Local Governance and Community Action: How poor and marginalized people can achieve change | Governance | Social Exclusion

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Most people experience the impacts of governance, fair or unfair, at a very local level. It is where poor and marginalized people, including women, experience inequalities most keenly – in the way that issues that particularly concern them tend to get de-prioritized and their participation is obstructed. In most political systems it is also at the level of local governance that citizens can, in theory, participate and take action to make changes that affect their lives, livelihoods and communities. In practice, the dynamics of local governance can be complex and challenging to navigate. Local governance involves real people and complex networks of social, religious, and economic relationships, with all the messiness that implies. Development programmes working on governance need to make a thorough analysis of local power relations and how change happens in the local context, in order to shape options and approaches. ã This overview paper draws out the lessons from the case studies in the ‘Local Governance and Community Action’ series on the experience of communities in Nepal, Malawi, Kenya, Viet Nam and Tanzania. Discussed through the lens of Oxfam’s Right to Be Heard framework, with its three key aspects – people claiming rights, institutions willing and capable of delivering rights, and people in positions of power with the will to make it happen – the case studies explore a range of contexts in which local governance dynamics are central to the process of change. ã The case studies cover a lot of ground, but there are gaps and issues that need further work and thought (for example, how to operate effectively in the very different urban context
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    Local governance and community action How poor and marginalized people can achieve change Most people experience the impacts of governance, fair or unfair, at a very local level. It is where poor and marginalized people, including women, experience inequalities most keenly – in the way that issues that particularly concern them tend to get de-prioritized and their participation is obstructed. Local governance is also where, in theory, citizens can participate and take action to make changes that affect their lives, livelihoods and communities. In practice, the dynamics of local governance can be complex and challenging to navigate. This paper draws out the lessons from the case studies in the ‘Local Governance and Community Action’ series on the experience of communities in Nepal, Malawi, Kenya, Viet Nam and Tanzania. Discussed through the lens of Oxfam’s Right to Be Heard framework, the case studies explore a range of contexts in which local governance dynamics are central to processes of change.    Local Governance and Community Action Oxfam Programme Insights 2 Introduction If poverty and marginalization are to be reduced, governance needs to be improved in fundamental, meaningful and inclusive ways. Governance is about the formal or informal rules, systems and structures under which human societies are organized, 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. This series of Programme Insights case studies, looking at examples from Nepal, Malawi, Kenya, Viet Nam and Tanzania, 1  focuses on governance at local level (village, neighbourhood, community). Most people experience the most immediate impacts, fair or unfair, of governance at a very local level. It is where women experience gender inequalities most keenly, for example in the way that issues that particularly concern them tend to get de-prioritized and their participation is obstructed. In most political systems, it is also where ordinary people should, in theory, be best placed to participate in governance, for example by voting for their local councillors, taking part in local committees or protesting against laws or actions that they don’t think are fair. Potentially, local governance is where citizens can make very tangible differences to what happens around them. The case studies in this series explore a range of experiences in different countries and contexts where local governance dynamics are central to the processes of change. They also explore what it means to work on local governance in development programmes, and how governance affects men and women in different ways. In practice, the dynamics of local governance can be complex and challenging to navigate. Local people may face barriers of language, ethnicity, gender, class, poverty, access to information, or simply lack the confidence to speak out. They face the visible formal and informal structures of power, such as village or neighbourhood committees, service user groups, tribal councils, dominant families or castes, and formal structures of local government. They also face power dynamics such as business interests or patronage relationships based on debt and obligation. These all contribute to a complex web of inter-relationships that affect how the formal structures and processes function in practice. The importance of local context and conditions is a consistent theme across the stories in the individual case studies. It is essential for anyone working on governance to make a thorough analysis of local power relations, drawing on history and culture, specific economic realities, and the interests of different groups of people. This analysis can then shape the options and approaches that a development programme uses in a particular place and on a particular issue, informed by how change has happened in the past and might happen in the future. Specifically, anyone working on these issues needs a good sense of the obstacles that poor and marginalized people face if they are to be able to participate actively and effectively in local governance. Oxfam’s approach In Oxfam’s work on the Right to be Heard, we draw on a framework for thinking about governance which makes us differentiate between three key aspects: people claiming rights, institutions willing and capable of delivering rights, and people in positions of power with the will to make it happen. This helps us when thinking about governance in relation to achieving empowerment and rights for poor and marginalized people.    