Global Development Institute Blog

In this episode Elisa Gambino is joined by Kathy Dodworth. They discuss Kathy’s new book, Legitimation as Political Practice, her transition from working at an NGO to academia and the idea of the non-state

Dr Kathy Dodworth is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for African Studies. Her current fellowship critically re-examines contemporary community health work in Kenya. She recently published her book Legitimation as Political Practice: Crafting Everyday Authority in Tanzania, which combines ethnographic fieldwork with theoretical innovation, reworking legitimacy as a collection of practices.

More about Kathy Dodworth

Dr Elisa Gambino joined GDI in 2023 as Lecturer in Global Development, with a focus on Global Political Economy. In January 2024, she will begin a three-year Hallsworth Political Economy Fellowship titled “African hubs, Chinese trade, and global circulation,” which focuses on the networks of Chinese companies and entrepreneurs increasingly engaged in cross-border exchanges in West Africa.

More about Elisa Gambino


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Elisa Gambino Welcome to the Global Development Institute podcast. I’m Dr Elisa Gambino and today I’m with Dr. Kathy Dodworth from the University of Edinburgh for this episode of an In Conversation podcast. Welcome and thank you so much for joining us, Kathy.

Kathy Dodworth Thank you. Great to be here.

Elisa Gambino So Kathy is at the University of Edinburgh in the Centre of African Studies, and she’s a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow there. We are really excited to have you on the podcast today. I know that you’ve just published a new book and this is what we’ll be talking about today. So Dodworth published her new book, Legitimation as Political Practice: Crafting Everyday Authority in Tanzania with Cambridge University Press in 2022. And in her book, she combines ethnographic fieldwork with theoretical innovation, reworking legitimacy as a collection of practices. But let’s hear more from the author herself. Kathy, can you give us a bit of an overview of the book itself and how it came to be?

Kathy Dodworth Perfect. Yeah, happy to. So I came from the world of NGOs actually. And returned to academia feeling there was some contribution that I could make on how to improve the formal legitimacy of NGOs. That’s what my original thinking was. And I wondered whether you could improve what we understand as formal legitimacy; so how an NGO is governed, for example. Whether improved formal legitimacy might have some kind of impact, or link with, perceived legitimacy with the various constituencies that NGOs wish to work with.

I quickly moved away from that because it’s almost impossible, actually, to research. And the more I sort of explored theoretical frameworks of legitimacy, the more certain I became in my mind that we are sort of hoping, or aspiring, to give content to this age old term, but in ways that don’t necessarily translate, or resonate, with the various sort of developmental contexts that many of us and many perhaps listening are familiar with. I decided then to pivot towards looking at everyday situations whereby, for example, an NGO might be new to an area, what actual practices, what sort of discursive performative practices, would the user invoke in order to create some kind of temporary form of authority. And really, those are the transactions, or the interactions, that have far more ideational meaning, I think, for these various groups NGOs were working with and not the term legitimacy per se. So that was the pivot; it took some time to get to that place, and a huge amount of ethnographic fieldwork to give content to those particular practices.

Elisa Gambino So you mentioned that you came from the NGO world yourself. So how did you transition into academia and do you feel like you have transitioned into academia fully?

Kathy Dodworth That’s an interesting one, actually. So I completed an MPhil at the University of Glasgow in 2004. That was in International Studies. And one of the course conveners, the revered and late Professor John Peterson, at the end of that course said, ‘Well, that’s a good performance, Kathy. It’s the sort of thing that we might like or might point towards continuing your academic journey and doing a PhD’. And I absolutely recoiled in horror. I remember. I’m just saying, “Oh my God, no! I can’t. I need to get out into the real world!”. In sort of air quotes now around the ‘real world’. And so I did. I went out and I got into the development sector via NGOs, which is a very competitive, it’s a very actually elitist sector to get into in London. But I did it and I worked my way up to a sort of programme operational-type role.

But there were just so many frustrations I had in trying to work in that sector. So one of them was around how much time we spent, in NGOs, looking inwards. Every single NGO I joined, at the same time as they were having some kind of strategic review, there was a huge amount of sort of navel gazing and existential angst really about whether they were quite doing the right thing and how could they improve and how could they improve their, basically their funding prospects. So I found that frustrating. We spent far more time arguing inside NGOs than what we were trying to do, or achieve, outside of them. But as time went on, I think that’s sort of forgivable, and maybe typical, of many sort of public facing institutions. They’re not alone in that.

