Royal danish ministry of foreign affairs

Executive Summary

Background and purpose

The Joint Evaluation of Civil Society Engagement in Policy Dialogue has been commissioned by six international development agencies (Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland) covering the period May 2011 to September 2012. The evaluation focuses on the effectiveness of civil society organisations (CSOs) in policy dialogue and the role played by Development Partners (DPs) in supporting CSOs in influencing policy outcomes. The overall purpose is lesson learning for DPs in terms of how best to support CSOs in the area of policy dialogue in the future. The purpose of the case studies is to provide in-depth analysis of how CSOs engage in policy dialogue, what outcomes they have achieved and what factors have contributed to them. This report presents the results of the Bangladesh country study, which was carried out in two phases, September 2011 and February-March 2012.

The country study was guided by the overall methodological framework provided for this evaluation. However, it is noted, this study is not a conventional ’evaluation’ but an opportunity to identify lessons learned from the analysis of the four ’policy process’ case studies on CSO effectiveness, whether or not supported by the DPs.

The case study themes of primary education, local government, minority land rights and a mini study on food security were selected through participatory consultations with CSOs during the Scoping Study in September/October 2011. Theory of Change models were developed for each theme by the research team to help guide conversations and to interrogate their validity and were iteratively improved upon with CSO representatives. An appreciative enquiry approach was used in interviews, focus group discussions and workshops to help understand process an outcomes and different perceptions of success. The findings were validated through two workshops at the end of March; one with CSOs and the second with DPs in Dhaka. As well as exchanges with key informants, the team spent time in civil society engagement processes including a meeting between elected representatives and youth, a Meet-the-Minister session in education, an exchange meeting between Mayors and a delegation of local government officials from USA, reviewing internet activism and recordings of TV programmes.

Over the last five years there has been a noticeable shift in the common understanding in Bangladesh of the term ’civil society’ beyond NGOs not only to include non-formal CSOs (campaigning and citizen groups) but also media, professional associations, trade unions and faith-based organisations. Bangladesh has very many NGOs and registered groups and is often described as having a vibrant civil society. This notion is increasingly contested on the basis that vibrancy means more than numbers of service providers. Rather small numbers of like-minded CSOs are active in central-level policy dialogue and then only around a rather narrow set of themes. However, at local level there is growing engagement of local citizen forums and people’s groups in holding local service providers to account and in participating in the newly legislated spaces for citizen engagement.

Enabling environment for policy dialogue

Bangladesh has a progressive Constitution providing freedom for CSOs. CSOs must register to receive foreign funds or formally engage with Government but increasingly CSOs involved in advocacy/policy dialogue eschew registration as it limits their freedom to act. The NGO Affairs Bureau which controls all those receiving foreign funds is under-resourced and over-stretched and approvals for projects are often delayed. Some CSOs working on human rights and openly critical of the Government have experienced harassment and have been denied project permission. Accountability of CSOs tends to be to the registration authority and donors rather than to its constituency although there are exceptions.

Bangladesh suffers from confrontational-style partisan politics and history indicates that each election ushers in a new parliament which systematically overturns or curbs legislation made by its predecessor. Much of civil society is highly politicised and many NGOs and professional associations are partisan which complicates open dialogue. There are encouraging early signs of change from patron-client style to more representational politics particularly among locally-elected councillors but there continue to be tensions about control of resources typified by the fact that only 2% of national budget is allocated to local government services. This constrains and frustrates the willingness to engage in local level policy dialogue since local decision making has little impact. The Right to Information Act (2009) is regarded as being an important enabler for greater transparency and accountability and improve civil society engagement in policy dialogue.

There are considerable development funds for CS activity but mostly for service delivery. There is a perceived recent shift in preference for these programmes over rights-based programmes which received more attention at the beginning of the decade. Various windows of support have closed and donors’ desire to do more with less has created more competition for resources. The project-style funding which remains dominant, and privileges large over small, established over emerging, scale-up over innovation, Dhaka based over local organisations and those which are effective professional ’bidders’. 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.

