Constituencies for Reform: Strategic Approaches for Donor-Supported Civic Advocacy Programs

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y strengthening civic advocacy
groups—nongovernmental organiza-
tions that champion governmental reform—do-
nors can make a difference in countries moving
toward democracy. Support for civil society is a
core component of USAID’s democracy and
governance agenda. It reflects a growing reali-
zation of the value to democracy of autonomous
centers of social and economic power.
A team from the Agency’s Center for Devel-
opment Information and Evaluation (CDIE) re-
cently undertook a five-country assessment of
past and current investments in civil society.
Countries studied were Bangladesh, Chile, El
Salvador, Kenya, and Thailand. This assess-
ment, the second in a series of inquiries into
democracy, examines the role of civic advocacy
groups in advancing good governance.
What Is Civil Society?
Civil society consists of nonstate organiza-
tions that are engaged in or have the potential
for championing adoption and consolidation of
democratic reforms. The study found these or-
ganizations can generate the public push for
political reform, then work to consolidate re-
form by holding the state accountable for what
it does. Such organizations include labor federa-tions, business and professional associations,
human rights and prodemocracy groups, envi-
ronmental organizations, and policy think tanks.
These organizations perform a variety of
roles. They
· Advocate on behalf of the public
· Analyze policy issues
· Mobilize constituencies in support of pol-
icy dialog
· Serve as watchdogs to ensure account-
ability in government functions
· Most important, act as agents of reform in
strengthening and broadening democratic
The Role of Civil Society
in Democratic Transitions
While in principle civic advocacy organiza-
tions can contribute to strengthening democratic
governance, in practice their actual contribu-
tions varied considerably in the five countries.
They played a preeminent role in some, but had
little involvement in others.
What accounts for these differences? It ap-
pears that earlier experience with democracy is
critical. Chile’s long experience with a rela-
tively advanced democratic political system
provided a reservoir from which civil society
Constituencies for Reform: Strategic Approaches
for Donor-Supported Civic Advocacy Programs
Center for Development Information and Evaluation
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Washington, D.C. 20523

could draw in mobilizing people for a “ no” vote
against continuing the authoritarian regime of
President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in the 1988
plebiscite. Although Thailand’s experiences
with democracy in the mid-1970s and late 1980s
were more fleeting, they provided enough prac-
tical experience that activists from those earlier
periods could work together in 1992 to spear-
head a prodemocracy coalition.
By contrast, in Bangladesh, El Salvador, and
Kenya, experiences during very limited demo-
cratic openings in the past provided inadequate
groundwork for civil society roles in democratic
transitions of the early 1990s. In Bangladesh,
popular organizations were involved in the 1990
movement against dictator H.M. Ershad, but
these groups were mainly student, professional,
and labor organizations connected to opposition
political parties. They do
not conform with the com-
monplace definition of
civil society as operating
independently of political
In El Salvador, efforts
at civil society mobiliza-
tion in the 1970s were
largely autonomous of
both parties and govern-
ment. This was especially
true for advocacy groups
mobilized by the Catholic
Church in the late 1970s
and the Christian commu-
nities that promoted grass-
roots mobilization for
social justice and political change. But in the
1980s these and other groups representing non-
elites were the targets of death squads and govern-
ment repression. They were in no position to
influence the peace accords of 1992.
Finally, in Kenya, political freedom that ex-
isted after independence in 1963 was gradually
swallowed up by a movement toward one-party
rule that has lasted to the present. That leaves
little room for civil society to organize in behalf
of reform. Donor pressures to democratize the
system did lead to a significant opening in 1991,
but dissension among opposition parties and
government manipulation of the 1992 parlia-
mentary elections have inhibited progress in the
democratic transition. A Strategic Perspective
on Civil Society
What insights can be gained from the five-
country study and applied to donor strategies for
supporting civil society? First, analysis of civil
society and its facilitating role in democratic
transition should be an integral part of donor
planning for support of a political reform
agenda. The agenda might include, for example,
constitutional or electoral reforms to make the
state more accountable and political parties
more representative. Or it could address judicial
reform to strengthen the protection of human
rights. To revitalize the role of local govern-
ments, it might also emphasize decentralization.
