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Typhoon Haiyan One Year On: Reflections on Disability Research in the Philippines

17 December 2014

David CobleyDr. David Cobley is a teaching fellow in IDD where he has established a module focused on disability and development.  Previous research has examined economic empowerment strategies for disabled people in Kenya, India and Sierra Leone.  David has worked in the field of disability for 23 years, including setting up a care home for adults with learning disabilities.

Super Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda), the strongest typhoon on record ever to make landfall, ripped across the heavily-populated central Philippine provinces on 8th November 2013, leaving a trail of death, devastation and shattered lives in its wake. According to official sources, over 6000 lives were lost, over four million people were displaced and over 16 million people were affected by the destruction of infrastructure and breakdown of basic services across 44 provinces. For the Philippines, a country once described by its former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, as a ‘laboratory of major disasters’, this was a natural disaster without precedent in terms of scale and impact.

Typhoon Haiyen, Philippines, Yolanda, Coastal Settlements

Photo Credit: Dr David Cobley

One year on, at the time of my visit to the Philippines, many people were still struggling to cope with the catastrophic consequences of Haiyan. Much of the devastation occurred in the Eastern Visayas region, with Tacloban City bearing the brunt, at least in terms of casualties. I arrived in Tacloban to discover that, despite worldwide attention being focused on this city for several weeks immediately following Haiyan and the inevitable influx of humanitarian agencies, the reconstruction efforts appeared to have been piecemeal and painfully slow. Far from ‘building back better’, many people were still waiting for building back to begin at all. This was being widely attributed to the Government, as many of those that lost their homes were still awaiting long-promised Government rebuilding grants and relocation land. Local media were highlighting the issue, estimating the numbers still living in tents and temporary shelters, often located in hazardous ‘no-build’ areas close to the shore, at close to one million across the Visayas. The precarious nature of their situation was highlighted just a few days ago, when Typhoon Hagupit caused considerable damage to these coastal settlements, although thankfully there was no accompanying storm surge this time around.

My objective was to investigate Haiyan’s impact on disabled people, as well as to examine the extent to which they have been able to actively participate in recovery and community rebuilding processes. The strong desire of disabled people to participate in my research was quite staggering at times. One morning I travelled with an interpreter to the coastal town of Tolosa to interview two beneficiaries of an NGO ‘cash for work’ programme, which had provided 18 days’ paid work clearing storm debris. When we arrived at the bus stop, we were met by the two beneficiaries together with several other disabled beneficiaries of the programme that had heard about my visit and also wanted to be included. Consequently, the whole day was spent conducting interviews, under the shade of a nearby wooden shelter, with some participants waiting several hours for their turn. All appreciated the opportunity to participate in the relief operations, enabling them to bring much-needed cash into their households as well as supporting their communities at a time of crisis. One even commented that he considered it a challenge to show that he could work harder than his non-disabled colleagues. Importantly, those that were unable to cope with hard physical labour had been assigned alternative duties, such as office work, carrying water to the other workers or watching over the store room, demonstrating that ‘cash for work’ programmes can be inclusive if designed flexibly.

I came across other examples of meaningful participation, including one project in Iloilo Province in Western Visayas, which involved members of a disabled people’s organisation setting up and running their own relief operations, with fairly minimal technical assistance from an international NGO. The group had carried out a range of activities, from an initial mapping exercise and recruiting volunteers (including many disabled people) to organising the delivery of relief aid packages and providing referral services to nearly 4,000 vulnerable households. With the relief phase drawing to a close, they were now turning their attention towards longer-term development activities in the areas of livelihoods and health.

Memories of the typhoon (referred to by one interviewee as ‘the monster’) were still very raw, so I kept my questions as general as possible, in order to avoid opening up wounds that were still healing. Some wanted to talk about their experiences when the typhoon struck, however, and a number of harrowing survival stories emerged. One wheelchair user, for example, described how he had floated in the rising water clinging to a water can for over an hour, until his nephew found him and carried him on his back to the Barangay Hall, where he lived for one month before moving into a tent close to his destroyed home. Community interdependence is strong in the Philippines, as in many countries of the Global South, and many of those interviewed had survived only due to the support of their relatives and neighbours.

