Recently, Chris Barnett and I were pleased to participate in the Civil Society Learning Forum (CSLF) in Ghana. This event, organised by Coffey – the lead partner on our STAR-Ghana project, was a follow-up to the Pan-Africa Civil Society Learning Event (PACSLE), which I helped organise in Nairobi last year. The event brought together DFID-funded programmes from across Africa that are working with civil society on improving empowerment and accountability. The aim of the forum was to: ‘draw lessons on what works in using civil society programmes, so that they can achieve positive governance outcomes in the areas of transparency, accountability and responsiveness in Africa’.
A couple of people came from each programme – AcT (Tanzania), DAP (Kenya), MASC (Mozambique), SAVI (Nigeria), M4D (Nigeria), Tilitonse (Malawi), STAR-Ghana, ENCISS (Sierra Leone), FSC (DRC). They are a dynamic and dedicated bunch, from a real spread of projects. We had some very engaged discussions in the alfresco setting. We talked about programme modalities (grants vs. partnering and accompaniment), value for money, monitoring results, communications, and engaging with civil society.
One particular issue that resonated for me was the position of civil society organisations (CSOs) in these programmes. This is a pertinent point for two of the projects I’m working on. SAVI has largely avoided working with large, formal CSOs, and has completely avoided giving grants to CSOs. It works with more informal development actors – very small organisations, often one-man bands, with low overheads and sometimes part time staff – who work together in partnerships to increase their influence. They aren’t ‘professional CSOs’. In contrast, STAR-Ghana’s main modus operandi is grant-giving to CSOs, but donors are likely to have exited this type of work in Ghana in the next five to eight years, as Ghana builds on its middle-income country status. This begs questions about the sustainability of CSOs and of how to best support this type of governance work.
Other programmes raised other interesting reflections on CSOs. In Tanzania, they are seeing the burgeoning availability and use of smart phones resulting in citizens leapfrogging a CSO sector that isn’t demonstrating tech-savvy. They are starting to use technology as an empowerment and accountability channel, but CSOs risk getting left behind. In Kenya, with its new constitution, decentralisation is a major development focus, including for DAP. However, they are seeing CSOs as behind the ‘decentralisation curve’, and finding it hard to find their place in the new architecture.
All this highlights the debate between CSOs as a platform, enabler, and amplifier of citizens’ voice and citizen’s action – i.e. a collective action approach, and the newer mechanisms to empower citizens as individuals. The latter approach often depends on use of social media, for example in the Making All Voices Count project, but CSOs granting projects are still a large feature of donor programme. From a number of current and prospective programmes and evaluations, we are looking forward to understating the dynamic between and relative impacts of these two approaches.