I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall. And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 33 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
So far, I’ve described climbing 37 of the 48 peaks, and I’ve covered my journey from Peace Corps in Ecuador (1984-86) through to my arrival in Sydney in 2009, where I joined ChildFund Australia as the first “International Program Director.”
Last time I described how we assessed the impact of our work, using two components of the comprehensive ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” (“DEF”). We developed the DEF to help us make sure we were doing what we said we were going to do, and, crucially, so that we could verify that we were making a difference in the lives of children and young people living in poverty. So we could learn and improve our work. It was the “Holy Grail” of development work.
In other words, the DEF was built to measure if we were doing what we promised, if we were achieving what we aimed for. At the highest level, what we promised was articulated in ChildFund Australia’s vision and mission:
These are great statements, very clear, but we needed a bit more specificity if we were going to articulate a program approach describing “how” we would achieve that vision. So we had built a “Theory of Change” that articulated a causal framework for how we would achieve the impact described in the vision and mission. We summed up our Theory of Change in the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook:
For ChildFund, the most innovative, and difficult, aspect of that “Theory of Change” was the notion of “power” – “building the power of poor people and poor children.”
Like most INGOs, ChildFund Australia was not used to thinking this way, we had little direct experience working to build collective action of people living in poverty. And, I would suggest, even INGOs that talk a lot about power and collective action really end up not doing very much in that domain – they think through the issue, and frame their work that way, sometimes in very inspiring ways, but actual work building the power of excluded people is rare. Because it’s hard. And because local governments often don’t want us to work in this space.
So in this, my 38th post in the series, I want to go into more depth on on the topic of “Power” – what did we mean by it, what we actually ended up doing to advance the collective action for people facing poverty. This is really a story of organizational development, of fairly deep change. Like most such stories, it was a mixture of success and failure, of joys and sorrows. But, in this case, we were mostly successful, at least for some time.
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Waumbek, and go directly to my description of how we sought to build the power of poor people and poor children, click here.
The Climb – Mt Waumbek
I climbed Mt Waumbek (4006ft, 1221m) on 28 August, 2017; this was a solo hike. Waumbek is the third shortest 4000-footer of the 48 in New Hampshire, taller only than Isolation and Tecumseh. Climbing it involves a fairly simple and short hike, up-and-back, which I greatly enjoyed on this pleasant day:
(The loop up Mt Cabot is also shown on the map, since I did that climb the next day – stay tuned for that!)
It was a beautiful, sunny and cool morning as I left Durham, in the low 50’s. I got going just before 8am and arriving at the trail-head at 10:58am – a longer drive than usual, as Waumbek is at the northern end of the White Mountains. My plan was to get to the top of Mt Waumbek, stay the night at the nearby Moose Brook Campground, and climb Mt Cabot the next day.
As I started up Starr-King Trail, the skies were blue and it was still quite cool and dry. There was only one other car in the parking lot, so it looked like I would have much of the hike to myself!
It would be 3.6 miles to the top. The first section is typical White-Mountains lower forest, with a fairly wide trail. A few minutes up the trail from the parking lot, I came across the remains of an old well, which must have fed somebody’s water system long ago:
I reached the top of Mt Starr-King just after noon; there’s a cairn there, and the remains of an old cabin just past the top, with fine views towards the Presidential Range. This was the first time I could remember looking at Mt Washington from the north!
I continued on toward Mt Waumbek, now along a forested ridge – the walking was very pleasant, gently up and down:
I reached the top of Mt Waumbek at 12:50pm, so it had taken me a bit less than two hours to reach the summit. There’s a cairn marking the spot, along with a sign indicating the beginning of the Kilkenny Ridge Trail, which I would hike on for part of the next day, as I climbed Mt Cabot…
Passing the summit, I continued a few meters to reach a blow-down, perfect for lunch, with views towards the Presidentials:
After lunch, I retraced my steps back down to the parking area, uneventfully, which I reached at around 3pm. Round-trip, four hours.
I camped that night at Moose Brook Campground, staying in site 026 – highly recommended, as it’s a bit distant from other sites, fairly private and quiet. It was nice to be able to have a hot shower a short walk away, and my other indulgence that night was the purchase of a few sticks of firewood, which gave a great ambiance for the evening.
So I had climbed thirty-eight of the 48 New Hampshire 4000-footers, just ten to go! I would reach number 39 the next day, stay tuned for that!
Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children
Once we had articulated our “Theory of Change,” it became clear that, of the four pillars of ChildFund Australia’s emergent program approach, the notion of “power” would be the trickiest for us. Partly this was because ChildFund Australia had not been working directly in this space, or even thinking about our work in terms of building the collective power of people in communities where we worked. Until that point, we were implementing projects that helped make people’s lives better, working on the causes and manifestations of child poverty.
But now our Theory of Change had been approved and, if we were going to take it seriously, we needed to figure out how to work in all four areas we had identified: building assets, voice and agency; enhancing collective power; and child protection.
Initial reactions of my colleagues – in Sydney and overseas, on our Board of Directors and in Senior Management – to the notion of working to build the power of people facing poverty, tended to either be positive but cautious (“Sounds great, but what does it really mean in practice? How do we do this? We aren’t an advocacy organization…”) or wary (“Won’t local governments be hostile towards it if we organize people? We have to have the permission of national government in Country X, and if we start to become political they will throw us out…”)
It didn’t help that I really couldn’t find many examples of Australian INGOs working to build collective action, except for efforts (for example, by World Vision Australia) to help set up “Scorecards” through which local communities could comment on and rate the provision of services by local government. That kind of work was consistent with what we had in mind, and it was good work, but I wanted to go farther.
And it was a mixed blessing that I was really the only person on staff with significant experience in this domain – from my time with UUSC. Collective action, activism for social justice, was key to the identity of that agency, going back to the spiritual movement that led to its establishment, as well as to the heroic actions of two of UUSC’s founders, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, who had helped rescue children from Nazi Germany, at great personal risk.
Also, a commitment to building collective power had been an essential part of “Bright Futures,” the program approach I had helped develop for CCF. In that case we had built on the parents’ associations that were already in place, and federated them at district level, so these representative bodies could interface with district-level service provision. The idea was that the “Parents Federations” would serve as an interest group, advocating for the realization of human rights for the poor communities where CCF worked.
So I was able to draw upon those experiences to help clarify and articulate what power might mean for ChildFund Australia; and I could draw on resources that could help us, including two great consultants (Valerie Miller and Ricardo Gómez – see below.)
After all, I was the International Program Director – so leading the strategic thinking of our program was my job! That’s what I had been hired to do. All that was good.
But, on the other hand, even though program staff in Sydney and overseas were instinctively aligned with the notion and even passionate about collective action, as I was, and despite having been very clear in our Theory of Change that we would have to work to build power if we were going to advance our vision and mission, I felt that we would need a much broader foundation of support inside ChildFund if we were to overcome the (appropriate) caution that many felt about promoting collective action. Especially if we began to get much push-back from local or national governments where we worked, as seemed likely.
So this is really a story of organizational change: how we were able, for the most part, to grow our organization’s abilities to work in a very different way.
So beginning in 2010, I thought through a process of program development and organizational change:
- We would start by building a common understanding of “Power,” leading to a degree of shared understanding of what it would mean for ChildFund Australia. I felt that I was well-placed to take this forward, as I mentioned above;
- I would look for opportunities to get our feet wet, places where it seemed that we had some safe space for projects consistent with our common understanding, so we could try, and learn without fearing that local authorities would react negatively. I will describe the first of those projects, which we implemented in Svay Rieng, Cambodia, in some detail below, along with our reflections on that project;
- We would form a “Community of Practice,” with delegates from each of our Country Offices, to help with the process of program development and learning from initial experiences, building capabilities internally while keeping enthusiasm strong;
- Finally, we probably needed support from people who had more experience, from outside ChildFund, that could be helpful. In the end we were very fortunate to engage two gifted consultants that I knew from the past: Valerie Miller and Ricardo Gómez. More on Valerie and Ricardo below.
We started with some definitions, to clarify things. I found an extremely helpful set of materials for this effort on a great website “Powercube – Understanding Power for Social Change.” I highly recommend the materials that (as of this writing) are still available on this website.
And, in a fortuitous coincidence, as I began to use the PowerCube website to help me develop a framework for ChildFund Australia, I noticed a familiar name: one of the leaders of the group that had created the PowerCube materials was Valerie Miller.
