Both the enabling environment and the context in which policy dialogue is to take place are key determinants of both the strategies that should be adopted, and the expectations of achievement with regard to CSO engagement in policy dialogue. There are minimum requirements in the enabling environment to support CSOs including legislation which confirms freedom of speech, freedom of association and right to information, state regulation of CSOs which is facilitating rather than controlling as well as a relatively free media.
Relationships between Government and CSOs
The relationship between Government and CSOs is critical but because a ’cosy relationship’ works in one thematic area does not mean that this is the preferred strategy.
In Bangladesh there has been a history of tensions between the NGO community and Government not least because of the preferential funding of NGOs during the period of military rule. Even now, government officials cite lack of resources as the reason for any shortcomings in service provision (e.g. health and education) compared to the NGO sector which they perceive as well resourced. These tensions affect the willingness to engage and even in the education case where relations are considered to have been improved over 20 or so years, there is still wariness among government officials about taking advice from the NGO sector. In other areas there is an inevitability of contest rather than collaboration e.g. decentralisation issue.
The regulatory bodies for CSOs are better suited to those providing services than ones engaged in research and policy dialogue. The constraints requiring assurance of non-involvement in political activities can be exploited to curtail or close down NGOs which may be seen as a threat to Government. CSOs active in policy dialogue increasingly see advantages in not being registered to avoid interference, ensure independence but also in recognition that civil society action is often around short-lived issues rather than needing to be organisation based. The downside is that without registration the CSO is not eligible for mainstream funding and may not be recognised for invited spaces. The CSOs of this type argue that their resource needs are minimal (and unsuitable for the large grants made by most donors) and they must be able to operate independently (a condition which is compromised by donors increasing need for ’visibility’).
The legislative environment needs to be such that irrespective of the category of CSO or the issue which they promote freedoms are guaranteed. It is not acceptable for the Government regulatory body to threaten termination of registration or delay registration simply because they feel challenged. The lack of an ombudsman body and opportunities to publicise Government’s authoritarian actions (e.g. with regard to CHT CSOs and many of those working in LG) is a major constraint to pluralism.
CSO working arrangements
This case study has shown how the understanding of civil society has widened beyond NGOs and has given space to the emergence of diverse organisations including ones which purposely refrain from getting NGO Affairs Bureau approval in order to be able to work relatively freely. As the definition embraces professional organisations, Trade Unions, faith-based organisations, movements and the media it is becoming a norm for strategies for engagement to include this diversity. These diverse groups may not form coalitions but may come together from time to time to debate and support shared agendas. This newer form of networking rather than the conventional networks of like-minded groups needs to find support.
The acceptance of the issue around which policy dialogue is taking place as a shared common good is a key determinant of the level of perceived CSO effectiveness.
The primary education case study demonstrates the most effective engagement of the four case studies and this is attributed to the fact that it is a public good, that NGOs make a significant contribution in service provision and there is critical mass in terms of CS voice comprising not only the NGO service providers but CSOs such as Teachers Associations, and increasingly, parent teachers associations and student voice. The supportive cross party parliamentary position, endorsement of international education declarations and strong donor presence through the SWAP make for invited spaces to be relatively available for policy dialogue around education. Government was not always so positive and the last decades were fraught with tensions, stand-offs and refusal to engage. The gains now enjoyed are the result of more than 20 years of social and political capital accumulation and the determination and passion of the leading networks. CAMPE in particular weathered ups and downs but ultimately survived because of the combined support of the leading education-focused NGOs and the motivation inspired by the founders around non formal education.
Particular strategies only work in the right context
The LG case demonstrates the unpredictability of lobbying and engagement. Only since the enactment of the recent LG Acts has civil society invited space become a legal requirement. The provenance of these progressive provisions is widely regarded as less to do with civil society pressure and more because of Government’s own experience of the benefits through nearly 30 years of participatory action within large scale local infrastructure projects. There is a prevailing feeling that making concessions to participation at the most local level has been an easier process for Government than acceding control of central resources. Whatever the political motives, these local level spaces are very significant and most CSO action is concentrated on making these work. In contrast to the primary education case study, as a result of years of voter education, rights based work and more recently capacity building of LG and their associations, the main weight of policy dialogue engagement is at local rather than central level. In primary education the achievements in influencing the Education Policy and the SWAps, while built on experience of the many local NGO service providers, happened at central level. The shift to local level focus will happen next with the realisation that efforts to implement the policy and ensure compliance will require concentration on more local level advocacy. These cases show that strategies are necessarily different depending on where achievements can be made; education has focused at central level and needs to become localised whereas the LG situation is the reverse.
