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.
If the state is particularly effective, then a lot can be achieved through evidence and reason, perhaps facilitating dialogue with excluded minorities, as we did in Vietnam . Or through helping poor people gain access to their legal rights, for example through legal aid – I’m often struck how much of this kind of work we do, and yet it features fairly low down in our wider communications.
If the state is more chaotic, then a greater level of activism and confrontation may be required to get official attention, as in our campaign on access to medicines in Malawi. In South Africa, I have seen our partners organizing ‘toyi toyis’ – a very musical form of war dance - outside the courtroom to pressure the judges to act.
In either case, though, as Jo Rowlands  points out in her overview paper  on the country case studies, there is a need to balance both the supply and demand side of the accountability equation, supporting officials to respond to growing citizens demands, and working to prevent conflicts and breakdowns breaking out between the two sides. Always recognizing, of course, that many activists cross the border between supply and demand, moving between jobs in the state to activism in their communities.
The time horizon for such work is relatively short – this is about lots of mini-victories through which poor people and their communities begin to make the most of their invited spaces and legal rights. It’s not about maximalist demands for total revolution that, to be honest, hardly ever prosper.
In most cases, the right place for an INGO is behind the scenes, supporting local civil society with funding, capacity building, access to information etc. Where civil society is particularly weak, INGOs may have to be more of an actor (as in the Vietnam case). I guess this is an example of what I meant when I wrote recently  about the potential progressive interpretation of the political economists’ insistence on ‘going with the grain’ of local contexts, rather than seeking to impose outside blueprints.
But the programmes go well beyond merely ensuring that governments implement their laws and policies - the trick seems to be to combine working on the implementation gap with something more (to use the buzzword  du jour) ‘transformational’, i.e. helping to unleash the agency and organization of hitherto excluded groups (on the basis of gender, caste or ethnicity) as part of the project. That can combine the benefits of lasting change with the morale-boosting effect of quick (or fairly quick) wins.
As a reminder, the five case studies are:
‘Nothing is impossible’: Women’s rights in Nepal 
‘Missing medicines in Malawi’: campaigning against ‘stock-outs’ of essential drugs 
‘Where does the money go?’: citizen participation in Turkana, northern Kenya 
‘No longer sitting quietly’: building community participation in Vietnam 
‘Citizens Wake Up’: The Chukua Hatua programme in Tanzania 
Photo Credit: flickr user limaoscarjuliet  and Adrienne Hopkins/Oxfam. Community discussion class participants in Bardiya village talk about their plans for building a community clinic.