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Participatory governance: seven years of lessons learned

Posted on 20/12/2019
By Myn Garcia

I was recently asked about the lessons I have learned in the area of participatory governance and development. I reflected on our work at the Foundation and how we consistently ask ourselves about the value we are adding to the sector. We are committed to adaptive learning and management and have dedicated ourselves to strengthening civic voices to constructively engage in policy processes and contribute to shaping public discourse; here are the lessons I consider important.

One of the major learnings from our 2012-2017 strategy was that we must be better at integrating gender in our programming. Under our strategy for 2017-21, we have a stronger focus on gender equality underpinned by the framework of gender and its intersectionality. In keeping with our systems approach, this framework allows for an understanding of the different intersecting systems of oppression and recognises the different ways that gender inequality is shaped by these intersections.

‘The highest degree of change can be observed when projects are based on the partners’ own assessment’

The direction, speed and acceptance of change in complex social and political systems are difficult to predict. We have been more mindful that using a ‘longer’-term timeframe is critical to the success of the Foundation’s strategic priorities. Strengthening civic voices means change over the long term. Our planning now factors this in.

The highest degree of change can be observed when projects are based on the partners’ own assessment; when partners take the lead in determining and articulating the change they want to achieve, the capacities they want to strengthen and the effective approaches to be taken. Customising support and taking into consideration the cultural and political context is fundamental.

There are no short cuts for anchoring the work on local ownership and supporting a process beyond enhancing existing knowledge and skills of individuals whereby civic voices strengthen, create, adapt and maintain their capacity over time and realise their own agency. We accompany partners, acknowledging that one size does not fit all, facilitating processes in prioritising and planning instead of imposing outside analyses and interests and engaging in co-creation.

‘…building trust is imperative in successful engagements and partnerships in governance.’

We have learned that support to civic voices must address individual needs and consider how skills and abilities materialise in organisational and institutional processes. We recognise that structures and processes are influenced by system-wide issues. We have found that initiatives and programmes require a wide range of adult learning approaches that are better adapted than traditional training and workshops. These include learning by doing, peer to peer mentoring and on-site coaching. Combined with these, research, technical assistance, pilot projects, training and evaluations have proved to be useful.

We have also seen how individual strengths organised in and working as part of coalitions or alliances have demonstrated the effectiveness of collective efforts in engaging in policy advocacy and campaigning. One ingredient that features in our work is partnering with effective and strong local resource partners who know the local context and have credibility in-country to deliver the gamut of support. This approach contributes in the long term to strengthening the local enabling environment.

And finally, building trust is imperative in successful engagements and partnerships in governance. One way that civil society is able to build trust is to demonstrate its technical capacity and willingness to constructively engage in policy processes in governance.

As I reflect on these lessons, I look on the future of the Foundation with immense optimism. I take this opportunity to welcome the incoming Deputy Director-General, Shem Ochola, as I pass on the baton to him. Under the leadership of, and in partnership with, the Director-General, Anne Therese Gallagher AO, I’m certain that Shem will take the organisation from strength to strength; building on these lessons to engender an ever more meaningful and constructive engagement between governments and citizens, notably those less heard, across the Commonwealth. I wish him and the rest of the organisation the very best. 2020 is looking bright.

Myn Garcia ends her term as Deputy Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation in December 2019.