How can we get better at promoting active citizenship? Lessons from ten case studies

August 12, 2014 2 By Duncan Green

Over the last few months I’ve been writing a series of ten case studies on Oxfam’s work in promoting active citizenship, and blogging the drafts for Indonesia labour protestcomments (thanks for those – really helpful). These will be published shortly, along with an overview paper on the patterns that emerged across the ten studies. Here are some highlights – the full paper is here, Active Citizenship synthesis consultation draft. Comments very welcome.

Lessons on Programme Design

The Right Partners are Indispensable: Whether programmes flourish or fail depends in large part on the role  of partners, usually local NGOs or civil society organizations, but sometimes also individuals, consultants or academics. Good partners bring an understanding of local context and culture (especially important when working with excluded minorities such as the tribal peoples of Chhattisgarh); they often have well-developed networks with those in positions of local power – crucial for brokering discussions with citizens’ groups. And they will remain working in the area long after the programme has moved on.

Starting with Power Analysis: Promoting active citizenship means building the power of citizens, starting with their internal ‘power within’ – self confidence and assertiveness, especially in work on gender rights. In the case of We Can in South Asia or Community Discussion Classes in Nepal, building such ‘power within’ was almost an end in itself. Elsewhere, citizens went on to build ‘power with’ in the form of organization that enable poor and excluded individuals to find a strong collective voice in confronting and influencing those in power. Taking this ‘back to basics’ approach has led to some impressive progress in what are apparently the most unpropitious of circumstances (women’s rights in Pakistan, civilian protection in Eastern Congo).

Building the Grains of Change: Active citizenship is often built on collective organization. Building such organizations is about much more than simply promoting protest movements. Historically, social movements have been ‘granular’: on closer inspection, short term surges in active citizenship are made up of myriad ‘grains’ – longer-lasting organizations that span everything from faith groups and trade unions, to sports club fans or funeral societies. Success in building active citizenship usually involves identifying and working with existing ‘grains’ such as trade unions in Indonesia, or building new ones, such as the Women’s Leadership Groups in Pakistan or Community Protection Committees in the DRC. These groups are best placed to weather the storms of setbacks and criticism, and provide the long term foundations for activism, whether as channels of information, sources of mutual support, or as expressions of collective power.

We Can Shaheena JavedThe importance of broad alliances and coalitions: Who should the grains engage with? Change is often achieved by engaging and if possible, allying, with a range of stakeholders on any given issue. A rigorous initial power analysis is essential to reveal the range of possible allies, but In general, the broader the range, the better: work on violence against women and women’s empowerment has made it a priority to work with men; sympathetic arms firms were critical allies in the campaign to win an Arms Trade Treaty; building relationships with conservative evangelicals and Republicans in the Deep South paved the way for success in a campaign to ensure the fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill truly benefited local communities.

Individuals and Relationships Matter: Processes of change are driven by real people, not faceless masses. In practice, there will be some individuals on both sides of the negotiating table (or barricade) who are more able and willing to understand the dreams and demands of all sides, and more interested in seeking change and compromise. Other individuals will have ‘invisible power’ in the shape of critical behind the scenes influence. Identifying, understanding and building relationships with them, whether they are adidas buyers in Indonesia or military commanders or traditional leaders in DRC, is essential.

Building Active Citizenship takes time: Establishing the grains of organization is painstaking work, requiring sustained investment of time and empathy. Many of the timelines for the case studies show work stretching back over a decade or more – far longer than the typical NGO funding arrangement. This poses real challenges both to funders and ‘implementers’. One approach is to agree a 10-20 year ‘envelope’ for a programme, which then shames the 2-3 year modules within it that are required to seek funds.

Choosing Promising Targets

Quick Wins: Embarking on a ten year process with no certainty of victory is daunting. Success, however small (for example a brother no longer insisting that his sister brings him food and drink), boosts the spirits and prepares people for the long haul. This is even more the case when, as with the tribal peoples of Chhattisgarh, there have been few previous examples of the authorities listening to communities on anything.

