Do you have the power to influence your own life?

IIED is keen to open up dialogue across the mining sector, including the voices of the marginalised. Here, Liz Carlile explores the importance of having a voice.

Liz Carlile's picture
Insight by 
Liz Carlile
Liz Carlile is director of communications at IIED
06 March 2015
The Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation secures houses, sanitation and land rights for members. Communication and participation are central to the way it works (Photo: Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), Creative Commons via Flickr)

The Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation secures houses, sanitation and land rights for members. Communication and participation are central to the way it works (Photo: Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), Creative Commons via Flickr)

Does your voice carry enough weight to inform key decisions made on your behalf? Are you heard or taken seriously by family, friends, peers, colleagues? Do you live in a society that is democratic or a work environment where policies and practice are safeguarded to ensure your wellbeing?   

I am very lucky. I would expect to be able to say yes to most of these. I live in a developed country with a strong tradition of democracy (despite recent hints at corruption and misuse of power). I work in an environment that is both caring and protected by a trade union and in a society that professes gender equality.  

But for many, particularly the world's three billion poorest and most vulnerable – almost half the global population – this is not the reality.

They do not have the potential for using their "voice" in the way that I do and instead are continually marginalised. Policies, practices and processes ride roughshod over their needs, shaped instead by the vested interests of the more powerful. Another telling statistic is that nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their name, yet we know that the language of global power and government is the written word. 

What is 'voice'?

For the sake of a definition, I liked this one by Michele Maiese, "'Voice' refers to the ability to engage in meaningful conversation, to make a difference through what one says, and to have a say in key decisions".

Maiese states that if you have that voice you are "recognised" and validated and thereby empowered to take action and have an impact. When it comes to solving the world's complex problems – climate change adaptation, poverty eradication – we need everyone to be involved, everyone to share their knowledge and experience, to reflect on past actions and change behaviours accordingly.

In IIED we prioritise partnership. We see our role as bringing local knowledge into global perspectives. We understand agency and document how the poorest can organise successfully for change. 

Our work with artisanal miners – who currently represent 100 million people across 80 countries worldwide – is just one of many strands of work where we are opening a new dialogue bringing members of the artisanal mining community into conversation with the large-scale mining community (LSM) to facilitate mutual learning.

Who are the marginalised?

Marginalised voices are not necessarily just those of the poorest or vulnerable – other perspectives might also be overlooked. Our mining work provides a good example – to unravel the challenges we need to hear from geologists, mine workers, engineers, mine managers and so on; views often marginalised when discussions become polarised.

So how do we get these important but marginalised voices to the table? I know we are not collectively unaware of the challenges we face. This is not just about communication or interpretation – this is also about fear, power, context, language etc.

John Gaventa – who worked with the US Apalachian Miners in the 1980s – developed thinking around the powercube and described different forms of power – visible, hidden and invisible.

In this context, invisible power is the most interesting as it suggests how communities can be rendered voiceless on issues of direct relevance to them as a result of the persistent influence of dominating ideologies promoted by the more powerful interests. For the marginalised, conversations based on mutuality understanding and accessibility (Lederach) are fraught with difficulty and a complex mix of all three manifestations of power.

Making dialogue possible

Creating a full and open dialogue between artisanal miners and the large-scale mining interests is not easy. Examples of bad practice, corruption, and criminality run rife and there has been little opportunity to push misconceptions aside. At the end of April, IIED is convening a meeting between the ASM and LSM communities to seek a longer term engagement to facilitate this clearing of the air. Our legitimacy is only secure if we can be sure that the full range of voices are heard.

We will share these wider perspectives in the dialogue and reflect back with the communities themselves on their ideas. We are also inviting people to share their experiences of marginalised voices and will run a series of guest blogs on key themes before the event – we would welcome your engagement through comments on our webpage.

Sharing knowledge and learning

Through my work with the Climate Change Communication and Social Learning (CCSL) initiative I know that sharing knowledge and learning together needs well facilitated processes that give people round the table legitimacy, that recognise culture, language, gender, age.

We also know that spaces for dialogue and exchange need to be carefully planned and organised or they too can enforce the tyranny of power and control by vested interests. We have thought carefully about the mix of people around the table but are aware of our limitations.

As think tanks we can do more to share the concerns and issues of the communities with whom we work. We can amplify those issues and ensure voices are carried further. By sharing what we know, by making our information more accessible and by investing key resources into helping to amplify our beneficiaries’ needs.

I was re-reading a piece by James Georgalakis from 2013 that remains just as true – a "strong marketing strategy, especially at an institutional level, will increase credibility, assist with positioning in a crowded marketplace, help increase demand for evidence and ultimately help bring the marginalised voices of the poor to the attention of those making the decisions that affect their lives". We work hard to get support to do this well and it is very well worth the effort.

Liz Carlile ([email protected]) is director of communications at IIED.