Using Open-Source Tools for Data Collection: Experience from Research in a Refugee Camp

As part of the research for my PhD thesis, I collected a household survey of 600 Palestinian refugee households from Nahr el Alia_Aghajanian200Bared camp in Lebanon in 2012. My thesis looks at the consequences of returning home, and my case study is Nahr el Bared camp, a Palestinian refugee camp that witnessed a destructive war in 2007. All residents of the camp were evacuated and displaced to a nearby camp as the Lebanese military fought with Fatah el Islam. The camp was almost completely destroyed and required a large reconstruction effort, leaving around 80% of households to still be displaced 5 years after the war, at the time of my field work.

I have written a previous blog about how this data was collected, but I thought it might be useful to share my experience of using Open Data Kit (a set of tools used for mobile data collection) on tablet PCs in the field.

Data entry

The main advantage of using tablet PCs was the fact that data was entered once only, as opposed to the case of using paper and pencil interviewing (PAPI), where responses are first recorded on paper and then entered in digital format into a computer. In the case of PAPI, entering the data twice increases the likelihood of data entry error, especially when written responses can be illegible or misinterpreted – even more so if the data is not entered by the same person who wrote the responses, as is usually the case. This also sped up the data collection process, skipping the data entry stage, which in the case of a 600 household survey was estimated to have taken up to two weeks.

Data Validation

Another benefit of data entered immediately onto the tablet was that we were only a simple step away from observing the data. At the end of a day of interviewing, the data was transferred from the tablet PCs to my laptop (through a USB cable) and then compiled into an excel sheet through ODK briefcase (this could have been done through a server if internet was available, but that would have been too expensive in Lebanon).

Once I had the excel file I could look for outliers among the variables. I also looked out for any logical inconsistencies, such as those concerning education levels and age, or employment status and age. At the end of each day I prepared a report of these inconsistencies and met with the teams early the next morning before setting out for the next day of data collection.

Skipping patterns

The questionnaire used for this household survey was quite complicated as the sequence and inclusion of questions depend on the response to a previous question. In this case the skip codes can be automatically included into the ODK form. Data collectors saved time as they did not have to carefully think about which question to answer next. In addition, mistakes where data collectors miss a question or answer the wrong question were avoided.

Battery life

The tablets that we used had a short battery life and need to be recharged after three to four hours of interviewing. While we alia_bloghad set up two offices in Nahr el Bared camp and Beddawi camp for data collectors to recharge their tablets, they found that if electricity was available, respondents allowed them to charge their tablets while conducting the interview. In some settings where electricity is not readily available (or respondents are not as hospitable and cooperative), battery life can be problematic, and investing in long lasting batteries or extra batteries might be necessary. As I was taking the tablets back with me each day, I ended up charging all the tablets overnight as well. Lots of electricity sockets are a must if this is how you do it!

Back up

Data collectors were also worried that there was no back up to their interview other than the digital files on the tablets. A slip of the hand might delete a questionnaire, or the loss or theft of a tablet might mean the completed questionnaire would be lost forever. To avoid losing data like this, we had to transfer data to my laptop as soon as possible, and then back it up on Dropbox or a hard drive. Luckily no questionnaires were lost this time, but it might be worth having an internet connection so that forms can be sent to the server as soon as the interview is over.


A justifiable concern prior to fieldwork was that respondents, or potential respondents, might be intimidated by the electronic devices. While several respondents initially asked if they were being recorded, data collectors did not feel that respondents were intimidated. Interestingly, respondents were quite curious to know more about the devices and how they would be used in the interview. This curiosity served as an icebreaker in many interviews, and in others a starting point to explain the research project.


Unfortunately, being on a tight budget as a PhD student meant that I could not afford very good quality tablets, and I relied on 2nd hand tablets that had been used for data collection by my PhD supervisors in Maharashtra, India. After shipping the tablets from Mumbai to Beirut and uploading my form, I realised that the tablets did not display Arabic font! After a couple of days of worrying about this, I decided that we could use Latin characters transliterated from Arabic. This was not too much of a problem as most of the enumerators were used to using these characters on their mobiles or computers for sending messages, emails or chatting. In fact, one enumerator said she found it much easier.

