Seeing the big picture through everyday lives

In a green sunhat to protect from the blazing African sun, Frances Cleaver smiles to the camera carrying a roll of large papers beside a pile of what appear to be sandbags. Behind her a local resident is cycling through the village

Professor Frances Cleaver has been fascinated with how progressive policies can transform everyday lives since she was a child exploring the East End of London with her grandfather.

“My grandparents were very poor for much of their lives and politically active in the Labour and trade union movements. My grandfather would show me places where, as a younger man, he had worked as a casual labourer and churches which offered soup kitchens. For them, the NHS and state pensions made a huge difference to their quality of life.”

Today Frances specialises in studying how political action to deliver improvements to water management and agriculture play out on the ground, and why institutions set up to deliver change often end up reinforcing existing privilege and power.

Frances has joined the Lancaster Environment Centre as the UK’s only Professor of Political Ecology, which explores how politics, economics and culture interacts with environmental issues.

After studying history and then international relations at university, Frances joined the NHS as a management trainee, but her long-term aim was to work in Africa.

She worked at Barnsley General Hospital in the highly politicised atmosphere of the 1984-5 Miners Strike.

“I spent the first year shadowing everyone’s job from a nurse to a porter and a mortuary assistant. It gave me a real insight into people’s lives: it made me realise that how things work in reality depends on how policies are translated on the ground by different people who have all sorts of other things going on in their lives.”

After a couple of years, Frances won a Rotary Scholarship to study for a diploma in rural development at the University of Zimbabwe, just as the newly independent country was becoming a magnet for students from all over Southern Africa. Before the course started, she spent three months as a volunteer administrator in a district hospital in rural Zimbabwe.

“They didn’t have many staff so on the second day they pulled me out of the office and asked me to help with a caesarean: there I was, holding open a wound so they could pull the baby out, and swatting away the flies.

“There were commercial orange and cotton estates nearby where conditions were very bad: labourers would come to the hospital with terrible things like pesticide poisoning. It gave me an understanding of the everyday risks many people face due to the unequal distribution of resources in society.”

For her diploma dissertation, she went to live with a female pump mechanic in the countryside to study water management.

“I cycled around with her talking to local people. Development agencies were saying that communities can manage their own development and I was seeing how this worked in practice. I began understanding that systems designed on paper in capital cities don’t quite work out as intended on the ground.”

After finishing her diploma, Frances found work with the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health on a plan to provide basic drinking water and sanitation nationwide, supporting provincial offices to translate national policy into practical programmes and training communities to carry the work out.

When her work permit ran out, Frances returned to the UK to join the University of Bradford, helping to train Indian public health engineers in water planning.

Eventually she decided she wanted to focus more on academic research. She enrolled in a part time PhD, returning to Zimbabwe to explore how the delivery of drinking water systems were impacted by the local environment, land ownership, beliefs and politics.

“People hadn’t looked at water supplies in that way before. I went to live in a village with a family, trying to understand the place of water in people’s lives, how authority was exercised, how water was tied up with their beliefs, and with access to land and economic power.”

The trend in international aid at that time was towards community-based management of development projects.

“My work was amongst the first to question that approach, to show that if you require local people to manage their water you are often reinforcing existing imbalances of gender and ownership.”

Having worked in the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health on the national plan for water, she was fascinated to see how it was being implemented.

“Living in a village, I realised that the so-called Water Point Committee took a very different form than that prescribed. It was built on existing arrangements, which might involve the head man and more traditional ways of collecting money. It was more than just adapting to local conditions: they pieced the Committee together in a way that fitted with their ideas of social order and appropriate authority.

She was later to coin the term ‘institutional bricolage’, to describe this patching together of old practices and accepted norms with new arrangements.

As the political situation in Zimbabwe became more difficult, Frances refocused her work in Tanzania, evaluating development programmes for the UK Government, and expanding her expertise to cover land and agricultural management. In the Usangu plains in south-west of the country she tracked the same households and institutions over time to explore how to make community involvement in managing natural resources more equitable.

“Institutions elude design and develop in ways you don’t predict, they are constantly changing, being high jacked or cannibalised. You can’t just set these things off and then leave them alone. Ongoing support may be needed to address unequal power relationships and to ensure representation of the weakest and poorest.

“I strongly believe in the potential for planned interventions to make a difference, that they can reshape society by allocating resources to one area or another. But they won’t get anywhere unless there are more effective devolved working arrangements.”

Frances moved to SOAS and then took up a chair at Kings College London before returning north to become Professor of Environment and Development at Sheffield University. The move to Lancaster reflects her growing interest in using her expertise to respond to the urgent environmental challenges.

“For me, a big attraction is to work at a centre focussed on the environment. Political Ecology is a thriving and evolving field. There is great potential in bringing together a focus on nature and the environment with expertise on power and politics. I can bring culture and social life into that mix. This intersection can help us to find new and better ways of working to effect environmental change that is also socially just.”

Frances wants to continue to build a school of Critical Institutionalism and to integrate insights from feminist ecology and decolonising perspectives into that.

She remains convinced that by examining the detail of people’s lives we can understand the bigger picture.

“When you look at what people are eating in Usangu in Tanzania, you see they are not eating their own rice crop because it is more valuable to sell it in the international market, that leads you to political ecology. Everything, even the big global level changes and inequitable resource distributions, affect people’s everyday lives: this is where you can see global processes working out if you look hard enough, listen hard enough, stay long enough.”

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