I had met Valerie when I was with UUSC. When I moved from the 501(c)3 to set up UUSC Just Democracy, a 501(c)4 entity, I had met and worked with Valerie’s husband Ralph Fine. At that time, Ralph was the advisor to one of our major donors, serving as my contact with that important resource. And, just before I had joined UUSC, Valerie’s organization (Just Associates) had carried out review of our program, which had led to the establishment of our three program focuses there (economic justice, environmental justice, and civil liberties. (A few years later we added a fourth plank – rights in crisis.)
Later, as I will describe below, Valerie accompanied us as we began to dip our toes into the water of collective action, which was of enormous help.
I ended up adapting and using the conceptual framework included in the PowerCube website to help clarify matters in ChildFund Australia. A summary of their framework can be seen in “Power Pack, Understanding Power for Social Change,” a document that is still available on the PowerCube website.
Included in that document are two basic frameworks that I relied on frequently in this journey. Firstly, it seemed to help people understand “power” if we added a modifier to the word, unpacking the notion that way. In other words, power could be understood in four ways, the first of which is normally seen as negative:
- Power Over. “The ability of relatively powerful actors to affect the actions and thought of the relatively powerless.” In other words, coercive, oppressive power, the negative sense of the word “power.”
But in addition to that negative sense of the word, there are at least three potentially positive ways of thinking about “power”:
- Power To. “The capacity to act, to exercise agency and to realize the potential of rights, citizenship or voice”;
- Power Within. “Gaining a sense of self-identity, confidence and awareness that is a pre-condition for action”;
- Power With. “The synergy which can emerge through partnerships and collaboration with others, or through processes of collective action and alliance-building.”
Over time I found that it was most helpful and accurate to define “Power” in ChildFund Australia as essentially equivalent to “Power With,” or (in the terminology I would use over those years) collective action for children. Other domains of our work had the effect of building “Power To” (for example, building educational and health assets), and “Power Within” (in particular when we worked with groups of women and youth), so what was new here was “Power With.” That’s what we had to learn more about…
And it helped us to think through how power is manifested in the world, in different forms, in different spaces, and at different levels. Again, material in that PowerCube document was very helpful:
“Forms” of Power
“Visible forms of power are contests over interests which are visible in public spaces or formal decision making bodies. Often these refer to political bodies, such as legislatures, local government bodies, local assemblies, or consultative forums…
“Hidden forms of power are used by vested interests to maintain their power and privilege by creating barriers to participation, by excluding key issues from the public arena, or by controlling politics ̳backstage‘. They may occur not only within political processes, but in organizational and other group contexts as well, such as workplaces, NGOs or community based organizations…
“Invisible power goes a step further. It involves the ways in which awareness of one‘s rights and interests are hidden through the adoption of dominating ideologies, values and forms of behavior by relatively powerless groups themselves. Sometimes this is also referred to as the ̳internalisation of powerlessness‘ in a way that affects the awareness and consciousness of potential issues and conflicts, even by those directly affected.”
“Spaces” of Power
“Though we may value the democratic right of people to participate more fully in decisions that affect their lives, in practice in many settings decision-making spaces are closed. Decisions are made by a set of actors behind closed doors, without any pretence of broadening the boundaries for inclusion. Closed spaces are where elites such as politicians, bureaucrats, experts, bosses, managers and leaders make decisions with little broad consultation or involvement.
“Closed spaces often involve issues like trade, macro economic and finance policies, military policies, etc. which have a great deal of impact on peoples‘ lives but which are considered off-limits for public participation. In some societies and countries, especially those with long histories of authoritarian rule, closed spaces can be quite dominant, yet they also exist in strongly in so-called democracies as well. Closed spaces also exist – and often predominate – in workplaces, organizations and social movements, as well in as political institutions.”
“In many societies and governments, demands for participation have created new opportunities for involvement and consultation, usually through ̳invitation‘ from various authorities, be they government, supranational agencies or non-governmental organizations. Invited spaces may be regularized, that is they are institutionalized and ongoing, such as we find in various legally constituted participatory fora, or more transient, through one-off consultations. Increasingly with the growth of new forms of ̳participatory governance‘, these spaces are seen at every level, from local, to national policy and even to global forums, and often within organizations and workplaces as well.”
“While much emphasis on citizen action and participation is on how to open up closed spaces, or to participate effectively with authorities in invited spaces, there are almost always examples in any society of spaces for participation which relatively powerless or excluded groups create for themselves.
