In 2008 Zimbabwe suffered arguably the worst cholera outbreak in Africa to date. Close to 100 000 people were infected, and more than 4 000 died as a result of a significant breakdown in water and sanitation services, leading to limited access to clean water and poor treatment of sewage in urban areas.
The situation, as Professor Simukai Chigudu argued in his book, The Political Life Of an Epidemic, was a culmination of years of socioeconomic and political governance failures, which disproportionately affected Harare’s poor, high-density urban areas. This disease did not affect everyone equally — it is a “disease of inequality”, which continues today.
In the high-density suburb of Glen View in Harare, the aptly named Hardlife Mudzingwa, born and bred in the township, and his colleagues at the Community Water Alliance (CWA) realised the solution to cholera lay not in government intervention or international aid but in better governance. Hardlife and the CWA started a protest movement but after several arrests they changed tack and developed an innovative approach centred on local water points and management committees and creative partnerships with the humanitarian and private sectors. This led to new boreholes and increased access to clean water, with these new service points also acting as hubs for conversations with local government officials, city planners, engineers and bureaucrats, the police, NGOs and residents.
During Covid-19, the CWA’s water point committees (WPCs) have been transformed into community health clubs, which educate on and sustain health standards and perform critical disease surveillance functions in the community. The same committees are linked to wide networks of national and international organisations working on health and sanitation issues. The alliance holds weekly discussions with the ministry of health and participates in Sanitation and Water for All discussions at the regional level, tapping into regional expertise and learning. Recently, the Community Water Alliance has begun to prototype its Water point committee approach in other high-density suburbs of Harare including Dzivarasekwa, Mabvuku, Mbare, and Chitungwiuza- with the water point committees serving citizens but also acting as health education centres in liaison with the city health department.
This example suggests that to solve problems — such as cholera or even Covid-19 — we need to be more thoughtful about the governance relationships that underpin them. One way to think about this is to consider translocal networks as a way to scale transformative innovations to solve our biggest problems.
Translocal networks — such as the CWA — provide a way for us to break down big ideas into more manageable pieces. They help us understand how local efforts at problem-solving are both essential and instructive. They allow us to see how “minor fixes” can change the social fabric and build the trust we need over time to overcome the developmental problems of our generation. They also demonstrate the importance of learning and of sharing that learning across and between people. They demonstrate that the development establishment does not need to empower people, but, rather, needs to recognise that in many instances people are already empowered, and bolster that potential energy.
The translocal network approach appreciates that innovation is as much about pulling together what already exists in new ways, as it is about developing new approaches. It promotes this thinking through the primacy of five characteristics, as follows:
First, trans-local networks are about proximity and bringing together emergent ideas that are local or grassroots. The fact that these efforts are indigenous is important. As we all know, those nearest to the problems are most likely to understand them better and have ideas on how to solve them. As an example, food cooperatives in the sustainability space are happening simultaneously all over the world but can’t be scaled in the traditional top-down sense because they are separate but are “co-evolving” and allow for solutions to local problems.
In governance, consider how communities use deliberative democracy tools to make people in power account locally — from citizens’ assemblies to participatory budgeting to community scorecards. These kinds of local social accountability efforts have done everything from allowing citizens in Santiago, Chile, to set priorities for their government; to supporting police in Nepal to address gender-based violence. In Uganda, citizen’s participation and oversight of school renovation projects has led to a more efficient, transparent process and a tenfold increase in the number of students served by a renovated community school.
While many states are moving towards more controlled, top-down state action in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the preceding initiatives show that what is required is the opposite and the facilitation of more political space for different types of ideas and possible partnerships with government at the local level.
Second, translocal networks evolve in ways that allow for learning to be disseminated across the network to inform and improve practice in real-time. Their “secret sauce” is that they are locally active but globally connected. Hubs in such a network can draw on local learning from elsewhere and integrate these ideas into their specific contexts as needed and as they grow.
This is very different from a large international organisation working through local offices to deliver programmes — with the local offices acting as implementation mechanisms that are not part of the design or decision-making process. It explains why the United Nations system, for example, can struggle to solve development problems. The top-down model is expensive and bureaucratic and is not agile enough to respond rapidly to changing circumstances.
