What impact not to expect from Civil Society Organizations

Mar 30, 2011 | Budget Transparency | 12 comments

A growing number of citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) are trying to influence government budgets. (Read more here).  But the debate about how to assess the value of such CSO interventions is also heating up. Donors are under pressure to show impact. They are transmitting this pressure to CSOs by asking them to provide evidence of impact.

But how should we define impact? Are changes in government behavior impact? Or should we be more demanding and only accept actual changes in the living conditions of the poor and vulnerable as impact?

Why bother with budgets in the first place?

There are at least two important reasons why government budgets, and the processes by which they are formulated, deserve attention.

  • Government budgets can contribute to improving the social conditions of the poor and vulnerable.
  • Budget processes form part of the basic democratic transaction between government and the people. Governments should therefore release key information and afford the public the opportunity to participate meaningfully.

Why does CSO budget work matter?

Recent case studies provide evidence that CSOs do sometimes contribute to:

  • Improving the formulation and execution of government budgets  and
  • Activating the public’s rights to participation in, and information about, the government budget process.

Go to the IBP or IDS websites to see some examples.

How should we evaluate efforts by citizens and CSOs to improve budgets?

Should CSO efforts to influence budgets be judged by the effect that they have on government spending, participation and access to information? Is this enough? What if such budget changes don’t end up changing the day to day lives of the poor and marginalized?

Or should they be judged by the impact that they have on the social conditions of the poor and the level of democracy in a given country?

Don’t socio-economic changes take too long to be of use in evaluating CSO performance? Changing the budget spent on, say, primary education can be done in a year or two, but changing numeracy and literacy rates may take much longer. It may not be helpful to have to wait that long before deciding if a CSO project is working or not.

Isn’t it unfair to expect CSOs to show impact on socio-economic indicators? Aren’t there too many other factors and actors that play a role in the link between budgets and socio-economic changes? Wouldn’t it be presumptuous for CSOs to take credit when budget changes do translate into socio-economic changes?



  1. George Sabat

    These are ansers to the last question:

    How should we evaluate efforts by citizens and CSOs to improve budgets?

    1) True participation will bring about: “government by the people for the people” which is true democracy. If it does not end up changing the day to day lives of the people it only means that the people do not know what is truly good for them and they must be taught that much.

    2) In some countries the citizens may be asked to forego some benefits for a while until the country is back on its feet. This would be part of the NATIONAL PLAN. This is why I believe that the Yearly Budgets should always be preceded by a FIVE YEAR PLAN. The yearly Budgets are then a part and an extension of that Plan.

    In fact I am surprised that no such FIVE YEAR PLAN exists in South Africa, or does it? I was not able to discover any such long term plan on the web.

    3) CSOs should synchronize with the Authorities and with the people. Their mission should be to harmonize the relations between the two and promote a permanent and effective dialogue between them. This is true democracy.
    Suppose that the Authorities decide to impose some restrictions on consumption and wages for two years until the country is back on its feet, the duty of the CSOs will be to explain this decision to the people and get them to cooperate.+

    4) All CSO’s projects should be integrated in and form part of the NATIONAL PLAN. In this way one can judge the performance (short term, medium, and long term) of the project.
    This integration has been realized in Ireland where CSOs are always consulted by the Authorities at the time of building the National Plan or monitoring its implementation.

    5) CSOs are actors in the National Play, to the same extent as the Authorities and the people. They have a role to play and they must play it well. The credit should be attributed to the three players and the ultimate success is the result of a positive and effective interaction between the three. A fourth actor may come into play if the country needs foreign financial assistance and seeks the help of international donor countries or institutions, as is so often the case.
    Lebanon, for instance, needs $20 billion to put back its infrastructure in order. Who will provide that sum, considering that the country is already the highest indebted country in the world with relation to its GDP?

    • Albert van Zyl

      Thanks for your comments.

      This post tries to ask a series of more specific questions about the value added that can be attributed to budget monitoring CSOs. You make a couple of interesting general statements about the role that CSO should play. Interesting, but not really what this post tries to deal with.

