‘Violence is everywhere’ – ‘what we live with everyday isn’t right’: 15 images showing a creative story-based method to include citizens in accountability

‘Violence is everywhere’ – ‘what we live with everyday isn’t right’: 15 images showing a creative story-based method to include citizens in accountability

by Nava Derakhshani and Joanna Wheeler

Background to creative story-based participatory methods to build accountability

SLF has been conducting an action-learning pilot in Delft, a township in Cape Town, for the past 10 months. We worked with an action learning set called the Delft Safety Group, made up of about 15 loosely organised and concerned citizens from all walks of life in Delft including young people, self-defined citizen activists (concerned with security), members of the Community Policing Forum (CPF), and members of the Neighbourhood Watch Forum (NWF). This pilot started with the experiences and perceptions of the members of the group about their daily experiences of safety and security. It considered what these experiences show about the structural context of marginalisation, violence and poverty in an urban context and how to build greater accountability. Crucially, this process supports the group to articulate how they believe this situation can change and who needs to be involved for meaningful change to happen. The focus of the pilot is on how to make cities and informal settlements safer and more inclusive, taking as a starting point the extremely high levels of insecurity and violence that characterise daily life for many within townships and informal settings. It shows how local level experiences and ideas can contribute to greater accountability and ultimately to the bigger impacts of policies and initiatives aimed at reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This pilot forms part of a global initiative, Participate: Knowledge from the margins, and is connected to other pilot projects in Ghana and Egypt. This pilot used participatory visual methodologies as part of a wider action learning approach. Specific methods included personal storytelling for transformation, collective visual power analysis and collaborative narrative-based film-making.

15 images showing a creative story-based method to include citizens in accountability

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1. The tiger behind the bars is Soeraya’s neighbour, who raped her son when he was 6. Her story is about how the justice system failed her and her family, and how she has to carry on.2. Amien’s story is about how he responded to his children being attacked by gangsters in Delft; his storyworld scene shows his children surrounded by gang members.3. The community safety group did a visual analysis of their own stories, connecting forms of power to characters.4. Different colours of thread represent forms of power in the stories: we found new meanings for power within, power to, power over and power with.5. The group developed dramas about how to create change in Delft.6. Based on their analysis. We laughed, we cried; the dramas gave us new insights.7. All of this helped the group discuss the deep causes of the problems in Delft.8. This helped us explore together how to address these problems.9. To make collaborative narrative films, the group learned each stage of filming process. 10. We planned the films by thinking about the themes we identified from the power analysis, and what the group wanted the audience to feel, see, hear and change.11. The group built a collective narrative to communicate their messages.12. To build their message they used the skills they had learned about how to tell powerful personal stories, including storycircles and techniques like storyboarding. 13. Translating the collective narratives into film was hard work.14. Everyone played a part, even though they didn’t always agree.15. Now we are planning together how to use the stories and films.

The role of the researcher: interlocutors and mediators

This pilot process has demanded a lot of us as researchers and from the group we are working with in Delft. We recognise that the role of SLF is partly as a mediator between different accountability actors at grassroots and national government actors. The careful negotiation of relationships with the group in Delft and with people within government has been critical, and we have been very cautious in putting much information into the public sphere about what has been happening.  Trust takes a long time to build and is easily destroyed. Critical attention to our own use of power is essential at every step. We also recognise that participants from Delft are navigating complex ethical dilemmas in their own lives quite apart from this research. Their realities oscillate between radically positive and negative outcomes (reflecting the blurred lines of their engagement in corruption/violence in their lives). A lesson for us has been the importance of sufficient time for engagement: to better understand the changes in the citizens’ lives, how relationships which each other strengthen, and how to articulate and sustain commitment to a shared process. The process has enabled the group to see how much that they have to deal with in their lives and the lives of others in their community. To be able to step outside of your environment, in this case characterised by high levels of insecurity, and recognise what needs to change is an important and difficult process. The process of methodological layering has enabled the group from Delft to recognise the enormous scale of the problems they face, but also helped them and us identify pathways into change. This kind of action-learning method creates a challenge for us as an intermediary NGO in terms of how to respond to the problems that people in Delft are facing. What will their recognition lead to and what is the role and responsibility of SLF going forward? We are still finding our way. Watch a short digital story made by a young resident of Delft about her personal experience of violence as she was targeted by assumedly gang members for murder. It is a powerful first account produced through our participatory visual process focussing on urban safety and accountability.

My Nightmare Becomes a Reality from Sustainable Livelihoods Fndation on Vimeo.

