Governance and Fragility: lessons learnt

Governance, Methodology, Rights

This week the Within and Without the State (WWS) programme is sharing its experience from South Sudan at a UNDP expert practitioners meeting in New York. Here, Louie Fooks, Global Learning and Communications Officer, shares some key lessons about how to build a social contract in situations of conflict and fragility.

Programming in fragile contexts is always challenging. And attempting to do ‘governance‘ work in countries where governments are unable or unwilling to meet even the most basic needs of their people may seem impossible or, worse, irrelevant. 

Yet three years into the Within and Without the State (WWS) programme, the most important lesson we’ve learnt is that governance work is possible in fragile contexts – and, more than that, it’s essential to tackling fragility. In December 2013, WWS published a summary
of our experiences so far
and some key lessons for those working on governance programming in fragile contexts.

Change is possible, even in unlikely places

Our activities have emphasised   constructive engagement over confrontation.WWS’s starting point, whether in Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, or the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, has always been to work with, and strengthen the capacity of, civil society. 

But empowering civil society is not an end in itself – nor sufficient by itself to promote good governance. WWS has worked to strengthen the ability of civil society organisations and networks to engage with, and influence, power-holders at all levels of government.

Constructive engagement 

Our activities have emphasised constructive engagement over confrontation (steering clear of popular mobilisations, for instance), in order to avoid a backlash from governments nervous about civil society. The aim is to build up a ‘social contract‘ between citizens and the state, which emphasises the rights and responsibilities of both sides. It assumes that, by connecting each with the other, both can work together to build a more effective state. 

Programme staff reading this may ask whether a model of constructive engagement with the state is realistic in such difficult environments. But even in fragile or authoritarian states, context analysis will reveal levels of governance, particular departments (such as health or education), or even individuals in state institutions, interested in change. 

WWS and its partners have organised peace hearings, accountability forums, public dialogues, and many other activities. These have brought citizens and power holders together to ask questions, share experiences, and build trust and accountability. And they have achieved real impact. 

Attending the MP / public dialogue in Wulu, South Sudan in February 2013, I was really impressed by citizens asking elected officials how their money was being spent – and where was the borehole and the school places they had been promised during the election campaign. 

Within without state Afghanistan youth debate

“Now I know the needs of people in the village and am connected with decision makers. Now we can advocate around issues that concern us, such as the Wall.” 
Mayson Shadady, community committee member, Al walajeh, West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories 

  • In Afghanistan, the Parwan Provincial Peace Hearing enabled the governor, previously a warlord, to hear the testimony of women’s rights leaders and women affected by violence, and led to commitments to greater protection for women. 
  • In South Sudan, accountability forums have provided the opportunity for government officials to admit to misappropriation of funds and commit to greater accountability. 
  • In Yemen, a civil society network was able to ensure funding for water and health projects after sharing its needs assessment with local authorities.
  • In the West Bank, community committees have engaged with Palestinian authorities about better service provision.

Change takes time

Witnessing the increased confidence of the citizens, organisations, and networks WWS works with – and seeing some of the real shifts in attitude, policy and practice they have achieved by engaging with power holders – gives me a strong belief in the potential of governance work in fragile contexts. But the pace of change is often slow, and, sadly, progress can be lost as the context changes, as currently in South Sudan. 

Investment in governance work is not only worthwhile – not to do it will be to normalise  a lack of accountability and entrench fragility.

The process of programme work is, therefore, often  more important to promoting long-term good governance than any specific, short-term outcome. A good process can model accountability and transparency in relationships with partner and communities. It can foster these values in engagement with power holders and lead to changes in values and expectations. The value of the process should be recognised, and monitored and evaluated, accordingly.   

“Investment in governance work is not only worthwhile – not to do it will be to normalise a lack of accountability and entrench fragility. In fact, governance work in fragile contexts may be the most appropriate way to tackle fragility, build stability and resilience, and overcome poverty.” Rama Antony, WWS programme manager, South Sudan

Read more

Check out the WWS programme for more on governance work in fragile contexts

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Author: Louie Fooks
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.