      • Ron Mendoza

        Dear Albert, this is an interesting post, and something we at UNICEF (at least when I was still with their policy team) struggled with. You correctly point to the complexities of policy reforms and how CSO (and other stakeholders’) work on budgets contribute to this, yet this is truly difficult to isolate and attribute. I find it more useful to at least have some clarity on a theory of reform or change which allows to track the pathways through which budget work makes a difference. Then one can develop some interim indicators based on those pathways. Sometime back we tried to examine the contributions of budget initiatives worldwide using a public finance framework, in order to better communicate with economic managers. Our main argument is that budget work helps sharpen public finance policy and management. Here’s the study in case of interest: http://www.fordham.edu/images/academics/programs/iped/innovations%20in%20social%20budgeting%208.16.2010.pdf
        cheers, R

        • Albert van Zyl

          Great, thanks for passing this on Ron. Our thinking largely converges with what you describe. See my responses to Eduardo and William above.

  2. Sarah Barnett

    Interesting post Albert- thanks for this. These are questions we at CAFOD have been discussing for some time and your blog motivated me to write down some reflections of my own on budget work. Hope some of it might be of interest http://bit.ly/gKsCNp

    • Albert van Zyl

      Thanks for pushing the debate further, Sarah. Our own reflections on what to accept as impact is important because they enable us to monitor change and learnt from ourselves.

      The part of the discussion that could turn out to be even more challenging is how we talk to others about our impact. As an example, more and more donors would not accept the building of community and civil society capacity to instances of impact.

      So there is a conceptual (internal) and political (external) battle to fight.

  3. William Reuben

    What donors should be aware of is that there is always an impact transmission chain. In this case, the first results one can expect from budget monitoring by CSO is changes in the governments’ behavior, ultimately leading to changes in the allocation of budget resources. Allocative changes are suppose to bring about social outcomes. But the impact, as such, is difficult to measure, since there are many other factors influencing those final results, like economic growth, income distribution, etc. Changes in government behavior (in the right direction, in terms of improved transparency, sustainability and pro-poor allocation) should be the right measure of success.

    • Albert van Zyl

      Dear William

      Nice summary of a very reasonable position. We have been experimenting with ‘theory based’ approaches to monitoring & evaluation, such as Outcome Mapping, to help define progress markers in this ‘transmission chain’. One of the key challenges to CSOs is to make such measures of impact rigorous enough to stand up to external scrutiny.

      Albert@Open Budgets

  4. Eduardo Morón

    In my personal view after crossing the line from think tank to Deputy Minister and back I believe that a CSO work really matters if it is able to have his message heard by the authorities and induce a policy change. A second level of success is just to be heard. A third level of success happens if it has no access to policymakers but it is able to influence the percepcion about the topic using the press or a public campaign. If none of the above happen it will be a waste of money.
    A second point is the horizon in which any of the above might happen. The sooner the better. However, it all depends on the initial conditions.

    • Albert van Zyl

      Dear Eduardo

      I like your idea of ‘levels of success’ a lot. The assumption is that these levels are linked, right? So the assumption is that ‘being heard’ might lead to ‘inducing policy’, right? The problem is that the evidence in support of such linkages is pretty thin. The International Budget Partnership is conducting a series of case studies to try and address this issue.


  5. James Kumakech

    Yes Albert,
    We can not underestimate the oversight role that the CSOs are playing in improving on the budgeting work. We are all aware that, the background related to this work came from the way government operates its budgeting system which enventually does not translate to improving the living condition of the poor. However, each donor before releasing funding sets its condition and priorities with the other party (the CSO) intending to carry out the work. I would say, they must be able to adhere to the conditions and always emphasise the CSOs to be innovative enough. CSOs are learning platforms that indeed have been offering best and constructive alternative options that have always been useful to informing government budgeting process. Donors pressure posses us a challenge towards a new move and we can not ignore but we encourage ourselves as CSOs to be more innovations and flexible in the way we want to create impact and how the impact can be visibly seen by the partners and the intended beneficiaries. However, CSOs roles are fruitful catalysts towards improving budgeting work in our locality.

  6. SLT-A77

    Sicuramente hanno alcune opinioni e punti di vista piacevole. Il tuo blog offre uno sguardo nuovo verso il soggetto.


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