Our Strengthening Public Accountability for Results and Knowledge (SPARK) program works with grassroots civic movements who represent people directly affected by service delivery failures. We support them in uncovering the fiscal governance causes of – and solutions to – those problems. In a three-part learning series, we explore how SPARK has built the capabilities of grassroots groups to collectively engage with fiscal governance systems – the politics, institutions, policies, and processes that govern the use of public funds and how they are utilized and implemented accountably to provide services.
In this note, we consider the ways in which we have supported grassroots groups – from smallholder women farmers to people with disabilities to women seeking better maternal health – to forge informal coalitions with civic groups that can broaden their expertise and base of support, and identify allies like government officials, auditors, legislators, the media, and others who may share their goal of strengthening accountability of public spending.
Lesson 1: Grassroots groups can lead effective budget coalitions with support and backing
SPARK coalition-building efforts provided a unique proposition by bringing grassroots groups and budget groups together, often for the first time, for concerted budget advocacy. When we began, we found that there were limited efforts and collaborations to bring budget analysis into grassroots groups’ demands to government. We sought to change the status quote by fostering an enabling environment whereby winning coalitions – centering grassroots groups – could lead to more transformative changes.
Grassroots groups retain a crucial front-facing role in SPARK coalitions. They bring the numbers and the lived experience to illustrate how public finance decisions translate into what is delivered for real people on the ground. They ‘own’ the issue, drive the agenda, and present their concerns and analysis directly to decisionmakers.
As our country programs began building these coalitions, they assessed each grassroots partner’s strengths, weaknesses, expertise, connections, and structure and then decided which allies could fill the gaps. At the start of each program, we brought in one or several budget groups who could provide crucial expertise to help the grassroots groups identify the service gaps their community faced, and to propose solutions. These budget groups have played a critical role as very few of our grassroots partners had any budget experience.
Our staff carefully manage relationships to ensure coalition-building efforts remain at the service of the grassroots partner, and the campaigns advance their priorities. Coalition members with budget analysis skills and longstanding access to spaces where public finance management (PFM) decisions are made have been vital, but their primary role is to serve as enablers for grassroots groups to have their experiences heard by decisionmakers.
As campaigns have developed new needs, the coalitions have made tactical and instrumental choices to bring on board allies organically and incrementally. All groups that are brought on board have complementary skills to drive collective action. Each partner contributes a “special piece” to the campaigns that the others need to succeed. For instance, the Small-Scale Women Farmers Organization in Nigeria (SWOFON) has engaged beyond its core partners to bring on board other farmers’ groups that had strong numbers and journalists to raise public awareness about and support for government to prioritize the agriculture budget. Another grassroots partner in Nigeria, Community Empowerment Network (COMEN) required a budget partner that was well connected to the politics, PFM systems, and decision-making of Anambra state, rather than technical support from the Abuja-based Center for Leadership, Strategy & Development. As such, they incorporated Civil Rights Concern into their coalition, which had those skills and connections in Anambra. In Senegal, the country team found that budget partner ONG3D could provide more suitable support for grassroots partner UrbaSen on national budget allocations, but another technical partner proved to be more useful and closely aligned with UrbaSen’s agenda when it came to local campaigning and more granular service delivery problems.
Building and servicing informal but agile coalition relationships is painstaking and a key aspect of SPARK’s strategic accompaniment of grassroots groups. Country managers underestimated how challenging it would be to bring budget groups and grassroots groups together. A great deal of behind-the-scenes negotiation takes place to “stitch together” coalitions, sound out potential allies, and identify openings as well as where doors are firmly closed.
