An important 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.
o Support for processes that provide mechanisms for both identifying and resolving conflicts between business investment and social and environmental concerns, especially in mining and urban development. [Dispute/conflict resolution]
o Support for business associations working for public goods for business, e.g. agencies such as IFC  that are concerned with private business, with the important concern that this needs to take account of conflicts of interest in aid, since such agencies are also often engaged with particular investment projects and firms. [Enabling environment]
Finally, in all cases, there is a need to base any support in an analysis of the nature and functioning of civil society. Civil society can be a force for pressuring the state to be more responsive to citizens and more equitable, or can be a source of exclusion and the reproduction of inequalities. Civil society will also typically work very differently under more and less democratic regimes. [Power and context analysis has to include the power and politics of civil society itself – there are few selflessly altruistic Robin Hoods in real life]
In general, aid should not be focused on “money”. This can be counter-productive. Rather, external partners can provide technical assistance in designing locally-grown interventions; they can play a role in financing information-gathering by local NGOs; and can finance experimental interventions (and their learning). Most valuable is likely to be support for a domestic process of innovation and learning involving a generalized approach of experimentation—of which RCTs are one, but only one, component. [Chucking big money at civil society initiatives is a good way to destroy them. Aid needs to be smart, and about ideas. Trial and error is a better way to pursue success than trying to roll out best practice at large scale.]
Can aid ever lead to transformational changes in accountability relations? Almost certainly not, if designs are hatched and brought in from outside. However, aid can potentially provide a supporting role if it is aligned with the flow of internal initiatives, is consistent with domestic political strategy, and supports greater accountability at the margins of major projects. An aspiration to effect some form of system change is admirable, for both internal and external actors. But for donors this needs to be blended with humility over the limits and unintended consequences of external action, and a central focus on helping domestic actors learn by doing.” [Domestic politics rules. Aid is a bit player, for good or ill. Get over it.]
This post first appeard on From Poverty to Power 
Photo Credit: UN Women