At the strategic level the thrust of analysis is
to identify how to advance host-country dialog
on a reform agenda and
on changing the funda-
mental rules of the po-
litical game to make it
more democratic. At the
tactical level it is impor-
tant to identify public is-
sues that can serve as a
source of energy in driv-
ing the reform process.
Frequently, issues ema-
nating from particular
sectors—for example,
labor, women’s rights,
the environment—can
generate spillover ef-
fects in support of major
political reforms. This
has been the case with
the environmental movement in Thailand,
which gained prominence by aligning itself with
the prodemocratic campaign against military
rule in the early 1990s.
One aspect of this approach is identifying
constituencies that have interests in supporting
public dialog and advocacy, particularly those
that might share interests and provide a basis for
coalition-building. In Bangladesh and Thailand,
for example, labor unions and women’s organi-
zations may over time, as industry grows, find
much in common in advancing the cause of both
unions and women’s rights. In both countries ma-
jor industries primarily employ women laborers.
{Analysis of civil
society and its
facilitating role in
democratic transition
should be an integral
part of donor planning
for support of a politi-
cal reform agenda.|

Some constituencies are easier to organize
than others. Labor and business may be able to
mobilize constituents for collective action rela-
tively easily. Other groups, such as small farm-
ers, may find it difficult to organize to pursue
their own interests, let alone a broad reform
agenda. Likewise, some constituencies will be
more inclined than others to reach beyond their
narrow interests and press for fundamental
democratic reforms.
In a particular context, actors in civil society
will exhibit varied tendencies toward support of
democratic reforms. Some may oppose or re-
main neutral toward reform efforts. For exam-
ple, in resisting military rule, the business
sector, religious institutions, or labor unions in
some instances may move to the front lines,
while in other cases they remain relatively neu-
The art and craft of
the democracy strategist,
then, lies in building and
supporting coalitions of
associations that are
proreform at a particular
point along the demo-
cratic path. For donors,
support will stress en-
hancing a range of organ-
izational skills often
lacking in civic advocacy
organizations. In particu-
lar, improvements are
usually needed in net-
working, advocacy, stra-
tegic planning, media relations, coalition build-
ing, resource mobilization, and policy analysis
and dialog.
Strategic Sequencing:
Initiating and Consolidating Reform
The case studies indicate that opportunities
for civil society to organize and press for reform
are conditioned by where a country is in the
transition to democracy. To determine how they
can tailor their support for civil society, it is
important for donors to understand the dynam-
ics of transition. Study findings suggest demo-
cratic transitions can be divided into four
phases: pretransition, early transition, late tran-
sition, and consolidation.
In this phase, civil society generally operates
in an environment of government repression and
hostility toward political reform. Rights of asso-
ciation and assembly are severely constrained,
and civic advocacy organizations may be sub-
ject to government harassment or worse. But
there may be enclaves—religious institutions,
NGOs, universities—that provide a limited
space where civic advocacy organizations and
their leaders can take refuge and build a network
of reform constituencies.
Donor strategies under these constraints
should include several elements. First is preser-
vation of existing civil society resources. Do-
nors may need to support safe havens where
reform groups take refuge and internally exiled
reformers can find employment, protection, and
legal aid in the face of government persecution.
In Chile, the Ford and In-
ter-American Founda-
tions, Canada’s Interna-
tional Development
Research Centre, and
European donors pro-
vided financial support to
civic advocacy organiza-
tions that sheltered and
employed social scientists
and political activists un-
der censure by the Pino-
chet regime.
The second task is de-
fending the autonomy of
civil society in general. Authoritarian govern-
ments are aware that nongovernmental organi-
zations often shelter reformist elements, and
they may seek to weaken and control these or-
ganizations. If so, it is vital that donors support
the reformist community in resisting govern-
ment intrusion. And donors must support the
organizations in negotiating a governance re-
gime that empowers them to regulate them-
selves rather than submit to oppressive
government oversight.
A third task is cultivating a dialog within the
reformist community to develop coalitions, con-
sensus on action agendas, and strategies for po-
litical reform. The Chile case illustrates how
civic advocacy organizations created neutral fo-
rums and study circles in which leaders of op-
{Groups such as small
farmers may find it
difficult to organize to
pursue their own
interests, let alone a
broad reform agenda.|

posing factions could work together. They suc-
ceeded in dispelling distrust and in finding com-
mon ground as they prepared for the early
transition phase.
Early Transition
This phase begins with a political opening in
which an authoritarian regime concedes in some
demonstrable way that legitimate rule requires
popular consent, and rival political elites seek a
consensus for a more open political system.
Free elections are held and constitutional re-
forms adopted that provide the legal basis for a
new order. Most countries where USAID has
programs are in the early transition phase, a
critical time for laying foundations for a new
democratic order.
Regime acceptance of political liberalization
opens opportunities for civic advocacy organi-
zations to educate the public and mobilize sup-
port for fundamental reforms. However, these
organizations must act with vigor and speed, as
events often move rapidly in the early transition
phase. This is most evident with respect to elec-
tions, where civic advocacy organizations may
need to initiate a range of labor-intensive voter
education and registration programs. They may
also monitor or even participate in election ad-
In Chile, seven elections took place in a five-
year span. All were crucial in laying the founda-
tions for restoring democratic governance.
Several civic advocacy organizations, including
the Crusade for Citizen Participation and its
successor organization, Participa, (both recipi-
ents of USAID support) organized massive
voter registration and education campaigns.
They also trained more than 5,000 electoral of-
ficials and political party representatives work-
ing in voting centers. These activities
contributed significantly to Chile’s peaceful
democratic transition.
Aside from labor-intensive activities during
elections, a task of the early transition phase is
building a network of support for fundamental
political reform that reaches beyond the small
cadre of activist organizations that survived
state repression earlier. Promising allies include
labor and women’s organizations, student un-
ions, and professional associations. They may
be found at both local and national levels. Mobilizing groups behind a shared reform
agenda provides the kind of public visibility and
weight needed in negotiations with government.
In Thailand, for example, the People’s Constitu-
tional Assembly, organized by a group of re-
form organizations in 1992, hammered out a
unified platform. Some elements of it were later
reflected in the government’s proposed consti-
tutional amendments.
A third task for the early transition phase is
creating a favorable enabling environment for
growth, autonomy, and effective social action in
civil society. Often, authoritarian controls have
undermined the institutional mechanisms and
arenas that enable civil society to engage the
public and the state. Thus, in the early transition
phase, donors should attend to enhancing the
autonomy of the media and universities, revital-
izing the judicial system and municipal coun-
cils, and introducing mechanisms (recall,
referenda, public hearings, right to petition)
enabling civic advocacy organizations to repre-
sent the cause of reform.
These tasks are distinct from those of the
pretransition phase, and many civic advocacy
organizations are unprepared to undertake them.
The donor’s role can be particularly useful in
the early transition phase, whether it is a brief
interlude or a protracted period when elite fac-
tions negotiate a more gradual process of politi-
cal liberalization.
Donors can 1) provide technical and finan-
cial assistance to civic advocacy organizations
involved in voter education, registration, and
election monitoring efforts; 2) facilitate public
dialog by funding nonpartisan civic advocacy
organizations that provide a neutral ground
where opposing elites come together to discuss
political reform; 3) facilitate this debate by en-
hancing the capacities of think tanks, the media,
and other activist organizations in analyzing and
proposing alternative reform agendas.
Late Transition
At this stage a fundamental redirection of a
more open political system is under way. New
rules for democratic governance have been
agreed on in the early transition phase, and the
main task is ensuring that political actors and
governance institutions conform to them.

Civic advocacy organizations play a particu-
larly important role in the late transition phase.
