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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 11, Issue 2, February 2009

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Special Section: Reformist Leaders and Civil Society

Increase Engagement with the New Government
Ingrid Srinath

A Confidence Gap Needs To Be Bridged
Francis N. Pangilinan

There Is a Danger That the Government Starts to Think It Owns the Sector
Liz Atkins

Getting Too Close to New Leadership Can Be Blinding
Boris Strečanský

Be Prepared to Get Your Hands Dirty
David Robinson

Bind Reformist Leaders to Campaign Commitments
Arthur Larok

A Reformist Leader Is No Guarantee
Dragan Golubovic


The Legal Framework for Not-for-Profit Organizations in Central and Eastern Europe
Douglas Rutzen, David Moore, and Michael Durham

The Legal and Regulatory Framework for Civic Organizations in Namibia
Benedict C. Iheme

International Grantmaking
Foundation Center in Cooperation with Council on Foundations

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Download this issue (PDF) | Editorial Board

Increase Engagement with the New Government

Ingrid Srinath1

What innovations have worked, and what lessons have been learned, for civil society to enhance its engagement with the government when a reformist leader takes office?

The election of a reformist leader opens up precious space and opportunity for more meaningful citizen/civil society engagement. In order to take advantage of that space/opportunity, civil society needs to be able to (i) mobilize and organize those groups traditionally marginalized from political processes (e.g., women, youth, people living in poverty); and (ii) draw on the growing number of participatory governance strategies and tools that promote not just consultation but a wide range of more meaningful forms of dialogue, negotiation, and joint deliberation and decision-making. These include, for example, strategies/tools like participatory planning, citizen juries, deliberative polling, participatory budgeting, citizen boards/advisory committees, etc.

In the run-up to the election of a reformist leader, there is often an increase in civic mobilization. What are some innovations and lessons learned about sustaining civic participation over time?

There are a couple of tensions in the question:

How do you define reformist? Most leaders of different parties are reformers against the last regime, in that they have a different take on a policy, direction, etc. However we (society and/or media) only apply this label (1) to persons who challenge the status quo to such a degree that they are considered reformers, and (2) when the person leaving power is so rejected by society that anyone with a new idea to change things is seen as a reformer.

The second tension in the question is between reformist leaders creating a stir within the public (i.e., civic mobilization) and sustaining this civic engagement through participation. The reason that persons mobilize behind a reformist leader is because he/she is attempting to alter the status quo—with the presumption that the status quo is found lacking or detrimental to a large enough part of society. The most obvious answer thus is that all leaders should be reformist against the last.

However, most policy shifts on which leaders get elected are not cataclysmically different enough to sway people to huge mobilization. Take the two leading parties in the UK, Labour and Conservative. Although the Conservatives are steadfast in rolling back some of the policies of the Labour government, they are not in reality vastly different from Labour, and the Labour policies are not so bad that the population is disgruntled enough against them. This is in part (but not wholly) why there is such political apathy in the citizenry in the UK. The problem thus is that there are comparatively very few instances where citizens are dejected enough about something to cause this stir. The issues that rile up society to mobilize completely are generally of profound or cataclysmic shifts—e.g., apartheid here in SA, the end of the Soharto dictatorship in Indonesia, antiwar rallies in America (and the ascent of Obama?) and the rest of the globe, and marches against nuclear weapons testing in the last couple of decades.

The challenge thus is how you convert this to long-term participation. After most reformist leaders comes sustained political mobilization for a period because people are politically aware and have a taste for it. However, look at many countries that have gone through political reformists. In UK in 1997, Labour took power by a huge voter turnout, but now, voting has sunk back to low levels (voting is possibly the minimalist form of civic participation—it happens every four years or more, and that is it until the next election). After the end of the Vietnam War, there was a marked decline in voter turnout in the US. There are cases like this everywhere in the world, in every country. Part of this problem may well be mental positivity toward the leader: “You were good/moral/supportive about this matter so we trusted you then, and we trust you to make our next decisions for us.” I don’t know if it is a good idea or in good taste to draw a parallel to Mugabe, but he came to power with a huge mobilization of the populace, and over time and through their unchallenging confidence in his policies he was able to erode the system until it was too late—until we are in our present position.

