier upon tier of government, dense networks of clubs, traditional and tribal structures and militia, social and community organizations, churches, ‘merry-go-round’ savings and loans groups, youth groups, sports clubs, cultural groups – the list is endless. Power is dispersed and often hard to map or even detect. How to chart a way through the forest of organizations and identify potential partners and targets for influence?

Mainstreaming Civil Society Participation at the Annual Meetings

John Garrison's picture

The participation of civil society representatives at the World Bank and IMF’s Annual Meetings, which brings together the world’s finance ministers to discuss international development policy, has grown steadily over the past six years.  The most recent Annual Meeting, held in October 2011, saw the largest CSO participation to date, with a total of 600 CSO representatives from 85 countries in attendance. They represented a variety of civil society constituencies: non-governmental organizations, youth groups, foundations, faith-based groups, and trade unions.  They came to discuss a broad range of issues ranging from financial transactions tax and aid effectiveness, to energy policy.  In order to ensure that Southern CSO voices are also heard, the Bank and Fund sponsored 60 CSO and Youth Leaders from developing countries to participate in the Meetings.