Book Review: Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development: A Practical Guide

January 7, 2013

Should men boycott all-male panels at conferences?

January 7, 2013

Civil Society, Public Action and Accountability in Africa

January 7, 2013
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An important new paper from some big development names – Shanta Devarajan and Stuti Khemani from the World Bank, and Michael Walton (ex Bank, now at Harvard Kennedy School) – directs a slightly fierce (but welcome) political economy gaze at donor efforts to strengthen civil society (one of the more recent developmental fads). As with most such papers, after a monumental literature review, one of the striking conclusions is how little we really know, but it gropes gamely through the fog of ignorance and confusion and arrives at some interesting conclusions.

First, the authors find that something significant is going on among Africa’s citizens: “a large shift in Africa in organization among citizens. Village-level group formation in Africa increased dramatically over the 1990s when participatory approaches were emphasized in international development paradigms, promoted through aid, and adopted deliberately by country governments to deliver projects to communities.” Interestingly, that increased participation applies to both democratic and less democratic systems. The question is in what situations that upsurge in civil society has impact, and how (if at all) aid agencies can help.

The paper adds its support to the growing demand that aid interventions abandon futile searches for ‘best practice’ in favour ofcivil society in Africa understanding what are the ‘best fits’ for any given context:

“In general, aid is most likely to be effective if it essentially organic, in the sense of (a) supporting existing domestic initiatives and pressures for change, and (b) in ways that are consistent with the initial state of the polity.”

But with that caveat, the authors give the thumbs up for some particular kinds of intervention. Italics in square brackets are my attempt at translating the rather academic language.

“There are a number of areas where there is a good prima facie case for support. This will typically be a function of the nature of overall polity. For example, there is the largest range of potential action for democracies with real political competition, albeit of a competitive clientelistic form, whether the regime is consolidated or fragile. [to have impact civil society needs to be able to get traction on the political process, and find potential allies within the state] Here are some categories.

  • There is a strong case for general support on information-related initiatives—from information on politician performance, to school test results, procurement processes and so on.
  • There is also a contingent case for support for local organizational initiatives that are working with and processing information that the evidence base suggests has potential in solving accountability problems. This domain can include NGOs working with right-to-information laws, think tanks analyzing budgets or regulator behavior, or service delivery outcomes, etc. [no point in supporting access to information if organizations aren’t able to use it or the information is not relevant to poor people]
  • A related area concerns support for information for benchmarking of performance of local levels of government, e.g. municipalities; or across local service providers (schools; electricity and water supply), where service quality can be measured and compared [league tables can be effective in naming and shaming officials and politicians and otherwise galvanizing action]
  • It often makes sense to support local client-power-related initiatives, but these are only likely to be fruitful if linked to broader change over the long route. [Bottom-up initiatives are good, but only if they can get traction on wider political process]
  • Support for the strengthening of compact mechanisms is highly desirable if this has domestic political and technical support. [You need political leadership and/or influential allies within the state apparatus]
  • There are two kinds of roles for civil society in the business sector.

o Support for processes that provide mechanisms for both identifying and resolving conflicts between business investment and social and environmental concerns, especially in mining and urban development. [Dispute/conflict resolution]

o Support for business associations working for public goods for business, e.g. agencies such as IFC that are concerned with private business, with the important concern that this needs to take account of conflicts of interest in aid, since such agencies are also often engaged with particular investment projects and firms. [Enabling environment]

african-peoples-forum-300Finally, in all cases, there is a need to base any support in an analysis of the nature and functioning of civil society. Civil society can be a force for pressuring the state to be more responsive to citizens and more equitable, or can be a source of exclusion and the reproduction of inequalities. Civil society will also typically work very differently under more and less democratic regimes. [Power and context analysis has to include the power and politics of civil society itself – there are few selflessly altruistic Robin Hoods in real life]

In general, aid should not be focused on “money”. This can be counter-productive. Rather, external partners can provide technical assistance in designing locally-grown interventions; they can play a role in financing information-gathering by local NGOs; and can finance experimental interventions (and their learning). Most valuable is likely to be support for a domestic process of innovation and learning involving a generalized approach of experimentation—of which RCTs are one, but only one, component. [Chucking big money at civil society initiatives is a good way to destroy them. Aid needs to be smart, and about ideas. Trial and error is a better way to pursue success than trying to roll out best practice at large scale.]

Can aid ever lead to transformational changes in accountability relations? Almost certainly not, if designs are hatched and brought in from outside. However, aid can potentially provide a supporting role if it is aligned with the flow of internal initiatives, is consistent with domestic political strategy, and supports greater accountability at the margins of major projects. An aspiration to effect some form of system change is admirable, for both internal and external actors. But for donors this needs to be blended with humility over the limits and unintended consequences of external action, and a central focus on helping domestic actors learn by doing.” [Domestic politics rules. Aid is a bit player, for good or ill. Get over it.]


  1. I was with you all the way, until the very last set of square brackets. The context I know best is Tanzania, where, for better or for worse, aid is much more than a bit player in domestic politics.

    Which brings me to what I felt was missing from this analysis – the politic role (intentional or otherwise) played by donors. Domestic politics is sidelined when the key policy and budget decisions are made in meetings attended by representatives of donor agencies and line ministries. Many donors try to remain above the political fray, but they’re kidding themselves if they think that’s possible – any high level engagement with issues such as health, education, water supply, agriculture, etc. is always going to be political.

    That doesn’t take anything away from what this report says about donor support for civil society, which makes a lot of sense. But I struggle to see how you can go looking for “transformational changes in accountability relations” without a proper analysis of how donors’ actions also affect domestic accountability relations.

  2. Thanks Duncan, very interesting analysis. Any chance you could use your influence at OxfamEducation to encourage them to help schools provide similar nuanced, balanced and critical analysis of aid and accountability in schools?

    At the moment the emphasis seems to be on pushing a stereotype that all aid is good and the more the better regardless of these important issues.

  3. I haven’t read the paper yet, but I guess one should not overlook the discursive dimension behind such a report. So after all those years of supporting ‘civil society’ (after the Bank slammed ‘the State’) the Bank suggests that aid money in this area may not be well spent or has limited impact. I’m by no means saying the opposite is true or that Duncan’s analysis is wrong, but if we have little data about the relationship between aid money and civil society accountability any set of conclusion needs to be interpreted with caution. It’s not surprising that a report by the Bank finds support for business associations or rankings useful-because these are among the stakeholders and tools they like to support (and there’s always a way to sneak in a RCT-link…). From an academic point, it will be interesting to engage further with report, its language and conclusions…

  4. Two thoughts re blog topic:

    1) At risk of stating the obvious, support from the international community for civil society is not just about money. Official donors, and their Foreign Ministries, should employ their diplomatic influence to help ensure that there is ‘space’ for active civil society. e.g pressing for less restrictive media laws, for fewer undue legislative controls on CSOs, for an end to more overtly repressive policies … I feel this is more important than financial support, and perhaps carries less risk of doing harm.

    2) But money is good too, and how much better if some of it went to enabling civil society in aid-receiving countries to hold donors to account. Oxfam once suggested that the DFID/Nordics civil society fund for Afghanistan, then in the planning stage, should be prepared to support projects which did this, and helped ensure donor responsiveness to civil society opinions. This was important because donors were, and are, shaping many national policies and providing about 90% of the government’s budget. The suggestion was not taken up, but perhaps readers know of cases where donors have been more, dare I say, courageous?

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