Can donors support civil society activism without destroying it? Some great evidence from Nigeria

September 9, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

The Thinking and Working Politically crew are reassembling next week to discuss how better to apply power analysis, political economy etc in the SAVI paperpractice of aid, so I thought I’d highlight a couple of good examples in advance.

First up is some really exciting work from DFID’s State Accountability and Voice Initiative in Nigeria, which suggests that even big donors can successfully support citizen engagement with the state.  This is important because gurus such as David Booth have questioned whether donors are just too cumbersome to do this, while academics such as Masooda Bano have shown how chucking money at genuinely grassroots civil society organizations in Pakistan destroys them within months (because their members promptly assume the leaders will run off with the money and leave).

But SAVI reckons it can be done:

Whilst most demand-side governance programmes support civil society groups through grants and limited capacity building support, SAVI has shifted the aid modality – the way the programme achieves its objectives – to facilitation and knowledge sharing. This approach recognises that the demand-side governance challenge is about institutional blockages and related capacity limitations, more than it is about funding gaps.

Planning and decision-making in SAVI is largely decentralised to state-level programmes and state staff are recruited, trained and supported to work as hands-on facilitators of locally-driven change. They provide seed money for partners’ initiatives in small and diminishing amounts, but focus largely on tailored learning and mentoring processes that build partners’ functionality and effectiveness as agents of citizen voice. Support is tailored to address gaps in partners’ knowledge, skills, and working relationships that they themselves prioritise through regular self-assessment, learning and reflection processes.’

‘Staff and partners are supported to conduct political economy analyses, and update political intelligence, themselves. One [state level] SAVI member of staff describes why:

“We wanted to know the history of politics which is shaping current thinking… the things that drive the development agenda from politicians’ point of view. Where is the direction of government? Traditional leaders – do they really have power? What kind of power can they give you..? Information goes round. People will be telling you you’d better go and talk to him…Through informal contacts you can get to understand the mindset of the people in power and you get at the informal system of power. You need to know where to pitch your tent.’

SAVI's theory of changeTo help a widely dispersed network of staff and partners, SAVI came up with rather a nice theory of change (see pic): Consisting of

Glass half full: start by understanding the system and players who are already there

House: help partners get their own house in order, build their networks etc

Triangle: help bring together citizens, politicians and media to start building trust and connections

Bridge: build constructive engagement between citizens and state governments, including power analysis and experimental ‘learning by doing’

Wedge: on the basis of the first four stages, adapt and spread successful approaches, e.g. to new issues or neighbouring states

Explosion: generate a critical mass for change, then stand back and POW (I assume this bit hasn’t actually happened yet).

This is illustrated with 3 nice case studies: budget analysis and advocacy in Kaduna State, monitoring government projects for corruption in Jigawa state, and this very nice example of disability advocacy in Lagos state:

SAVI state staff brought together the Lagos Civil Society Disability Policy Partnership (LCSDPP). Members included people with and without disabilities, who had previously worked individually and competed for donor funding to bring about change. SAVI state staff assisted partners to work together, strategize in a politically intelligent way, and work effectively and extensively with the media and with elected representatives.

It took a long time and painstaking support for LCSDPP partners to unlearn their ’placard carrying’ mindset, and focus instead on constructive SAVI 2engagement with the state. Equally, it took time and subtle advocacy from group members to convince stakeholders in the state government to participate in a process of constructive engagement with civil society. The group were able to identify key potential partners in the state government and the SHoA, including first time elected representatives keen to meet the expectations of their constituents.

The group successfully championed the Lagos State Special Peoples’ Law on disability rights, passed by Lagos House of Assembly as its first ever private member’s bill.

LCSDPP applied their ability to think and act politically and ‘work with the grain’ to consider how they might get the governor’s attention and support:

“When it came to the Governor, [the group considered] what does the Governor listen to? What kind of programme does the governor watch on TV? What newspapers does he read, which programmes does he monitor, where does he worship, who does he hang out with? The Governor is someone who plays football – the group did analysis of all of that. They started engaging with people around him to attract his attention. He became directly interested in their cause and called twice – once live on a radio phone-in and once on TV. He made a commitment on air to meet with them. This was their entry point to build on.”


Changing the aid modality has a number of benefits. Because there are no grants of the  usual kind, there is no call for proposals, no partners’ results frameworks or donor reporting requirements – and therefore none of the dangers of elite capture and diversion from locally rooted efforts that these complex procedures commonly entail. Direct support to citizens’ own initiatives is made possible without the danger of grant funding monetising citizens’ engagement with their government or distorting and weakening their incentives for engagement.’

Brilliant stuff. My only question (not answered in the paper) is whether this kind of labour and knowledge-intensive project spends enough money to meet with approval within DFID, which is under huge pressure to ‘do more with less’. Alas, no mention of budget in the paper. If you can find the time, do read the whole paper – it’s only 8 pages.

September 9, 2014
Duncan Green