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 of 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.