When accountability is life or death: reflections from the city street

When accountability is life or death: reflections from the city street

“You continue to ask me where does that information come through. But if it comes up through the wrong people, people get assassinated. That is life.” Delft community safety group member

‘Accountability’ can seem to be a boring, technical term, far from the most important issue in peoples’ lives. But when you start to dig below the surface, as we have in the SLF pilot for Participatory Monitoring and Accountability for the SDGs, it becomes clear that real accountability is not just a ‘nice-to-have’:  the lack of accountability, for people on the margins, is a life or death kind of problem.

In the post-1994 (post-apartheid) settlement of Delft, in Cape Town, South Africa, there are deep frustrations. More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, exclusion runs deep. In Delft, which is ‘mixed-race’ in the categories of apartheid, levels of violence have reached epidemic proportions. Research conducted by SLF with the Delft Neighbourhood Watch between 2014 and 2015 found a homicide rate of 40 people in 6 months, from a population of only 36,000. Currently gang-based and police-based violence is on the rise, alongside already very high levels of interpersonal and intimate partner violence. Community activists and honest police officers are being threatened and targeted.

These acts of violence occur within a wider system of profound insecurity and uncertainty: opportunities for formal employment are low, and political parties mainly operate through patronage and populist strategies that leave post-election hangovers without doing much to improve conditions.  This social and economic exclusion sits alongside an invisibility of Delft in the media and public discourse. When people die in Delft, we just don’t hear about it.

Within this context, SLF has been exploring how to build accountability through an action-learning pilot as part of the on-goingParticipate initiative. We have focussed the pilot on Goals 5, 11 and 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular on the theme of community-based safety. Since January, we have been working with a group of about 15 residents from Delft, including members of the Neighbourhood Watch, young people, and community leaders.

The group went through a powerful process of telling their own personal stories about their experiences of safety and insecurity in Delft. Together, we analysed their stories in order to better understand the structural roots of their experiences. Now the group is busy making two films about themes they have chosen and developed. The ideas within the group about how to address community safety have evolved, and we are working together to develop a shared strategy to address the lack of accountability they face.

Here are some of the emerging findings around what it will take to bring about accountability in the context of a South African township:

Bringing corruption into focus

A striking finding throughout this process is the extent of the effects of corruption. Corruption filters into the everyday lives of people living in Delft and is a major contributing factor to the erosion of social fabric and legitimate leadership.

What has become very clear is that there are actors within the township that can influence the outcomes of an accountability process through their relationships with other power-holders, but their ethics are often questionable:  they may be aligned with gangs, factions of the police using brutal force and extortion, or drug dealers. So people from the research process who are seeking a more accountable form of political leadership and want to see transformation happen are forced to choose:  make bargains with those who have the power, or be side-lined and keep hold of their principles.

The compromises that participants and we, as researchers, are having to make within contexts of corruption and violence are a reflection of the reoccurring need to face impossible choices – the question is how far are we willing to go to make a shift happen, and how can we set ethical boundaries we can keep.

Gaps in representation and uncertain legitimacy

In our pilot, a key issue has emerged around gaps in representation at the local level. To constitute legitimate representation at the grassroots level is difficult for a number of reasons: entrenched patterns of party politics; the influence of armed actors including the police and gangs; and the daily struggles to survive and to make ends meet for leaders and their families. It isn’t necessarily the case that grassroots representatives have legitimate political power to speak on behalf of others in their community, and constructing that legitimacy is not easy. Through the pilot, there have been some important and promising developments:

  • Participants describe how they feel more able to speak to others in their community about issues of community safety, and their sense of their capacity to represent issues in their community is growing
  • The action learning process is contributing to the necessary conditions to build the basis of legitimate representation in order to build answerability and enforceability for accountability
  • We have all seen the importance of constructing a more equitable basis of representation that doesn’t leave out certain voices and experiences (which is what is happening through the formal political process). We have all become more aware of the issues of people being silenced and or edited out of the process

Accountable political leadership and the action research process

On the other hand, we have also encountered the precariousness of political alliances and promises, and there is still much to come in terms of what we can learn about how more accountable political leadership can be sustained in Delft and in South Africa.

Local community leaders from the research group are exploring how they can move into political roles, and they have been using the action research process as a platform to gain political legitimacy. This raises tensions between the potential for co-option of the research process and need for legitimate political representation at the local level.

Within the action-learning group, there are divisions along lines of political affiliation that are at odds with an emerging shared position in terms of the issues facing Delft. It is difficult for members of the group to align with party positions that are motivated by struggles for national political control and are contrary to what they see and want to change in Delft.

