Encouraging dialogue and dissent

Blog by
15 March 2016

A new IIED partnership is looking to foster "citizens agency" – but are we ready to listen to citizens who challenge what we say? 

Crowdsourcing evidence – such as from these food vendors in Fort Portal, Uganda – is vital to foster citizens agency. But you must engage and listen (Photo: Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures)

IIED is embarking on an exciting strategic partnership with HIVOS and ARTICLE 19 – The Citizen Agency Consortium, which aims to strengthen civil society in low- and middle-income countries.  

Supported and partnered by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this is part of their new Dialogue and Dissent programme.

Backed by the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen, the programme is based on her belief that "strong civil society organisations make it easier to hear citizens' voices" and can play a more effective role in providing "countervailing forces" and "constructive criticism".

I like the title's focus on dialogue and dissent. Dissent implies a confidence, a collective responsibility, an energy that can make change happen and we need that. We need to do things differently and we need to do things together.  

With the complex challenges we face going forward – climate change, fragile states, migrations – adaptation and innovation from the bottom up will be an essential part of the picture. We know we cannot deliver simple top-down development solutions.

IIED has citizen agency in its DNA – from our early adoption and promotion of participation research methods through our focus on working with local communities, federations of slum dwellers and more. We want to support citizen agency through increasing individuals/communities' own capacity to generate evidence, strengthening agency for dialogue… and for dissent.

What does citizen agency mean?

Citizen agency sounds great but what does it actually mean? Isn't it the same as empowerment? Too much development jargon perhaps, but agency places a greater emphasis on self-determination and autonomy (PDF)

Agency is about "not playing someone else's tune, but writing your own music", about having a choice and exercising the right to follow that choice. 

Who would disagree with this? But it means a different approach. Development practitioners are in the business of providing support – tools, methodologies, information, evidence, money and all too often direction. Dangerously we can think ourselves into the business of knowing what is best.

Citizen agency is not about that. We may not like the results – citizens as agents of change may not fight for the change that we think we want to see.

Listen and learn

Dissent is hard to manage, particularly for governments and institutions that have long been in the business of controlling public space.

Indeed our understanding of the loops that learning cycles take tell us that the third loop of learning – where institutions change – is the most challenging, where change is slow to catalyse.

I am particularly interested in this from a communications perspective. Building agency – people exercising their own decision making and choices – means really engaging and listening. It should make us shift our thinking and change our plans. This leads me to a couple of reflections.

Firstly, I think we should be doing much more to capture what we are hearing and share that with colleagues. These internal conversations are important. Between us we have huge experience and knowledge, and a collective responsibility to drive change and to prioritise action (not just talk) in our organisations.

Secondly, we need to engage in the conversation going on around us. It's a conversation that we didn't start, cannot lead and one that we won't finish.

This is a different form of engagement. It means we need to be doing more and more horizon scanning, tuning in, responding, connecting. It doesn't mean we give up on what we are good at, but it will mean we need to be more active in this external environment.

Agency and gender

It is also important to reflect on what agency really means from a gendered perspective – agency means different things for different people. As a woman I might want to exercise my agency from a very female perspective but I may be operating in a male-dominated world. "Agency" here might still mean making tactical choices depending on the environment.

From a communications perspective we should be listening and engaging with different genders in different ways. Good marketers know that you need to speak a different language when you are targeting different groups. But I have not seen evidence yet that shows we really communicate or engage in ways that recognise the potential for agency, particularly among young people and women.  

We really need to know the drivers, triggers, realities for those we are sharing this journey with.

So what would communications for agency look like? I think it is about helping to build a sense of common cause that individuals can contribute to, where every contribution is valued and recognised.

It is about hearing how people want things to change. It is about working together, about crowd sourcing, about collective action, tangential ideas, encouraging creativity.

And it involves being as transparent as possible – opening out opportunities for others to find and use information in their own ways, sharing opportunities, signposting sources, debunking myths, going the extra mile to tell the right stories, and amplifying the failures and successes as we go.

Making things worse

At a recent lecture organised by the Overseas Development Institute, Hans Rosling warned we were in danger of making things worse through misinformation because we do not take time to examine the detail. He implied that we did not understand the detail of ordinary lives. An uncomfortable truth…

The work we are doing on food highlights that the devil (or saviour) is in the detail, and that if we are really interested in citizen agency we need to take time to understand that and to work together to learn from what people say and meet them where they are, rather than where we want them to be.

This is why our Citizen Agency Consortium is so important – it is about enabling citizens' voices and listening to what they say. The challenge may be in dealing with unexpected results, unpredictable actions and uncontrollable opportunities.

I hope that as a result we can shape a different way of engaging in our own organisations to deliver change.

Liz Carlile (liz.carlile@iied.org) is the director of IIED's Communications Group.

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