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Note : Governance programming, for me, includes any or all of

  • Promoting Active citizenship (Conscientization as Paulo Freire put it) – not just villagers but also village leaders banding together to strengthen themselves in their tussle with the bureaucracy.
  • Developing fora for interaction of citizens and the State
  • Identifying policy gaps and advocating re-framing existing or adoption of new policies.
  • Monitoring policy implementation.
  • Sensitizing the ‘supply side’ – bureaucracy and political leaders.

I spent three wonderful days in Tanzania talking to a bunch of people who are involved with the Chukua Hatua (“take action” in Kiswahili) programme. In the room were NGO workers, journalists, researchers, village councillors and village animators.  The discussions were truly wide ranging – we actually discussed what ‘democracy’ meant in the context of Tanzania. Lots of different opinions and each one as vehemently defended as the other.

The most satisfying part of the discussion was that NO ONE referred to the Chukua Hatua programme as a Oxfam programme. Another interesting point was that we started discussing a ‘programme’ and ended up stating our ambition to see this as a movement across Tanzania. All in all exciting days are ahead.

But this blog is NOT about Chukua Hatua. It is about one of the issues that we discussed – RISK.

All those who are familiar with movements for democracy / good governance know that there is always an element of risk involved for the actors. In fact in any process that involves challenging existing power structures leaves the challenger open to risk. It is more or less the case round the world as the stories of Aung Sang Suu Kyi in Myanmaar and Ai Weiwei in China show. No one expects that Chukua Hatua will be risk free. Of course, the degree of risk differs from place to place. In States which are governed by law, the risk is minimal. In Authoritarian states or Banana Republics risks could be very high.

As the Tanzanian discussions showed, every stakeholder had a different perception of risk. Moreover they had different appetites for risk. Not unsurprisingly, the more formal entities had more pronounced risk aversion.

NGOs who could, theoretically, get de-registered for any real or imagined offence to the State thereby effectively stymieing all their work were the least keen to take risks.

The village animators who, imo, were actually the most vulnerable in terms of pressure that could be brought to bear on them, showed the most courage.  This courage did not come out of a sense of haplessness that drives people to extreme actions. Who can forget Mohamed Bouazizi who was driven to such extremes that he immolated himself rather than live a pitiable life; thereby providing an impetus for what eventually became the Arab Spring). It came of a desire to do better in life and a belief that it was possible.

Naturally, we also looked at risk mitigating strategies.

A key strategy that emerged was one of collective  action; the animator would not be the ‘face’ of the demand for better governance (s)he would only be the catalyst bringing the community together. There is safety in numbers. As one animator put it, “you can put one man in jail can anyone really put the whole village in jail?”

Linkages with media also emerged as a strategy. Getting media persons involved so that they could immediately put out stories and information in the public space becomes key.

I believe that governance programming has the highest returns to offer as compared to any other work that NGOs could do. As Jared Diamond argues in Guns Germs and Steel, it was establishment of democracy that gave the impetus to the industrial revolution and Britain becoming a world power and not the other way round.

Governance programming is like hunting for honey. If you really want to get honey, you need to get close to the hive and risk being stung. You can mitigate risks of being stung by using protective clothing or smoking the bees out; you cannot eliminate it. If you want to completely eliminate the risk of being stung, you need to stay at a distance and all you can try and do is stir the hive with a long stick. You will probably not get to the honey (in any meaningful way) but the bees are surely going to get mad.

Every person and institution involved has to decide what they do and how far they go.