As we move into a more public engagement and dialogue with policy makers and community residents, we will continue to explore how to contribute to the shifts needed for greater accountability. For the group in Delft, and for many others living on the margins in South Africa, these shifts are what really matter.

Image credits: Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation

Critical Realities: holding a mirror to participatory visual research

Critical Realities: holding a mirror to participatory visual research

by Thea and Jackie

Participatory research processes hold inherent tensions. They are often instigated top-down in response to policy agendas, but intend to build bottom-up knowledge and action. This means they take place in between social spaces, amongst people with different levels of power in complex socio-political contexts. As a result practice is always a balance between the possibilities opened by the process and the constraints from local and structural power dynamics at play.

Visual methods are no different, and can amplify challenges. The visual provides a medium through which distance between people and power, citizens and state can be collapsed. However, Jackie Shaw’s research on the ethics of participatory visual methods found that both potential for change and risks are intrinsically connected. For instance, the possibility of building inclusion and collaborative group relationships for some is linked to the risk of perpetuating unequal local dynamics by not involving others. The resulting tensions are fundamental aspects of participatory practice, and it is how they are negotiated in situ that makes the difference to the outcomes for marginalised groups.

Reflexivity and embracing the unexpected

We believe that critical reflection has to start with ourselves: our positioning, and attitudes and our actions and interactions. In real-life research contexts few situations are ideal: we do what we can, but in actuality always have to make trade-offs amongst the contradictions. Reflexivity is therefore an integral part of enabling participatory visual research that evolves through cycles of reflection-learning-planning-action and is adapted to meet the priorities and support the pathways of different groups.

We use practitioner diaries, field-stories, prompted discussion in peer groups, and other forms of reflective practice and learning-in-action as processes unfold to learn from what happens and importantly, to respond. But learning from experience only deepens if you stop to acknowledge that learning is taking place. This involves reflecting on the implications for you personally and politically, and how this influences the research process and insights.

Critical incidents where things don’t work as planned are particularly powerful forms of learning, because they disrupt assumptions and lead to deeper understanding. For Thea Shahrokh this has been important in her research on addressing violence, where real-life experiences have provided a reality check, and have required her to work with research group members to rethink the approach being taken.

Making time, finding space and taking action

Learning is amplified through interaction with others. We know this in terms of the research processes we facilitate, but in the rush to the next deadline there is often limited space to really stop and think about our own reflections in research diaries, or explore them through discussion with other practitioner-researchers. Reflective practice therefore risks being a tokenistic endeavour if it does not translate into action – if the learning is not internalised and embedded into the evolution of visual research and practice.

A number of #artsmethods practitioners and researchers from South Africa and the UK recently created space for reflection on participatory visual and arts-based methods in research. In a discussion on ‘provocations from practice’, researchers and activists shared experiences across contexts of the tensions, dilemmas and messy realities of their work. Some painful experiences were surfaced and some foundational questions articulated about identity, power and politics of visual research approaches.

We came away from this process with a deeper recognition of the need for similar safe spaces for researchers to express the uncomfortable aspects of their work. Facing these difficult aspects can be painful: doing so challenges our preconceptions about who we are and what we do, but it is essential to deepen learning and improve practice. People were challenged, we were challenged, yet we were all energised to move forward by working through issues together.

Recognising the importance of honest reflection

Why then is it so difficult to find space for honest reflections that would better prepare researchers and practitioners for the realities of practice, and assist them in understanding how to find pathways forward? There are many factors that constrain researchers from taking the risks necessary to transform their work: restrictive funding environments demand celebration of results and methods not interrogation; calls for success stories gloss over the nuanced and messy reality; and recognition and reputation overshadow life-long learning.

We can both recount incidents from methods learning events which involved navigating dilemmas that balanced creating an enabling environment for group participation with potentially taking away control from the group because of process decisions. Both of us experienced a push-back from peers in what was perceived as us sharing an ‘embarrassment’. For Thea, she felt this was dismissed on account of age or experience, rather than being constructively engaged with. For Jackie, others tried to re-assure her by saying ‘it is understandable given the pressure you were under’. Jackie felt that, yes, it is understandable, but that is the point: to face up to the real-life and often unavoidable inconsistencies, as a pre-cursor to looking at the implications for future engagement.

It is these contradictory and ambiguous experiences that can generate the most insightful knowledge, and it is the relationships established through this dialogue that can create innovative partnerships for research. The question is how can we build an appetite amongst decision makers and funders – as well as practitioner-researchers themselves – for the space and time to foster these critical conversations, so we can reflect on our experiences and create new possibilities that are rooted in our learning?

