Civil Society Organisations

The participation of relevant civil society groups is central to the notion of policy dialogue, not only for democratic convictions, but also for performative reasons, as reforms with a wider support base are likely to be more sustainable and less open to contestation. Following the momentum that civil society gathered after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which it played an instrumental role, donors have been promoting CSOs in different ways, from designing development projects to acting as watchdogs or influencing and monitoring policy processes – especially in the framework of pro-poor policy.

However, this golden age of civil society is starting to be a thing of the past. In parallel with a worrisome trend of democratic decline, the number of governments restricting the operating space for CSOs has been steadily growing in recent years, putting civil society increasingly under stress and presenting CSOs with a minefield of legitimacy. Governments hostile to independent civic groups have become experts in sowing public doubts about civic actors’ identities and agendas. Exploiting the global rekindling of nationalist sovereignty and a renewed emphasis on traditional values, they tend to discredit civil society organizations for their reliance on an international framework of rights and norms, as well as for the contributions they receive from international funding partners. This explains why one of the main challenges for donors in this regard has been to find the ‘right’ CSOs, i.e. identifying the ones that really represent and are accountable to certain segments of the population, and not merely to those funding them, as all too often local CSOs and grass-roots movements are being manipulated to rubber-stamp decisions that have already been made by other, more influential stakeholders.

In light of these challenges, it is more important than ever that donors who want to support inclusive policy dialogue should look beyond the usual suspects and involve CSOs that have constituencies other than donors; in particular, they should rely on the local knowledge of the Dialogue Host to involve organisations and groups that possess a strong thematic expertise in the policy area under discussion and/or are present outside the capitals and big cities, in areas that are neglected both by governments and international donors. The biggest challenge for dialogue facilitators is to identify organisations and individuals that can speak on behalf of those groups or constituencies that will be most affected by policy change, even though those may not always be the best-known organisations. Indeed, taking the time and effort to identify and involve them in the dialogue is crucial in achieving reforms that lead to more inclusive policies, in addition to a more inclusive policy-making and overall governance style.

While identifying key civil society actors, the Dialogue Host should ideally strive to include those stakeholders that understand policymaking as much as the specific policy issue at stake. A longstanding challenge in this regard is that CSOs often have a surprisingly limited understanding of policy processes and, as a result, they fail to engage in an effective manner and to use evidence and contestation in an ineffective way. Considering that not all the CSOs that are being brought to the dialogue table have a clear understanding of policy work and are able to effectively engage in policy making, the INSPIRED Operating Model puts a lot of importance on training those stakeholders so that they can look at their problems through a “policy lens”.

This can even be the case of Dialogue Hosts such as Tegsh Niigem in Mongolia, which was strongly specialised in “fighting” for the rights of people with disabilities but lacked the theoretical frameworks and practical tools to conduct policy work, a whole set of skills that the organisation acquired through INSPIRED and then fully integrated into their modus operandi.

Nevertheless, not all CSOs need to become policy wonks for the dialogue process to succeed: On the contrary, the diversity of methods, missions and mandates among them has to be acknowledged and embraced as an advantage, an opportunity to better structure their participation and build on their specialisation to optimize the collective impact. Whereas some may contribute through advocacy, lobby or monitoring, others can bring in their capacities in monitoring or service delivery.

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