Learning to make the political personal, and other lessons from Manila

Blog |July 6, 2017 |Michael Moses and Sue Soal

It was well into our second hour in traffic in Manila that conversation turned to President Duterte. “He’s amazing, the best,” said Caldwell - our new, somewhat fast friend (and companion on the way from the airport). Outside our dust smeared window, cars and jeepneys and motorbikes inched along in an interminable cacophony of blaring horns and shifting gears. The city shimmered in the heat.

But what, we asked, about the reports of extrajudicial killings being carried out as part of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign? “Doesn’t matter,” Caldwell responded. “Duterte listens to us, he protects us.” We went back and forth for a while, but Caldwell was firm: the new(ish) president of the Philippines, despite his aversion to traditional democratic norms, was a force for good, who knew what regular people cared about. In Caldwell’s eyes, other politicians were only interested in enriching themselves. He didn’t feel like his voice counted for much with them. Duterte, flawed though he might be, was at least listening.


To many of us working in development, it’s been clear for quite some time that our standard way of doing things isn’t measuring up. Top-down approaches to reform, conceived in offices in DC and London, aren’t helping reformers working at country level address the complex, local problems — corruption, drug violence, basic service delivery — they face. Our conversation with Caldwell reconfirmed that if external agents want to support reform, including through the Open Government Partnership (OGP), we need to do a better job of listening, and engaging with local contexts.

But what does engaging locally look like in practice? How do we do it well, and help local actors more effectively tackle the problems they care about?  Fortunately for us, we were about to spend the next three days digging into just these questions.

We were in Manila as part of Global Integrity’s Learning to Make All Voices Count Project, in which we’re working with six grantees of Making All Voices Count, from five countries. We’re supporting their efforts to take a problem focused, data-driven, and adaptive, approach to leveraging the OGP. Working together, in and across countries, we’re generating data, learning and adapting as we go as we try to drive progress on open governance reforms that matter in our diverse contexts.

This workshop was the third in a series of four. At previous sessions in Nairobi and Johannesburg, we’ve focused on getting our learning community off the ground, figuring out how to engage more productively with the power dynamics of the systems in which we’re working — including through exploring engagement with OGP beyond the national level — and strengthening our adaptive learning process.

In our three days together in Manila, we picked up on these themes. Fighting jet lag with pots and pots of coffee, we reflected on our work to date. Snacking on Filipino cakes, we generated cross-project insights into what we’re learning and gave each other feedback on how we might adapt to strengthen our impact and effectiveness, as individual projects and as a learning community. For more on our discussions, check out this short film.

A few key lessons emerged from our discussions.

First, dealing with power means making the political personal. Partners are learning how to identify and win the support of potential allies in particular sectors, organisations and government departments. Doing this means paying attention to the interpersonal relationships between actors, and to the incentives key stakeholders face. It means accounting for those incentives, and working to build multistakeholder coalitions in which participants are leveraging their cooperation to rebalance power in local communities.

Multistakeholder approaches of this sort, of course, are not without risks. As their work brings them closer to power, partners find themselves confronting the risks of ‘cooption,’ including being neutralised as change agents. In Manila, comparing across the range of national contexts in which they’re working, partners were able to explore how to work relationally and inter-personally, while still protecting the change agenda they’re pursuing.

Second, and relatedly, making OGP action plans matter at community level requires politically informed, locally-driven strategising at the grassroots. To date, our partners have found that in most of the communities in which they work, OGP action plans — even sub-national action plans — have little purchase. Citizens rarely know what OGP is, much less leverage it to hold their local officials to account. Contrary to some of the assumptions made at the start of these projects, providing information about OGP, or about open government more generally, hasn’t been sufficient to mobilise change. In today’s populist climate, the value of democratic processes and institutions, even (or especially) in the eyes of citizens on the ground, isn’t self-evident.

This means that, if OGP is to become a more relevant, sustainable force for accountable, participatory governance, including at local level, it has to provide a platform for grassroots voices in such a way that they can inform the development and implementation of OGP commitments. In mapping out and trying to shape the dynamics of the local systems in which they work, our partners are learning how to do this more effectively.

Third, the ability to learn about how projects are playing out in practice, make decisions about how to strategically adapt, and justify those decisions, depends on the documentation and use of high quality data. Data is the fuel for reflection and learning, which in turn power the adaptations that our partners are carrying out in their projects. We need relevant, rigorously collected and well documented data in order to make sound judgments about when, whether, and how to modify our plans. And, moreover, we need to generate good data to make cross-project comparisons, and understand how external actors can more effectively help local stakeholders deliver on change that matters in today’s increasingly complex world.

This insight also, for us as a learning community, brings issues of politics, power, the interpersonal and participation directly into our own situation. All of us – Global Integrity, Making All Voices Count and grantee partners – agree that being connected to the actual realities of our contexts and the emerging outcomes of our efforts to change these, is a good thing. However, precisely what form that connection should take, how it should be expressed, and to whom – how to account for the work and results of these projects – is a matter of ongoing debate and negotiation.

We didn’t see Caldwell again after our ride through the streets of Manila. But we wonder what he would’ve made of our workshop. Could the participatory, action learning approach we’re taking in this project, and the lessons we’re learning, if applied to development work more broadly, help make his voice, and that of his friends and family, count for more in Philippine politics? Could it help him feel more represented, and more able to hold elected officials accountable?

We're not sure. But we are hopeful that as we continue to learn and adapt in the coming months, our work (at Global Integrity), and that of our partners, will continue strengthening local actors’ efforts to pursue the changes they think are important in their contexts.

At this point, all workshop participants have returned home, and are working hard to deliver in the last few months of their projects. Global Integrity will continue consulting with grantees, helping them collect data, reflect and adapt. At the same time, we’ll be working to synthesise the learning journeys of individual grantees. The whole community will get back together in September, for one final workshop. We’ll check in on where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, and what that might offer to the future - for grantees, for Global Integrity and Making All Voices Count, and for the development community more broadly.

In the meantime, for more on the project write large, and on our previous workshops, check out our posts from March 2017 and November 2016. And we'd love to hear from you! Contact us on Twitter @GlobalIntegrity and @AllVoicesCount, with comments, thoughts or questions.


About the author

Michael Moses is Director of Advocacy & Programs, Global Integrity and Sue Soal is an independent facilitation consultant.

About this blog

This blog was first posted on the Global Integrity website.

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