Further critical discussion of negotiating ethics in participatory visual methods will take place in July at the 3rd ISA Forum on Sociology in Vienna.

Image credit: Trixi Skywalker, mirror

Storytelling to tackle HIV stigma and increase accountability in Egypt

Storytelling to tackle HIV stigma and increase accountability in Egypt

by Mohammed Farouk

Early in her life, Safaa lost both her parents and has since lived with her grandma and uncle in an economically strained and marginalised family in Cairo. When she was diagnosed with HIV a couple of years ago Safaa’s life reached a turning point, forcing her to say goodbye to her childhood and embark on a life shaped by isolation and stigmatisation.
One day, Safaa, suffering from severe toothache and in increasing pain, rushed with her uncle to several dentists. They all sympathised, but as soon as her uncle informed them of her HIV status they refused to extract the infected tooth or intervene in any way.“Desperate, I extracted Safaa’s tooth myself”, said her uncle to a social worker visiting Safaa a few days ago. This is a shocking story, but a real one.According to UNAIDS, around 500 children are living with HIV in Egypt, with many more hidden by social stigma. Safaa’s toothache story made me wonder: how can the voices of such a marginalised, highly stigmatised and vulnerable section of the population be brought into the light, heard and taken into account by healthcare policy makers? How can this ensure that they get full access to healthcare services without any kind of discrimination?

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

With current global discussions around the SDGs, the previous question links directly toSDG 3 “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”and its eighth target “Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all”

The Center for Development Services (CDS) is currently working on a unique initiative, in collaboration with the UNICEF Egypt Country Office, to understand and address the needs and aspirations of Children and Adolescents living with HIV (+CHAD). The question of how to ensure and sustain the long term access of this marginalized group to decent healthcare services was always a hard one to answer given that the healthcare agenda in Egypt is full of other priorities.

Furthermore, people living with HIV in Egypt suffer a high level of negative social stigma even at the level of healthcare service provision. This stigma and de-prioritisation has deeply hindered equitable access, and quality of services provided, to this group.

As part of the Participate initiative our analysis is that SDG 16 “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” provides an important platform to respond to this issue, specifically its seventh target “Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.

Participatory monitoring and accountability

CDS believes that an effective participatory monitoring and accountability (PMA) process would provide opportunities for +CHAD and their caregivers to voice their needs and interests, reduce their suffering, improve the services they receive and help mitigate the health hazards associate with HIV. This process involves nurturing a collective of +CHAD and their caregivers. With the support of an alliance of actors we aim to inform the relevant government bodies and decision-makers of access problems and service quality, ultimately to enhance their accountability for improved services to +CHAD.

Using Digital Storytelling to support change

To support this process we are developing an approach called Collective Digital Storytelling(CDST), which aims to visualise the +CHAD experiences and realities in a manner that is ethical, empowering and collective at the same time. In creating a space and process for +CHAD and their families to express how they experience care, the lived experiences of +CHAD and their caregivers will be located in the heart of advocacy to influence change in health service provision.

The CDST process itself is expected to impact the lives of +CHAD participants, through a creative and novel participatory experience that allows them to express their own realities living with a chronic illness. Importantly, the process will also engage +CHAD caregivers: important actors who influence the lives of this group and the possibilities of positive change.

The relationships between +CHAD and their caregivers form a crucial alliance, which will also be investigated as part of the PMA process. Creating a sense of collectiveness in the storytelling will accordingly steer and shape the advocacy discussion in the context of health care delivery for children living with HIV/AIDS. The children, adolescents and their families will visualise their own experiences through the CDST which is an engaging structured activity.

We are excited about this initiative and eager to share with you our progress in a series of critical reflection blogs. However, we cannot conclude this discussion without highlighting that challenging and shifting discriminatory social norms and stigma is central to this process, as those who are answerable for the access and quality of services provided to +CHAD are themselves sometimes prejudiced against this group.

Hence the question remains, to what extent will this approach be effective? Will the accountability mechanisms and drivers be different given the social circumstances? Central to our work therefore is understanding how and why participatory monitoring and accountability approaches that promote the engagement and voice of marginalised youth can find traction in such a complex social and political context.

Image credit: M. Farouk – CDS

The Privilege of a Story Teller

The Privilege of a Story Teller

By Revy Sjahrial

I was watching a not-so-new documentary titled “My Kid Could Paint That” the other day and it reminded me of the privilege of becoming a story teller. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, about other people or own self, the story teller has the power to set the direction and tone of the story, to pick and choose the details of what’s in and out, to decide on how the story begins and/or ends; all of which in the end pretty much shape viewers’ perception. Having watched that documentary, I have been made aware of the immense privilege that a story teller of non-fiction holds.

