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14 ways to better promote active citizenship

Posted by Duncan Green Senior Strategic Adviser

16th Jan 2015

Peace campaigner and marathon runner Julius Arile with his family and neighbours in his home village (2012). Sven Torfinn/Oxfam

Oxfam's active citizenship case studies employ a 'theory of change approach' to explore how change happens in different contexts. They cover a wide range of programmes, both in terms of geography and sector, and have produced some thought-provoking findings regarding programme design, effective ways of working, staff cultures and some of the recurrent dilemmas in promoting active citizenship through aid. 

Here, Duncan Green, Oxfam GB's senior strategic adviser, chief bloginator and author of the case studies, guides us through 14 ways we can get better at promoting active citizenship.

Programme design

1. The right partners are indispensable

Whether programmes flourish or fail depends in large part on the role of partners. Usually this means local NGOs or civil society organizations, but sometimes also individuals, consultants or academics. Good partners bring an understanding of local context and culture (especially important when working with excluded minorities such as the tribal peoples of Chhattisgarh, India). They often have well-developed networks with those in positions of local power and will carry on working in the area long after the programme has moved on.

2. Start with the 'power within'

Promoting active citizenship means building the power of citizens, starting with their 'power within' - their self confidence and assertiveness - especially in work on gender rights. In the case of We Can in South Asia or Community Discussion Classes in Nepal, building this 'power within' was almost an end in itself. Elsewhere, citizens went on to build 'power within' in the form of organizations that enabled poor and excluded individuals to find a strong collective voice with which to confront and influence those in power. This approach has led to some impressive progress in what are often the most unfavourable of circumstances (women's rights in Pakistan, civilian protection in Eastern Congo).

3. Build the grains of change

Active citizenship is often built on collective organization. But building such organizations is about much more than simply promoting protest movements. Historically, social movements have been 'granular'. Short term surges in active citizenship are actually made up of myriad 'grains' - longer-lasting organizations that span everything from faith groups and trade unions, to sports clubs and funeral societies. Success in building active citizenship usually involves identifying and working with existing grains, such as trade unions in Indonesia, or building new ones, like the Women's Leadership Groups in Pakistan or the Community Protection Committees in the DRC. These groups are best placed to weather the storms of setbacks and criticism, and provide the long term foundations for activism, whether as channels of information, sources of mutual support, or as expressions of collective power.

4. The importance of broad alliances and coalitions

Who should the grains engage with? Change is often achieved by engaging and, if possible, allying with a range of stakeholders to pursue a particular issue. A rigorous initial power analysis is essential to reveal the range of possible allies, but in general, the broader the range, the better. For example, those working on violence against women and women's empowerment made it a priority to work with men. Building relationships with conservative evangelicals and Republicans in the Deep South paved the way for success in the campaign to ensure the fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill truly benefited local communities.

Promoting active citizenship means building the power of citizens

5. Individuals and relationships matter

Processes of change are driven by real people, not faceless masses. In practice, there will be some individuals on both sides of the negotiating table (or barricade) who are more able and willing to understand the dreams and demands of all sides, and more interested in seeking change and compromise. Other individuals will have 'invisible power' in the shape of critical behind the scenes influence. Identifying, understanding and building relationships with these people, whether they are adidas buyers in Indonesia or military commanders and traditional leaders in DRC, is essential.

6. Building active citizenship takes time

Gathering the grains into a social movement is painstaking work, requiring sustained investment of time and empathy. Many of the timelines for the case studies show work stretching back over a decade or more - far longer than the typical NGO funding arrangement. This poses real challenges both to funders and 'implementers'. One approach is to agree a 10-20 year 'envelope' for a programme, which then shames the 2-3 year modules within it that are required to seek funds.

Choosing promising targets

7. Quick wins

Embarking on a ten year process with no certainty of victory is a daunting task. Successes, however small (for example, a brother no longer insisting that his sister brings him food), can boost spirits and sustain people for the long haul. This is even more the case when, as with the tribal peoples of Chhattisgarh, there have been few previous examples of successful dealings with the authorities.

