By Blair Glencorse

Seven years ago, during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, I spent a lot of time working with our small team in Liberia around the accountability of the response- and I remember vividly as the severity of the crisis took hold and the international community descended on Monrovia, the capital city. There were many good people as part of that effort, but there were also the most stark disparities- and one memory in particular stands out for me. One evening I walked past the biggest hotel in the city while various health delegations were drinking cocktails and eating sushi on the rooftop; while Liberians were literally dying of Ebola in the street below. It was a metaphor for everything that was unequal within the international aid system.

Since then, and over the past year, inequality has risen even more dramatically. The usual statistics about inequality are well known- but let me add a few more to the mix, just to demonstrate once again how problematic this is. While governments are cutting aid budgets everywhere, the world’s 19 richest people- all of whom could fit inside one of their Gulfstream luxury jets- have a combined wealth that would pay for the next 10 years of global Overseas Development Assistance. Now, during COVID-19, Jeff Bezos could pay for 2.6 billion people (almost a third of the world’s population) to be vaccinated, and still have one billion dollars in his bank account. In the US, nearly 22,000 Black and Hispanic people would still be alive if they had the same access to healthcare and experienced the same COVID-19 mortality rates as their White counterparts. Systemic change is now imperative.

At the heart of these problems is governance- the way in which we should manage people, power and resources in more fair and equal ways. We often talk in short-hand about the role of government and the kind of government we should have- as if government is a static endpoint. But I’m more interested in the process of governance- and the ways that citizens can negotiate better outcomes with people that have power.

We all know that this process of governance is messy- but too often we continue to engage in social innovation and policymaking around it as if change happens in a straight line- because it is just easier that way. Scholars have been arguing for years that we get caught in a process of path dependency when trying to innovate our ways out of problems. We presume “rational innovation journeys”. What does that mean? It means we tend to think that technological innovations somehow scale and diffuse at some point through mass government adoption or market forces. But what this actually means is that we tend to focus on the symptoms of problems using this approach, not their causes. This kind of thinking certainly pervades the social enterprise space, where the goal often seems to be developing a tool and replicating it to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, even if it is clear that every context can be wildly different and that any approach is inevitably beholden to politics.

That doesn’t mean we can’t scale innovations or really get to the heart of these challenges, but it does mean that to solve problems of power we need to be more thoughtful about how we understand relationships of governance. So many of our processes of governance show their age every day- they are simply not fit for the 21st century, and certainly not the 2020s- in which we have proven unable to control a pandemic, we are hurtling towards climate disaster and inequality is worse than ever. Today, I’d like to talk to you about an alternative approach to collective problem-solving and development that we have adopted at Accountability Lab – through what are called translocal networks.

Translocal networks provide a way for us to break down big ideas- like people, power and resources- into more manageable pieces; and understand how local efforts to problem-solve are both essential and instructive. They allow us to see how what appear to be smaller fixes can actually change the social fabric and build the trust we need over time. And they demonstrate clearly the importance of learning, and of sharing that learning across and between communities. And the great thing about translocal networks is that they already exist as a way to scale transformative innovations for our biggest problems- we don’t need to invent them. That is to say, we don’t need to empower people– they are already empowered, we just need to recognize and bolster that. Innovation is as much about pulling together what already exists in new ways as it is about developing entirely new approaches.

But what are translocal networks, exactly, and how do they relate to governance? Well, we at Accountability Lab would argue that they have 5 key characteristics, and I’ll give you examples of each.

First, translocal networks bring together emergent ideas that are local, as the name suggests. Or in other words- grassroots. Think of energy or food cooperatives in the sustainability space, for example. These kinds of initiatives are happening simultaneously all over the world- we can’t scale them in the traditional top-down sense, because they are separate, but they are “co-evolving” and allow for solutions to local problems. In terms of governance, think about some of the deliberative democracy tools that communities are using to push people in power to be accountable 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. The fact that these efforts are indigenous is important, as we all know, because those nearest to the problems are most likely to understand and solve them. Just as many states are moving towards more controlled, top-down state action in response to the pandemic, what we need, in fact, is the opposite. There tends to be, broadly and within all kinds of political systems, more room politically for different kinds of ideas and possible partnership with government at the local level. So, the 1st point here is that translocal networks are about proximity- and that really matters.

Second, translocal networks evolve in ways that allow for learning to be disseminated across the network to inform and improve practice in real-time. The networks are locally active but globally connected- this is their “secret sauce”. Hubs in the network can draw on local learning from elsewhere and integrate these ideas into their own specific contexts as needed and as they grow. This is very different to a large international organization working through local offices to deliver programs- with the local offices acting as implementation mechanisms that are not part of the design or decision-making process. And why the UN system, for example, can struggle to solve development challenges. The top-down model is too expensive and bureaucratic; and is not nimble enough to respond to rapidly changing circumstances. The UN COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan for example, highlights the need to support local organizations but also stipulates that 95% of its funding goes to nine UN entities, all of which have 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 WHO safety guidelines in local languages to raise awareness; or an organization called Caminando Frontera in Morocco, which switched when the pandemic began from focusing on migrants’ human rights to providing health kits and essential supplies in communities. These are the kinds of nimble organizations from which others are learning, and through which we can build momentum for change.

