Shaazka Beyerle
David Janoff Bulman
Marco Larizza
Berenike Laura Schott
Publication Date
July 17, 2017

"Citizen engagement is organic rather than induced by external actors; citizens, working on a voluntary basis, help select and design initiatives."

This World Bank Group (WBG) report aims to deepen understanding of citizen engagement in the development arena through in-depth study of three grassroots initiatives in which empowered citizens played a central role in reducing corruption in service delivery. The development community has acknowledged that development outcomes improve when citizens participate in development, leading to the WBG mandate to mainstream citizen engagement across sectors and countries in its strategy to end extreme poverty. The research in this report complements existing approaches by explicitly adopting a human rights perspective as well as focusing on organic citizen-led initiatives rather than WBG- or client-initiated projects. In analysing these cases, this report applies the framework of the World Development Report 2017: Governance and the Law, or WDR 2017 (see Related Summaries, below) to understand how citizens effectively disrupted persistent power asymmetries that undermined development outcomes.

According to WDR 2017, power asymmetries between societal actors can undermine the functional effectiveness of policies by preventing commitment, coordination, and cooperation. Three levers of change can change power dynamics so that governance plagued by capture, clientelism, and exclusion moves toward governance that serves the public interest. These levers consist of: changing incentives to pursue particular goals; changing the underlying preferences and beliefs of relevant actors; and increasing contestability - that is, who participates in the policy arena. The WDR 2017 framework elaborates how citizens can use these levers of change to shift power asymmetries through collective action and social organisation. Yet WDR 2017 does not explore how citizens can overcome their substantial collective action challenges through social organisation, nor does it delve into the strategies employed by social organisation to effect change. The analysis in this report seeks to fill these gaps, drawing on the transparency and social accountability literature as well as the application of a human rights lens. Citizen engagement is linked, in particular, to the freedoms of association, assembly, expression, and information, and the right to participate in government. These rights enable people to become knowledgeable about public problems, voice their concerns even if contrary to those of the elites, and organise peacefully to tackle these problems.

The first two chapters lay out the analytical framework, research design, and case study methodology, as well as provide a brief literature review focused on these topics: emergence of citizen engagement in development practice and research; citizen engagement in WBG practice and research, and in the health and education sectors; citizen engagement, anticorruption, and collective action; citizen engagement, fragile contexts, and peacebuilding; and human rights and citizen engagement.

The three case studies of citizen engagement are discussed in detail in chapter 3. It describes the country and service delivery sector context; explains how social organisations overcame collective action problems to build and sustain citizen engagement and enhance contestability through the power of numbers; describes the strategies these organisations used to effect change by changing elite incentives, preferences, and beliefs; and discusses how human rights were used in achieving social organisation goals. The case studies focus on:

  1. Afghanistan - Founded in 2005, Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA) conducts community-based monitoring programmes in several sectors aimed at increasing transparency, accountability, and integrity in Afghanistan. In July 2014, IWA launched the Community-Based Monitoring School (CBM-S) programme, which seeks to (i) improve the quality of education in Afghanistan; (ii) increase contact and coordination between communities and officials by bringing together stakeholders in the education of Afghan children; (iii) increase the responsiveness of school officials to citizens; (iv) encourage communities to take the initiative in addressing education-related problems in their locales; and (v) use the results of community-based monitoring in policy advocacy at the local and national levels.
  2. Paraguay - ReAcción Paraguay is a registered youth anticorruption organisation composed of young people in Ciudad del Este. Its mission is to empower citizens to prevent corruption and improve the provision of public services, particularly public education. The group works primarily to monitor the sovereign wealth fund expenditures allocated to education in Paraguay and increase transparency and citizen engagement to ensure that these funds reach their intended targets.
  3. Serbia - Serbia on the Move (SoM) seeks to reduce corruption in Serbia's health sector by strengthening prevention mechanisms, transparency, and accountability through citizen engagement. The organisation was founded by a group of young professionals and officially launched as a registered association in July 2009. Its objectives are to (i) raise citizens' awareness about how to fight corruption in publicly funded health care; (ii) formulate new transparency and accountability mechanisms to reduce corruption in health care; (iii) build the capacity of citizens to actively push for the adoption and implementation of these new transparency and accountability mechanisms; and (iv) build a coalition of stakeholders (citizens, civil society organisations, state institutions, public health practitioners) interested in reducing corruption in the health sector. SoM has carried out five projects targeting corruption in publicly funded health care, working with health care practitioners, regular citizens, and elites to improve integrity.