Implementation Gaps: While some programmes have lobbied for new laws, many targeted the gaps between existing rules and practice. On women’s empowerment, South Asia’s rules on quotas of women in various decision-making bodies offer an enticing target. In Indonesia, Oxfam made an explicit decision to work within the existing legal framework, out of recognition of its identity as an outside organization.

Windows of Opportunity: Change is seldom continuous. Long periods of stagnation and stasis are punctuated by sudden spikes of activity, protest

that is one big window

that is one big window

and change. These are often linked to ‘shocks’, whether political, economic or environmental. New constitutions, decentralization processes, elections, floods in Pakistan, even an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, all serve to shake up existing power relations and alliances, and make new movements and conversations possible. Successful programmes plan around such windows where possible, or spot and respond to them rapidly as new ones open up.

Challenges and Weaknesses

Working with Faith Groups: Poor people in most countries place enormous trust in their religious institutions, which are often central to the construction of norms and values, including those that promote (and inhibit) active citizenship. In some programmes, organizers have responded by reaching out to religious leaders and institutions. For example in the BP oil spill campaign in the US, conservative evangelicals played a crucial role. In Tanzania, Chukua Hatua belatedly recognized and built on the prevalence of religious leaders among its animators. The Aurat Foundation in Pakistan arrived at a nuanced and thought-through approach (working with progressive Islamic scholars, but avoiding religious leaders). In other cases however, a secular ‘default’ in Oxfam’s work has meant not engaging properly with faith leaders on issues such as the Arms Trade Treaty, which would on the face of it seem a natural and promising arena for collaboration.

Can you do active citizenship without addressing jobs and income? Trying to make income-generating schemes work can devour the time and resources of a programme, but ignoring the importance of income risks alienating people who are desperate to improve their material conditions. Moreover, as Raising Her Voice found, activism costs at least some money, and low incomes can be a deterrent. In DRC, initial efforts to include income generation were abandoned because they didn’t work. In Pakistan, Women’s Leadership Groups from the outset worked to link women to sources of credit and grants.

aurat foundationConflict v Cooperation: Serious change is seldom entirely peaceful, but conflict carries huge risks for poor people, whether physical or material (for example, being cut off from sources of patronage). In the most high risk environments (Pakistan, DRC, We Can), programmes opted explicitly for a ‘softly softly’ approach. Elsewhere, for example RHV programmes in various African countries, an insider/outsider combination of cooperation with allies, mixed with confrontation and protest where necessary, proved more effective. In Nigeria, successful advocacy for the passing of the 2013 Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill, led by RHV partner WRAPA, included hiring a former legislator to navigate the corridors of power, text message barraging of Ministers and highly publicised mock tribunals.

Formal Politics: The world is not neatly segregated between acts of citizenship and formal politics. The two inevitably leach into each other, posing challenges to programmes who are concerned about ‘contamination’ from the formal political world, which in many countries is associated with clientilism, corruption and coercion. In Nepal, political parties quickly identified and tried to recruit the fledgling women leaders – the programme in the end had no option but to try and equip them with the means to judge and manage the interaction. In Pakistan, the programme embraced formal politics from the beginning, building support networks between women political leaders.

Funding, evaluation and value for money: Many of the programmes studied relied on ‘good donorship’ – donors that were willing to take risks. In Tanzania, DFID funded an experimental approach without preagreed outcomes. The success of Raising Her Voice grew partly from a five year funding agreement (also with DFID), which allowed time for experimentation, failure, learning and redesign.

The pressure to demonstrate results and value for money puts particular pressures on active citizenship work, where attribution is hard to prove and most (if not all) evaluation is qualitative (often seen as second best by donors). The key seems to be in developing genuinely rigorous approaches to evaluation and ‘counting what counts’.

Over to you – there’s obviously a danger in writing the case studies myself and then trying to summarize the lessons learned, that I will be acting as a one man echo chamber and just finding what I already thought was important. There are a few new things in there, but what else am I missing?