“These (claimed) spaces range from ones created by social movements and community associations, to those simply involving natural places where people gather to debate, discuss and resist, outside of the institutionalised policy arenas.
“… these spaces … ‘organic‘ spaces … emerge ̳out of sets of common concerns or identifications‘ and ̳may come into being as a result of popular mobilisation, such as around identity or issue-based concerns, or may consist of spaces in which like-minded people join together in common pursuits…”
This last concept, claimed spaces in which like-minded people join together in common pursuits, would come very close to capture where ChildFund Australia was headed.
“Levels” of Power
Global: “Globalisation and new forms of global governance have created a wide array of formal and informal, state and non-state spaces for participation and influence at levels beyond the nation-state. At the international level, this includes formal institutions such as those associated with the UN, the World Bank or the IMF, meetings associated with global agreements and treaties, such as those on climate, and a host of consultative spaces for participation…
National: “… many argue that national government is still the critical entry point for change. It is national governments that often officially represent citizens in global governmentalarenas, or who can decide whether or not to implement international treaties. While many activists and campaigners have focused in recent years on global forms of citizen action,increasingly various actors are recognising the importance of national level change as well,including focus on parliaments, executive bodies, national political parties, courts, and the like.
Local: “In the last two decades, programmes of decentralisation have also made the local level very important, both through local government programmes, as well as a host of other structures for participation in development projects, service delivery, or NGOs. Strategies for participation in local governance have been very important for planning, allocating and monitoring budgets, and holding local institutions to account.”
For ChildFund Australia, quite embedded at local level, the notions of enhancing “participation in local governance” and for “holding local institutions to account” were to become central to our work to build the collective action of people living in poverty.
Later, as we worked through what this would mean in ChildFund Australia, I convened a “Community of Practice” so that staff from all of our program countries could, together, begin to formalize an “approach” to Power, and begin to share experiences so that our work in this domain would be demystified. See below.
But first, we needed to put some of these ideas into practice, to get our boots muddy in the reality of this kind of social change. Things came together pretty quickly, with a fortuitous visit I made to Guatemala.
I went on a field monitoring trip to Guatemala in mid-2010, and spent some time with Ricardo Gómez, an old friend who was Plan’s Country Director there. He had really revolutionized Plan’s approach in Guatemala, moving decisively from what was a quite archaic, needs-based approach with lots of charity, to a rights-based program approach. The results had been independently evaluated in glowing terms – much more positive impact on children, greatly-improved staff morale, better relations with local government and partners, etc.
Essentially, Ricardo was taking a “constitutional” approach, diving deeply into the commitments made in Guatemala’s founding documents and international human-rights commitments, helping excluded populations take collective action to claim their rights, and working with duty-bearers to help realize child rights in some of the country’s most marginalized populations.
As a result of our discussions, and my own reflections visiting ChildFund’s projects in Guatemala with another old friend, Jason Schwartzman, I was able to conceptualize a framework for our collective action work in a sketch that I created one evening in my hotel room:
I forwarded an elaboration of this sketch to my colleagues in Sydney, Richard Geeves and Caroline Pinney, because they were involved with our program in Cambodia, where I was beginning to sense an opportunity:
This proposed framework, which I was considering for discussion in ChildFund’s work in Cambodia (because of what I had sensed as opportunities there during initial field visits), was consistent with what Ricardo had been doing in Plan Guatemala, which I interpreted in this way:
- The role of duty-bearers, mostly district-level government service providers, was to fulfill the human-rights obligations that their national governments had assumed by acceding to international covenants;
- Rights-holders, on the other hand, needed to hold duty-bearers accountable through democratic or collective-action processes;
- Other actors, such as international NGOs like Plan and ChildFund, needed to get off the playing field (and into supporting roles), because having three teams on the field was confusing to everybody!
So the diagram that I sent to Richard and Caroline showed ChildFund focused on:
- Helping citizens influence the planning and delivery of services related to their children (health, education, etc.) that are included in human-rights commitments assumed by their government;
- Helping citizens monitor these services;
- Building the capacity of local duty-bearers to deliver these services.
The first two of these focuses represented what I was beginning to label “Power,” if the processes took place through collective action. Other than those three areas, at least in this framework, ChildFund had no business implementing projects, or even funding other NGOs to implement projects. Our role was to support duty-bearers and rights-holders.