Challenges in CSOs claiming space
There is often a disconnect between Government stated intentions (e.g. manifestos, Five-year Plans etc.) and reality. Thus, for example invited spaces for LG, CHT land rights and food security are limited. For CHT land rights the CSOs feel these spaces are tokenistic as the issues remain at an impasse. In all three themes there are vested interests which resist more open dialogue. The frustration concerning the lack of invited space and inability to undertake informal lobbying (so fruitful in primary education) leads CSOs to take claimed space action. But here they lack sophistication. Their voices are drowned out by a crowded space of similar actions (rallies, round tables, human chains etc.) where the issues are often subordinated in the media to the disruption caused or the personalities involved. Strategic lobbying and advocacy is constrained by weak evidence gathering and limited capacity as well as the risks perceived in being seen to be critical of Government.
Donor funding modalities
The current donor funding modalities are on the whole inappropriate for supporting a vibrant civil society capable of engaging in policy dialogue at all levels and in a range of formal and informal spaces. Strategies for engagement vary widely depending on the context and there is a need for both long-term support and highly responsive and flexible support for key moments (i.e. tipping points) which cannot always be predicted. Even where core funding is available which CSOs feel gives them the most flexibility to respond to key advocacy moments and spaces, it is still time bound and often too large and burdened with unrealistic expectations and inappropriate instruments to measure change. The funding modalities insufficiently address the need for secured long-term support required for the long haul building of social and political capital which eventually yields results in terms of legitimacy of the organisation and its capabilities to engage. The changing of donor priorities is particularly problematic. The lessons learned in Chapter 9 provide alternatives which may meet the needs of the diverse range of CSOs needed to influence government decisions and hold them to account.
As noted in Chapter 4, the prevailing imperative of DPs to contain transaction costs (more with less) has limited funding flexibility to fund advocacy and research type CSO by increasing the size of available grants and reducing the numbers of grantees. The funds available tend to privilege large over small, established over emerging, scale-up over innovation, Dhaka based over local organisations and those which are effective professional ’bidders’ or known entities (referred to as DP darlings). CSOs outside of the NGO sector such as movements, Trade Unions and non-formal volunteer based organisations as well as ones considered high risk such as political parties, some activist groups and faith based groups are largely excluded from conventional donor funding and depend on membership fees or individual or interest based philanthropy.
Assessing what works and what does not
The ToC for engagement in policy dialogue need further research. Questions of cause and effect are still unclear. For example, are confrontational approaches more effective than collaborative ones (or appropriate in some situations and not others)? Is dissent an important element to force better elaboration of positions and more rigorous evidence-collection? If so what is the right mix of support to like-minded coalitions and support to a mix of diverse voices? Are drip-drip approaches more effective than spontaneous outbursts of public discontent? Perhaps in some cases and not others. CAMPE feels that the relationship it has built with Government over many years allows it to be more influential but primary education is a thematic area where everyone is supportive of positive change but the case study notes that DPs complain that they are not critical enough. Perhaps other areas such as local government reform will not budge unless there is contestation. There is no ’one size fits all’ and DP support need to recognise the importance of context and the nature of the policy dialogue. Development aid needs to ensure that the CS engagement benefits from the dynamism emerging from diverse actors being included and newly emerging voices.
 E.g. BRAC is responsible for a major portion of primary school provision but a row initially ensued when it was suggested that they should provide training to government teachers.
This page forms part of the publication 'Support to Civil Society Engagement in Policy Dialogue' as chapter 11 of 20
Version 1.0. 03-01-2013
Publication may be found at the address http://www.netpublikationer.dk/um/11191/index.htm