CSO capacity for policy engagement: lessons learned from the CSPP consultations in Africa, Asia and Latin America

CSO capacity for policy engagement: lessons learned from the CSPP consultations in Africa, Asia and Latin America

Role of civil society organisations in influencing policy

The nature of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in development work is changing, but how successfully – and leading where? While there is still a strong demand for CSOs to ‘sustain the good work’ in terms of direct service delivery, there is also a growing need for civil society to participate in policy processes, in order to bring about sustained long-term change. Surprisingly, there is very little systematic research on how CSOs all over the world are influencing policy processes, especially from the point of view of those actually involved in the policymaking process in the South.

Based on a series of regional and country workshops, this paper looks at:

  • the influence of the political context on CSO impact on policy processes – from ‘internal’ factors such governmental structures, capacity and attitudes; to the political context of the country; to the wider ‘external’ influence of international politics.
  • the importance of good, timely, appropriate and well-presented evidence when trying to influence policymaking, as well as associated problems.
  • the potentially limiting factors of CSO capacity (from financial capacity to resources) and links, and explores the importance of networks.
  • external factors that influence thepolicymaking process, including the cases where donors have expansive control over research and policy processes.

The lessons on evidence-based policy-engagement that emerged from the consultations include:

On policy processes and political context:

  • the importance of CSOs understanding the political context of the country, both currently and historically. In many cases CSO efforts are severely hampered by the low-level functioning of political institutions, particularly at lower levels, and it should not always be assumed that state, civil society and markets share common interests.
  • the need for policymakers to work at being more open and accommodating in their attitudes towards CSO involvement in policy processes. In this regard access to information was a contentious point. As information is regarded as the key to power, access to data is very limited in certain countries. It was also noted that CSOs should be more proactive in data-gathering and compel policymakers to deal with the issue. Involvement should also be a two-way process, with governments getting involved in CSO work through means such as ‘Peer Reviews’.
  • It helps in enhancing credibility of the CSO data-gathering if a methodology which involves a diverse group of stakeholders, including the end consumer, e.g. the policymakers and bureaucrats, is used.
  • One of the most significant lessons that was repeatedly given in all the discussions was the importance of CSOs’ sustained ‘engagement’ with policymakers. There was a repeated call for CSOs to get more involved in governmental structures and governmental discussion forums.
  • CSOs need to listen to governments and realise when they are asking too much. They need to understand the pressures that policymakers face. The ‘degree of compromise’ CSOs are prepared to make must be carefully considered in each situation.
  • The need to acknowledge political changes as opportunities was emphasised.

On evidence:

  • One of the clearest outcomes from the consultations was the importance of robust evidence. CSOs regard it as important to build their own capacity to generate and use evidence in the most constructive and compelling manner. It was noted that CSOs must have access to solid, appropriate research that produces accurate, usable evidence, as much to affirm their credibility to policymakers, and help form good relationships, as to actually use in the policymaking process itself.
  • Great importance was attached to long-term evidence gathering and the current lack of it.
  • All too often different CSOs perform their own research on the same issues, which is not only a waste of resources but provides policymakers with confusing, contrasting evidence.
  • Getting local communities involved in research is essential in ensuring that the social issues that are considered their highest priority is addressed by the research.
  • The evidence must also be communicated in effectively. In some cases it was noted that policymakers were simply unaware of the existence of quality research.
  • Language can be a deciding issue, especially where evidence is presented in a foreign language.
  • Information needs to be explained and communicated to policymakers in such a way that real solutions and benefits are obvious, and the right advocate must be selected to present the findings. In some cases short reports (along with informal meetings and networking) had proven more effective than major publications.
  • Some CSOs had found that rather than provoking negative reactions in policymakers by constantly raising controversial issues, tackling a ‘subsidiary’ issue where the government feels less threatened could be a more successful way to raise key questions.
  • When trying to assess impact, it was noted that successful policy influence is not always a tangible quantity. There can be a serious delay between policy formulation and implementation, which must be taken into account

On capacity and links:

  • It was emphasised that in order to improve their interaction with policymakers, CSOs need to improve their own capacity.
  • Even having decided to follow the policy-influence path, CSOs’ functions can still vary greatly, from an intermediary role or a research role, to educator and mobiliser. It is vital that CSOs have clear aims, methods and beliefs, as much for their own understanding as for their credibility in others’ eyes.
  • CSOs must work harder at understanding how the whole policy process works in their respective countries. It is not sufficient merely to present the evidence to the policymakers and assume that the rest will take care of itself. In some cases it was noted that CSOs feel they are too busy with other (e.g. direct service delivery) work to get involved in policy processes, and in this way several opportunities for policy engagement are missed.
  • The lack of technical or expert knowledge and skills among CSOs was cited as being one of the biggest impediments to their effective policy-influencing. CSOs themselves pointed out the problem of retaining quality staff in an increasingly competitive job market.
  • In some cases it was pointed out that it was important for CSOs in one country to work together, to form a ‘united voice’ on policy, rather than compete for resources and ‘entry points’. Collaboration enables CSOs to pool resources, cut costs, combine knowledge with resources (and funding), learn from successes and failures, and prevent duplicated, contradictory or misinterpreted research. Uniting CSOs that are working towards the same goals also has the added bonuses of giving them strength in numbers when engaging with policymakers. At the same time it was noted that competition between CSOs has become a serious issue, especially for smaller local CSOs.
  • Inviting policymakers to be involved right from the start of the planning process and evidencegathering improves the interaction between them, the CSOs and the local community.
  • Many comments were made about CSOs rushing through affairs without thorough planning, and thus they are weak when facing hurdles and regularly lose sight of goals in their desperation to ‘do something’.

  • The very nature of civil society work means that funding and allocation of money is another clearly contentious issue, and the importance of sound budgeting cannot be stressed enough.
  • In reality, CSOs may need to learn not to depend so much on money and learn how to make their voices heard in other ways, for example by improving their networking skills and credibility.
  • Networks are more effective than individuals at producing, sharing and strengthening evidence.
  • Using the media could be a useful means of
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