Bangladesh has a strong history of voluntarism and philanthropy but these were seriously threatened by the massive NGO penetration of the 1980s and 1990s. Recently there is a re-emergence of voluntarism through both formal (organisation-based) and non-formal means. In both, it is youth and retired persons who are particularly active. These types of organisations play an invaluable policy dialogue role but are less able to get access to conventional DP resources.

Improving telecommunications are an important enabling factor in policy dialogue. With many private TV channels, new community radios and an active internet, the electronic media is increasingly popular and meeting the audience appetite for coverage of current affairs. With mobile phone coverage of 98% of the country and more than 80 million registered mobile phone users, Bangladesh has become a hub of innovative mobile-based services for development. As well as the more conventional provision of SMS information by Government, NGOs and telephone providers, users are also inputting current data on development, corruption, good practice for real time monitoring. All 4,520 Union Parishads have computers and internet access for public use.

Academic freedom is largely respected but politically-sensitive topics are discouraged. Remarkably little independent research activity is carried out including within the case study sectors. There is criticism that the few renowned ’experts’ capture invited civil society space and are remote from the pulse of mainstream opinion. Products of the Dhaka elite and their use of ’high’ Bangla, English and academic language further fuels these criticisms. The status given to age, family and academic background make it difficult for young and unknown people to actively take part in policy dialogue and underscores the importance of social and political capital accumulation to enable meaningful participation.

“Policy dialogue” is a term which is not used much in Bangladesh except to refer to invited formal, controlled (and elitist) spaces. However when the phrase ’citizen engagement’ is used there is a much broader understanding concomitant with the intention expressed in the ToR. This phrase and its Bangla translation accommodate the more messy non-linear and organic processes of policy influence rather than the events interpretation of policy dialogue.

Bangladesh has a history of claimed space for citizen action inspired by successful movements of the past (The Language Movement, Freedom Fighters and Women’s Movement). As a result of development programmes since the 1970s, the principles of people’s participation have been consistently promoted. The recent legislation which requires local government to engage with their constituency through a range of mandatory provisions such as ward-level planning, open budget meetings, local level coordination meetings and active local level standing committees is a transformation of the traditions of claimed space into invited space.

Spaces for engagement

There are more invited spaces for policy dialogue around primary education than in the other themes reviewed in this study. This is because it is regarded as public good around which there are less contested issues. It has cross-party political backing further endorsed by Government being signatory to international declarations such as Education for All and the education goals of the Millennium Development Goals. It is also because NGOs represent a significant percentage of education service provision and have acknowledged technical expertise. Even so the invited spaces have had to be fought for over many years and only relatively recently has there been any permanency e.g. inclusion in the Joint Annual Review Mission of the large education SWAP, inclusion in committees formulating the National Education Policy. Unlike local government, CSO influence in primary education has been mostly directed at central level (in National Education Policy and major education programmes) and local level advocacy (through new local government invited spaces and capacitated school management committees) is still in its infancy.

Whilst national level civic engagement in primary education led by NGOs is more mature than in the other three thematic areas reviewed, it has only recently provided spaces for Teachers Associations, parents and students and still needs to consider further inclusion of the private sector and association of local elected representatives. While the national coalition for education NGOs has legitimacy conferred by its 1,300 member NGOs and its more than 20 years of social and political capital accumulation, the other important players such as Teachers Associations are not routinely included in policy dialogue nor are well prepared to take part.

Much has been achieved by CSOs working in the education sector through invited and claimed spaces regarding inclusive education, early childhood education and learner-centred education in particular. The special relationship developed between Government and the Coalition as well as a small number of renowned educationalists also means that much is achieved through informal invited spaces, where advice is sought ’off the record’. This essential and time-consuming role is often overlooked or under-recognised by conventional monitoring and evaluation approaches and attribution is often hard to prove.

Whereas NGOs have taken the lead in education, they are purposely taking a back seat in policy dialogue at central level regarding local government and letting the Local Government Professional Associations lead. These Associations have the clout, legitimacy and understanding of the issues as well as understanding of the political environment in which policy dialogue takes place. The surviving Associations are less than 10 years old and are still concerned with their own organisation and mandate but are increasingly claiming space at national level. Invited space is much more constrained than for education as the issues for engagement are more contested. Despite political rhetoric, there is, for example, little evidence of parliamentary or civil service support for decentralisation, a main tenet of the local government agenda. The dominance of UN and International Financing Institutions over other donors in the local government sector with their ’working with Government’ modality has led to a more cautious approach to including CSOs in policy dialogue compared to the education sector where DPs have actively promoted and ensured this.