8. Implementation gapsA meeting of the 'Nari Utthan' (translation: women ascending) Community Discussion Class (2013). Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

While some of the programmes recorded in the case studies lobbied for new laws, many targeted the gaps between existing rules and their implementation. On women's empowerment, rules on quotas of women in various decision-making bodies in many South Asian countries (such as Nepal) offered an enticing target. In Indonesia, Oxfam made an explicit decision to work within the existing legal framework, out of recognition of its identity as an outside organisation.

9. Windows of opportunity

Change is seldom continuous. Long periods of stagnation and stasis are punctuated by sudden spikes of activity. These are often linked to 'shocks', whether political, economic or environmental. New constitutions, decentralisation processes, elections, floods in Pakistan, even an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, have all served to shake up existing power relations and alliances, and make new movements and conversations possible. Successful programmes plan around such windows where possible or spot and respond to them rapidly as new ones open up.

Challenges and Weaknesses

10. Working with faith groups

Many people living in poverty place enormous trust in religious institutions, which are often central to the construction of norms and values, including those that promote (and sometimes inhibit) active citizenship. In some of the case studies, programmes reached out to religious leaders and faith groups. 

Many people living in poverty place enormous trust in religious institutions

For example, in the US, conservative evangelicals played a crucial role in ensuring that the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill supported local communities. In Tanzania, the Chukua Hatua programme belatedly recognised and built on the prevalence of religious leaders among its 'animators', who are trained to catalyse change in their community. The Aurat Foundation in Pakistan arrived at a nuanced and well thought through engagement approach that included working with progressive Islamic scholars, but avoided religious leaders.

In other cases, however, a 'secular default' in Oxfam's work has meant not engaging properly with faith leaders on issues such as the Arms Trade Treaty, which would on the face of it seem a natural and promising arena for collaboration.

11. Can you do active citizenship without addressing jobs and income?

Trying to make income-generating schemes work can devour the time and resources of a programme, but ignoring the importance of income risks alienating people who are desperate to improve their material conditions. Moreover, as Raising Her Voice (RHV) found, activism costs at least some money, and low incomes can be a deterrent. In Pakistan, the RHV programme and its Women's Leadership Groups from the outset worked to link women to sources of credit and grants. In DRC, initial efforts to include income generation were abandoned because they didn't work.

12. Conflict vs. cooperation

Serious change is seldom entirely peaceful, but conflict carries huge risks for people living in poverty, whether physical or material (for example, being cut off from sources of patronage). In the most high risk environments (Pakistan; DRC; We Can South Asia), programmes opted explicitly for a 'softly softly' approach. Elsewhere, an insider/outsider combination of cooperation with allies, mixed with confrontation and protest were necessary and proved effective. For example, in Nigeria, successful advocacy for the passing of the 2013 Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill, led by RHV partner WRAPA, included hiring a former legislator to navigate the corridors of power, text message barraging of Ministers and highly publicised mock tribunals.

13. Formal politics

In Pakistan, the programme embraced formal politics from the beginning

The world is not neatly segregated between acts of citizenship and formal politics. The two inevitably leach into each other, posing challenges to programmes who are concerned about 'contamination' from the formal political world, which in many countries is associated with clientelism, corruption and coercion. In Nepal, political parties quickly identified and tried to recruit fledgling women leaders - in the end the RHV Nepal programme had no option but to try and equip them with the means to judge and manage the interaction. In Pakistan, the programme embraced formal politics from the beginning, building support networks between women political leaders.

14. Funding, evaluation and value for money

Many of the programmes in the case studies relied on 'good donorship' - donors that were willing to take risks. In Tanzania, DFID funded an experimental approach without pre-agreed outcomes. The success of RHV grew partly from a five year funding agreement (also with DFID), which allowed time for experimentation, failure, learning and redesign.

The pressure to demonstrate results and value for money puts particular pressures on active citizenship work, where attribution is hard to prove and most (if not all) evaluation is qualitative (often seen as second best by donors). The key seems to be in developing genuinely rigorous approaches to evaluation and 'counting what counts'.

Read more

Photo: Peace campaigner and marathon runner Julius Arile with his family and neighbours in his home village (2012). Credit: Sven Torfinn/Oxfam

Blog post written by Duncan Green

Senior Strategic Adviser

More by Duncan Green

Duncan Green