Nikki van der Gaag, ed.
Jo Rowlands, ed.
Publication Date
December 1, 2009

Oxfam GB (Rowlands)

This book from Oxfam Great Britain (GB) focuses on how the right to be heard can strengthen the participation of economically poor people in formulating public policy and enable them to hold decision-makers accountable. According to the Introduction, the right to be heard is about "enabling people to actively draw on their civil and political rights to achieve their social, economic, and cultural rights. It is about finding ways to ensure that governance structures are responsive to the needs and wishes of [economically] poor people."


Some of the issues and challenges illustrated here include:

  • establishing legal identity and citizenship;
  • developing personal power in terms of confidence and self-esteem;
  • developing collective power that enables the individual voice to be amplified and projected;
  • increasing transparency and accountability of governments and institutions;
  • developing a state that is capable and responsive to the needs and priorities of its citizens; and
  • changing the attitudes and beliefs that underlie poverty, discrimination, and prejudice.

The document discusses power relations in nation/states, the right to legal identity and inclusion, the development of sufficient self-confidence to assume one's personal rights, the ability to collectively organise, monitoring for accountability and transparency, increasing duty-bearers' responsiveness to citizens, addressing cultural and attitudinal changes towards behaviour that delivers just and equitable use of resources, and ways to support the economically poor and marginalised to make their voices heard. A diagram (Figure 1.1 "The dimensions of voice with power", page 7) shows the relationships of these.


The document uses a series of case studies, each with its own recommendations, from Honduras, Malawi, Bangladesh, Republic of Georgia, Guatemala, the United Kingdom (UK), Indonesia, Peru, India, and Oxfam's global work on corruption. Lessons and general recommendations from these chapters include the following communication-related elements:

  1. Recognise that change is long-term and can only happen over a number of years.
  2. Understand that attitudinal change is important: power and accountability are a key entry point, and a culture of respect and inclusiveness promotes the participation of marginalised groups in decision-making.
  3. Put local priorities first. For any large network to be successful, priorities must be built from local, regional, and national contexts and then draw on international frameworks. Local communities have energy and know the details of the issues that affect them. What they may lack are mechanisms to effectively engage and hold their representatives accountable.
  4. "Work at a number of levels and build alliances. Such alliances must be built with people in poverty, with people in power, and with those who have the responsibility for implementing policy....The links between popular mobilization, awareness-raising, policy change, and implementation are important."
  5. Bring people face to face. Formal power-holders and policy makers often have limited direct contact with economically poor and marginalised people.
  6. Use a range of strategies to build success, involving information, research, and training, including capacity-building of local-level organisations and use of participatory and empowering methodologies.
  7. Take different perspectives into account, including those marginalised due to differences in social and/or economic status, gender, and/or age.
  8. Acknowledge gender differences.
  9. "Use the right language. It is possible to create excitement and enthusiasm for issues such as health, education, and even budgeting. The key is to articulate these in a language that people understand and want to respond to."
  10. Monitor and evaluate projects.
  11. "Recognise that international agencies can play an advocacy role. They can influence the United Nations and other donor agencies to comply with their own policies and commitments to support development projects that encourage voice. Besides building technical capacities, international agencies can play a very significant role in building links to civil society, governments, and private-sector stakeholders inside and outside the country."
  12. "Understand that NGOs [non-governmental organisations] are important as role models of accountability and integrity. If NGOs successfully demonstrate good practice, this not only shows people an example of how accountability can work in action, but also lays foundations for relationships of trust and mutual respect."

Oxfam Publishing website, March 26 2010.