Book Review: how citizen action leads to national change

April 9, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

When discussing social change (or anything else), there’s no substitute for good case studies. They inspire and provoke new thinking, helping us move beyond platitudes and generalizations, and they stick in the mind as islands of reality in a sea of social science blah.

gaventa coverCitizen action and national policy: making change happen’ a new book edited by John Gaventa and Rosemary McGee of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex, published this week in the UK, offers not one case study but eight, picking them apart for the lessons they contain on how social action can lead to lasting change. They include some cause celebres, like South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, and some lesser known examples such as Mexico’s maternal mortality movement, or Turkey’s campaign to reform the penal code to respect women’s rights. I used several of the studies in draft form for From Poverty to Power. A declaration of interest – John is chair of Oxfam GB’s Board of Trustees.

The book asks ‘Under what conditions does citizen action contribute to more responsive states, pro-poor policies and greater social justice? What is needed to overcome setbacks, and to consolidate smaller victories into ‘successful’ change?’ And based on the case studies, it comes up with 7 ‘propositions’ on how such changes occur.

Proposition 1: Political opportunities are opened and closed through historic, dynamic and iterative processes. While political opportunities create possibilities for collective action for policy change, these openings themselves may have been created by prior mobilization.
[My translation: change processes are unpredictable and slow]

Proposition 2: Civil society engagement in policy processes is not enough by itself to make change happen. Competition for formal political power is also central, creating new impetus for reform and bringing key allies into positions of influence, often in synergy with collective action from below.
[My translation: change emerges from a combination of insider and outsider activity]TAC_1

Proposition 3: While international allies, covenants and norms of state behaviour can strengthen domestic openings for reform, they can also be the subject of fierce domestic opposition. Successful reform campaigns depend on careful navigation to link international pressures with differing and constantly changing local and national contexts. In respect of mobilizing structures, the identity and positioning of change agents and their ability to form and sustain broad alliances:
[My translation: Be careful! External pressure can easily provoke a nationalist backlash.]

Proposition 4: Successful policy change occurs not through professional advocacy alone, but involves complex and highly developed mobilizing structures which link national reformers to local and faith-based groups, the media and repositories of expertise. Such structures are built over time, deeply grounded in the societies where they are found, and linked to the biographies of those who lead them.
[My translation: You can’t just turn up and start campaigning. Context is all]

Proposition 5: Alliances between social actors and champions of change inside the state are critical to make policy change happen. Social mobilization structures provide opportunities for state-based reformers to generate change from within, just as political opportunity structures provide spaces for social actors to do so from without. [My translation: Insiders need outsiders and vice versa]

Proposition 6: Policy change on contentious issues requires contentious forms of mobilization. Contentiousness is a dynamic and contingent concept. Successful collective action must also be dynamic, with the ability to frame issues carefully, adjust to changing circumstances and audiences, and draw upon a wide repertoire of strategies. Concerning the nature of policy success itself:
[My translation: You need to be able to make nasty as well as make nice]

Proposition 7: ‘Success’ can be understood in many different ways, especially among the different actors in a broad-based campaign or social movement. In general, robust and sustainable changes require campaigns which link the national to the local and which pay attention to the processes of empowering citizens and deepening democratic governance as well as to effecting policy change itself.
[My translation: How you win matters]

Gaventa and McGee identify some further implications, including some bad news for the bean counters: ‘The nature of such change is dynamic, iterative and may take many years to achieve. Progress at one moment can lead to setbacks the next. But success on one front also creates spaces, coalitions and repertoires, which can contribute to change on other fronts. This view challenges fundamentally approaches which are more linear in approach, or which believe that policy fixes for severe development and democracy problems will occur quickly or predictably according to predictable models that fit neatly into time-bound project cycles.’

They also remind us that we don’t live in a world of cosy win-wins: ‘change on fundamental issues requires contention and contestation’, which is academic-speak for ‘sometimes change will require a punch-up, rather than dialogue and consultation.’ The combination of this conclusion with that on the need for broad alliances is interesting – campaigners need to know both how to work in alliances with very different kinds of people, and how to fight. Most of us temperamentally prefer one or the other.

Not surprisingly, as I drew on it so much, the book is very compatible with ‘From Poverty to Power’, arguing that national change is critical, but needs to be underpinned by international action and ideas. And a nice big endorsement for the combination of active citizens and effective states:

‘National policy change is vital for achieving more just and fair societies, as well as for inclusive services and inclusive democracies. Yet it will not emanate from the state alone, but from the synergistic effects produced by the actions of organized citizens. Just as political opportunities create possibilities for effective citizen mobilization, so too does organized citizen action create new possibilities for state reform.’

It’s in the space between citizens and states that a lot of the interesting stuff takes place. A really useful book.