The interviews also highlighted particular difficulties that disabled people may face when they are displaced from their familiar surroundings, as in the case of one young lady with a visual impairment, who had moved to a neighbour’s two-storey house when her home was badly damaged:

                “We stayed in the big house for one month, sleeping there at nights and going back to our house in the day. It is hard to lie in a house that is not yours, especially as a blind person. I   was disorientated and could not move around freely”

Haiyen, Yolanda, Philippines, Disaster, Hurricane, Settlements

Photo Credit: Dr David Cobley

Those with mobility impairments also experienced particular discomfort when displaced from their homes. This was highlighted by a visit to one of the many bunkhouses which served as emergency shelters following Haiyan, and which were still inhabited by many families as they await permanent resettlement. Each of these plywood bunkhouses are split into 24 family units, with a communal kitchen and washroom, and it was clear that very little thought had been given to accessibility. Entrance doors were routinely three steps off the ground, due to the risk of flooding, and the washrooms were far too cramped to enable a wheelchair user to comfortably make use of them.

As well as demonstrating that disabled people can actively participate in disaster recovery processes at various levels, ranging from individual participation in relief operations to the planning and delivery of relief and development services for others, this research helped to reveal some of the particular issues faced by disabled people in the aftermath of a major disaster. These will be among the themes to be explored in a future journal article.

Ebola – where are the governments?

21 November 2014

Andrew Nickson

Andrew Nickson is Honorary Reader in Public Management and Latin American Studies in IDD, with 30 years’ experience of teaching, research and consultancy on public administration reform, local governance, decentralization and urban water supply. He has particular interests in Sierra Leone, Nepal and Paraguay, countries where he has had long-term work assignments.

The terrible Ebola tragedy has spawned massive coverage in the world’s media of Sierra Leone and Liberia – with harrowing images of victims, relatives, health workers, doctors, and aid agency staff. Yet one key ‘stakeholder’ in the fight against Ebola has been notably missing from this coverage – the government of both countries. Most of us would be hard pressed to name the presidents of either country* as they have been almost invisible, and the same goes for their respective health ministers. For anyone who did not know them, they would think the countries were like Somalia without any central government. Far from it, both are politically stable and have had a series of democratic elections ever since the civil wars that ravaged them in the 1990s.

A shipment of equipment arrives in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in October 2014. Photo credit: James Fulker/DFID

A shipment of equipment arrives in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in October 2014. Photo credit: James Fulker/DFID

The politically correct explanation for this “invisibility of the state” is the prejudice of a western media that still views Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as a basket-case that can only be saved by well-meaning outsiders. While it is true that this paternalistic post-colonial mindset still exists (witness BandAid’s resurrection of the insulting “Don’t they know it’s Christmas” song), unfortunately there is something else going on here.

Ebola outbreaks have been occurring intermittently since 1976 in Central Africa (DRC) and East Africa (Sudan, Uganda) and thankfully, until now, they have either been contained or fizzled out. We need to be asking some difficult questions about just why this latest Ebola outbreak has spiralled out of control in these two small countries, when much larger neighbouring countries like Nigeria and Ghana have been able to quickly halt the spread of the disease into their countries. The conventional and trite argument, regurgitated daily in the world’s media, is that these are both poor countries with “weak health systems”. But this simplistic explanation does not tell the whole story. Since the civil wars ended in Sierra Leone and Liberia, both countries have become the darlings of the Western aid effort, receiving inflows of grant aid that are way above the SSA average on a per capita basis, thanks to their “historic ties” with the UK and USA respectively.

So why has the response to Ebola been so weak in both countries? The answer is crystal clear – the appalling governance that has characterised Sierra Leone and Liberia for decades, with governance so weak and corruption so venal that both contributed greatly to the outbreak of their civil wars. Both have hardly improved since then.  As numerous ‘political economy’ studies have amply shown, this particularly weak governance is closely connected to the deep ethnic, class and linguistic cleavages in both countries, with small elites (called “creoles” in Sierra Leone and “Libero-Americans” in Liberia) imposing an exclusionary style of development over the mass of the rural population through their control of the political, administrative and economic system. What this means, in practice, is that the public health system for the poor majority is appalling, especially in rural areas. This is why Ebola has spread so quickly.

Historically, a major source of wealth of the elites in both countries has come from their deep involvement as intermediaries in the foreign aid business. They have always displayed a strong desire to deepen the ties of dependency on foreign aid as a way of feathering their own nests, particularly through the rental of land, buildings and vehicles to aid agencies. For this reason, and although it may sound harsh in the current context, in the same way that successive governments lobbied hard for UN peacekeeping missions to stay in both countries long after the civil war had ended, so powerful elite groups in Freetown and Monrovia are today in no hurry whatsoever for the global media obsession with the Ebola crisis to come to an end.