One of their major tasks is civic education. This
involves informing the general public about the
rules and institutional features of the new politi-
cal order, the means by which citizens can influ-
ence government, how they can seek redress
against arbitrary government actions, and how
to take advantage of new opportunities in com-
munity empowerment and governance. Civic
education should create and strengthen public
expectations that hold government and political
actors accountable to higher standards of behav-
A second task is monitoring compliance with
new rules for democratic governance. That will
help ensure that where noncompliance is dis-
covered, the rules are en-
forced. Lack of enforce-
ment is all too common in
developing countries;
civic advocacy organiza-
tions can help by assuming
a watchdog role in discov-
ering and publicizing in-
fractions by actors both
within government and
A third task involves
building government–civil
society partnerships. In
Thailand and Chile, for
example, business asso-
ciations have supported
governance reforms by fi-
nancing improvements and streamlining proce-
dures in public agencies that service the busi-
ness sector.
Donor strategies in the late transition phase
include providing technical assistance to civic
advocacy organizations engaged in civic educa-
tion and monitoring. They also include facilitat-
ing more partnerships with government
agencies. In addition, donors can target assis-
tance to civic advocacy organizations that
champion the cause of sectors that remain on the
margins of the political arena (labor, women,
disadvantaged ethnic groups, for example).
In this phase, systemic and operational rules
have essentially been agreed on, and mecha-nisms to ensure political participation and gov-
ernment accountability are in place. This phase
features a deepening of democratic governance
within the culture and institutions of society. It
signals a growing capacity of society and gov-
ernment to adapt to change and carry out re-
An underlying issue is sustainability of civic
advocacy organizations—in particular, public
interest organizations—as actors in monitoring
rule enforcement and mobilizing citizens and
communities to support reform agendas. Public
interest organizations that advocate reform and
address issues of the larger public good are
needed for society to engage in effective prob-
lem-solving. They take up issues that may not be
addressed if left to individual initiatives, largely
because the costs for
the individual to engage
in activist initiatives
typically outweigh indi-
vidual benefits to be ac-
crued. In this regard,
unless society estab-
lishes financial incen-
tives (usually through
tax policies) to support
these organizations, it
is unlikely advocacy or-
ganizations will con-
tribute much to societal
Ideally, financial
sustainability should be
addressed in the late
transition phase, after more basic political is-
sues have been resolved. But many donors are
terminating their assistance in the early transi-
tion period (as in Thailand and El Salvador),
without devoting sufficient attention to creating
a favorable enabling environment for growth
and sustainability of civil society.
In the countries studied, few if any govern-
ment incentives or tax write-offs exist for corpo-
rate or individual contributions to public interest
organizations. Nor are most public interest asso-
ciations in the habit of seeking funding from the
corporate world or from the general public. Do-
nors need to devote more attention to creating a
supportive policy environment and building
bridges between public interest organizations
and in-country funding sources.
{Public interest
organizations that
advocate reform
agendas and address
issues of the larger
public good are needed for
society to engage in effec-
tive problem-solving.|

The four-phase transition scheme may seem
to imply a linear progression to a democratic
nirvana, but in fact the process is uneven,
messy, and subject to setbacks. Indeed, many
transitions may lead to some new hybrid form of
authoritarian rule, and what initially appears to
be a democratic transition may turn out to be a
false start. Given the nonlinear nature of change,
the sequencing of donor activities in each phase
must be flexibly managed to cope with unantici-
pated obstacles or seize new opportunities.