But I think what increasingly bothered me was sort of, and I have the language for it now, but I didn’t necessarily have it then, but this sort of colonial-like practices that have become very…a very visible talking point currently in NGO worlds at the moment. This sort of white saviour complex, absolutely. But I was also very uncomfortable with being part of these hierarchies with London often as a centre. And my role, I suppose, in administering country office staff didn’t make sense to me. And how much sort of London offices, the power, which revolves really around finances, how much was controlled there, and how much was assumed that local offices were going to be able to cope with or didn’t have the “capacity” for. And so they were bigger questions I just kept wanting to ask and I wasn’t allowed to ask them. So fast forward ten years and I’m banging on the ivory tower saying, “Please let me back in! Let me back in”. And it’s funny, at that point in time, I didn’t think it was forever, but I really wanted to do this PhD and I was so delighted, also under John Peterson’s mentorship to get an offer of a fully funded PhD at Edinburgh University, which is actually where I did my undergrad. And then the more, you know, the more I became established in academia, the more I realised I want to stay.

Elisa Gambino So in a way, you moved away from NGO work to then write a book about NGOs?

Kathy Dodworth Hmm. Yeah. So as I sort of suggested a wee bit at the beginning, I felt like I still was struggling perhaps to extricate myself from the very policy facing questions. So if I was so frustrated with NGOs, then what can we do about it? And I guess perhaps these sort of…that experience of these very visible, pronounced hierarchies from a London office right down to the very village level in which NGOs were operating in: how could you how could you improve accountability? And what could you do to help sort of bottom-up processes throughputs to improve legitimacy?

So I guess I was originally focused on NGOs, and this book looks like it’s about NGOs, and sometimes you’ll see it’s categorised, you know, in various library categories or whatever, as a book about NGOs. But the more time, certainly in this context in Tanzania, I spent with these NGOs and with the populations that they were trying to build relationships with, you start to unpick the sort of broader nexus of practices that NGOs share with state agencies, in this context in Tanzania at least.

So I started to explore the commonalities between the state and the non-state. And when we’re talking about, you know, so termed ‘perceived legitimacy’ with some of the populations, in Tanzania you would call it the village level, It’s very difficult to discern the difference sometimes between an NGO and a local government actor. So really, the book broadened its ambition a little bit to try and speak to broader contemporary practices of governance within the contemporary, like the public sphere, as it were. How is it constituted in the current era.

Elisa Gambino Yeah. Reading the book, I was very fascinated by the way that you introduce this concept of non/state. And so I wanted to ask you a bit more about it because I understand that the non/state points at how the state and the non-state co-produce and co-depend. But hopefully you can say a few more words on how you understand and define the non/state?

Kathy Dodworth Perfect. Yeah. So non-state actors, so without the slash, so hyphenated, or sometimes abbreviated to NSAs: you see mention of these a lot in current global governance debates around legitimacy and accountability. What do we do with NSAs? You know, we have a system of global governance that at its heart, has sort of state-to-state relationships. Or you have inter-governmental organisations like the UN which are yes, they’re intergovernmental, so they’re between states. So there’s sometimes a bit of a panic around where do you insert NSAs? And they’re very much dealt with as a separate identity. And I’ve also found that they’re often dealt with in that literature at least, so the sort of IR/global governance literature, they’re mainly an audience. They’re not really creating legitimacy or legitimating themselves in their own right but NSAs confer legitimacy to state actors or to intergovernmental arrangements like the UN or the EU. So you kind of add NSAs and stir to your existing intergovernmental arrangements.

So to track back a little bit of what I said around in practice, what I started to find was this, and I’m clearly not the first person to do this, but a very blurred line between non-state actors and in this case, local governments. In fact, to the point whereby sometimes the sort of practices I think of legitimation overlap in the context where I did my research at least. They overlap and they intertwine, but even the people themselves, sometimes. You have people operating from the NGO world on local government committees. The non/state was actually inspired by something an NGO guy said when he is having a monitoring meeting in a village and he says, “But I’m 50% government.” So I’m half government. So the implication was you have to do what I say. And the more I sort of unpicked it, you realise these overlapping practices, but also co-dependency in this context. A local government like NGOs to do some stuff; and NGOs borrow authority for local government in order to get some stuff done. So it works. They co-produce these particular effects, but the line is still there because sometimes it makes sense to emphasise difference or distance from NGOs.

