The previous two blogposts reviewed the new research report Translating Complex Realities Through Technology that I co-authored with colleagues at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) in Cape Town.
In this post, I interview one of my co-authors on the report, Dr. Joanna Wheeler. Wheeler, now based at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), has worked in participatory research for the past twenty years. Her work started in the favelas of Brazil, looking at the linkages between democracy, violence and social change. She notes in the interview, “Violence played a key role in how social change happened, or often didn’t happen.”
After many years working at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), she relocated to Cape Town. Working in Cape Town provided an opportunity for her to engage more deeply with communities and more in a sustained manner than flying in episodically from England.
In the interview we discuss her work with various forms of participatory storytelling and film which have become central to her research practice in recent years. In her 2014 TED talk, Wheeler reflected on the importance of digital storytelling for transforming the narratives about individuals living in marginalized contexts. In this interview she discusses her subsequent expansion of this work to include collective analysis processes of digital stories and group filmmaking.
Key points from the interview include:
Joanna also raised the possibility of returning to her American roots. “After 20 years of doing this work overseas, I am feeling compelled to bring it back to the US.” We at Empyrean Research would welcome this opportunity to continue our collaboration with Joanna here in our local context, in our communities in Tennessee and across the United States.
Henry, a Rastafarian bossie doctor from Cape Town, narrates his storyboard during a digital Storytelling for Transformation workshop connected to the Translating Complex Realities research.
In the previous post, I introduced the Translating Complex Realities report, based on a research collaboration between Empyrean Research and the Sustainable Livelihood Foundation (SLF) in Cape Town, South Africa. The focus of the study was to examine how the use of technology impacts citizen participation in research and political processes.
From the beginning of the project, I and my coauthors--Joanna Wheeler, Gill Black, Andrew Hartnack and Mariam Waltz—were particularly interested in how technology could enhance the voices of citizens to make them more readily heard by government. In other words, what could these new processes teach us about government accountability?
We examined a variety of research processes carried out by SLF over the past seven years. To inform this analysis we looked retrospectively at three streams of work which SLF had already completed. These included:
· Multiple, rounds of research on the ever-evolving informal economy within the Cape Flats townships surrounding Cape Town.
· A series of research activities and actions regarding participatory monitoring and accountability (PMA) which served to give voice to communities in feeding back to the South African government on its local service provision within the townships, in particular around public safety and community policing.
· Collaborative worked carried out with the CSO Sonke Gender Justice regarding the causes and responses to gender-based violence (GBV) within the townships.
To add further specificity and breadth to the study, we also carried out two new projects expressly for this research:
· One focused on natural resources conflict, building on earlier work and relationships SLF had established with Cape Town’s community of Rastafarian bossie doktors, whose practice of natural healing relied on plants harvested from protected government natural areas.
· The other project focused on government-organized community health councils which monitor the quality of health services provided in the townships by a variety of non-governmental organizations contracted by the government to provide front-line care to citizens in these areas.
All of the cases included in the analysis were within the South African context, within Cape Town and its townships.
The cross-cutting analysis of the five cases provides significant insights into accountability in South Africa, on the ways government engages with citizens at the community level, and what is needed to make these everyday interactions a new locus of government accountability:
1. Accountability isn’t only systemic, also it’s personal. Engagement with the state is an everyday experience for citizens—with neighborhood police, with service providers, with local government officials, etc.
2. The accountability discourse frequently overlooks day-to-day forms of accountability and must take a participatory turn to account for these citizen-level experiences of the state.
3. A shift toward ‘participatory accountability’ would acknowledge the daily forms of marginalization/exclusion perpetrated by the many faces of the state.
4. Accountability is both a process as well as an outcome.
5. Accountability in South Africa is hampered by a persistent distrust of government which lingers from the apartheid era.
6. Efforts to improve government accountability most acknowledge social and historical contexts.
7. The impacts of intermediary civil society organizations on government accountability are often non-linear and borne out over time. Success depends on a variety of factors and actors.
8. Government responsiveness must happen through government engagement with people’s everyday lives.
9. Government accountability requires giving attention to developing the most marginalized peoples’ abilities to articulate their experiences and positions.
10. Everyday citizen experiences with the state can recast accountability issues, and are a necessary element to meaningful dialogue with those in political power.
11. Accountability is not a binary of citizen and state; there are multiple-overlapping forms of power which exist at the local level in which citizens operate on a daily basis.
As the report concludes:
There is not just a ‘macro’ state of institutions and elected officials. The state exists in small, everyday forms in people’s lives... This research shows how the state is perpetuated through relational dynamics and micro interactions. As such, citizens actively engage with the state in numerous ways, both informal and formal, on a daily, even hourly, basis… What is missing is a lens to notice and analyse these micro interactions as forms of citizen–state engagement and to leverage these intentionally as mechanisms for increasing accountability (27).
We hope this paper creates a dialogue about how to bring the accountability discourse to the level of marginalized citizens, to acknowledge their daily, lived experiences of the state, so that these citizens can be key actors in demanding, shaping and maintaining various forms of government accountability which enhance their security, wellbeing and livelihoods.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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