At the local level the growing confidence in people power and emergence of citizen groups which demonstrate success in realising entitlements is fuelling a slow but mounting pressure from below, some but not all of which is NGO facilitated. Thus we see there has been more achievement at local level engagement than in central level, which remains, for the reasons given above, comparatively closed. While CSO engagement in primary education has influenced national policy but has yet to fully exploit the possibilities for engagement at local level, in local government the opposite is seen. There is considerable activity around the new provisions for citizen engagement (open budget meetings, ward level planning, ward level coordination meetings and activation of local government standing committees) as well as enhanced attitudes towards representational politics and the link between taxpaying and voice. Study participants are of the opinion that it will be the positive experiences of local government representatives and the electorate which will drive parliament to consider issues such as decentralisation rather than advocacy efforts at central level per se.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) land issues present another scenario. Here, invited spaces at central policy level for minority land rights are somewhat tokenistic as little is achieved through them, forcing issues into claimed space. As this a minority issue, there is little public demand for change and few alliances which the CHT CSOs can draw on beyond the human rights organisations. While international support is strong in theory there is still no resolution. The variety of vested interests in the CHT conspire to create an impasse in successive governments which they prefer not to disturb. The geographic remoteness of the CHT, the different languages spoken, the lower than average education and continuing presence of the military make it very difficult for CSOs to engage in policy dialogue at either local or national level.

Most CSOs involved in food security are concerned with service provision and rarely with the often controversial aspects of land use for non-food agriculture, high yielding and genetically modified seeds, food adulteration and food sovereignty. Although these issues are important they are forced to play out in claimed spaces and are more often championed by the media than by other CSOs. With public interest clearly focused on keeping food prices low and ensuring relief food distribution when needed, the issues above are marginalised. In the course of the study we came across only a handful of isolated CSO voices conducting research and low impact advocacy around such issues.

Development Partner support

DPs support CSO engagement through funding their programmes, contracting and helping to broker opportunities for engagement. The requirement for funding is often relatively resource light and so does not fit well within DP current funding modalities where there is an emphasis on large disbursement, low transaction costs and value-for-money measures which valorise economic return on investment. The non-funding role of DPs is equally important and brokering international bridges and constant vigilance to maintain invited and created space for CS engagement are key elements of this. As exemplified by the case studies the nature of support should change as the CSO and the policy engagement environment changes. So, for example after building some success at national level engagement resources need to be made available to the non-NGO actors for wider engagement in primary education and to support local level advocacy around access and quality education. The Coalition has secured invited space and now needs secured resources to participate. While in local government resources are needed to amplify local voices and build a critical mass for change from below. Non-financial support needs to be directed at ensuring that there are invited space opportunities for meaningful central-level dialogue as well as alliance building in local government, CHT land rights and food security. In all cases there needs to be a greater emphasis on evidence collection and strategic advocacy approaches.

There is an urgent need to develop better-articulated indicators and better instruments to measure both the process and outcomes of CSO engagement in policy dialogue. Whilst these remain vague and inappropriate this kind of work will continue to be under-valued and will be vulnerable to unfair comparison with service provision projects where impact measures are more straightforward.

As recognised by DPs themselves there is also an urgent need to find better-suited funding modalities for CSOs engaged in policy dialogue which allow continuity for those with key invited space roles, flexibility to meet ’right moments’ for advocacy and to support issue-based transient organisations. These modalities include Trust Funds and Foundations but also funding consortia of implementers around themes and public access resources which can help a large and diverse range of civil society actors to grow rather than privileging a few funded ones.

DPs need to consider supporting a diversity of civil society action which does not distort the indigenous dynamic. The underlying ideologies of civil society engagement need open and honest debate among DPs and CSOs to avoid distortions. It is essential that more support is given to truly independent research and opportunities to debate and contest issues rather than simply promoting like-mindedness and lobbying.

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