The UN Covid-19 Humanitarian Response Plan, for example, highlights the need to support local organisations but also stipulates that 95% of its funding goes to nine UN entities with significant overheads and time-consuming procurement processes. At the other end of the scale are the singers of the Ndlovu Youth Choir in South Africa, for example, who rapidly composed musical editions of the WHO’s safety guidelines in local languages to raise awareness. Or Caminando Frontera in Morocco, which, when the pandemic began, switched from focusing on migrants’ human rights to providing health kits and essential supplies. These are the kinds of agile organisations from which others are learning and through which we can build momentum for change.
Third, while translocal networks can grow and replicate intentionally, that evolution happens organically. They improve and connect, not as a prescribed goal from the outset, but as a function of context and experience.They adapt. This is feasible in different ways from top-down scaling efforts because translocal networks allow for and encourage the diffusion of shared values and principles. This makes these networks sustainable over time as they are driven by collective understandings and energies, not larger institutional or commercial incentives.
We have seen how the wrong kinds of networked organisations — even with vast amounts of resources — can crash and burn if they are not predicated on the right kinds of values.
Think of WeWork, or the problems at Uber, then think about the social movements that endure despite difficult conditions and minimal resources such as the Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar, the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the Indian Farmers’ Movement. These movements put their shared values front and centre, and this drives commitment and effectiveness.
Other organisations such as Grassroots International and CIVICUS act as facilitators, finding intelligent ways to fund, support and share lessons among these movements as part of larger networks. So although the movements themselves are focusing on their own issues, an eco-system that allows for collective learning emerges.
Fourth, translocal networks help to create a shared discourse and identity, implicitly in what they do and explicitly through their messaging. This allows them to build narratives of change that provide an alternative to the status quo and its entrenched systems. It is tough for one to imagine a different reality until collective voices help imagine it in practice.
At Accountability Lab we have been running a campaign called Integrity Icon. When it comes to corruption, the discourse can be relentlessly negative — with stories every day about graft and theft of public resources, particularly at the moment as governments pour billions of dollars into the Covid-19 response. This saps hope and perpetuates the sense that it is impossible to beat corruption, and also dissuades young people with integrity from entering government.
Integrity Icon flips this narrative on its head, not by “naming and shaming” the wrong-doers, but by “naming and faming” the do-gooders through large-scale, media-savvy national campaigns. Think American Idol — but for honest civil servants. We catch government officials doing the right thing, film and celebrate them publicly, and then support them as part of a community to share ideas, collaborate and push for reforms. This begins to build a different story that people can get behind, ensure solidarity among reformers across contexts and even shift the norms that drive corrupt behavior in the first place.
Finally, effective translocal networks find ways to partner and support each other to amplify the effect of their efforts. Partnership is not in the transactional sense, but in the more meaningful understanding of caring for each other during difficult times. This involves sharing resources and capacities and putting the eco-system as a whole ahead of individual or organisational recognition or goals. This is not easy but it is important.
During the pandemic, amazing organisations such as the Transition Network have pooled stories and mapped tools for communities to help support change. Groups like Meeting of Styles have brought together local artists across Europe to paint murals about Covid-19. Collectives like Cov19: Chronicles From the Margins are building digital solidarity among asylum seekers and refugees. It is these kinds of initiatives that are truly building the fabric for social change.
At Accountability Lab, we are part of another initiative called Catalyst 2030, a global movement of social entrepreneurs and innovators working together to achieve the social development goals. At the same time, there are also larger, global initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership that are finding alternative, cost-effective ways to support translocal partnerships. These efforts are not just in civil society but with governments through supporting reformers to work with civil society to co-create solutions to issues of transparency and accountability around the world.
The Community Water Alliance example demonstrates how a translocal network can function in practice. It has created the opportunity for more equitable power through a grassroots, learning-focused, organic, values-based, and partner-oriented network that is locally embedded and led, and sustainable over time. The CWA demonstrates the value in movements partnering with governments, the private sector, and donors in strategic ways that are not directed from the top down. The approach challenges the development establishment to take more risks to allow organisations and movements, as they grow, to consolidate, amplify and adapt what they do. It challenges us to support eco-system building through learning, convening, sharing and connecting the dots between change-makers, while centering equity in everything and honoring local expertise.
Although it might not always seem that way, huge amounts of progress are being made in transforming governance through alternative approaches.
Accountability Lab is a global translocal network that makes governance work for people by supporting active citizens, responsible leaders and accountable institutions