Aid, information and the ‘H’ word


By Flickr user Genista

I’ve been thinking this week about information and power relationships, and how they might matter for DFID’s new Aid Transparency Guarantee.

To begin with a digression, when I was working in a multi-donor office in Indonesia, I had lunch one day with a governance advisor from UNDP who was in the midst of a very contentious and difficult donor harmonisation initiative.  She was furious at the way the World Bank kept winning all the arguments because, she felt, they were ones producing all the ‘facts’ about Indonesia.  They wrote most of the research reports about Indonesia – so they had the most authority when describing ‘the reality’ of the country-context that framed everyone’s work.  She grabbed my arm conspiratorially, saying “You’ve read Gramsci, haven’t you darling.  This is a hegemony!”

The H word wasn’t something I was expecting to hear in the professional, bureaucratic corridors of a donor office.  No one was wearing socks and sandals and there wasn’t a copy of the Socialist Worker for at least a thousand miles.  I was fascinated by the concern that certain groups might be controlling the way ‘the reality’ of Indonesia was being forged, and also by the fact that this fear had emerged out of an initiative which was supposed to be building trust between different donor agencies.  Surely the knowledge produced by the Bank should have been a good thing for everyone?  Why were World Bank staff – who were simply using information from their research teams – seen as exploiting their position?    

Fast-forward five years, and I’m sitting in a meeting with a number of other NGO representatives, discussing the UK Governments new Aid Transparency Guarantee with DFID staff.  Everyone – myself included – can see that the Aid Transparency Guarantee has enormous potential for improving aid.  The Guarantee promises to make detailed information about the UK’s aid programmes available, which is a first step both to ensuring aid is properly scrutinised and accountable, and to improving the aid system over time. 

One of our big messages as NGOs is that the government needs to avoid getting too bogged down in the difficult question of how to make aid information ‘accessible’, and ensure that the fundamental precondition is in place:  that information is available.  Whilst DFID should continue with its important public communications work, the strategy for ensuring information is accessible to the full range of stakeholders should be to fund “Infomediaries” who will translate, repackage, interpret and use the information in a variety of ways.  The idea is that these agents will be more impartial and better placed to ensure present information in ways that are meaningful and empowering to the diverse consistencies which donors must address – particularly poor citizens in developing countries. 

Perhaps I should have eaten another biscuit, but my mind couldn’t help flitting back to my encounter with the UNDP advisor, her deep suspicion of the World Bank as an information broker.  There was clearly potential for the ‘infomediary’ role to go badly awry if the motives of these groups are not trusted.  If ideally, infomediaries are to be interpreters of information and mobilisers of empowerment, I thought, then they can’t be a million miles away from Gramsci’s idea of the ‘organic intellectual’. 

Gramsci described organic intellectuals are people who interpret the world on behalf of their social class, leading the way that ideas are developed and fostering a counter-hegemony that will eventually enable people break out of their false consciousness. 

The difference between a ‘traditional intellectual’ and an ‘organic intellectual’ is that whilst the former see themselves as independent and impartial, the latter understand their entanglement with the dominant ideology and their role in perpetuating it.  It is this reflexivity that gives organic intellectuals their potential to bring power structures into view and to challenge injustice.   

I realise that this sort of thing may not trip of the tongues of civil servants as they stand in front of the Secretary of State, describing how the Aid Transparency Guarantee can be put into action.  But let’s remember the gems of Marxist thinking were always in the questions it asked; not the answers it gave. 

To pose a few here:

  • How could DFID fund “infomediaries” in ways that would ensure that those agencies who are already dominant in interpreting what our idea of “the reality” of development is, do not gain a run-away advantage compared to other groups?
  • How could DFID fund “infomediaries” in ways that would facilitate a balanced, diverse debate about aid, in which conflicting interpretations of aid information could be aired?
  • How could DFID fund “infomediaries” in a way that is demand-led but doesn’t just cater to the interests of those groups who shout the loudest?        
  • What if the criterion for being a recognised and trusted “infomediary” was not how ‘independent’ a group was, but its ability to be reflexive about its relationships?  What if a prerequisite for funding was an agency’s ability to be publically candid and self-aware about its own social, economic and political position?    

We have seen recently in Mozambique how when sharing information starts to instigate real social unrest, it was the poor who had their communications link cut off.  DFID must remember that pieces of information are not inert objects, to be traded and exchanged like sacks of potatoes.  Information becomes entangled in our social relationships, politics and inequalities as soon as it is informative at all. 

The Aid Transparency Guarantee looks to be making a promising start, but it will be critical to fund ‘infomediaries’ in a way which is canny to power relationships if donor transparency is genuinely going to enable poor citizens to determine their futures.

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4 Responses to “Aid, information and the ‘H’ word”

  1. dan mcquillan Says:

    Would DFID ever fund the kind of infomediaries you describe? I’m skeptical.

    In the mean time, how do we enable citizens to work things out for themselves? My current thinking is a mashup of Participatory Rural Appraisal and open data storytelling.

    Btw, there’s some interesting points about hegemony in ‘Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements’, which distinguishes between ‘the hegemony of hegemony’ and ‘an affinity for affinity’. There’s a copy on aaaarg:

  2. Owen Barder Says:

    Hi Amy

    Interesting stuff. I’ve posted my thoughts on the aidinfo blog, here:


  3. amypollard Says:

    Thanks Dan – I’ll take a look.

    Enabling citizens to work things out for themselves is clearly the ideal – and that something that Owen Barder and I definitely agree on (see his response to my blog post here: Hopefully donors will make information available in such detailed and re-useable ways that a whole host of organisations can use it – regardless of whether they get funding support.

    For the few organisations that will get funds though, it would be interesting if donors started with the question of ‘who do poor citizens go to for information about their lives?’, as well as the question of ‘who can process and interpret this aid information in useful ways?’. The latter would probably lead to lots of ‘the usual suspect’ think-tanks being funded, which (although they often do incredibly valuable work!), tend to be oriented towards policy-makers more than the information needs of poor citizens.

    Getting the information available in detailed, re-usable forms is obviously the most important step (and the one that donors need to concentrate on at the moment). But when it comes to interpreting and representing aid information, the power relations that frame what counts as ‘knowledge’ should be something we always try to keep in view.

  4. bjelkeman Says:

    The Aid Transparency Guarantee is a great start, but they look very much like a top-down approach at the moment. How do we inject bottom up information into this? I think that is going to be the big challenge.

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