Nonetheless, the scheme provides a basis for
advancing the following recommendations on
donor investments:
1. Donors need to follow a disciplined ap-
proach in ensuring that investments in civil so-
ciety do not lose their focus and relevance to the
reform process. There is a risk investments in
civil society will be dissipated over a wide range
of activities, yielding minimal results. Study
findings suggest support for civil society should
be viewed less as an end in itself and more as a
means for advancing a reform agenda aimed at
greater democratic governance. Investments in
civil society should aim at attaining structural
reforms in the polity, sequenced according to
the transition phase under way in the particular
2. Donors need to be prepared to exercise
considerable leverage when supporting civic
advocacy organizations engaged in fostering
democratic transitions in the pre- and early-
transition phases. Many political reforms un-
dertaken in the case countries likely would not
have made as much headway without donor
pressure and support. This was the case in
Kenya, where bilateral and multilateral donors
pressured the government to undertake political
reforms in 1992. In Chile and El Salvador, with-
out diplomatic pressure on the host country gov-
ernment, there would have been little progress
in protection of human rights.
During the pre- and early-transition phases,
civic advocacy organizations often are not
strong enough to promote reform processes
alone. In such situations, the added weight of
donor partners (for example, through use of con-
ditionality to press for political liberalization)
may well be critical to reform efforts. Donor
support may also be critical to the survival ofactivist organizations. In the pre- and early-tran-
sition phases, they operate in high-risk environ-
ments in which they are vulnerable to
government attack.
3. Donors need to exercise caution when in-
vesting in institution-building efforts in civil so-
ciety during the early phases of democratic
transitions. Many civic advocacy organizations
are small, often with only a few staff members,
and directed by a charismatic leader. There may
be little internal democracy or leadership turn-
over, and linkages to potential coalition partners
or constituencies may be tenuous. Most are not
membership organizations. Because of their
fragile base, in the early transition phase many
of these organizations will either cease to exist
as their leaders move into government positions
or they will be submerged within resurgent po-
litical parties.
Given the precarious nature of many civic
advocacy organizations in the pre- and early-
transition period, donors need to exercise cau-
tion before investing major resources in any
particular organization. There will be excep-
tions, but institution-building efforts directed at
enhanced organizational capacities, greater in-
ternal democracy, and broader coalitions and
constituencies may need to await some passage
of time to determine which organizations are
prepared to engage seriously in such changes.
4. Donors need to devote significant atten-
tion to building a favorable policy environment
for the growth of civil society, particularly with
respect to expanding in-country funding sources
for this sector. Most civil society organizations
depend in great part on donor financing. Needed
are strategies to promote financial independence
and sustainability. Creating an in-country ena-
bling environment for individual and corporate
contributions to public interest organizations
(for example, by changing tax laws) is one such
strategy. Another, in which USAID has pio-
neered, is providing funds for host country en-
dowments and foundations.
It helps to be creative. In Thailand, for exam-
ple, the Asia Foundation is helping establish a
“ green” mutual fund to invest in Thai compa-
nies that observe environmental standards. Part
of fund earnings will be earmarked for environ-
mental causes, including civic advocacy organi-
zations within Thailand’s environmental
movement. The mutual fund neatly joins an in-

centive for private profit with support for public
interest organizations.
5. Donors need to be aware of potential
trade-offs in countries undergoing political
transitions while also engaging in fundamental
economic reforms in the move from statist to
free-market economies. Many countries are un-
dergoing significant economic and political re-
forms simultaneously, although often at
different speeds. In these situations donors need
to calculate whether vigorous pursuit of reforms
in one sector is likely to destabilize and under-
mine commitment to progress in the other. This
is particularly the case with investments in civil
society, which for the most part are designed to
mobilize public pressure for political reform.
When a ruling coalition demonstrates genu-
ine commitment to painful economic reforms, it
may be most appropriate to complement this
effort by supporting civil society organizations
that can help champion and consolidate these
reforms. Although such an approach may delay
addressing systemic political reforms, as this
report suggests, economic reforms can contrib-
ute to development of an autonomous commer-
cial sector—which (if organized collectively)
can advocate and advance the cause of good
governance. Conversely, care should be taken inpressing for painful economic reforms when a
fragile ruling coalition is seeking to introduce
fundamental political reforms.
