Governance in Conflict-Affected Regions of Mozambique, Myanmar, and Pakistan

In the last online DeLoG and DiaLoGue session in March, the scientists Anuradha Joshi and Miguel Loureiro from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) presented the Governance at the Margins research project which aimed to understand how poor and marginalized households in conflict-affected regions of Mozambique, Myanmar, and Pakistan perceive governance and how conflicts influence experiences.

In the first phase of the project from 2017-2019, called Governance Diaries, field researchers visited and interviewed over 160 households across the three countries monthly for 12 months to identify governance issues that came up for families, actors involved in resolving them, and how successful they were. In the second phase from 2019-2020, the researchers focused on findings from the first phase and identified 80 key intermediaries in the communities who were important in solving local governance problems and connecting these households with public authorities. They used similar research methods to visit and interview these intermediaries regularly over 12 months to understand their strategies for resolving issues and navigating multiple authorities. The project also investigated the roles of intermediaries and community-level problem-solving during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Governance at the Margins project is part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) research program.


Multiple Authorities

The importance of multiple and diverse public authorities in decision-making and governance extends beyond the official government and includes both formal and informal actors. Programmes and policies often overlook this diversity and focus only on the government. A wide range of external authorities, including national and sub-national governments, non-state administrations, armed actors, political parties, land holders, traditional assemblies and leaders, corporations, and various public and private service providers, are seen by community members as holding responsibility for some public decisions, goods and services. These authorities may not have a formal mandate but are often more effective in resolving issues than the government. Differing views on the legitimacy of different authorities also affect who people will engage with and on what. There are often overlaps between authorities, whether cooperating or actively competing with one another, and people choose whom to approach based on the authority’s history of effectiveness and timeliness in resolving issues, proximity, costs, and how they treat people. The diversity of authorities mattered in all research locations, rural and urban, and was important even where the state or formal authorities were very visible. Practitioners need to assume the diversity of important authorities, seek a deeper understanding of their roles, and be explicit about ideological differences.



Intermediaries play a crucial role in local governance, connecting people to higher authorities and decision-makers and sometimes exercising authority themselves. Their behavior and choices can amplify or confound attempts to improve local governance and public services. Intermediaries can act as navigators of diverse sources of authority, across formal and informal local governance systems. They mediate relationships between authorities and community members and resolve problems within the community. Intermediaries can focus on different issues and may use different tactics to influence decisions outside of formal channels. While some undertake their role as a duty or obligation, many have other incentives for accepting these positions, such as social status or financial reward. Intermediaries are often more trusted and able to deliver for communities than formal or more distant higher-level authorities. Intermediaries can have different characteristics, from political party brokers to retired government officials, and are often seen as having a legitimate right to act and take decisions on behalf of the community. Their legitimacy and importance come from personality traits, abilities, histories, resources, or connections, as well as the identity they represent.


Local Networks

Local communities are governed through diverse networks that do not conform to standard governance structures. Development programmes and policies often assume uniform governance systems across wide territories, neglecting the variation within regions. Networks of public authority include various actors, such as religious authorities, service providers, companies, and organized collectives. Individuals identified as important and trusted to act, rather than the institutions they represent, are often the key players in these networks. The relative importance of various authorities and the specific authorities within a network vary significantly across contexts within one country. These networks have the potential to exacerbate inequalities in social capital, privileging local elites and marginalizing other groups. Identifying networks, intermediaries, and authorities from the perspective of the people whom the programme is seeking to reach is crucial in the analytical work of development programmes. Understanding these network dynamics and identifying where informal power lies requires context-specific analysis. Designing programmes that are uniform across locations while recognizing the variation in decision-making and power structures is a significant challenge.


Self-Provision and Expectations

Many people and intermediaries prefer to resolve issues locally rather than involving higher-level public authorities or duty-bearers. This preference may be due to a lack of trust in authorities, historic under-provision of services, distance from officials, political and social divides, and negative experiences seeking official solutions. Low expectations of authorities and the cost of approaching them, including social capital, language skills, and unfamiliar behavior, also contribute to the prevalence of self-provision. Self-provision refers to situations where solutions are found without involving higher-level authorities or official duty-bearers. Community support for self-provision solutions is often linked to cultural appropriateness and a sense of justice, regardless of broader policy or legislation. There are risks associated with supporting local solutions rather than replacing them, particularly for women and their rights. Practitioners suggest identifying situations where self-reliance is a necessity and strengthening internal accountability within local provision systems.


Power Structures

Women often need to rely on local patriarchal power structures to access services or resolve issues, but this doesn’t mean they cannot be successful. In highly patriarchal societies, women intermediaries are sometimes able to play wider intermediary roles and are regarded as more successful than men in these roles. They at times have a wider reach within populations as they can mobilize both women and men to protest or take collective action. However, women intermediaries often face barriers to entry, which can be related to their status and class, or a personal history of determination and campaigning to resolve issues. To support women intermediaries, it is essential to identify them and try to break down the barriers to entry. It is also crucial to work out whether to support alternative roles or to create space for new forms of leadership to emerge. Practitioners recommend identifying women leaders and focusing on who women rely on and trust.



Anuradha Joshi, Miguel Loureiro and the other researchers from IDS, IESE, HRCP, and Oxfam identified six cross-cutting challenges and dilemmas through the discussions with practitioners:


  1. One of these challenges is whether to work with or against existing power structures. Although working with the grain can achieve results quickly, it may reinforce discriminatory practices. Developing parallel systems may be more transformative but may not solve immediate problems. Engaging with existing informal actors on moving towards more inclusive behaviors may be a middle way.
  2. Decision-making at the community level is complex and intricate, particularly in conflict-affected areas. It needs to be considered how policies at a higher level are experienced by people on the ground, and which issues are best dealt with at a community level.
  3. Engaging with local politics may be necessary for meaningful change, but this may come with risks associated with politicization.
  4. The diversity of local practices and actors challenges assumptions that can scale up an approach after piloting it in one locality. Instead, smaller-scale and contextually-tailored approaches should be applied.
  5. There is a need to support more inclusive and representative forms of leadership and community representation.
  6. Working on local governance practices and actors can be a distraction from larger problems of public service delivery, and the need to find a balance between the two.


Further information: 

Development Policy Review: Special Issue: Citizen Action for Accountability Contexts, Volume 41, Issue S1, March 2023 – Link

IDS: Understanding Governance from the Margins: What Does It Mean In Practice?, 2021 – Link

IDS: Analysing informal local governance institutions: practical guidance, 2016 – Link