How a citizen-led approach can transform aid to governance

14 April 2011

Egypt, Cairo. Protesters celebrate Mubarak's resignation. Photo: Ivor Prickett / Panos11 April 2011 - Nick Benequista 

A ten-year research project has tried to re-think how we approach development by looking at nearly 150 examples from around the world of citizens taking action to influence the institutions that affect their lives. The project's summary report - Blurring the Boundaries: Citizenship Action Across States and Societies - concludes that the 'good governance' agenda is due for a citizen-led upheaval.

US AID's website states that the organisation has worked in Egypt 'to strengthen the administration of justice, promote decentralized governance and more competitive electoral processes, strengthen the capabilities of civil society organizations, and protect the rights of women and children.'

Contrast this institutional approach to recent events, where citizen-led action brought dramatic change to Egypt, and one wonders whether there might now be concern in US AID about what such programmes have actually accomplished. Figures are not available for how much US AID spent on these initiatives, but US AID's total aid package to Egypt, always among the top recipients of American assistance, is known to be about $1 billion each year.

Research by the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability (Citizenship DRC), a global research consortium based at the IDS that worked in nearly 30 countries, suggests those concerns should also be felt elsewhere. The Citizenship DRC's final summary of findings report - Blurring the Boundaries: Citizenship Action Across States and Societies - argues that the 'good governance' agenda that has persisted in international development since the early 1990s is itself due for a citizen-led upheaval.

‘For too long, citizens have been seen by development agencies as the residuals of some other institutional fix, not seen as actors who can galvanise and lead fundamental governance reform themselves,' said John Gaventa, the Citizenship DRC's director and recipient this week of the 2011 Tisch Civic Engagement Research Prize for his contributions to our understanding of citizen engagement. ‘The recent events in Egypt and elsewhere in the region show the power of citizen action to bring about change, especially when it links people across state and civil society in new coalitions. They have been a great example of what a citizen-centred approach can do.'

The end of the supply-and-demand model

Each year, about $9 billion is spent to promote fair elections, government transparency and justice, among other common components of the good governance agenda. Ten years of research into citizen-led development suggests that this money has often been channeled into misguided programmes.

Development agencies have pursued a two-pronged strategy for good governance. On one side have been initiatives to bolster 'voice', encompassing the variety of formal and informal ways that citizens make themselves seen, heard and understood; on the other, have stood state-led reforms to strengthen the institutions of accountability. This is the 'supply and demand' model, whereby the state, on one side, is the supplier - the duty-bearer and the agent being held accountable. Citizens do their part on the other side of the transaction by demanding their rights and an account of what the state has done.

To be fair, the supply-and-demand model has recently come under threat by many critics who say that good governance is a function of the relationship between states and societies. It is not, they say, just a matter of building generic capacities on each side, but a matter of building the specific capacities needed to engage with one another, making development agencies less like an architect and more like a matchmaker.

A citizen-led approach to good governance

The Citizenship DRC has joined these critics, but with its own version on how the state and society come together.

The research programme, which was funded by the Department for International Development, looked a what international development can learn from social, cultural and political struggles - examples like Brazil's health activists, South Africa's AIDS rights campaigners and India's right to information crusaders. In these cases and 150 others, it is clear that change happens not just through strategies that work on both sides of the equation, but also through strategies that work across them. All of these examples can be found on the Citizenship DRC website: every case study, policy brief, working paper, book chapter, and more. Search by keyword or browse the thematic areas, including a section on 'Overarching lessons' where you can find the programmes most definitive articles.

The Citizenship DRC has found that change usually involves highly complex coalitions of NGOs, social movements, faith-based groups, the media, intellectuals and others in deep-rooted mobilising networks. While the state is often a target in such movements, actors within the state also play a critical role too, opening and closing opportunities for citizens, championing and sustaining reforms, and protecting the legitimacy and safety of the movements.

Pursuing this citizen-led approach to development, however, has been hampered by a lack of evidence on the measurable outcomes that one can expect from citizen action and by a dearth of expertise on how to formulate context-specific strategies. The Citizenship DRC addresses these gaps in detail in Blurring the Boundaries.

The good governance agenda of the 1990s has already overstayed its usefulness. The question now is whether what comes next will finally give citizens the role they have been demanding.

Visit the Citizenship DRC website for more information or contact:

Nick Benequista is Research and Communications Officer for the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability.

Photo: Ivor Prickett / Panos