Two types of reaction are common when talking about civil society engagement in public sector reform: 1. Skeptical. 2. Idealistic. This leaves very little room for a realistic view to genuinely reflect on the actual impact and contributions of civil society in good governance work.
The skeptics focus on the limited knowledge and technical capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) to understand and contribute meaningfully to public sector reform. They also seem weary of the credibility of CSOs. As someone who has been exposed in that world, I acknowledge that there is very little verification in data collection and impact evaluation processes in CSOs’ work. The internal accountability of the majority of CSOs goes unchecked. Countries lack clear and enforceable legal systems to establish and ensure adherence to the CSO code of conduct. The issue of ‘resource-curse’ has also come up. Economists worry that pouring funding without careful analysis of the costs and benefits in engaging civil society in governance reform can be economically and politically risky.
Skeptics are not just found among policymakers but also in the general public. In developing countries, the reliance of Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on donors for resources, in both human and financial aspects and their project-based working ethos, has raised serious questions about their independence, reliability and long term sustainability. The “NGO-business” in developing countries is also perceived as lucrative, with promises of high salary and overseas travel. This is said to have invited elite capture of the movement. There is one particular case I remember where the difference in per-diem rates between the government official and the NGO personnel resulted in different accommodation privileges during a field trip. These types of cases have elicited humiliation and strong resentment from the government staff and the public alike.
Skeptics also see the CSO movement being increasingly exploited by opposing political parties to serve their agenda. This is said to propagate polarization among CSOs, making it difficult to build coalitions to work towards a common goal. This brings up the issue of risks associated with safety and security of CSO partners in demand-led governance work, which requires careful political analysis and protection policies.
The idealist, on the other hand, is of the view that empowerment of civil society is necessary because badly managed administration, rampant corruption and poor quality and inefficiencies in public services have plagued developing countries. Civil society is seen as both a catalyst and a representative of active citizenry in demanding better accountability and transparency from the government. Third party monitoring of government projects in the interests of the public is increasingly seen as a requisite to ensure effective use and outcomes of the invested resources. (My blog posts have been especially dedicated to highlighting the success stories behind this concept).
And there are the realists, who have considered both the idealistic and skeptical viewpoints. Theirs is the third way. They are working on indicators to take a retrospective and prospective assessment of civil society engagement in governance reform. They see the importance of understanding the political and institutional climate of a country to improve the legislative and regulatory framework toward institutionalizing the demand-driven agenda. The important roles of media, bar associations, parliamentarians and academic institutions are getting recognition in the process. New schemes that involve private sector and ICT in fee-based client services are also being explored for independence and sustainability of the movement. At the same time, affirmative action and inclusive measures are promoted to give voice and power to the marginalized.
Going forward, action-learning centers can be established within the government, donors and civil society organizations to assess and evaluate the on-going and potential schemes in demand-led governance reform, at project, local government and country levels.