(By the way, many readers of this blog will know that there are many ways of defining a “rights-based” approach to development work. For me, a “rights-based” approach is a program method consistent with the three focuses described here.)
If we moved in this direction, even as a pilot, it would be a very big deal.
Much later, I found an article in “Development in Practice” that echoed Ricardo’s thinking: “A Positive Notion of Power for Citizen Voice and State Accountability,” by Keren Winterford (1). It is very consistent with ChildFund Australia’s thinking about power, and with what we ended up pilot testing in Cambodia.
Here are a few quotes from that article:
“Lack of state accountability is viewed as a cause of poverty. Linked to this is lack of citizen participation to influence state accountability and service delivery. The idea of increasing citizen power by ‘‘putting people at the center of service provision’,’ in order to increase state accountability and improve basic services and reduce poverty, has become a dominant theme within contemporary development discourse…
From the late 1990s onwards, development discourse shifted from a focus on how participation could influence the delivery of development interventions, confined
by boundaries of a project, to how participation could influence the state and the functioning of government within the public sphere. Within this discourse, the notion of participation was repositioned as citizenship, with an emphasis on citizen engagement and citizen influence on the state… The notion of power is central to notions of citizen–state relations and the view that poverty is a result of lack of state accountability and poor citizen participation…
A “… positive notion of power affirms the power of the state in creating change. This is in contrast to viewing state power as domination which needs to be dismantled … As described above, Green (2) notes the need of ‘‘harnessing the state’s ‘power over’ not doing away with it’’. Chambers (3) also suggests mutual benefit can be gained by using the power of the state to support citizen action, and collective action for development outcomes. He writes, ‘‘there is extensive unrealised potential for win-win solutions through uppers using their power over to empower’’. A positive notion of power seeks to affirm and utilise state power in creating change.”
“… a positive notion of power is also operationalised and enacted through emphasising and enabling relational dialogue between citizens and the state…”
“… it is important to recognise that this may not be applicable in all situations relevant to citizen–state relations. A positive perspective on power may be compromised especially where the state discounts citizen voices and denies opportunity for dialogue as a means of creating change. A social contract is necessary whereby an agreement exists between citizens and the state and the state takes on roles and responsibilities for its citizens, and by virtue of their citizenship, citizens have rights and entitlements. The social contract enables state power to be vested in citizens.”
(1) Winterford, Keren 2016. “A Positive Notion of Power for Citizen Voice and State Accountability,” Development in Practice 26 (6): 696-705;
(2) Green, D. 2008. “From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World.” Oxford: Oxfam International;
(3) Chambers, R. 2006. “Transforming Power: From Zero-Sum to Win-Win?” IDS Bulleting 37 (6): 99-110.
From Guatemala, I contacted Carol Mortensen, our Country Director in Cambodia. Even though Cambodia did not have the most-advanced human-rights record, to be sure, from my early visits there I had sensed an opportunity in Svay Rieng province, where ChildFund’s first program areas were located. It seemed as if the “social contract” mentioned by Keren Winterford, above, might exist there, despite the broader context of oppression existing in Cambodia at the time.
Carol had been very careful to work closely with local authorities in Svay Rieng province, and I knew that ChildFund had particularly good relations with a district governor in Svay Chrum district (Mr Uy Than).
Here I need to describe a little bit of “Decentralization and Deconcentration” – “D & D” in Cambodia. Beginning in the late 1990’s, “encouraged” by donor governments, the Cambodian government had gradually been delegating some functions and financial resources to districts and communes. Along the way, commune council members began to be elected rather than appointed, with (during the time described here) district council members selected by the elected commune counselors instead of being directly elected.
Our opportunity seemed to rest on two auspicious conditions in Cambodia: firstly, Cambodian law required a huge majority of people in the district to be consulted during budget planning – something like 85%! This seemed like a very valuable opportunity to adapt the framework I had adapted from Ricardo’s work in Guatemala to a real situation, where we could help people, collectively, influence government service delivery. And, secondly, I was assured that Mr Uy Than seemed to really want to create his district plan according to the rules, including consultation…
So I worked with Carol and her program staff in Cambodia to design a first step: the concept that we agreed in mid-June 2010 is included here, below:
In another document I prepared around the same time, I began to envision how this approach, if successful, might evolve:
“… in a second phase of this effort, ChildFund in Cambodia will consider interventions to help citizens influence service provision, and support District government in responding to this influence in a way which advances the human rights of marginalized populations, particularly of children and youth. The organization envisions a flexible, iterative approach – learning and consulting with local partners along the way, including feedback to national level regarding this experience of ‘rights holders and duty bearers working together’.”