Workers in Sierra Leone engage in social mobilisation, contact tracing and body management. Photo credits EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre Workers in Sierra Leone engage in social mobilisation, contact tracing and body management. Photo credit: EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre

 


* The President of Sierra Leone is Ernest Bai Koroma. The President of Liberia is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The respective health ministers are Miss Miatta Kargbo and Dr.Walter Gwenigale.

The Boko Haram ceasefire and violence in Nigeria

23 October 2014

Paul Jackson

Paul Jackson is a political economist working predominantly on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. Core areas of interest include decentralisation and governance, conflict analysis, and security sector reform.

Amongst the violent international groups vying for our attention, Boko Haram in Nigeria has been one of the most persistent. Boko Haram declared an Islamic caliphate in Gwoza, along the Cameroon border, in August 2014, and the group has been raiding several cities across the north.

The group promotes a version of Islam which makes it ‘haram’ (forbidden) for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society and frequently attacks schools and colleges, which it sees as ‘westernisation’. In October alone around 185 churches have been torched in Borno and Adawama states, and seven civilians were beheaded in Ngambu.

The core of the insurgency covers Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states, and they have been under a state of emergency since May 2013. Founded in 2002 by a cleric who believed the earth was round, the group has killed more than 5000 civilians, with Human Rights Watch estimating that at least 2,053 civilians have been killed since the beginning of 2014.

Hudreds of people gathered at Union Square in New York City on May 3, 2014, to demand the release of some 230 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria.

People gathered in New York City on May 3, 2014, to demand the release of schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria. Photo credit: Michael Fleshman

Boko Haram gained worldwide infamy after it kidnapped 220 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State in April 2014.

Given the sorry record of the Nigerian state in locating the girls, and the inability of the Nigerian military to fight the insurgency, it is therefore welcome that last week the Nigerian Government announced a ceasefire with Boko Haram that included the potential release of these girls.

Discussions held between Air Chief Marshall Alex Badeh, the Chief of Defence Staff, and a fighter called Danladi Ahmadu, who identified himself as the ‘Secretary-General’ of Boko Haram, have been held in N’Djamena in Chad. The Nigerian government claims it has agreed a ceasefire with the group Boko Haram and is negotiating the release of more than 200 schoolgirls. Boko Haram negotiators assured the Government that the schoolgirls and all other people in their captivity are all alive and well, controversially contradicting the evidence of four escaped girls who claimed they had been raped every day.

However, this deal raised as many questions as it answers. For a start, this is not the first such announcement by the Government. An earlier deal for 19 Boko Haram commanders stalled and the Government refuses to say what the price for this deal is. A similar deal between the Cameroon Government and Boko Haram last week saw the release of ten Chinese workers and the wife of the Vice–president amongst 27 others, in return for around US$400,000. We await details of this deal, which are to be announced later this week.

There have also been questions raised about Ahmadu, said to be Boko Haram’s representative at the talks and who gave a radio interview broadcast on Friday morning. Many Nigerian analysts cast doubt on Ahmadu’s credibility as a Boko Haram envoy, and question his relationship with the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau.

At the same time, no-one really understands the internal command structure of Boko Haram and so determining who is responsible for negotiating and on behalf of whom is difficult. Such groups are usually loose federations of different groups, and it is not clear if Ahmadu represents the group as a whole or a faction.

The timing of the agreement is also interesting, raising suspicions given that the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, is expected to declare his re-election bid, and positive news about the hostages and insurgency could give him a significant political boost. This also comes on the heels of local speculation about close links between some Boko Haram groups and Nigerian politicians. The factionalism argument was also given some credibility since on the same day as the ceasefire, more than 1000 fighters were reported as arrested in Lagos with the aid of local Arewa chiefs.

Continuing violence following the ceasefire where suspected militants killed dozens of people in five attacks on Nigerian villages, has led the Government to label these groups ‘criminals’ taking advantage of the chaos in the north, but they could be part of an ongoing violent convulsion of which Boko Haram is one part and not the whole story.

Boko Haram has grown in to such an amorphous entity that it is difficult to know exactly who is representing whom. This has important implications for both Nigeria and also regionally.

The insurgency has not only affected Nigeria but large parts of the border with Cameroon, where around 400,000 Nigeria refugees have moved across the border followed by the same style of violence. It is likely that Cameroon will become a major area of Boko Haram militancy in the next few months.