The use of this open source technology was a huge (if not necessary) bonus on many levels, specifically in relieving the data collectors of the responsibility of following complicated skip codes and in aiding data validation. It was also interesting that the tablet PCs served as an icebreaker in this context, and I would love to know if this has been a similar experience for others.


Alia Aghajanian is a PhD student based within the Conflict and Violence research cluster at IDS.

A version of this post was first published on the Open Data Kit blog on January 6th 2015.

The Practice of a New Paradigm: Development Cooperation among Fragile States

By Ricardo SantosRGS_photo

Time and time again, the debate on aid and cooperation receives the news of paradigms being changed, of new actors entering the field, threatening or heralding the breaking of the old rules and the instatement of new ones. “Traditional” donors, especially those that seek to place (or keep) themselves in the leadership of either financial donations (such as the World Bank, OECD-DAC,…) or development thought (here again the World Bank and OECD-DAC but also countries like the US and the UK) have recently devoted resources into academic research to better understand the role of the Rising Powers in Development.

In the shade, however, an indeed revolutionary way of cooperating for development is taking shape. Stemming from the OECD-DAC’s acknowledgement that development aid to “fragile states” was facing unsurmountable challenges and successive failures, given the specific nature of these countries and under the leadership of the fledgling country of Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone and Liberia, a new group was formed. The G7+ group of conflict afflicted countries started from their own acknowledgement of fragility. It started also with the affirmation that such specific status, never experienced by the almost totality of donor countries, made the G7+ countries the “experts” in their own development path. This was a powerful statement! It also made each G7+ country a solidary peer of the others and potentially, given its own capacities, history and learnings, an actor of development cooperation. This, even if eventually borrowing inspiration in the Non-Aligned Movement, is, indeed a different paradigm in development cooperation! In the last months, Guinea-Bissau experienced such cooperation from a fellow G7+ country, Timor-Leste.

G7+ cooperation in practice

In the 12th of April 2012, democratic legitimacy in Guinea-Bissau was disrupted by a military coup. Most of the international community that promptly reacted (including the UN, African Union, US, Brazil, Russia, China and Lusophone Community) did not recognize validity to the exposed arguments for the coup, nor to the “transitional government”. However, ECOWAS did recognize it, creating a diplomatic stand-off. Only in January 2013 and in what was probably the first coordinated act of the Lusophone Community (CPLP), ECOWAS and the “transition regime” were driven to accept former Timorese President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate José Ramos Horta to lead the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Guinea-Bissau. Arguably, the Timorese experience of transition into regular political functioning after a 2006 civil strife that almost victimized Ramos Horta himself, was one of the reasons for his nomination.

Just recently, in the weekend of May 18th 2014, two years after the coup, an intense, peaceful and with record participation period of parliamentary and presidential elections was completed, returning Guinea-Bissau to institutional normalcy, without significant political contestation of the results. Throughout the preparation, most of the public narrative mimicked that of Timor: the need for openness between parties; the right to peaceful campaigning, highlighting contending parties’ rallies that occurred simultaneously, at close distance… and in peace; the need for transparent electoral process but also to an acceptance of the results by all parties and the military. During the same period, a Timorese blog, linked with the Timorese Presidency reflected on the governance aspects of regimes led by military juntas, using Latin American countries as case studies. Timor-Leste was probably reflecting on a process it was trying to assist.

A true diplomacy of solidarity

The process is just in its beginning. Meanwhile, Timor-Leste will lead CPLP from mid-2014 and is already intensifying the diplomatic and cooperation ties with other Portuguese Speaking Nations in Africa and even Portugal, the former colonizer, to which they offered to buy some of its rampant national debt (in a humbling turn of events for the European country). This small country’s diplomacy of solidarity, an expression that Brazilian President Lula da Silva used so many times, is taking shape. It is not a proud display of “successes” to share, like Brazil is doing, be it Bolsa Familia, ProSavana or the new project World Without Poverty, “a joint initiative focused on learning from the implementation of and innovations in poverty reduction programs in Brazil and sharing lessons from Brazil’s experience with the rest of the world”. It is not a “mutual benefit” Chinese model that invests in economic infrastructure such is recovering and widening railway routes linking original sites of raw natural resources to main ports (a model as old as industrial era colonialism). It isn’t conditional, paternalistic, nor seeks to impose the “right process of development” as so many times the “traditional” “Northern” aid model still finds itself being. It stems from shared challenges, the recognition that only positive collaborative relations can strengthen countries “in development” and the willingness to assist when need occurs, as the Timorese Resistance was assisted, namely by the African Portuguese Speaking countries and later Portugal and Brazil in the fight for independence.

