VEA emerged as a priority in the international development agenda in the 1990s. Over the past five years in particular, cross-country mixed-methods research has called for aid actors to think politically, understand the role of informal institutions, and act strategically to support more inclusive VEA. Aid interventions have been criticised for previously overlooking deep-rooted inequalities and structural constraints to empowerment (Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, 2011). Others contend aid is rooted in a clear distinction between state and society (or public and private spheres), with limited appreciation that accountability and empowerment emerge from informal processes that straddle these spheres (Unsworth, 2010).
Prominent experts are now calling for aid to move beyond the use of short-term tools and tactics towards more strategic, multi-pronged interventions that simultaneously tackle blockages to VEA within both state and society (Fox, 2014). A ‘supply-demand’ dichotomy is increasingly viewed as unhelpful (Fox, 2014). Bridging supply and demand is particularly pertinent in fragile and conflict-affected states, where positive citizen-state relations are widely considered key to rebuilding the social contract. Nevertheless, in such contexts VEA is often constrained by low levels of trust between state and society and within societies, by exclusive political settlements and informal patronage systems that disempower ordinary citizens, and by the lack of a functioning public sphere through which citizens can articulate their demands (von Kaltenborn-Stachau, 2008).
Pathways of Women’s Empowerment (2011). Empowerment: A Journey not a Destination. Brighton: IDS, Pathways of Women’s Empowerment RPC.
Why are conventional interventions that seek to promote women’s empowerment insufficient? This report synthesises 12 key messages that emerge from the work of the cross-country research programme on women’s empowerment. It stresses that women in different countries and of different backgrounds define and experience empowerment in diverse ways. What is empowering to one woman is not necessarily empowering to another. Understanding empowerment therefore needs to begin from women’s own experiences, rather than from a focus on a predictable set of outcomes. Policy-makers and aid practitioners should not make assumptions about what empowerment means to women or how it can be achieved. Efforts to promote women’s empowerment need to do more than give individual women economic or political opportunities. They need to tackle deeper-rooted structural constraints that perpetuate inequalities.
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Unsworth, S. (2010). An Upside Down View of Governance. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.
How can effective, accountable public authority be increased? This paper synthesises research findings from the Centre for the Future State. It explores how public authority is created through processes of bargaining between state and society actors, and the interaction of formal and informal institutions. Findings highlight the need for a fundamental reassessment of existing assumptions about governance and development. Informal institutions and personalised relationships are pervasive and powerful, but they can contribute to progressive as well as to regressive outcomes. Rather than focusing on rules-based reform, policymakers should consider using indirect strategies to influence local actors.
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Fox, J. (2014). Social Accountability. What Does the Evidence really Say? Global Partnership for Social Accountability.
This presentation revisits widely cited literature on the effectiveness of social accountability. It identifies a first group of approaches that are ‘tactical’: bounded interventions or tools limited to society-side efforts. Evidence about their success is decidedly mixed. These demand-side interventions may be based on unrealistic assumptions, such as hoping that information provision alone will inspire collective action. A second group of approaches is ‘strategic’. Evidence on these is substantial and positive. Strategic approaches deploy multiple tactics or mutually reinforcing tools. They encourage enabling environments for collective action. They also coordinate initiatives for citizen voice with governmental reforms that bolster public sector responsiveness. The author concludes that reforms that associate voice with responsive capacity (‘teeth’) trigger a virtuous circle and are more promising.
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von Kaltenborn-Stachau, H. (2008). The Missing Link: Fostering Positive Citizen-State Relations in Post-Conflict Environments. Washington, DC: CommGAP, World Bank.
This paper draws on examples from Timor-Leste, Liberia and Burundi to illustrate that aid in post-conflict environments often overlook the significance of opportunities for civil society, the media and the state to connect and engage constructively in the public sphere. Conflict often results in high public expectations, lack of public trust, societal fragmentation and exclusion. Post-conflict public spheres are typically characterised by the prevalence of fear, rumours and uncertainty, caused by disempowerment and loss of livelihoods. Nevertheless, participatory processes, accountable and transparent institutions and constructive citizen-state relations require a national dialogue platform that only a functioning public sphere provides.
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