And if anyone had the chance, if you, you know, have the chance to read the foreword, itself was written by quite a senior NGO guy and he says, “Yeah, absolutely. When I’m reflecting on the findings of the book, it’s like, yeah we do do that”. So sometimes we are partners and we’re very close and we’re very much intertwined with the workings of local government. But sometimes we are adversary. We are an advocate. Normally, advocacy takes a slightly more adversarial position. And sometimes we emphasise that. So it’s handy to keep the line, and it’s handy for both state and non-state actors to work that ideational difference at the same time as exploring these new sorts of overlapping practices and co-dependencies.

Elisa Gambino So in the book you actually introduced six different practices, although intertwined and sometimes overlapping. Do you mind perhaps outlining them briefly?

Kathy Dodworth Sure. So the first are the first two I’ll take together. They focus very much on this sort of spatial geographies of NGOs. The political spaces that they create in order to operate, which may involve producing a new constituency, for example. So the first of these is called ‘extensity’ and the second of these is called ‘territoriality’. So [there is] huge amounts of work in IR theory around territoriality, which is very much about the creation of boundaries and the maintenance of those; socially, politically, economically. I think what I tried to explore with ‘extensity’ was territoriality is often seen to overlap with the boundaries of the states, or territory is the state. But actually there were sub-levels I suppose, different degrees of boundary or turf that were being created by these non-state actors and ‘extensity’ is the idea of projecting coverage or space or outreach or scale. So one of them is expansive and inclusionary. Inclusionary, if that’s the word. And territoriality is about exclusion. It’s about who’s in and who’s out. And in the case of Tanzania, at the districts, the local government level, you might have NGOs that were mimicking the extensity of the state. So the state is everywhere. This omnipresent actor that infiltrates every part of personal and public life in Tanzania, and NGOs wanted to project that level of scale to be a bit ‘state-like’, which kind of segues onto the second one.

So we look at the state and there has been a lot of work on this by other critical anthropologists, but around borrowing state authority, about co-producing state authority when an NGOs are filling gaps, for example. The hierarchies of the state, so mimicking that. Almost creating organisational structures in NGOs that look like the structures of the state.

Then we have voluntarism. So this sort of ethic of giving time towards a perceived common good. But voluntarism does a lot of work for NGOs. So yeah, I’m happy to unpack that further if need be.

Representation is such a biggie in the world of NGO discourse. Existentially critical. You might even suggest that without good quality representation, or at least claimed to such by NGOs, it’s hard to see how they can exist without that kind of claim, that connection with…a unique connection to the particular constituency they’re trying to serve.

And the last one is materiality. And the way I explore that is actually looking at data. So the politics around data collection, the use of data by NGOs, by local government, and the sort of contestation of that process by local populations.

Elisa Gambino Thank you. I wanted to zoom in into one. In chapter five, you talk about the material and ideational legitimation that volunteer networks afford NGOs. So could you tell us a bit more about how legitimation is negotiated through voluntarism?

Kathy Dodworth Sure. So as I mentioned, I think voluntarism, this ethic, it does a lot of work. It does a lot of sort of ideational and material work for NGOs. It works for NGOs. So every NGO that I had dealings with during my time, over a year of fieldwork, they all had their own volunteers. So every area of operation, they would have volunteers that were affiliated with, trained by, possibly receiving a stipend from, this particular NGO. Now, if you’ve got a huge network of volunteers across local government areas, in this case the district, then NGOs can really point to that sort of operational scale. So that sort of links in with what I was talking about [with] extensity. So you’re saying, “Hey, we are district wide. We have a volunteer in every single village”. There were 97 villages in that particular district. And that can point, that in itself is a kind of operational achievement and can confer some kind of legitimacy to that actor. And not just that, but if you’re able to convince that you’re operational at scale across the district, which local government like – they don’t like you picking and choosing where to work, they like that you’re able to work across a whole district – if you can do that in two districts in Tanzania, then you qualify to be a national NGO. And that opens up, you know, new funding opportunities. So these things are materially critical.