Local Governance and Community Action Oxfam Programme Insights 3 Source: Oxfam GB’s Right to Be Heard framework, see www. oxfam.org.uk/policyandpractice   This framework provides different entry points which we can interpret according to local circumstances and which point to particular kinds of interventions. It is important to look at the relationships between the three aspects of poor people raising their voice and claiming rights, institutional effectiveness, and the responsiveness of power-holders. When you deliberately address the relationships and processes, i.e. the arrows in the diagram, interesting things happen to the way issues are tackled in practice. For example, in the Kenya case study, we hear about very high levels of mistrust between local community members, local councillors and local authority officials. Although there were institutional structures of decentralization for local decision making, neither community members nor local authority officers knew enough about them to successfully implement them. The tools of social auditing 2  provided a mechanism to address the knowledge gaps, furnish a useful process and rebuild damaged relationships. Even from the small number of case studies in this series, it is evident that there is no one simple approach to achieving local governance that addresses poverty and marginalization. What is clear, however, is that a range of approaches is more likely to deliver impact. The story from Tanzania is perhaps most explicit in illustrating a deliberately varied range of entry points and methods that can build synergy. It also shows how the complexity of governance and power relations can benefit from an evolutionary approach to trying things and building on what works.  All the case studies show how it is essential to work with both citizens and people in authority in order to achieve positive change in local governance. This might be about finding or creating spaces for constructive engagement Influence formal Institutions of governance Ensure responsiveness and transparency of formal and informal power holders Support people to raise their voice and claim their rights Create and protect spaces and alliances for dialogue and change Poor women’s rights and governance GOAL Poor and marginalized people are able to influence decisions affecting their lives, achieve their rights and challenge unequal power relations Power Analysis    Local Governance and Community Action Oxfam Programme Insights 4 between people and authorities, as in the ward meetings organized by women in Nepal. It could involve working with citizens to raise awareness and knowledge about their rights and about how local governance works, so that they can make relevant demands and monitor effectively how resources are used and accounted for, as in Malawi and Kenya. It may require working with officials and elected representatives to increase understanding about how to work accountably and transparently and to understand the benefits of actively involving citizens in planning and monitoring, as in the Tanzania example. Or it might be about working with officials to understand how particular legislation or regulation should work, as in Kenya. Think about conflict and power relations Constructive collaboration may be the ideal, but is not always achievable. Local governance is about politics, whether party-political or informal. Conflict is an inherent component of this, since local governance is largely about the allocation of resources across different populations and areas of activity and choices always have to be made about priorities. Effective programme design for improving local governance will always need to rest on high quality analysis of local power relations. The case studies show that sometimes negotiation and dialogue will be possible, but sometimes strategies will need to focus on building citizens’ power to challenge and confront abuses of power. Power can take many different forms, like ‘power with’ (organising collectively), ‘power to’ (skills and knowledge) and ‘power within’ (self esteem, confidence, sense of entitlement). It is important to look at how to build power in locally appropriate ways. Local governance is located within the bigger picture of national governance. Where power and resources have been effectively decentralized, a focus on local governance can yield impressive results. The Kenya case study perhaps comes closest in this respect in the way local people were supported to hold the local governance structures to account. In contrast, where government is highly centralized, such as in Tanzania and Viet Nam, progress is greatly affected by the nature of the national system and the underlying intentions of national government.  All the case studies include elements of deliberate connection of local initiatives to national processes. This takes different forms. Where constructive legislation or policy exists nationally, links between local and national organizations can support local implementation. Local problems often need national solutions, as seen in the Malawi campaign for access to medicines. Focus on tangible changes  A recurring theme across the individual stories is the importance of focusing action about local governance on the real, tangible interests of local people. Generally, these often involve health, education, livelihoods, water and sanitation. Women in Nepal moved into participation and leadership in committees and user groups on these issues; in Tanzania, communities became organized around setting up new market spaces for local women to sell produce, or around land rights. In other words, local governance activism needs to be focused around participation and leadership towards specific changes, rather than around abstract or generic participation and leadership. This not only ensures high motivation but also means that skills and capacities developed this way can be transferred to other issues as required.  Addressing marginalization on grounds of gender, ethnicity and age is often possible through local governance. In Nepal, participation in community discussion classes for women was a very effective way for women to develop confidence and learn about ‘how things work’ in a way that promoted active citizenship and supported them to take up leadership positions that directly
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