Key research findings, in sum, include:

  • Collective action can shift power asymmetries - Change was brought about most effectively by strategically combining institutional with extrainstitutional engagement. For example, after organising silent protests and a petition drive that delivered 3,000 signatures to authorities, SoM received a request from the Ministry of Health to jointly undertake a text messaging service that would enable citizens to securely report corruption.
  • Human rights are an effective tool for collective action - The case studies suggest two main ways in which the active use of human rights helped achieve goals. First, the experience of being denied rights, combined with awareness of those rights, served as motivation for collective action. Second, the practice of certain rights, such as freedom of association or the right to information, helped citizens in all three cases fulfill other rights, such as to health care and education.
  • Intangible motivators and participation benefits can spur effective collective action - Citizens choose to participate in part because they connect to the grievance or problem, share objectives, are able to overcome inhibitions (such as fear and apathy) to act, and begin to feel a collective sense of responsibility, ownership, and identity. For example, SoM created a narrative that strengthened the sense of collective identity and that shared stories of "us" and how "we" (collectively) are the hope to change Serbia. This narrative was reinforced by badges and T-shirts, which served as symbols to help people recognise each other and bolster the sense that they were not alone in wanting to reduce the role of corruption in health care. In addition, all three social organizations stressed that participants should have a role in planning and decision making, helping to create a sense of collective ownership. The organisations also built and sustained citizen engagement by providing more concrete benefits for participation such as useful skills, confidence, dignity, and social recognition. For example, none of reAcción's core team had a background in computer science, and yet they made use of MOOCs (massive online courses) to learn how to code and use visualisation tools. They now do all of their own digital work, from social media networking to mobile/web app and website development.
  • Effective engagement strategies combine pressure, collaboration, and coalition building - All three organisations were particularly effective at achieving change when they combined pressure with positive inducements and collaboration rather than focusing exclusively on exposing corrupt behaviour. Elites who champion pro-development and anticorruption policies or seek to implement them may need the support of citizens to overcome obstacles or resistance from other elites. SoM's "I'm not on the take, I work for the salary" campaign provided such backing for doctors who wanted to say "no" to corruption. All three organisations also made deliberate efforts to map and navigate institutions and elite actors, and then to cultivate alliances with them.

Lessons for international actors that are outlined in the final chapter include:

  • Support citizen engagement in all contexts - Even in fragile contexts and highly corrupt environments like those in the case studies, social organisations can be effective. Indeed, especially in these environments, grassroots movements may be essential to gaining legitimacy, building trust, and partnering with the state. International support for citizen engagement may then be particularly relevant.
  • Build on organic structures and bottom-up solutions - Citizen engagement "projects" can incorporate the strategic analysis and dynamic elements of bottom-up campaigns. International actors could extend support to the hybrid non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and informal groups that are beyond the traditional, often technocratic organisations operating largely in capital cities and unconnected with the grassroots.
  • Create spaces to convene and deliberate - International actors can create spaces for social groups to convene, both among themselves through peer-to-peer exchanges (horizontal) as well as with elite actors (vertical). For example, reAcción was accepted into Mesa Conjunta, the group of civil society organisations monitoring the government's Open Government Partnership (OGP) action plan commitments. Through this forum, supported by the Democracy and Governance program within the United States Department of International Development (USAID), reAcción presented its monitoring system and findings and contributed input on FONACIDE'S education commitments to the OGP 2016-18 action plan.
  • Focus on process, not "best practice" - Rather than scaling up interventions, international actors should scale up the approaches and processes through which solutions are developed. This is because power asymmetries vary, and each policy arena has its own interplay of drivers of policy effectiveness, levers for change, and drivers of change. This form of scale-up is evident in IWA's community-based school monitoring programme. IWA has developed a clear framework with contextually driven interactions and tools, but each initiative has its own unique characteristics, and the communities themselves drive solutions to the problems identified by the local monitors.
  • Support flexible arrangements and incremental outcomes - Looking at citizen engagement initiatives in isolation rathet than holistically over time, one may miss the longer-term power shifts. International actors can best support citizen engagement by extending project horizons or supporting consecutive initiatives that build on one another. They can also provide seed funds for new initiatives that enable organisations to test out new approaches and learn from them. And they can support the flexibility and adaptability required by forward-looking social organisation strategies by becoming more judicious in defining success and failure.

e-CIVICUS 838, September 7 2017; and WBG website, September 13 2017.