Third, while translocal networks can grow and replicate intentionally- that process happens organically as they evolve, improve and connect- not as a prescribed goal from the outset. The reason this is feasible, in ways that are different from top-down scaling efforts, is 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 organizations- even with huge 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. At the other end of the scale are the social movements we see that endure despite the most difficult conditions and with minimal resources- the Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar; the Black Lives Matter movement in the US; and the Indian Farmers’ Movement to name just a few. These movements put their shared values front and center and this drives commitment and impact. Other organizations like Grassroots International and CIVICUS are acting as facilitators, finding intelligent ways to fund, support and share lessons among these movements as part of larger networks. So while the movements themselves are focusing on their own issues, there is an eco-system that begins to emerge that allows for collective learning.

Fourth, translocal networks help to create a shared discourse and identity, implicitly in what they do and explicitly through their messaging around the cause. This allows them to build narratives of change that provide an alternative to the status quo and the entrenched systems that perpetuate it. It is very hard for us to think what a different reality might be like- until there are collective voices helping us imagine it in practice. Here I’d like to draw on a campaign we have been running at Accountability Lab as an example- 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 for it 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.

Fifth, and finally, effective translocal networks find ways to partner to support each other and amplify the impact of their efforts. This means partnership not in the transactional sense which- despite the rhetoric otherwise- still tends to pervade the social impact space; but in the more meaningful sense 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 organizational recognition or goals. This can be difficult for many of us- but it is critically important. During the pandemic, I’ve seen amazing organizations like the Transition Network, which has pooled stories and mapped tools for communities to help support change; groups like Meeting of Styles, which have brought together local artists across Europe to paint murals about COVID-19; and collectives like Cov19: Chronicles From the Margins, which are working to build digital solidarity among asylum seekers and refugees. It is these kinds of initiatives that are truly building the fabric for social change. We at the Accountability Lab are part of another initiative called Catalyst 2030– along with other people here today and led by another speaker we’ll hear from, Jeroo Bilimoria- which is a global movement of social entrepreneurs and innovators that is working together to achieve the SDGs. At the same time, there are also larger, global initiatives like the Open Government Partnership that are finding alternative, cost-effective ways to support translocal partnership not just within civil society but with governments too- by supporting reformers to work with civil society to co-create solutions to issues of transparency and accountability around the world.

So, the way to ensure more equitable power is through the growth of networks that are grassroots, learning-focused, organic, values-based and partner oriented. These translocal efforts are locally embedded, led by the communities they serve and sustainable over time. And they partner with governments, the private sector and donors in ways that are strategic and add value to their own goals- not in a way that is directed from the top down. What does this mean for those of you working for governments, international organizations, foundations and even large INGOs, if you want to support better governance?

I would argue that it means taking more risks to allow organizations and movements as they grow to consolidate, amplify and adapt what they do. It means supporting the eco-system building organizations that don’t just implement projects but that facilitate learning, convening, sharing and connecting the dots between change-makers. It means centering equity in everything we do and honoring indigenous expertise. It means recognizing power dynamics and working intentionally to co-create the kind of change that is needed. It means more flexible support- whether that is financial, logistical or digital- for partners as conditions change on the ground. It means recognizing that as civic space closes, new approaches and techniques will be needed that might not fit into carefully prescribed logframes, and that is ok. And it means, above all, a focus on poor governance as the key driver of the problems we face today. Until we build translocal networks that can improve governance from the bottom-up, an equitable future will be a pipe-dream.

Let me finish by touching again on Liberia, and the lessons we can learn from the Ebola crisis of 2014 and 2015. The Ebola crisis in Liberia was, in fact, brought under control before the majority of international support arrived through a variety of efforts that included community mobilization, monitoring, contact tracing and knowledge sharing. In one area close to where we were working, I remember talking to an activist called Kou who had helped to organize volunteers to monitor everyone coming in and out of her community. Ebola ultimately killed over 5,000 people in Liberia; in Kou’s community of 17,000 people it killed just one. That is the power of translocal networks.

We are making progress in transforming governance around people, power and resources- but it doesn’t always seem that way, because at the macro-level the news can be discouraging. But everywhere you look- once you are in fact looking for them- there are translocal networks that are supporting governance change in communities and connecting with each other to share ideas, improve what they do and grow their influence over time. And to push for greater inclusion, equality and justice. It is translocal networks that are our global immune system for inequity. Thank you so much.

*This speech was delivered as part of the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s virtual Frontiers of Social Innovation conference on May 11.