They also confer I think, having volunteers on your books, some idea of consent from your local populations that you’re trying to work with. So you are endorsed in some way. You’re an NGO, if you’ve got active volunteers. And you could also claim it helps bolster representational capital as well. In saying “Well, this is how we work with local populations. We have a volunteer. They are great. They are the best placed person to message or communicate with their fellows in a particular area”. So this is how…and perhaps we’re able then to collect opinion through our volunteers. So this can help bolster our representational claims as well.

But of course, if you look at the flipside of that, it’s just never that simple. And I think a lot of local populations, certainly some of the volunteers that I spoke to, are extremely burdened by the roles and responsibilities they have, which is typically around reporting. It’s also around maybe workshops or peer to peer training, or messaging their peers in the community, which itself is a very fraught process.

And a lot of people are just really fed up. Some we’re just really, really fed up. I witnessed one volunteer. I was accompanying an NGO on their monitoring trip and they found her and we were in the village office, and there are a whole load of photos on the wall of like children, they’re called most vulnerable children, MVCs. And this NGO were like “Where’s this kid now? What’s happening now? Da da da da” and absolutely grilled this volunteer. It felt like, you know, scores of minutes had gone past. It was probably only about five. But suddenly this volunteer just sat down and she said, “Do you know, I’ve been doing this work for ten years. I’m so tired! I want to stop.” And she was quite vocal in that.

But what I also explore I guess in the book, when you’re asking Ellie about the sort of contestation or negotiation of the demands of voluntarism, a lot of people just disappear. They sort of what you might call these days, ‘lie flat’. And they use various strategies to evade the state. That’s what Ndlovu-Gatsheni, that’s how he would term it: finding strategies to evade the state. Going missing, not around on the day of monitoring and so on, because quitting, formally quitting, is pretty difficult. Nigh impossible.

Elisa Gambino And I know that you’re exploring voluntarism further now, and you have a project currently about voluntarism, right?

Kathy Dodworth That’s right, yeah. So I’m currently looking at the life histories, or the life journeys, of community health volunteers in Kenya.

Elisa Gambino And do you see some of these same negotiation and contestation dynamics in another context?

Kathy Dodworth Yeah, that’s a good one. So I think one of the reasons I was drawn to a Kenyan case study after my work in Tanzania….Well, it’s the classic comparison, isn’t it? Kenya and Tanzania. You know, one was so strongly socialist after independence. And I think some of the first president Nyerere’s ideas are still very prevalent in voluntarism in the Tanzanian context.

So I was interested what was happening next door when Kenya was so explicitly capitalist post-independence. But there were still some overlapping repertoires around state building, good citizenship. We had Harambee, which is sort of part of the Kenyan crest of of government, you know: it’s sort of interwoven in its post-independence DNA. And I wondered [basically] what was the same? What was different? In this sort of strongly capitalist context. A country that until recently, [had] higher GDP, it became a lower middle income earlier on, but one that is profoundly unequal as well as compared often to Tanzania, which is becoming more unequal, but historically has been a far more equal society. Certainly when you’re talking about accessing public services. But its amazing how much was similar! I didn’t expect to have so many overlapping similarities.

But voluntary labour in the Kenyan context, so i’m looking at Isiolo, which is called the North but it’s actually bang in the centre of Kenya, but it’s been historically marginalised and impoverished. It’s a very, very difficult environment to operate in, whether to do with poverty, whether to do with low lying conflict, that has been going on for decades. And all of this is exacerbated by the drought. And voluntary labour there is…It’s not really voluntary either. Again, it’s almost impossible to quit formally. You can evade, and some community health vols [volunteers] do disappear. They might move or they might just go silent. But it’s it’s actually more difficult in this context because these community health vols, or CHVs as we call them, they’re on government books and you have a staff member at every dispensary whose job it is to keep on top or keep track of these CHVs. Constantly on the phone. They know where they are at all times. They’re really part of the governmental structure, but they’re volunteers.