The project that emerged after a period of design and consultation ended up being called “Community Voices.”
Throughout this process, as we designed and implemented the “Community Voices” project, reflected on its achievements, and expanded our work in the “power” domain, one small obstacle appeared occasionally, along the way: in some ways:
- my direct involvement in this project was inconsistent with ChildFund’s organizational design.
In other words, in principle, our Country Director, Carol Mortensen, was meant to lead and manage all operations in Cambodia, reporting to me. And, in turn, Carol had hired provincial staff in Svay Rieng (and Kratie) who had certain levels of autonomy and authority. Having me so directly involved in a particular project was very unusual, to say the least! And made things sometimes a bit confusing…
But there was no way around it. Staff in ChildFund Cambodia, including Carol, were not at all used to working to promote collective action, and were in fact very wary of the entire notion because of the atmosphere in the country. The space for activism around human rights in Cambodia then, and at least as much now, was very constrained, and the centerpiece of Carol’s approach was to work through local government. This had worked well, and certainly made life easier for ChildFund; even though we were careful to work within the framework of Cambodia’s “decentralization and deconcentration” effort, and to coordinate carefully with Mr Uy Than, in some ways we were risking the stability of ChildFund’s work in our “Community Voices” work.
Despite this pressure, and despite the unusual role I was playing in this particular project, I never felt serious resistance from Carol. A few times she seemed to be a bit uncomfortable, but we talked things through and we were always able to adjust aspects of project implementation that were making her nervous. Probably our local staff in Svay Rieng were even more nervous at times, but somehow they were able to carve out a safe space for the project, and for themselves. I paid careful attention to this, checking in with staff (through Carol and other Phnom Penh-based senior managers) along the way.
What was the “Community Voices” project? There were two main components, and a third area that depended on how the initial work went:
- We carried out thorough research to understand Cambodian law with respect to district planning, in the context of the overall “decentralization and deconcentration” process and, at Mr Uy Than’s invitation, we trained district government staff especially in areas related to community participation in district budgeting. The consultant we hired to carry out this research, and to provide training in Svay Chrum district, had been a senior member of the Ministry team that was designing and overseeing the implementation of the process of “decentralization and deconcentration” – his report is attached here: End-of-Consultancy Report (ChildFund);
- We helped mobilize youth, mothers, and other community members to gather information and provide input from their perspective to the district budgeting process. I was able to observe some of the information-gathering events, led by youth and young mothers, and was very impressed. Sadly, I can’t seem to locate photos of these events that I took at the time, in particular from consultations that took place at a local pagoda…
Once the consultations were completed, we supported Mr Uy Than and his district staff as they prepared their district investment plan, and we were delighted to be able to see the influence of local people, and children, in the budget.
We were also delighted when we were informed that the Svay Chrum district investment plan was approved by the national government, the first (and only, at that date) such plan (of over 150 districts in Cambodia) that fully complied with the commitment made to involve local people in its preparation. A big success.
The third component of the “Community Voices” project was a tentative commitment to fund the district government to implement child-related projects that were included in the district investment plan due to input from the community consultations that ChildFund had supported. We hoped to revisit this idea once we saw how the creation of the district investment plan went, ideally with very strong input from children, youth, mothers, fathers in poor communities where ChildFund worked.
Once we had gone through this process, with what seemed like great success, I wanted to make sure we documented what we had learned, and to begin to spread the word to our other program countries. So we convened a week-long reflection workshop in Svay Rieng, with the participation of local district government, including (the recently-retired governor) Mr Uy Than (and his new successor); youth and families from a range of communities in Svay Chrum district; and ChildFund staff from Cambodia, but also from neighboring Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam, as well as Sydney. Uniquely, there was enough interest in the project across the ChildFund Alliance that we also were fortunate to have the participation of Martin Ostergaard from ChildFund Denmark.