The interesting question is how to entrench civic participation at a high level. The reality is that most people are moved enough to become vocal and mobile (e.g., join committees, votes, marches, etc.) only about cataclysmic events/shifts.

I would like to draw attention to one detrimental approach that guaranteed civic participation. Under Mao's regime, China enacted community communist groups. By law everybody had to be a part of them. This is how doctrine was pushed downwards and people took part in voicing the greatness of communism and Mao and China. At one point these groups’ members were forced to apologize for mythical civic disobedience in front of the rest of the community, resulting in punishment, etc. It was a way of controlling the population. We all are well aware of the controlling structure this created in China, resulting in tens of millions of deaths if not more. But the reality is that you can force, through the law, people to participate; however, unless you have a morally steadfast regime or a strong ethos, the potential for this to be effective is limited. Is it true participation if it is forced? Probably not.

One of the ideas that political governance and general civic engagement literature is built upon is that people are motivated to participate when they see their ideas and wants being enacted in a real way. Obama allowed his supporters to take the reins on activities and thus they owned them and felt like they were part of the end product. We can quote countless examples where these principles have encouraged sustained civic participation in governance, many beginning with health reform, road works, trade unions, and public discussions. In South Africa, for example, these principles have turned a mobilized population into a sustained, politically engaged one since the end of apartheid.

The end result is this: a reformist leader prompts civic mobilization through satisfying the needs of the disgruntled society by taking up a cause. People are empowered because the subject matter will affect their lives, either physically (e.g., a third runway at Heathrow destroying people’s homes and neighborhoods) or mentally (nuclear disarmament, antiwar, Obama/anti-Bush). The trick then is to create the sustained civic participation after the original issues are resolved or the people are in place to resolve them. If you can make sure people stay engaged by making that they have a real say in their own existence, they are more likely to participate. Civic mobilization is good because it helps to kick-start this process. There is no blueprint to this and people are trying every which way to make it work in their own society and culture. 

What are some of the challenges that civil society organizations face when a reformist leader is elected?

One thing that civil society can do is to increase engagement with the new government and frame responses in relation to the election manifesto. For instance, when the Manmohan Singh government came to power in India in 2002, one of the election promises was to legislate freedom-of-information legislation. CSOs had already been working on this draft and fortunately because the government had the numbers in Parliament, it was able to push through the Right to Information Act.

One lesson, again from India, was the willingness of the Manmohan Singh government to engage with civil society. A National Advisory Council was established to advise on key issues and on ways to help the government fulfill its election promises. Nevertheless, this process got bogged down in politics and also led to a certain amount of disillusionment on the part of civil society members in the Council.

What are some lessons learned relating to the management of high (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations that can accompany the election of a reformist government, and how can civil society help hold governments accountable for pre-election promises?

The last decade has seen much innovation in methods of “social accountability”—ways in which citizens and civil society can hold government accountable. Methods such as social contracts, integrity pacts, participatory expenditure tracking, social audits, citizen report cards, community scorecards, and other mechanisms of participatory monitoring and evaluation have proved effective in many different contexts around the world. They now need to be disseminated more broadly, brought to scale, and, where appropriate, institutionalized.

In Jammu and Kashmir, in India, a speech made by the chief minister about “zero tolerance for human rights violations” was used by NGOs for engagement with the government to put in place institutional mechanisms to reduce violations. It is important for civil society to minutely study election promises and draw up a blueprint for their implementation, with civil society’s assistance in both operations as well as monitoring.

The current financial crisis has created challenges for governments, governance, and civil society actors. What advice would you like to convey to civil society actors in light of the financial crisis?

Situations of crisis are also situations of enormous opportunity and change. It sometimes takes a crisis to realize that business as usual is not working and that things have to change. Despite the pain and challenges of a crisis situation, it can be the ideal time to mobilize people to a cause, change attitudes and behaviors, and propose alternative solutions.

In the current financial scenario, my advice to civil society actors would focus on the need to look for funding beyond the large donor organizations, as they are all likely to be affected by the meltdown. For instance, groups might consider enhancing the individual membership base (who pay fees), or looking for ways of income generation through sale of publications, or seeking contributions from rich individuals like movie stars and famous writers.


1 Ingrid Srinath  is the Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. She also serves on the board of the IANGO Accountability Charter and the World Economic Forum NGO Advisory Group.


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