And actually, there was a new community health bill passed in Isiolo County not long ago. That actually criminalises not fulfilling your duties as a volunteer. I…nothing of course has been enforced as of yet, but it’s interesting to me, I think, about how accountable these CHVs are to the state; but the state is absolutely not accountable to them. So, for example, CHVs they did organise, and they organised a strike, and they walked on the local county offices. The senior clinical officer came out and said, “But you’re striking as who? You know, you’re not workers. If you don’t like this work, you can quit!”. But actually it’s very difficult to quit if you’ve been immersed in a particular community doing certain type of work and receiving training for decades, some of them decades. Then how do you turn around to your neighbour and say, “Hey, I’m not doing that anymore? And all your family planning history is now with this new guy.” You know, it’s nigh impossible. I mean, these people aren’t, you know, I’m sort of painting them as completely enslaved or browbeaten by the work. There’s a huge number of benefits as well, for sure. They get a lot of kudos and they enjoy the training and they grow, and they talk about their personal development for sure. I’m just talking about the big, overall structures that, in my view, exploits or extracts unpaid labour over the long term.

Elisa Gambino I’m glad you pointed at the overall structure, because my final question is actually about how do you marry all of these different areas of your work, right? You’ve talked about working in NGOs. I know you’ve also worked for the NHS. You’ve worked in you know, you obviously have a background in international relations, and now you’re working in the field of community health. So how do you bring this all together?

Kathy Dodworth It’s really hard [laughter]! It is hard. I mean, you talk about interdisciplinary research. I mean, that’s what I am. And often it’s celebrated, but it’s really difficult. It’s quite unnerving. It can be quite agoraphobic sometimes where you’re like, there’s just so many debates and areas that you are interested in. What conferences do you go to? What articles you know, which journals should you be targeting when you’re talking about community health, but really you’re trying to say something much bigger about voluntary labour. So all of these questions and quandaries I’m dealing with on a daily basis. The sort of anxieties around being an interdisciplinary researcher.

At the same time, I have to say there is a common thread. So apart from sort of bigger questions around global justice that I think IR and International Studies scholars are in great position to ask, you know, aside from those questions, what has pulled all of this together?

So, yeah, after my PhD in IR, I actually went to work in the Usher Institute at Edinburgh, which is part the College of Medicine. So I actually studied the NHS and public participation in the NHS; rather than working directly for the NHS. And then, you know, from medicine to the Centre of African Studies. But all of this is linked to a question of, I guess, the public. You know, who is the public? Who delivers public services? And what really do we want? What do we want going forward?

Because I feel like we’re at a particular moment I suppose. Certainly in the UK context, but not just here. It’s also true, to be honest, in the Kenyan context, where it’s got to a point of…there’s been such an erosion, I think, of some of our public services in the UK after years and years of austerity, it’s so run down that forward looking, and the ambition of what we really want going forward, of delivering our public services I mean, do we want volunteers doing this really complex psychosocial work?

It’s interesting because around the sector of community health in particular, there’s, you know, a group of scholars in the UK, but elsewhere, they get very excited about what they call “reverse innovating”, learning from south to north around community health. And I’m not going to go into sort of how condescending that term reverse innovation is, but it’s out there and it’s used a lot. And the idea is like, well, you know, you can get volunteers doing this stuff in Ethiopia or, not volunteers in Ethiopia, rather in the Kenyan context. In the Ethiopian context, you’ve got people basically on minimum wage, staffing, primary health care. Let’s do that in the UK as well. Let’s pay community health workers £16 or £17,000 a year, this was costed a few years ago, in order to service all of these households with extremely complex health needs. You know, you’re looking at multiple morbidities and  we don’t want a nurse to do it anymore. Let’s task shift downwards so we can have relatively untrained community health workers to take care of those households. I don’t know what you feel, Ellie, but that I mean, that’s not the future that I want. I want a rediscovery of what a well-trained, well-paid, professional health service can look like. Not just in the UK, but in Kenya and in places like Kenya and other countries in post-colonial context, too.

Elisa Gambino Absolutely. And I think we are all very much looking forward to your next book, especially after this snippet of how all of your work really comes together around the question of who is the public and what does the public want? So very grateful for your contributions to our podcast. And thank you so much for joining us.

Kathy Dodworth Thanks so much, Ellie. And thank you so much for the invitation to come and talk a bit more in depth.

Elisa Gambino Thanks.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole