The messy realities of governance in conflict-affected areas: six dilemmas for development practice

Katrina Barnes Conflict, Governance, Research

Development projects too often assume there is a simple structure of local governance. But innovative research based on people in Mozambique, Myanmar, and Pakistan writing diaries reveals how in fact their lives are governed by many competing informal and formal actors. Katrina Barnes of Oxfam and Colin Anderson of the Institute of Development Studies on key dilemmas this complexity raises for practitioners

How often do we find ourselves working on development projects and muttering “but that isn’t how the world works…”?

Whether designed by technical specialists removed from the context, or based on a great idea bent out of shape to fit an amenable funder’s theory of change, projects can often clash with our experience of how things really get done. As result, we experience cognitive dissonance: sticking to the plan despite knowing that all kinds of other social and political dynamics are really what’s important.

Research insights on experiences of governance ‘from below’

The recently concluded Governance Diaries and Governance at the Margins research from the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme shone a light on everyday community governance in conflict-affected areas in Mozambique, Myanmar, and Pakistan, using an innovative approach to see governance ‘from the ground up’.

The findings:

  • illustrate the complexity of governance-in-practice at a village or neighbourhood level. These present a world of multiple, contested authorities networked in uneven and diverse ways based on norms that too-often favour men.
  • highlight the importance of governance intermediaries, a broad category of brokers, fixers, activists, and informal leaders that are the real ‘face’ of governance for ordinary people.
  • surface how low expectations of authorities are, and how often the solutions that people find have little to do with the formal governance systems that most development programmes focus on.
  • Since these insights seemed to challenge the norms and default positions of many development efforts, we sought feedback from practitioners coming from a diversity of organisations and standpoints. The practitioners agreed that they represent ‘overlooked realities’ in the formal development world of business cases, tenders, plans and logframes.

Our recent policy and practice output shares our main findings alongside their suggested responses.  Amongst these, six core dilemmas emerged again and again.

1. Do we work ‘with the grain’ or challenge it? And at what costs for rights-based principles?

Supporting pre-existing local governance practices might be quickest way to achieve a development project’s  objectives with a degree of localised legitimacy. But our research highlighted a number of negative and potentially discriminatory aspects of these practices. Working through prevailing power structures might solidify these or even undermine some core principles. For example, we found unequal access to services and decision-making for women. We also identified more predatory forms of intermediation. Both could be exacerbated by ‘working with the grain‘.

2. What does this complexity of governance actors and systems mean for where we focus our efforts?

The research findings show how complex and intricate decision-making can be at a community level. It is tempting perhaps to side-step the complexity and instead focus on more standardised, formal or predictable parts of the governance or service delivery system. But these complex local systems will continue to shape who gets access to what, when and how.

Some practitioners, however, felt that engaging with the granularity of local governance practices and actors was a distraction from larger problems of public service delivery, and, perhaps romanticising what can be achieved at a local level. Working on higher-level structural factors might be required.

In fact, this isn’t necessarily an either-or choice. The challenge is figuring out which issues are best dealt with at what level and what tools and approaches help us make that call.

3. How do we weigh up the risks around engaging in politics?

Key to the findings is the inherently political nature of the authorities, the intermediaries and the networks through which they interact. This presents a challenge to  development actors who are explicitly committed to staying apolitical – for example those trying to sustain a level of impartiality to be effective in other areas such as humanitarian or bilateral government engagement.

Yet, to create meaningful change we need to recognise the separation of development work from politics as artificial; and engage more with local politics. Considering political ambitions, incentives and potential divisions amongst different actors seems likely to strengthen our chances of success.

But weighing up the risks of more political engagement alongside ‘do no harm’ principles looks different for different development organisations and contexts.

4. What does this mean for working at scale?

As development funding decreases, the potential that economies of scale can offer for achieving value for money is becoming increasingly important. But the diversity of local practices and actors that we found clearly challenges assumptions that we can pilot an approach in one locality and then simply ‘scale it up’ by applying elsewhere.

Questioning how we view scale may help us overcome these challenges.

If we start from localised analysis across multiple locations, we can work upwards to identify commonalities and trends. This would allow us to focus on issues that are common to multiple localities and can be addressed at higher levels. But it also recognise issues and contextual variation that are likely to get in the way of uniform approaches.

5. Supporting plurality or strengthening convergence?

A diversity of authorities can lead to better outcomes for community members where it provides a degree of choice and perhaps even competition. But in other situations, diversity can create confusion and reduce the scope for accountability that comes from having a clear duty-bearer.

There is a spectrum of options to respond to this challenge – from supporting convergence between multiple authorities to simplify a governance system to supporting strategies that allow a multiplicity of actors to coexist and interact. Some practitioners suggested focusing on linkages between formal and informal systems. Deciding where on this spectrum to focus efforts necessarily involves trade-offs.

6. Who benefits from the status quo?

Deepening our understanding of who benefits from the status quo and why a formal system is weak or disregarded seems essential.

Powerful actors such as corporations, militaries, criminal organisations, or networks of intermediaries may have vested interests in keeping the formal system weak. Supporting informal solutions could inadvertently perpetuate their power. But the status quo could also be a consequence of conflict, political division or other historical legacies. Getting to the bottom of this question involves locating our work in broader historical, political and social systems.

Responding to these dilemmas will doubtless be complex. But our conversations with practitioners so far tell us there’s an appetite for taking on the big challenge of bringing our actions closer to the lived reality of governance. Pushing back against that dissonance we feel can only be a good thing for our work.


Katrina Barnes

Katrina Barnes is Evidence Uptake and Learning Lead at Oxfam GB


Colin Anderson

Colin Anderson is a research officer at the Institute of Development Studies

Want to find out more? You can read the full case study Understanding Governance from the Margins: What Does It Mean In Practice? and also read an excellent summary by Duncan Green of key aspects of the A4EA project. This is an adapted version of a blog first published by the Institute Of Development Studies.