EADI/ISS Series | Rethinking Empowerment and Accountability in ‘Difficult Settings’ by John Gaventa

Over the last two decades, development has been replete with theories and interventions focusing on ‘empowerment and accountability’, and how these could contribute to a range of outcomes, be they good governance, social inclusion, and social justice. Much of the early thinking on these approaches emerged from examples in countries which were then relatively open, enjoying perhaps an opening of democratic spaces and opportunities. But what about empowerment and accountability in more difficult spaces – characterised by shrinking civic space, strong legacies of authoritarianism, violence and repression, and fragmented forms of authority?


Over the last two decades, development has been replete with theories and interventions focusing on ‘empowerment and accountability’, and how these could contribute to a range of outcomes, be they good governance, social inclusion, and social justice.  Much of the early thinking on these approaches emerged from examples in countries which were then relative open, enjoying perhaps an opening of democratic spaces and opportunities, and a flourishing of civil society – one thinks for instance of Brazil, Philippines, Indonesia, India, South Africa and more?

But what about empowerment and accountability in more difficult spaces – characterised by shrinking civic space, strong legacies of authoritarianism, violence and repression, and fragmented forms of authority? It’s these settings in which the Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research programme (A4EA) set out to investigate over three years ago.

Difficult Settings”: From the Exception to the Norm

When we started this project, we thought of such ‘fragile, conflict, violence affected settings (FCVAS)’ as perhaps the exceptions, in which we needed to adapt our existing theories of change drawn largely from more stable and democratic settings. But in the last few years, the flourishing of civic and democratic space that we have seen in many places of the world since the 1990s has been receding. The 2019 report published by Civicus, People Power Under Attack, found that 40% of the world’s population live in repressed settings (double from the previous year), and that in fact only 3% of the world’s population live in settings which are ‘open’ – those plural and stable democracies from which so much of our development thinking seems to evolve.

So how do we achieve empowerment and accountability in these more difficult settings?  The A4EA programme recently published a synthesis of the first round of its research, which involved over 15 projects in Myanmar, Egypt, Mozambique, Pakistan and Nigeria.  A number of lessons emerge:

  • Message 1:
    In these settings, factors like closing civic space, legacies of fear, and distrust challenge fundamental assumptions about the conditions necessary for many processes of empowerment and accountability, which assume that ‘voice’ on the one hand and ‘responsiveness’ on the other will underpin the formation of a social contract between citizens and the state. So how do we work with fear and legacies of internalised powerlessness?
  • Message 2:
    Theories of change often assume the existence of ‘accountable and responsive institutions’, towards which voice may be directed, but in many less democratic and open settings, we need to re-understand the nature of authority and question our assumptions of who is to be held to account, and by whom. In the A4EA, we have used a novel governance diaries approach, to understand how authority is seen and navigated from below.
  • Message 3:
    Spaces for civic action are constantly shifting. Opportunities for empowerment and accountability may present themselves at particular moments and in particular places, even while other places remain closed or difficult.  Few societies are totally ‘closed’ or ‘open’ but may vary a great deal across subnational levels, and over time.
  • Message 4:
    Even in difficult contexts, action for empowerment and accountability may be present, but not always in ways we see or recognise, implying different entry points for thinking and working politically, beyond business as usual. In particular, we have found even in the most challenging spaces, the emergence of popular protests, the challenging of authority though musical and cultural expressions, and sophisticated ways of solidarity and voice floating ‘under the radar’.
  • Message 5:
    Though patriarchy and authoritarianism often go together, in these settings women’s collective action is an important driver of empowerment and accountability, through greater political empowerment in formal processes, as well as through more informal channels, social movements, and local actions which challenge gender norms.  In Pakistan, for instance, while formal political participation often remains low, women have been at the forefront of struggling for new rights and social justice for decades.
  • Message 6:
    Donors, policy makers and external actors can make important contributions in these settings, but more careful and grounded approaches are needed, with more appropriate expectations and measurements of outcomes.  In particular, attention must be paid to measuring the intangibles, building trust, overcoming fear, strengthening solidarity, and appreciating small scale steps towards change.  Donors themselves must also learn to work differently, to avoid the risk of discrediting or undermining local efforts.
  • Message 7:
    Working in difficult settings, perhaps more than elsewhere, requires an approach that is adaptive and flexible. This means giving front line staff autonomy, recruiting entrepreneurial and politically savvy staff, and sometimes ‘going against the grain’, not only with it. While adaptive learning and management are the flavours of the month, those at the front line often need more space to be responsive and agile in seizing opportunities for change.
  • Message 8:
    Understanding complex and highly political issues of empowerment and accountability in these settings requires new tools for political economy analysis and ways of sharing research that are sensitive to local dynamics, and which themselves can contribute to building spaces for dialogue Traditional forms of institutional analysis may do little to pick up the dynamics of gender, power, fear and exclusion as seen ‘from below’.

At the EADI conference in June at ISS, we will pick up these themes further in two sessions organised by the A4EA programme, with several other sessions focusing on similar themes of building solidarity in the context of closing civic spaces. See you there!


This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the author:

John_Gaventa2015John Gaventa is a Professor and Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, and director of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme.  This blog was drawn from the recent publication with Katie Oswald, Research Officer at IDS, ‘Empowerment and Accountability in Difficult Settings: What are we learning?’


Image Credit: Wole Oladapo and Abayomi Kolapo: Bring Back Our Girls protestors, still marching for protest in 2018.

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