Risk navigation for Thinking and Working Politically: the work and disappearance of Sombath Somphone

Sims, Kearrin (2021) Risk navigation for Thinking and Working Politically: the work and disappearance of Sombath Somphone. Development Policy Review, 39 (4). pp. 604-620.

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Motivation: On December 15, 2012 Sombath Somphone was abducted at a police checkpoint in his home city of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This article considers his work and enforced disappearance through the lens of Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) approaches to development. The article is supportive of TWP, but emphasizes the significant risks of politicized programming in authoritarian contexts.

Purpose: By examining Sombath Somphone’s work and enforced disappearance, the article seeks to produce insights for safer, and more effective, TWP programming. It considers how specific events in authoritarian contexts can suddenly re‐cast development workers and/or organizations as political dissidents.

Approaches and Methods: The argument draws on analysis of grey literature; conversational and observational knowledge accrued during 18 months of fieldwork in Laos between 2011 and 2018; on‐going formal and informal interviewing with members of Laos’ civil society sector; and extensive dialogue with Sombath Somphone’s wife, Ng Shui Meng.

Findings: The article identifies four key factors that contributed to the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone: international exposure; timing; particular elites; and strategies of oppression. It finds that there is a need for further consideration of how the dangers of politically oriented development work may be anticipated and mitigated, as well as the different forms of risk experienced by local and international development actors working within authoritarian contexts.

Policy Implications: Thinking and Working Politically has much to offer to development practice, but its contributions should not threaten the safety of local development actors. More attention must be given to risk prevention and mitigation.

Item ID: 64827
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1467-7679
Keywords: Laos, TWP, Thinking and Working Politically, Sombath Somphone
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Copyright Information: © The Authors 2020. Development Policy Review © 2020 Overseas Development Institute
Date Deposited: 27 Oct 2020 02:36
FoR Codes: 44 HUMAN SOCIETY > 4410 Sociology > 441004 Social change @ 100%
SEO Codes: 94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9401 Community Service (excl. Work) > 940116 Social Class and Inequalities @ 100%
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