At that time, some of the poorer countries in Africa assisted a weak and silenced effort of resistance that ultimately won. That ethos of cooperation and solidarity widens now the bonds between Timor, other CPLP countries and the G7+ countries. Maybe, this is a paradigm worth to learn more about… and foster.

Ricardo Goulão Santos is a PhD candidate working on education and employability in a post-conflict setting within the IDS Conflict, Violence and Development of the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction research team. He is also a visiting researcher at the National University of Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL).

Women’s ways of knowing?

By Alfredo Ortiz Aragón

A Ortiz side room blogIn my last post I shared how an organizational leader, “Ana”, called out my co-researcher Juan Carlos and me for not following through on problematic machista (male chauvinistic) behaviors that she periodically brought up in the action research (AR) process I was leading. In that post I simply reflected on the enormous, often unspoken power that facilitators and researchers have to include or exclude. In this post I wish to share some interesting implications this has regarding how extended epistemologies (i.e. multiple ways of knowing) actually generate the diversity needed to shift patterns of communicative interaction (see this post for another example).

Hearing the voice of diverse perspectives

Whether or not the facilitators or other participants attracted around the machista theme, machismo is clearly a recurring problem theme in this organization’s programmatic work and in Peruvian society more generally (and everywhere else!).  In retrospect it is clear that the AR process Juan Carlos and I co-facilitated did not in fact address machismo as an organizational problematic theme.  In other words, our methodology did not help give voice to an important perspective.  The term “give voice” is not arbitrary.  In their study on women’s ways of knowing, Belenky et al (1986, 1997) identified different characteristics of ways of knowing that were common to the women in their study (common, but not exclusive to women[1]). An important early distinction they made was that “voice” was more than shorthand for women’s perspective.  Instead, “voice” was connected to women’s understanding of their own intellectual and ethical development: ‘[T]he development of a sense of voice, mind and self were intricately intertwined’ (ibid).  Many of the things the women in that study spoke about to describe their lives centered on voice and silence, for example: ‘ “speaking up”, “speaking out”, “being silenced”, “not being heard”, “really listening”, “really talking”, “words as weapons”, “feeling deaf and dumb”, “having no words”, … “listening to be heard”, and so on’ (ibid).  This raises the question of how well the methods Juan Carlos and I chose took into account female voices at all (i.e. even beyond Ana’s contention).  In other words, did the two males who were in charge of most methodological decisions (with enormous power to enable, constrain, include or exclude with our decisions) give any thought to women’s preferred learning styles, or did we assume that pedagogical techniques appropriate for men are appropriate for women (Belenky et al., 1986, 1997: 5)?

Creative and reflective methods are not enough

Although Juan Carlos and I never intentionally approached an exercise from an explicitly feminine perspective, it is possible that some of the “creative” and reflective techniques we did use may have been compatible with some women’s ways of knowing, just as it is possible that some methods did not speak to or give voice to some men, or other identity groups in the action research. José, for example, told us in in a workshop that he was feeling a “drawing overload” of sorts.  A debate in another workshop generated strong feelings of exclusion with some participants.  The problem is that we as designers and facilitators assumed that creative techniques generally respond to people’s needs and learning styles and help grapple with complexity.

I can now see that this is not necessarily the case.  We did not think enough about what sorts of methods might generate specific diversity that was important for understanding complex realities, and for giving voice to diverse participants.  Yet there is much to be learned about what different ways of knowing really means to different people with different views of reality.  Some common elements of women’s ways of knowing might be helpful for engaging in “fluid conversation”—a communicative state  akin to “edge of chaos” in which patterns of organizational interaction may be predisposed to shift into a new attractor (Stacey, 2007).  For example, an emphasis on connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and collaboration over debate (Belenky et al., 1986, 1997: 229) are useful attributes to consider regardless of gender, but they didn’t naturally emerge from mine and Juan Carlos’ methodological selection!

Open questions for action researchers

How do action researchers (including capacity building facilitators) deal with new ideas and both see and hear perspectives that need voice—including deviant or eccentric behaviors, or unofficial ideologies, that may be helpful in undermining problematic power relations (Stacey, 2007: 446). How might action research not only utilize extended epistemologies, but actually introduce methods that speak from neglected perspectives (or ask those that bring the issue forward to do so)?  Whose experiences and complexity does a given action research method favor and whose does it exclude? With whose ways of knowing does it resonate?  To what extent does it help surface the diversity that is needed to challenge dominant patterns of relating; to what extent does it reinforce those patterns? These questions have both practical and ethical consequences, and require ongoing critical reflection.


Alfredo Ortiz Aragón is an IDS PhD graduate. His research investigated how can systemic methodology help strengthen organizational capacities for grappling with social change in complex environments. In other words, if social change is complex and contested, and not straightforward and controllable, what should be different about organizational capacity building?  How should capacity building be different in complex environments? 



BELENKY, M. F., CLINCHY, B. M., GOLDBERGER, N. R. & TARULE, J. M. 1986, 1997. Women’s Ways Of Knowing: The Development Of Self, Voice, And Mind New York, Basic Books.

STACEY, R. D. 2007. Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity, Harlow, Pearson Educational Limited.


[1] It is important to not generalize half the world’s population to specific “types” of ways of knowing.  All people have different levels of both masculine and feminine ways of knowing, although many of these are culturally rooted-out early in life.  I simply wish to point out that some ways of knowing are different between diverse participants, and gender—in all of its combinations—is a source of this diversity that is often neglected by capacity building  facilitators and action-researchers.

The power to exclude and include through action research

By Alfredo Ortiz AragónA Ortiz side room blog

In a previous blog post (see “Do participatory CB methods really engage people’s diversity?”) I reflected on how people’s participation is enabled and constrained, included and excluded by all intervention method, including capacity building methods. When these methods neglect to take into account the diverse ways people express themselves and learn, participation may become unduly constrained, depriving people of their legitimate voice and depriving groupings of people of the diversity that is needed to generate learning and change in complex environments. This post builds on that previous post, but speaks more directly to how all methodological decisions enable some participant ideas and constrain others, and thereby generate dynamics of inclusion and exclusion which affect learning and change.

I offer an example from an end of year workshop I co-facilitated with my co-action-researcher, Juan Carlos Giles, intended to clarify the focus for 2011 organizational activities of an activist organization we were working with in Peru. On day three of the workshop, Juan-Carlos and I introduced the issue of problematic power relationships that had been present when our action-research began 18 months earlier.  The reason for introducing this theme was because we knew it to still be problematic, yet participants had not yet chosen to address it in any meaningful way in the first two days.   After a rich session of analysis and reflection, the newly named organizational leader, “Ana”, openly reflected howoutside of consultative sessions with Juan-Carlos and me—most methodological decisions until this workshop had been left up to “the facilitators”. She added that this has implications for the types of issues which were addressed in the action research (AR) process. For example, although she frequently brought up her perceptions of problematic machista (male chauvinistic) behaviors in her organization, Juan-Carlos and I—either by design or omission—rarely followed through on those issues. She felt we were quick, however, to follow through on issues of problematic power relations related to organizational leaders.  Later in the reflection, other organizational participants agreed that they too had played too passive a role in shaping the action-research methodology.

Ana’s observation is consistent with critiques from feminist systems theory (FST) that women’s perceptions may be taken as either unimportant or parallel to those of men, and thereby go unaddressed (Stephens, 2012). Relative methodological autonomy in this process gave me and Juan-Carlos enormous power in dealing with themes of our choosing. Even though we consulted and co-designed the overall emerging process with this organization, methodologically, we were given huge license to read situations and propose methods as we saw fit. We were undoubtedly influenced by our worldviews and preferences. For example, while I personally do care about how machista culture constrains opportunities for women, I do not see it as my primary battle and I do not become passionate about it.  But without concepts of feminist pedagogy in our approaches we fail to really “see” issues with gender and patriarchy—forms of power that ‘build… a vivid, internalized construct about how we learn and how our learning contributes to social change’ (Pettit, 2012: 24).   Juan-Carlos and I later discussed this issue and fully accepted Ana’s reasoning that we had consciously or unconsciously neglected to follow through on those issues as she raised them.

We were not alone in this. When Ana would raise these issues, other organizational members did not enable this line of argument either.  Conversation did not ensue on this theme because that which participants did not feel to be a personal battle (or whatever their reasons for omission) did not resonate enough to shift patterns of communication.  In complexity terms, the diversity introduced by Ana could not overcome the lack of excitement on this issue by other participants—i.e. no attractor emerged.

Our (Juan Carlos and me) selection of methods was inevitably shaped by our understanding of emerging priorities.  But our methodological actions promoted and restricted participation, diverse meanings and fluid communication that may have been needed to shift patterns of interaction in this organization.  By being unreflective about our methodological power to include or exclude we may uphold and “make local” (i.e. reproduce) unjust societal power relations that deprive people of meaning, or even their very livelihoods.

So what is the facilitator’s role?  If machismo is a real problem, and I believe it is, then might the facilitators have a particular responsibility to pay closer attention and draw it out—“give it a full hearing” as it were?  In retrospect, I think the answer is yes.  But how likely are we, two males, to do so?  That is the focus of my next post.

[Note: participants have given permission to share their stories from the action research discussed above.  Participant names are fictitious but refer to actual participants].

Alfredo Ortiz Aragón is an IDS PhD graduate. His research investigated how can systemic methodology help strengthen organizational capacities for grappling with social change in complex environments. In other words, if social change is complex and contested, and not straightforward and controllable, what should be different about organizational capacity building?  How should capacity building be different in complex environments? 



PETTIT, J. 2012. Getting to Grips with Power: Action Learning for Social Change in the UK. IDS Bulletin, 43, 11-26.

STEPHENS, A. 2012. Feminist Systems Theory: Learning by Praxis. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 25, 1-14.

On Openness: What’s holding back efficient collaboration on complex issues in international development?

This post was previously published on the IDS Participation, power and social change blog on 23th January 2013. 

Hani MorsiHani Morsi photo mini

It is high time the development research community started learning from computer scientists, who have long realised that tackling complex problems is most optimally done by distributing effort and resources. In the computing world, the term ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving‘ (CDPS) refers to a system whereby, a network of independent, often geographically distant, computing devices can work together to solve a given problem.

In my research, I look at how some of these new modes of technologically-catalysed collaboration influence relationships in spheres of political contention, specifically in environments experiencing tempestuoustransitions and high degrees of uncertainty. Networked communities and the exponentially evolving information and communication technologies are increasingly providing better means for:

  • collaborative knowledge production
  • distributed problem-solving
  • flattening hierarchies of leadership and decision making.

Disciplinary islands

Development academia is cognizant that adapting to an increasingly complex world requires tapping into new, or at least unconventional, approaches to participation. There is no shortage of studies on addressing complexity, participatory knowledge creation, and technologically-facilitated collaboration in contemporary development literature. There is also plenty of innovative thinking going on, but the problem is that this thinking often seems to be happening in disciplinary islands without much interconnectedness, which is something that I have alluded to in aprevious blog post. Yet I want to highlight that the greatest limitation to the formation of such networks of collaboration is not a dearth of willingness of those concerned, but restricted access to the necessary channels of knowledge.

picture of lonely island

photo credit: Sinead Friel, creative commons license

Research behind paywalls
As much as the notion of ‘openness’ pervades contemporary discourses in development, there is perverse, almost deliberate, disregard to the fact that much of the research on ‘open development’, open data, access to knowledge and other relevant themes is, paradoxically, behind paywalls. A researcher succinctly bemoaned this in this recent tweet. Indeed, there are increasing voices of discontent, but what is still missing is a more vocal critique of this glaring dissonance.

Amartya Sen observed that the main culprit of food shortages is not the lack of food, but the inequalities inherent in how food is distributed. The same observation rings true if we consider the problem with the economy of ideas in international development research. Innovative thinking and possibilities for collaborative research and knowledge production are not scarce, yet the disconnected knowledge silos in which bits and pieces of the puzzle are scattered, largely due to the outmoded academic publishing systems, are  holding back the realisation of a big part of this potential. That is, the aging and now irrelevant distribution channels of knowledge are the main problem. The elephant in the room of development research is the false openness which is only starting to be, somewhat timidly, acknowledged by a small but increasing number of academics.

So, the main constraint-to a truly inclusive global collaboration on the world’s most pressing issues-is access, not willingness. To further illustrate this, let’s extend the parallel between distributed computing and emerging paradigms of knowledge sharing and collaboration. For a ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving’ system to work, the most fundamental requirement is openness. That is, inputs to the system must not be centrally stored or controlled. Applying this imperative to collaboration in development research, it quickly becomes obvious that the inputs (mostly western-produced research) are heavily centralised, mostly behind publishing paywalls. While there is a rapidly growing interest in open access publishing, the fact that restricted access to research is probably the largest bottleneck to a true co-production of knowledge still doesn’t seem to be adequately recognised.

Complicity in upholding the walled gardens of knowledge
I believe that we, as development researchers and academics, should actively advocate the open access movement and staunchly champion a more rapid shift in the aging paradigms of academic publishing. Otherwise, we concede an undeniable (if sometimes indirect) complicity in upholding these walled gardens of knowledge. We also risk letting ‘openness’ become yet another buzzword with a diluted, nebulous meaning. Choosing to publish your research in open access journals does not only facilitate the creation of new knowledge, but also has been shown to amplify research impact. The emerging technological facilitators of our hyper-connected world are rapidly relegating conventional modes of institutional knowledge production and brokering, which are not only restrictive but also resource-draining, to obsolescence. The desirable path forward is one where the notion of ‘openness’ oft advocated in contemporary development discourses is mirrored in the knowledge pathways through which such discourses flow.

Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can also be found on Twitter:@hanimorsi

“AIDS has a woman’s face”, or does it? Beyond the Gender and HIV Dyad

By Elizabeth Mllls

This post was previously published on the IDS Knowledge, Technology and Society blog on 29th November. 

As we approach World AIDS Day, and move into 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, I am prompted again, to reflect on some of the important links between gender-based violence and HIV, and also some of the problematic assumptions that perpetuate uncritical thinking on the gender-HIV dyad.

A Discomfort with Development Categories

Meet Zama, a 33-year old South African woman and an old friend of mine; she has been an AIDS activist and professional HIV treatment literacy practitioner in South Africa since the height of AIDS denial in the early 2000s.  Zama lives in Khayelitsha, which means ‘new home’ in isiXhosa. Its name is rather cynical, given that in this area homes are rarely ever permanently sunk into the earth. Space matters here when the only source of water is a leaky tap, whose muddy veins run down unlit side alleys where women risk rape when they leave their homes at night, or when all adults and children risk electrocution (from illegal wires that wind through the sand) when walking to the single toilet that also serves their 500 – 1000 closest neighbours. Khayelitsha is also the space where women have stood with men, in conjunction with the Treatment Action Campaign and Médecins Sans Frontières, to call on the state to provide essential AIDS medicines; it is the place where these medicines were first made available through the MSF trial in 2001.

Like almost 33% of Khayelitsha’s residents, Zama is also HIV-positive; and like almost two million South Africans, she is on ARVs. She explains,

“It’s like when the skies fight, when the clouds are angry and dark. They crash into each other and lightning flies across the sky. You never know where the lightning is going to hit. That’s what it’s like with HIV” (Zama, 2011).

In this conversation, Zama told me how she had initially found it difficult to negotiate safe sex, or sex at all, when she was a young woman. Zama had been wary of narrating this ‘illness history’ because it colluded with the ‘development category’ of the poor, black HIV-positive woman who was unable to actively navigate her own life. In fact, she eschewed labels like ‘HIV-positive woman’ and considered herself to have substantial personal power to negotiate her current sexual, socio-economic and political relationships.

Looking beyond Victimhood: Between Agency and Structure

While the presence of gender inequality, and its brutal manifestation as sexual violence in girls’ and women’s lives, is a strong feature of my work, I – like Zama – have been confronted by the explanatory limitations of epidemiological assertions that stipulated a correlation between gender inequality and higher rates of HIV infection among women compared to men. I do not dispute this correlation; my research has been informed by the multiple and intersecting inequalities that seemed to drive HIV, in epidemiological terms, into women’s lives and bodies. This was most striking when, in 2008, young women in South Africa were almost four times as likely to be HIV-positive compared to young men of the same age (20 – 24) (Johnson et al., 2013, Dorrington et al., 2006).  Overall prevalence in this age group has subsequently declined, but the characteristics of prevalence according to sex remained the same: young women are still more likely to be HIV-positive than men (UNAIDS, 2012).

Studies link these statistics to sexual violence. Articles with titles like “AIDS has a woman’s face” or “Troubling the angels” proliferated in research that explored this correlation.  Other research suggested that sexual violence and its relationship to HIV occurs against an inflected backdrop of pervasive and entangled inequalities in South Africa, where gender, sexuality, race and class powerfully intersect to reinforce poor Black women’s vulnerability (Dworkin et al., 2012, Jewkes and Morrell, 2012).

Although these studies give texture to the correlation between gender inequality and high rates of HIV incidence among women compared to men, they may also (unwittingly) support a paradigm that has fuelled development interventions to ‘empower’ women by foregrounding women’s relative lack of power compared to men. Ascribing HIV transmission, in epidemiological terms, to entrenched gender inequality does not, in itself, engage with the complex pathways that women navigate between desire and risk in their sexual relationships, and in extremely difficult socio-economic contexts.  In this respect, my research shows that women are subtly, and sometimes with great difficulty, negotiating their intimate relationships with men by forming separate households and by working and establishing their financial independence. This was not a straightforward matter of asserting agency or submitting to intersecting structures of inequality.

The Biopolitics of Violence: Bringing a Global Network of Actors into View

In my research on gender and HIV, and now as I convene the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme at the Institute of Development Studies, I suggest that we – researchers, policy makers, activists – need to be careful about situating vulnerability in individual bodies and relationships. I propose that we nuance our analyses to look at how people’s bodies and lives are located in a far more complex network of actors. I suggest, then, that the gender-HIV dyad is problematic not only because it positions women as passive victims of men who are, conversely, held to be active perpetrators (or even more unhelpfully, ‘vectors of transmission’). More fundamentally, it is problematic because these discourses direct our attention towards individuals or ‘cultures of inequality’ and away from the biopolitics of violence in which national, regional and global actors are implicated.

While we certainly need to address the manifestation of inequality in people’s lives, the bolts of lightening, we also need to explore the context – the skies that fight – in which women’s lives are located. This includes a recognition: of the subtle ways that women hold agency, albeit fraught and contested; that men are a part of the solution in working towards equality; and that national, regional and global actors need to be held to account for the ways they intimately affect our lives, from a distance, at the most molecular level.

Elizabeth Mills is a Research Fellow in the IDS Knowledge, Technology and Science research team. She works on health, citizenship and HIV/AIDS. 

Dorrington, R., Johnson, L., Bradshaw, D. & Daniel, T. (2006) The demographic impact of HIV/AIDS in South Africa: National and provincial indicators for 2006. Cape Town.

Dworkin, S. L., Colvin, C., Hatcher, A. & Peacock, D. (2012) Men’s Perceptions of Women’s Rights and Changing Gender Relations in South Africa Lessons for Working With Men and Boys in HIV and Antiviolence Programs. Gender & Society, 26, 97-120.

Jewkes, R. & Morrell, R. (2012) Sexuality and the limits of agency among South African teenage women: Theorising femininities and their connections to HIV risk practises. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 1729-1737.

Johnson, L. F., Mossong, J., Dorrington, R. E., Schomaker, M., Hoffmann, C. J., Keiser, O., Fox, M. P., Wood, R., Prozesky, H. & Giddy, J. (2013) Life Expectancies of South African Adults Starting Antiretroviral Treatment: Collaborative Analysis of Cohort Studies. PLoS medicine, 10, e1001418.

UNAIDS (2012) World AIDS Day Report – Results 2012. UNAIDS.

Resilient autocrats, networked movements and the digital beachheads of enduring activism

Hani MorsiHani Morsi

In a previous blog post, I cautioned against the perils of rushing to conclusions about the implications of the political use of networks in recent global outbreaks of mass dissent, especially the Arab uprisings. Not only because we are just beginning to untangle the new complexities of political engagement in a hyperconnected world, but for a much more fundamental reason. Before thinking about the implications of the new technological tools, platforms and networks appropriated by individuals, social movements as well as governments for political ends, a key fact should be contemplated: There is nothing new about the ‘why’ of activism. That is, the historical universalism of the triggers of such movements warrants more attention to the technological catalysts, or the “how”, of an increasingly accelerating pace of global social and political change. To explain further, the reasons why people protest, organize and rally to challenge authoritarianism, oppression and injustice have undergone much less change – if at all – compared to the ways by which they go about staging such acts of rebellion. While this might seem like a rather elementary observation, I do believe it is central to understanding complex dynamics at the intersection of power, citizen participation and emerging communication technologies.  Considering how the technologies in question can be used for both well-intentioned and nefarious ends (by both individuals or governments) an important question to pose becomes: How effective is the use of networked technologies for challenging oppression in contexts where authoritarianism is deeply rooted and state violence is continuously deployed to silence dissent? Can technologically-savvy social movements play the ‘long game’ against deeply entrenched structures of control and hierarchies of power?

Revolution inspired street art in downtown Cairo. Picture taken by author in late 2012.

Revolution-inspired street art in downtown Cairo. Picture taken by the author in late 2012.

Looking at the Egyptian political arena can yield some insights, but it is too early to be certain of anything seeing how the scene in post-Mubarak Egypt has been one of chaotic and often violent contention since January 2011. The somberness of the national mood is matched by a strong sense of pessimism in predictions about the sociopolitical trajectories the country is taking, notwithstanding analytical errors about several facets of the current power struggle by many western observers (See Mariz Tardos’ blog post from July 2013 for more on this). All indicators seem to evince is that the popular drive for a genuine democratic transformation in Egypt has all but returned to square one: a reproduction of the authoritarian structures of the past several decades.

Yet most of the dismal analyses on Egypt is based on ‘classical’ understandings of power and politics, and as such often seem to miss several subtleties that reveal how resistance to cyclical authoritarianism still thrives in the country, even in the wake of a rapid succession of disappointments. Revolutionary resistance in Egypt is far from dormant. With unrelenting commitment to dispelling the notion of false options Egyptians have been presented with for many decades, networked movements continue to find innovative ways to negotiate and contest power in battlegrounds of political, gender and social rights. Campaigns and groups like Mosireen, HarassMap and Masmou3, among others, mesh online tools with offline organizing to create new breeds of enduring activism, pump new life into the collective desire for change, and create digital ‘beachheads’ of sure-footed resistance against injustice.

Beyond Egypt, many (if not most) of the episodes of large-scale collective action around the world in the past three years have demonstrated that it is not beyond reason to say that these ripples of technologically-accelerated change will not only affect how citizens everywhere go about claiming their rights and engaging their governments, but – from a long-term perspective and by consequence – they will also shift how structures of governance and authority are constructed. The period of metamorphosis that comes between challenging political orthodoxy and the creation of new modalities of participation comes with its own risks, as evident in chaotic transformation processes witnessed beyond the Arab citizen uprisings, largely due to vacuums in the political arenas appropriated by new hegemonic projects. Yet such messy transitions do not come as a surprise, being the direct result of long-standing political exclusion and stifled freedoms. What will be indeed surprising, to end with a bold prediction, is how quickly established political systems will lose their self-evidence and fail to maintain a non-contested legitimacy, faced with a persevering and technologically-empowered popular drives for change that creatively remain one step ahead of renewed authoritarian aspirations.

Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.