Tackling poor governance — where to begin?

Posted by Jo Rowlands Senior Global Programme Adviser, Governance and Institutional Accountability

10th Dec 2012

Voluntary members of the Oxfam water and sanitation committee in Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan. Credit: John Ferguson/Oxfam

People's ability to claim their rights is hampered by poorly governed or weak institutions. On the UN's Human Rights Day, we're launching a new tool to help practitioners to plan programmes that put governance considerations at their core. Jo Rowlands, Oxfam's Senior Global Programme Adviser on Governance and Institutional Accountability explains more.

"No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press."
Amartya Sen

These days, the view that poor governance underpins poverty and inequality is hardly new. But that doesn't stop it being an intractable and challenging issue to address.

When you only have limited resources, how do you make a positive contribution to the lives of women and men living in poverty? How do you make their voices heard and have their interests recognized and responded to when decisions are being made about priorities and resource allocation? When pushed for time, how can you think  through the complex and constantly changing dynamics of power that shape what happens? How can you avoid basing your thinking on how you believe things 'ought' to be, rather than on how things actually are? And how can you move from high-level theoretical possibilities to real action with real people on the ground?

Now, Oxfam has produced a framework and a learning companion that might just make all this a bit easier.

The Right to be Heard Framework: A learning companion

The Right to be Heard Framework: Learning Companion is intended to support Oxfam staff and partners in choosing where and how to build programmes that directly or indirectly address issues of governance. It unpacks the elements of governance and provides a way of thinking through how they inter-relate and where the most fruitful 'entry points' may lie. It explores the values and principles behind Oxfam's approach to governance, and is situated in a theory of change and a range of approaches. Since each context is different, the learning companion doesn't provide a blue-print or strategy, and deliberately avoids the either/or thinking of 'supply and demand-side governance' that has impeded progress on governance in recent years by oversimplifying the blurred roles that often exist, particularly at local level.

So far, so good for thinking things through and setting out programme intentions. But then we meet the next challenge: how to actually do it in practice? Even the best thought out programme plan requires a constant stream of judgements and choices in order to be implemented. And in cases where a more evolutionary approach can be taken to a programme, there are even more critical moments of choice. To compound the problem, the people who design the plan are rarely the same ones who deliver it .

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we set out to pull together in one place a wide range of already existing tools to support programme and project delivery on the ground. Some of these are tools that are familiar and well used; others are more specialist. Some are Oxfam's own material; others are from a wide range of other organisational sources. We have clustered them around the framework, relating the tools to the different aspects, and also to different stages of the programme and project cycle. The framework itself is written in plain, non-specialist language.

The feedback so far from Oxfam staff who have started using the framework is that they feel more confident, that 'governance' has become less of a daunting topic to engage with, and that they understand better what kinds of contributions Oxfam can make to supporting local people to make the changes they need. We're hopeful that it will also support more fruitful collaboration and exchange with others working on the same issues. 

Do you think this framework works? Add your comments below or email us at policyandpractice@oxfam.org.uk

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Blog post written by Jo Rowlands

Senior Global Programme Adviser, Governance and Institutional Accountability

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