At the end of last year I had the opportunity to tell my own non-fiction story without even realising the privilege yet. I was instead worried that my story was too personal, ashamed of it being judged which would lead to my being judged by other people. It was funny that I had not expected I would end up telling that particular story in the form of such an output. And it was all a result of a training I was lucky to be part of, i.e. my first ever digital story making.

At first, I was asked to respond to a work-related framing question, a response which I initially thought could turn into a platitude too easily, until I heard the instruction to “find a story that comes from your gut.” Never had I felt that connecting to my gut could make me fixated on what’s truly significant amongst all of other significance. The story needed to be told in 3 to 5 minutes’ time, and having a limited time to tell it in a digitally visual way, pushed my creativity and compelled me to focus on details that really mattered.

The ‘premiere’ of my digital story was before trusted colleagues who I consider friends, and whose digital stories were also premiered. It was an experiencemixed with curiosity, excitement and apprehension. So many “what if’s” in my head, ranging from technical issues like whether or not my voice was audible enough, were my swiping of pictures and drawing timely enough with the sentences I wanted to bring out… All those with the addition of more profound questions: what does it mean now that I have got this story ready to tell to the wider world, to whom should it be shared with, why them, why not them, what would their reaction be, what would I expect to be a good reaction, how would bad reaction be like?

I didn’t know why, I still don’t, but I was suddenly reminded of the phrase ‘the personal is political’.

I don’t consider myself as a feminist – as I see myself more of a pro-equity advocate – nor am I a political person, but having told a personal story about what has changed my life and the way I see the world, I felt that it would be meaningful if my sharing could have an impact socially, no matter how small it could be. And that is again the privilege of a story teller, telling meaningful stories which entail social impacts, whether or not they would then bring political impacts – after surviving all the negotiations and probable co-optations – is not the point.

Another privilege I gained was being trained to facilitate others in making their own digital stories for the first time. These were people who provide health services at the frontline as their daily responsibility as public servants. A little bit of background about public service in my country which may not be so alien from other contexts: it is hierarchical, formal, where ‘going the distance’ as an ethos can’t always be expected. But take them as story tellers connecting to their gut, eager to share their personal and meaningful story with the wider world, then what you will encounter are engaged people who would go out of their usual way to make things happen.

They had started the first day of training being very aware of their time spent, wanting to make sure that they would finish in time like they would when at work. Like an accounting principle in inventory, FIFO – first in first out, so is the usual practice of signing an attendance record for public servants.

As days passed by, when story shaping had taken place, they started to own the process, became reflective of what the real meanings were to the things they had held dear all this time, envisaged what they would like to do next when the story was ready. I remember I was amazed at how they ended up spending a lot more time than they had been willing to give in the beginning, to actually finish the whole process of digital story making. They became excited anticipating their premiere. I was equally amazed and, in retrospect now feel even more privileged, to be part of the few people who could listen to the complete stories and to witness the struggle I believe all story tellers face, that is to choose which details worth representing the complete one, as we are bound to time and attention span.

Each story each one person told is a powerful one, with a promise to touch other people’s lives, if not to enlighten. They have made them with dedication, as a remembrance for that one point in life that has made a difference to them.

The take-away for me having gone through the process of both making my own digital story and facilitating others’ is: although the personal is not always political, a life-changing personal makes a great social impact.


An image from my digital story

Personal to Collective Narrative through Visual Power Analysis

Personal to Collective Narrative through Visual Power Analysis: Issues of Power, Representation and Ethics. A Prezi by Thea Shahrokh and Joanna Wheeler

This Prezi documents work we have been developing in South Africa on role of collective action in addressing sexual and gender-based violence.

We worked through a digital storytelling process with the local citizen activists. The DST approach enabled participants to share their experiences about their attempts to address violence in their lives and what happened. The telling/sharing of these stories aimed to enable self-recognition of personal agency and also highlighted what needs to be addressed in order to address sexual and gendered violence within the township and what accountability actors are involved. The DST process transitioned into a collaborative video approach. The individual experiences described through the stories were explored and analysed using a power lens. This supported translation from individual accounts into collective narratives on how stakeholders in addressing sexual and gender violence could respond to the experiences of citizens, and how citizens themselves seek to address the issue.

The Prezi highlights tensions within storytelling  for social change highlighting the political nature of the process.