6. To defend against premature termination,
donors should develop policy guidance that es-
tablishes criteria for a country to graduate from
receiving democracy aid. Some countries are
moving rapidly toward self-sustaining eco-
nomic growth. In contemporary donor thinking,
that often justifies the diminution or termination
of development assistance, even though many
of these countries are still in the early phases of
democratic transition. The potential for political
regression and instability will persist in the
early transition phase; it can undermine investor
confidence and hard-won economic gains. In
brief, it may make sense to continue support for
democracy efforts even though economic devel-
opment programs are terminated.
Given the generally low costs of democracy
programs, gains from such investments may
yield sizable benefits from both a political and
economic perspective. Justification of democ-
racy programs in all stages of transition can be
strengthened if donors clearly outline the ration-
ale and criteria for such programs and their
eventual graduation.
This Evaluation Highlights, by Gary Hansen of USAID’s Center for Democracy and Governance, summarizes the
findings of the study Constituencies for Reform: Strategic Approaches for Donor-Supported Civic Advocacy Programs,
CDIE Program and Operations Assessment Report No. 12, by Gary Hansen. The synthesis report and this highlights
can be ordered from the DISC, 1611 N. Kent Street, Suite 200, Arlington, VA 22209–2111; telephone (703) 351–4006;
fax (703) 351–4039; Internet Editorial and production services provided by
Conwal, Inc.

Published USAID Evaluation Highlights
No. 30, Agriculture and the Environment: the Gambia Case Study, September 1994 (PN–ABG–043)
No. 31, Promoting Agribusiness in Guatemala, August 1994 (PN–ABG–045)
No. 32, Forestry and the Environment: the Philippines Case Study, March 1995 (PN–ABS–506)
No. 33, Privatizing Fertilizer Distribution in Cameroon, July 1995 (PN–ABS–528)
No. 34, Promoting Agribusiness in Sri Lanka, January 1995 (PN–ABG–048)
No. 35, Can Capital Projects Promote Both Economic Development and U.S. Commercial Interests?
October 1994 (PN–ABG–047)
No. 36, Strengthening Democratic Institutions: The Case of Sri Lanka, March 1995 (PN–ABS–500)
No. 37, Forestry and the Environment: The Gambia Case Study, October 1994 (PN–ABG–050)
No. 38, Agribusiness Program in Thailand: Contract Farming at Lam Nam Oon, March 1995,
No. 39, Protecting Biological Diversity in Nepal, December 1994 (PN–ABG–049)
No. 40, Protecting Biological Diversity in Costa Rica, March 1995 (PN–ABS–502)
No. 41, Strengthening Democratic Institutions in Uruguay and Argentina, December 1994
No. 42, Forestry and the Environment: Mali Case Study, March 1995 (PN–ABS–507)
No. 43, Protecting Biological Diversity in Madagascar, (March 1995) (PN–ABS–508)
No. 44, Forestry and the Environment: Nepal Case Study, March 1995 (PN–ABS–509)
No. 45, Agriculture and the Environment: The Philippines Case Study, March 1995 (PN–ABS–510)
No. 46, Agriculture and the Environment: Mali Case Study, April 1995 (PN–ABS–512)
No. 47, Promoting Agribusiness in Uganda, June 1995 (PN–ABS–513)
No. 48, Generating Broad-Based Growth Through Agribusiness Promotion, April 1995 (PN–ABS–
No. 49, Maximizing the Outreach of Microenterprise Finance: The Emerging Lessons of Successful
Programs, June 1995 (PN–ABS–521)
No. 50, Strengthening the Public–Private Partnership: An Assessment of USAID’s Management of
PVO/NGO Activities, June 1995 (PN–ABS–517)
No. 51, Protecting Biological Diversity in Jamaica, July 1995 (PN–ABS–527)
No. 52, Stemming the Loss of Biological Diversity: An Assessment of USAID Support for Protected-
Areas Management, August 1995 (PN–ABS–532)
These publications are available for a nominal charge (free to USAID employees) from the
Development Information Services Clearinghouse, ATTN: Document Distribution Unit, 1611 N. Kent
Street, Suite 200, Arlington, VA 22209–2111. Phone (703) 351–4006; fax (703) 351–4039; Internet