Aside from this, the inability of the Nigerian military and the reported demoralisation of Nigerian troops claiming poor equipment and training and unreliable pay, has led to a reduced faith in the security services, bolstered by a general belief across Nigeria that many politicians are somehow involved with either Boko Haram directly, or in undermining the military.

An inability of the state to project meaningful power has effectively lost a large area of the north, where Boko Haram freely controls territory and declared a Caliphate. It is notable that the only announcement the Government made under the ceasefire was that no territory was being handed over. However, the fact that the Government has negotiated and in effect recognised Boko Haram – and indeed differentiated them from criminal elements – has given the group valuable recognition and with it, credibility.

Forgotten South Sudan tangled in factionalism and failed politics

3 September 2014

Jonathan FisherJonathan Fisher’s research is focused on the relationship between Western aid donors and developing states. He is particularly interested in how donors construct perceptions of foreign governments and key concepts, and the extent to which these knowledge construction processes are influenced by external actors and bureaucratic structures as well as by policy-makers themselves. He is particularly interested in Africa and wrote his doctorate on the Ugandan-donor relationship between 1986-2010.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Largely knocked out of the news by the crises in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Gaza (to name a few), a civil war has nonetheless devastated South Sudan since December 2013. It has left thousands dead, and more than a million have been internally displaced or forced into refugee camps.

The recent shooting down of a UN helicopter briefly restored the country to the international headlines – but this isolated incident is just the latest outrage in the short history of the world’s youngest country, which still faces a deeply uncertain future.

Journalistic accounts of the conflict’s origins, where they exist, usually highlight historical rivalries between president Salva Kiir and his former vice president – now rebel leader – Riek Machar, and ethnic warfare between the Dinka and Nuer people.

This narrative is a highly simplistic way of explaining what’s been happening in South Sudan. But it does at least point to the ultimate source of the problems: the interplay of complex historical identity politics and shameless, short-term elite politicking. This toxic blend is what makes South Sudan’s current crisis so difficult to explain.

The helicopter incident, which killed three crew members and seriously injured another, nonetheless demonstrated just how inadequate most current analysis of the South Sudanese situation really is.

Another faction

The received wisdom is that South Sudan’s independence was won by a single, united movement, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), whose protracted war against the government in Khartoum over several decades led to a peace agreement in 2005, and then the 2011 independence referendum.

The violence that broke out in December 2013 was an internal SPLA conflict between factions loyal to Kiir and Machar. This echoed an old and traumatic rift in the movement in the early 1990s, which took a decade to undo and which has left deep scars on the Juba elite.

But the faction apparently responsible for the downing of the UN helicopter is formally independent of both Kiir and Machar (though at present pragmatically aligned with the latter), and consists of the remnants of a separate rebel movement, the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA).

Its leader, Peter Gadet, was originally a member of another rebel group, the South Sudan Defence Force. He joined the SPLA in 2006 but left to found the SSLA in 2011, claiming to be dissatisfied with the Juba administration’s narrow division of the spoils of war along ethnic lines, and its favouring of powerful allies.

Gadet’s SSLA was re-integrated into the SPLA (by then the South Sudanese military) later in 2011 – but last December, it mutinied, and in alignment with Riek Machar’s rebel soldiers, its members seized the town of Bor in oil-rich Jonglei state.

Rebels everywhere

Gadet is not the only rebel leader to control a swathe of South Sudan without being a formal part of either warring faction. Nor are his troops the only active militia to have grown up outside the SPLA during the civil war, been integrated into the movement, and then left it in disgust at their meagre rewards.

The truth is that the SPLA was, and remains, just one of many military organisations in South Sudan; it is simply the largest and best resourced. Most of the country’s political difficulties stem from the Juba administration’s failure to bring these other myriad groups to the negotiating table.

That failure, in turn, reflects the regime’s abysmal record of cronyism. Keeping the short-term support of key allies by doling out state resources and offices to them, at the expense of outsiders, has been Kiir’s modus operandi ever since he took charge of the SPLA in 2005.

That has turned the nascent South Sudanese state into little more than a slush fund for rewarding and paying off particularist groups. Three years after winning independence, it is as far as ever from unity, peace and prosperity.

So much for the government, then, but Machar’s rebels, the principal opposition in the ongoing conflict, are doing little better.