And I was also fortunate that my old friend Ricardo Gómez, who had by that time left Plan International in Guatemala and returned to join his family firm in Colombia, as an external participant and facilitator. This was very helpful, in part because of the lessons that Ricardo could share with us from his experience in Guatemala, but also because my own conceptualization of what became “Community Voices” emerged in part from discussions with him (as described above.)
Here are a few images from that workshop:
A workshop report was produced, but (sadly) the report ended up being very focused on the role of the district government, shying away from any significant discussion of how the community had been mobilized. In a positive sense, this was a reflection of the approach that ChildFund Cambodia had taken to ensure their ability to work smoothly in a challenging context: we needed to be very cautious about any sense that we were working in the “human rights” field. And the document did help us summarize lessons that we were able to take forward. But it did mean that the lessons learned related to collective action were not included.
A more balanced and complete representation of our work was included in Ricardo’s consultancy report, included here: ChildFund RR Workshop Final Document 120521. After nearly a week of reflections, we agreed seven action steps, indicated here in bold with comments from me (in normal type) and from Ricardo (in italics):
- Expand ChildFund community (staff) knowledge, awareness and commitment. We had agreed that the “Community Voices” project had great potential, but we recognized that working in this way required very different skills from our staff. So this was a positive commitment to build the skills and then to extend the pilot project. Place special emphasis developing and promoting ChildFund Cambodia staff and team work. Develop ChildFund team’s social capital that will support this community to evolve as a model community, one that communities in the field will be stimulated to emulate, to learn from. Provide the support for this community to be able to reach high levels of staff motivation and morale;
- Expand Village Development Committee skills and expertise. Of course, as we built the skills of our staff, it was just as important that local communities learned how to influence district planning. Promote active citizenship in a relation that will support local governments to gradually explore program phases of: participative local public policies, participate budget planning, monitoring and evaluation;
- Deepen district planning approach to commune level. Our focus had been at district level, from which most government services-delivery was managed. But some government services were also provided at the local level below the district (the commune). And in 2010, when we were implementing the Community Voices project, commune council members were being elected democratically, while district councils were selected from commune representatives (so, not elected directly). So the commune level was also important. Consider reaching an agreement with provincial authorities to support improving local government’s capacity and services. A first step could be agreeing on a set of indicators on good governance and establish a plan of action to expand and improve services, initially on those within the domain of the local government and later on services provided by the national government;
- Consult with provincial Decentralisation and De-concentration (D&D) persons to clearly understand sub-national management: including development planning, monitoring and evaluation, financial responsibilities. Expand Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness to be applied at local levels;
- Identify a project out of the District Development Plan and provide funding directly to the government level to implement. It would be appropriate to involve communities in this process and start rolling-out the scheme “right holder + duty bearers = exercise of rights.” It would good to identify a successful existing government program that could be expanded and improved in the Svay Rieng Province -‐ensure continuity and sustainability;
- Support the relevant Ministry of Interior D&D working group. Good strategic move;
- Continue to support the Royal Government of Cambodia at national level. Consider linking this work with the work being implemented at community and district levels, sharing relevant issues from local levels with national levels. Consider implementing a system of downwards accountability from Country Office to communities, further supporting communities’ empowerment.
The fifth recommendation was controversial inside ChildFund Cambodia. Although (as mentioned above) we had always envisioned the possibility of funding government work in an area identified in the district investment plan, especially if some new ideas came from consultations with local people, for many staff, it felt quite risky to even consider providing funding directly to local government. For me, however, while recognizing the risks, if we didn’t at least test this step, the whole point of supporting duty-bearers and rights-holders to work together to realize human (and child) rights would be incomplete.
As ChildFund Cambodia moved into a second phase, I turned my attention to expanding our work to more places where we worked, in other countries. The most important venue for this effort was the formation of a “Community of Practice,” meeting periodically to formulate program recommendations and review implementation of our commitments to build power and collective action of people, and of children. I chaired this Community of Practice (“COP”).
We were very lucky that Valerie Miller, my old friend from UUSC Just Democracy days, was willing to participate actively in the Power COP. She had visited ChildFund Australia earlier, at my invitation, to carry out workshops with our teams and with the broader INGO community in Australia, including AusAID, where I discovered that a number of government staff had used a book Valerie had written in their university studies! I think this visit and the workshops were very helpful in building enthusiasm for work promoting collective action, while also raising our profile in Australia.
