Beyond the tools: Participatory power analysis as the missing ingredient in local governance programming

Group engaging in participatory analysis mapping activity, Bangladesh
01 August, 2018


Last week CARE Bangladesh hosted a week-long study tour for 25 participants from 10 countries in Asia, in partnership with the Local Governance Initiative and Network (LOGIN). This blog explores some of the key things that participants learned from CARE Bangladesh’s approach, in its World Bank-funded JATRA project, to empowering the poorest and most marginalised to participate in, and meaningfully influence, local government decision-making processes.

LOGIN is a learning and knowledge-sharing network that aims to support the ongoing decentralisation processes of countries in Asia, toward effective and responsive local governments. To date, LOGIN’s membership spans 12 Asian countries and includes elected representatives, training institutions, think tanks, government departments, and local and international NGOs, among others. Participants in the study tour were able to compare and contrast Bangladesh’s ambitious legal framework for citizen participation with several contexts where opportunities for citizen voice are more fledgling and informal, and others where dramatic local government reform processes are just now beginning.

CARE Bangladesh’s most recent governance work is the 2014-17 JATRA project, funded by the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA). The study tour group visited JATRA implementation areas and spoke to project stakeholders to better understand JATRA’s impact. We also participated in lively classroom-based discussions as a group, digging into the key concepts, methods, and outcomes of JATRA.

The legislative framework

JATRA builds on CARE Bangladesh’s longstanding work focused on enhancing the voice of poor and vulnerable citizens in local decision-making at the union (local government) level. This work has been going on even before Bangladesh had the legislative framework to enshrine citizen participation in law. However, nine years ago Bangladesh enacted the Local Government Act 2009 (also known as the Union Parishad Act), focused on decentralising planning and decision-making to the lowest level of elected government and creating a legal framework for citizen voice and public transparency.

Making this progressive Act a reality on the ground has become the cornerstone of CARE’s current work on local governance in Bangladesh – helping marginalised groups make the most of the provisions of the law, and supporting local governments to listen and respond to poor and vulnerable people.

Citizen forums

JATRA is organised around the creation of a citizens’ forum in each union, made up of representatives of poor and marginalised communities, half of whom are women. The citizen forums are supported by CARE to play a critical role in preparing poor and marginalised citizens to claim their rights and entitlements, access services, and negotiate resources with elected local government representatives, maximising the participation spaces provided to them.

Throughout the process, they become active participants in public planning meetings, open budgeting spaces, citizen oversight mechanisms like social audits, and feedback opportunities like community score cards. They develop regular face-to-face relationships with elected representatives and local elites, breaking down class barriers and the traditional patron-client relationships that have previously prevented marginalised people from approaching their local governments.

Increased citizen participation

This approach has proven highly effective. Broad citizen participation in annual planning and budgeting meetings has increased dramatically year on year in project areas. Representatives of poor households and neighbourhoods, many of whom are women, have put forward a significant number of well-developed and well-evidenced proposals to local government, many of which have been funded and implemented. Public infrastructure projects have been attracted to poverty-prone and neglected areas, and their quality has improved. Local leaders are increasingly receiving frank feedback from typically-overlooked constituents, and have begun understanding this group as an organised political force that they must be accountable to.

Citizens from poor areas and local government members alike describe their relationships as dramatically shifted for the better – a positive sign of change in traditional elite-driven local politics in rural Bangladesh.

The momentum behind these outcomes, and the visible enthusiasm shown by community participants in the field, who are continuing to lead these efforts despite the project having closed last year, excited the members of the study tour. However, we kept coming back to one nagging question: if these accountability mechanisms, like open budgeting and citizen oversight of public infrastructure projects, are used elsewhere, why don’t they consistently generate fundamental shifts in power relationships?

Participatory power analysis: local knowledge for local decision-making

On the first day of the study tour, CARE Bangladesh introduced the group to the essential first step of all of their work on local governance: participatory analysis, with community and local government stakeholders. Developed and practised over a number of years, CARE Bangladesh staff have evolved a unique methodology for this kind of analysis, which blends key elements of political economy analysis, power analysis, and gender analysis, while prioritising the creation of this information in a participatory space in each project locality, with key participants from both marginalised and powerful groups together.

The method: mapping of resources, power, and vulnerability

Firstly, the assembled group of diverse citizens and local government members use coloured sand to draw a large map of their union on the ground or floor, including the 9 wards that make up each union in Bangladesh. On this map, all key resources are placed with pictures/markers (for example, roads, culverts, schools, mosques, clinics and health posts, markets, electricity supply, public wells and water supply points). A key is used to clarify the size of the schools, hours of electricity provided, etc. Beyond infrastructure resources, the map also indicates key agricultural fields/paddies and which crops grow there, the locations of factories or other sites of production, flood-prone areas and other climate-related vulnerabilities.

On top of this resource-focused mapping, the group then begins to add in markers that are in essence proxies for power and vulnerability. For example, they indicate where ethnic or religious minorities live, or hamlets and neighbourhoods that are known to be dominated by landless day labourers and crop-sharers (two central drivers of poverty in Bangladesh). They also mark the home villages of key politicians and local elites, like the local council chairperson or members of parliament.