Fractured opposition

I spent some time in the presence of the rebel delegation to the Addis Ababa peace talks in March-May this year. What was disquieting was not so much the disproportionate time spent by its members in swanky hotel bars and restaurants rather than the mostly empty conference rooms, but the rate at which splits visibly opened up both within the delegation and between it and the rebel leadership it represented.

Over the course of several weeks, I could see the rebel cause steadily fragmenting into ever-smaller pieces, with each faction becoming absorbed in grievances ever more removed from those of the people they claimed to represent.

The violence of recent months and the stagnant peace deliberations should not be seen as merely the birth pangs of a new nation. What is happening in South Sudan today is not inevitable; nor is it a painful-but-necessary part of the nation-building process. It is what happens when rebels fight for – and win – power without a post-victory plan.

Failure to launch

The SPLA is only the latest insurgency to become a government in this part of the world; Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Eritrea, for instance, are all ruled by former guerrilla movements. What distinguishes those groups from the SPLA, though, is that they all had a vision for government while “in the bush”.

That meant that once in power, each movement aimed to use its new-found authority to tackle the political, religious and especially ethnic divisions that had driven them to rebel in the first place. Though these regimes have since reneged on many of their founding principles – particularly regarding democracy – they at least remain theoretically committed to building new societies and states rather than just preserving themselves and their allies.

Their counterparts in Juba, however, failed to agree on their vision for the country during much of the war against Khartoum. Eventually, they were able to unite around the most basic one: independence. Now the country has it, South Sudan’s elite needs to look beyond itself to the people it seeks to govern for a sense of what the country wants – and needs.

And as this year’s negotiations have shown, that cannot be done from luxury hotels in Addis Ababa or mansions in Nairobi.

Jonathan Fisher has previously received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. He also held an Honorary Research Fellowship in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Africa Directorate between 2013-2014. He has participated in several rounds of regional workshops on Eastern African security relationships funded and facilitated by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES)’s Addis Ababa Office since October 2013 and part of this article’s analysis is based on insights garnered during a trip to Ethiopia partly-financed by FES.

This article was originally published on The Conversation – read the original article.

Bags of gold as an anti-corruption strategy?

6 August 2014

Originally posted on Dr Heather Marquette:

My colleague, Laurence Cooley, and I have just finished a book chapter on ‘Corruption and Post-Conflict Reconstruction’ for a forthcoming collection, and we wanted to compare three cases to see if any specific lessons can be drawn about what worked, what didn’t and why. We chose Bad, Worse and Rock Bottom as our cases – Liberia, Iraq and Afghanistan, partly because we thought they’d be of interest to the most readers, but also because if lessons on corruption can’t be drawn from these, well, heaven help us…

The literature on the relationship between corruption and conflict is pretty contradictory, as anyone who’s waded through it can tell you. While corruption may very often be a driver of conflict, there is evidence to suggest that, in certain circumstances, it may also have conflict-mitigating properties. Post-conflict reconstruction efforts can inadvertently present new opportunities for corrupt practices, leaving international attempts to fight…

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Masters students on Kenya study tour 2014

18 July 2014

Freyja OddsdottirFreyja Oddsdottir is Research and Communications Support Officer in the GSDRC.  She is responsible for communicating research outputs to partner organisations, implementing professional development activities, and maintaining the GSDRC’s online library.

For the past couple of years, the IDD has organised a field research trip to assist IDD Masters students with the logistics of field research, which is an optional component of their MSc degree. Last year, the destination was Kerala in South India. In June this year, a group of 16 students travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, along with Dr Jonathan Fisher and Freyja Oddsdottir, where they stayed for three weeks to conduct field research for their dissertation.

2014-06-28 11.55.56-1

 

The research topics were as different as they were many, ranging from affordable housing to police corruption and the LGBT community in Nairobi. Each student organised their own agenda depending on their research interests, and their interviewees included NGO staff, politicians, university professors and human rights activists. The research took the students to different parts of the widespread city of Nairobi, and one of them even travelled to the town of Kitengela outside Nairobi to spend a few days with the project staff of a women’s empowerment programme.

2014-07-02 14.29.17As a group, the students got to meet the Horn of Africa Project Director at International Crisis Group to receive input from him about current events in Kenya as well as their research topics. We also visited UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), where we learnt about the refugees that have come to Kenya from nearby countries such as Somalia and South Sudan, the options they have when they are unable to return to their country, and the challenges they face.