One of the first tasks undertaken by the Power COP was to develop a short, succinct “Approach” to Power, which sought to clarify what we meant by the concept and how it fit into our program work. I’m attaching here a final (but still incomplete) draft of the document: ChildFund Australia_s Approach To Power – 5. The key message in that document is:
Our overarching Program Approach commits ChildFund Australia to build the power of people and children living in poverty. To accomplish this, ChildFund and our partners will work at community level, and with local government duty bearers. We will link these efforts with our campaigning work at national and international levels.
At community level, ChildFund and our partners will help build the awareness, skills and organising abilities necessary for children, youth, families, and local organisations to engage with duty bearers, so that they can – together – constructively influence local government policies and practices in favour of children and youth. We will work to ensure that those normally excluded from engagement are included.
Often we will seek to build awareness, skills and organising abilities through participation in projects focused on other development outcomes. For example, when implementing a water project, activities such as conducting and analysing the situation in the community (including a power analysis) in preparation for project design, can build awareness and analytical skills in youth in the community; this can lead to ChildFund or our partners helping community members to influence local government provision of water services, either collectively or via a local organisation, thus learning and practicing organising and influencing skills in a practical way. At other times ChildFund or our partners will build awareness, skills, and organising abilities as stand-alone, focused interventions with, for example, youth clubs.
ChildFund or our partners will help build the awareness and skills of local government to understand and implement their own planning processes, particularly related to consultation with local citizens – especially those members of the community often excluded from engagement, such as girls and women, ethnic minorities, the poorest, people with disability, people living with HIV, sex workers, etc. Our aim in doing this is to support inclusive service delivery that realises the rights of all children.
For example, when local government is preparing budget for a future financial period, ChildFund or our partners will help government staff include the voices of excluded children, youth, and their families. We will consider supporting government implementation of those priorities that emerge from consultative processes, particularly as related to issues put forward by children, youth, and their families. This will lead to better and more inclusive service delivery in areas related to the rights of children.
Over time, ChildFund’s work in communities, with partners, and with local government enable us to prepare and implement integrated campaigns. These campaigns will raise the voices of local people related to a particular child right or set of rights, and will include programming, advocacy, and activism in countries where we work, including Australia, and internationally, perhaps together with other like-minded groups such as the ChildFund Alliance.
For me, this is a very clear and inspiring statement.
By the time I left ChildFund Australia, it seemed that work in this very new domain of our program approach was underway in Cambodia and Viet Nam, and we were nearing clarity regarding what it might mean in Laos and Papua New Guinea. Four very different contexts, but we were getting there!
Introducing elements of collective action for human rights in ChildFund Australia was a big challenge. The organization was quite project-focused, and project work was going very well – so why change?! Especially since working to build collective action could be interpreted as political in nature, something that would not be practical in places like Cambodia, Laos, and Cambodia in particular. On top of all that, Australians are very pragmatic, common-sense people, averse to fancy language and concepts. All in all, a difficult context for this particular innovation.
On the other hand, we had made the commitment in our Theory of Change, and I’m very happy with how our teams in Sydney and (especially) Cambodia put their heads down and tried it.
Thinking about this shift in terms of organizational change, the approach we took was smart, and successful:
- We built the commitment to collective action into our fundamental organizational theory of change, so the mandate was clear;
- We found resources internally (me!) and externally (Ricardo and Valerie) that could help us build our own capabilities;
- We identified a place to learn and test where favorable conditions existed. Failure in that early experience would have emboldened voices within ChildFund Australia that were cautious about collective action, so we wanted to succeed while also learning and then taking on the challenge in more difficult places;
- We created a safe space for learning, a “Community of Practice,” in which ideas and experiences could be shared, debated, and trialed.
On the other hand: my own direct involvement in particular projects was unusual, which meant that I had to be a bit cautious about how hands-on I became.
By the time I left Australia, projects including significant elements of collective action for child rights were underway in Viet Nam, and planning was taking place in Papua New Guinea and Laos.
Overall, I’m very proud with what we achieved, and am grateful to our teams in Svay Rieng and our Cambodia Country Office in Phnom Penh, and to Ricardo Gómez and Valerie Miller for the excellent external support and accompaniment.
Next time, I will introduce the ChildFund Australia teams in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam. Stay tuned to meet some great people!
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
- Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
- Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
- Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
- Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
- North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
- South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
- Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed. What Next?;
- Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
- Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
- Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
- Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
- Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
- Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…