Visualising privilege – and marginalisation

This map forms a highly visual basis for a shared understanding of inequality. Often, participants quickly notice that the home communities of key leaders have attracted more and better public infrastructure, or that some communities have much more access to productive land than others. By contrast, areas that are often stigmatised by elites as ‘dirty’ or poorly maintained can now be better understood as less powerful and politically marginalised. The group uses this visualisation to label clusters of settlements as ‘primary elites’, ‘secondary elites’, and tertiary groups (i.e. the marginalised), emphasising the need for local government to focus on Category 3 areas going forward.

While much of the mapping process is actually collecting or organising local knowledge (rather than informing people of anything new), the visual layering of various drivers of privilege and vulnerability solidifies a shared understanding among participants of the highly political nature of local inequality, and the injustices underpinning conditions of poverty in the area. Have a look at this video on resource and power mapping.

Timeline of political influence

To complement this mapping process, the assembled group also develops a timeline of their union’s elected representatives, identifying present and past chairpersons and members (while noting which communities they have come from). The timelines start from 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s independence, and end with the latest information from the most recent elections. The information related to present and past elected representatives is then overlaid on the map, visualising the communities that have a record of dominating formal politics and highlighting the local voting patterns. This process usually further illuminates the historical relationship between resource-rich areas and local elites.

Towards a shared understanding of who is being excluded – and why

The above process takes a half day in each union, with the participation of approximately 40 people. While the information gathered during this analysis is invaluable for CARE project staff, its primary purpose is to establish a shared understanding between local communities and local government of what poverty, marginalisation and vulnerability looks like in their area – who is getting excluded from resource distribution, and why? CARE Bangladesh has found that once exclusion has been mapped collectively and visualised publicly, local leaders are already more compelled to act on this information.

To further understand the power net between formal and informal elites within a given union, CARE Bangladesh follows up by facilitating a ’critical incident analysis’ – the identification and exploration of a single major conflict in the area. For example, a critical incident could be acute tensions over the control of a large government water body, a central market, or a salish (an informal local dispute arbitration body, led by local government and elites).

The critical incident analysis takes place via a series of informal discussions and interviews with a range of key stakeholders, and it often reveals useful information about the social network of local elites, including the informal alliances and fault lines among them. This process helps CARE staff better understand which powerful people may be key enablers, and who may be a particular barrier or spoiler to more inclusive governance.

Putting good analysis to good use

The visual local analysis that has been produced in these half day sessions is then transferred to large colour-coded posters, and posted publicly in the union level local government offices. These serve as a daily reminder to elected representatives of vulnerability patterns among their constituents.

Since the resource maps are regularly updated with any changes, local councils are motivated to demonstrate that they are improving the picture – planning critical infrastructure and supporting productive assets in historically deprived areas. CARE facilitates the local council to develop a pro-poor vision for their union, incorporating concrete targets for improving the map.

Ensuring citizen representation

CARE also uses these participatory analyses to recruit members of the local citizen forum, ensuring that ‘category 3’ marginalised areas are well-represented. As the project progresses, the citizen forum members are trained to further the analysis by understanding the particularly gendered impacts of the current distribution of resources and services, and to use the analysis to lobby local government for more key resources and a fairer distribution of the local budget, rooting their advocacy in this shared evidence base. Over time, elected local leaders even refer to the maps during their local campaigns for re-election, referring to how they have addressed long-standing neglect within the union.

What’s different here?

While this participatory analysis approach is ultimately relatively straightforward, and may not include all of the details that a lengthy and more in-depth political economy analysis might contain, it avoids several of the most common pitfalls related to good political and power analysis in governance work:

1. Understanding the political drivers of inequality

Too often we dive into our activities assuming that the power dynamics and political realities of the context are already well known to most local stakeholders and that there is an unspoken consensus around these. CARE Bangladesh has found that, while valuable local knowledge exists, bringing people together to collectively organise, visualise, and come to a shared understanding of their local development trajectory often reveals surprisingly stark realities even to local residents and sheds a bright light on the political drivers of inequality.

2. Participatory analysis leads to a shared understanding and an actionable evidence base

When analysis is performed, current trends in the development sector often favour an in-depth academic exercise led by a consultant, which, while possibly yielding fascinating detail, is scarcely absorbed and used, especially by community-level stakeholders. These types of lengthy analyses written up in formal reports often fail to foster a shared understanding of power and vulnerability at the local level or provide an actionable evidence base that can be used by local civil society;

3. The results can be shared widely and used openly

Furthermore, many political and power analyses closely examine the behaviour of individual political elites and end up producing predominantly highly sensitive results, which cannot be shared widely or used openly. While a good deal of this information is extremely interesting, this kind of analysis often ends up with a limited distribution to a few NGO staff members; it cannot be used by and within communities or shared with local government officials. In this situation, the result is asymmetrical information (privileging NGO staff), and the absence of a shared reference point in communities.

4. The analysis is locally produced, locally understood, and locally used

By contrast, this approach to the analysis of power in local governance processes takes as a starting point that the analysis must be produced locally, must be accessible and well-understood by community members first, and must be immediately put into use. Building on this firm foundation, JATRA was able to move beyond accountability tools and achieve fundamental shifts in power dynamics at the local level.

Written with contributions from Anowarul Haq and Murad Bin Aziz, CARE Bangladesh.

This blog is the first in a 3-part series, reflecting on key themes from the recent LOGIN study tour hosted by CARE Bangladesh. Over the coming weeks, we will publish two more instalments, discussing the importance of unpacking the ‘citizens’ in citizen participation to better understand how particularly vulnerable people participate, and understanding why local governments, often balancing elite interests, might be motivated to respond to poor and marginalised groups.

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