The IDD is fortunate enough to have a strong alumni community in Kenya, from which we received a warm welcome at our IDD alumni reception. One of them had even boarded a two hour flight to be at the event to meet the ‘IDD family’, as we often describe it. During our stay, the alumni were also very helpful in connecting the students with appropriate people to interview and collect their data. IDD alumnus Kenneth Okwaroh has been particularly generous with his time and contacts, for which we are very grateful.

IMG_6196Field research aside, Kenya had plenty of extracurricular activities to offer to the students such as patting baby elephants at the Elephant Orphanage, bargaining for local handicrafts at the Maasai Market, a boat trip amongst hippos and a safari in the Maasai Mara.

All in all, it has been a great opportunity for the students to experience the rewards and challenges of field research, and what it might be like to work in the development sector.

Politics shape services; and services shape politics

24 June 2014

Richard BatleyRichard Batley is Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department. His research focuses on state/non-state relations in service provision, and on the politics of public services in developing countries. He has researched particularly in Brazil, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Mozambique, and the UK.

In governance circles, service delivery is often discussed as if it raised common issues across service sectors as diverse as health, education, water and sanitation. Yet within sectors, debates about governance issues are quite distinct.

Is this just a matter of perspective or do different sectors really present different political problems and opportunities?

There are indeed common policy problems that run across services. For example, it is much more difficult to improve their quality than to extend access to them (by building schools, clinics, and water networks). Reviews of the political economy literature have found that services face common conditions for good performance. These include political commitment, good monitoring, effective sanctions, systems of local accountability, and strong political incentives to provide services.

But the profound diversity of issues between services is very striking.

In drinking water supply, for instance, a major policy concern is that badly directed subsidies lead to over-consumption by the least needy and to under-investment in water supply for the poorest.

By contrast, it is difficult to mobilise policy-makers and providers to address sanitation at all, although it is well known to be the most important contributor to personal and public health.

In health care, high cost treatments for some diseases are often prioritised while other diseases and more cost-effective measures are neglected.

In most countries education is a policy priority. Yet the quality of much public education remains poor and potential learners continue to be excluded.

Together with Claire Mcloughlin at the University of Birmingham and colleagues at ODI, I have been involved in research on why services perform differently even in the same political and economic context.

The outcome? That services themselves shape the incentives, power and accountability of the main actors, whether they be politicians, policy-makers, delivery organisations, or users.

Children in Sindh, Pakistan, play at a water pump in a village

Children in Sindh, Pakistan, play at a water pump in a village. Photo: Russell Watkins, UK Department for International Development.

The idea that services themselves have a political character may seem far-fetched. But consider how a service such as hospital health care raises different issues of politics and accountability compared to urban water supply. Patients place themselves individually into the care of doctors and nurses, often knowing little about their treatment, and unlikely to feel empowered to dispute it. On the other hand, water-users have a good idea of what they should expect from the supplier; they share their daily experience of the service with other users, and can represent their opinions at a neighbourhood level.

These differences are political in the sense that they affect relations of power between politicians, providers and users: patients are likely to feel less empowered than water-users.

Our research has developed a framework for comparison by piecing together the available evidence on the political effects of what we describe as ‘service characteristics’ – that is, the features that can be used to distinguish between services.

For example, services that are privately consumed (such as household water connections as against mains sewerage) will tend to enhance opportunities for political patronage. More visible aspects of services (such as the construction of clinics rather than staff training) are likely to attract greater political prioritisation.

Monopoly (as in piped water supply), inequalities of information and professional discretion (as in health care) can all strengthen providers’ dominance over users. On the other hand, the frequent and predictable use of a service (like schools) operating in a limited territory gives communities the opportunity to organise and make demands.

Such characteristics help to explain why some services for some people receive more attention. They also suggest possible policy responses and organisational reforms.

We put the service characteristics approach to the test in a series of consultations with sector specialists in education, health, water and sanitation. The broad conclusion was that the approach could help specialists both to make sense of sectoral debates and to discover opportunities for learning between sectors. For example, ways of enabling community participation can be shared between strongly client-oriented services like health centres and schools.

Start by recognising the experience of practitioners in health, education, water and sanitation. Our final assessment suggests that doing it this way round can help lever political economy analysis out of its ‘governance silo’.

It will encourage dialogue between governance and sector specialists, helping them to understand why different services present quite different opportunities and constraints.

And, by giving us a better-grounded diagnosis, it will also give us a fuller picture of the policy responses and organisational reforms that are likely to work in any particular service.

This blog post is an expanded version of the author’s opinion piece for ODI (28 May 2014).

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