Lesson 2: Coalitions do not have to be formalized to be effective; unity can be sustained through aligned interests
Our teams describe their relationship with coalition members to be collaborative and very horizontal – each member plays an implementing role in the coalition, including our own teams. Partners coordinate but each has relationships and funding sources outside of SPARK. This informality is seen as an asset. It helps to avoid the drawbacks of more formal structures that require negotiating and maintaining strict roles, procedures, and sharing of resources and credit. Instead, coalition members work together in more adaptive ways as opportunities arise. Each campaign has a core of ongoing partners – largely but not solely funded by SPARK – that brings on board other actors in peripheral roles thanks to their position in the accountability ecosystem, connections, or technical insights. These core partners draw on their personal and institutional relationships across civil society and government to gain informal access to government allies or others in positions of power.
The ‘glue’ that binds together SPARK’s coalitions is aligned interests and mutual benefits, not funding. For instance, in Indonesia Kota Kita joined Serikat Perjuangan Rakyat Indonesia (SPRI) and its core partners early in the campaign to form the Social Protection Reform Coalition. This decision was driven by shared interests as Kota Kita saw SPRI as a potentially powerful partner with aligned aims on urban development and the needs of the urban disenfranchised.
Nationally-focused organizations find that SPARK coalitions provide an opportunity to collaborate with grassroots groups that have unique lived experiences and insights, which in turn help national groups deepen their knowledge base and credibility. For instance, in Senegal, ONG3D has found that working with informal settlement residents has given them valuable evidence of the applicability and real-life implications of their quantitative budget analysis.
Government insiders sometimes see collaboration as a means of expanding their popular support—for example the Vice-Governor of Jakarta has engaged with SPRI because he knows it represents an important constituency base of poorer residents. Officials, especially at a local level, sometimes see allying with SPARK coalitions as an opportunity to improve their technical knowledge, for example county-level sanitation technicians our coalitions engage with in Kenya.
Lesson 3: Through careful and strategic relationship management, coalitions can engage and leverage accountability ecosystem actors and their oversight powers
From the beginning, SPARK sought to complement citizen-led approaches to accountability, by engaging formal state oversight bodies. Sensitive yet strategically vital relationships with oversight actors – such as national audit offices, legislatures, and other watchdogs – has been actively managed. Coalitions choose their targets strategically based on the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities of each country’s institutions, and how they best fill the accountability gaps identified in budget and service delivery engagements. In identifying oversight allies, the coalition for people with disabilities in Senegal, for example, deepened its relationship with the National Assembly, which it found to be more transparent than the Supreme Audit Office.
Sometimes coalitions have had to shift between collaborating and applying pressure to the actors and institutions from which they are seeking reforms. And sometimes these shifts have activated internal accountabilities. For instance, in Ghana, the communities represented by SPARK partner Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining started out directing their frustration at the Mineral Development Fund (MDF) until they discovered the fund was just as frustrated itself with other parts of government. The MDF subsequently became an important ally in efforts to get other parts of Ghana’s government to improve the timeliness of disbursements of funds to mining communities.
The engagement of one actor to activate another can be high-risk, especially when it leads to individuals or agencies being exposed as corrupt, inefficient, or negligent. Examples include our grassroots partner SPRI’s decision to take its audit findings to the Anti-Corruption Commission when its key ally, the Department of Social Affairs, was slow to respond. The Asivikelane campaign in South Africa, which tracks water and sanitation services for informal settlement residents, has monthly releases that can embarrass Metro officials whose goodwill is crucial to the campaign’s progress.
To move campaigns forward without damaging relationships with accountability ecosystem actors along the way, SPARK advocates need to be able to balance targeting and allying with these official actors, which requires skilful navigation.
Lesson 4: Media actors enrich coalitions by contributing to oversight and pressure for change
The media is playing a wider range of roles in SPARK and is attuned in sophisticated ways to the needs of the coalitions thanks to sustained outreach from partners and the relationships they have built with outlets and journalists. Traditional press and social media are playing a critical watchdog role both by drawing public and government attention to the problems the coalitions are lifting up and keeping it there by actively monitoring the problems or their resolution.
Journalists have provided essential training to coalition members on how to make their advocacy sharper, more visible and hard-hitting, and more likely to get into the media. They have also amplified and disseminated coalitions’ social audit findings or service monitoring data. These efforts raise public awareness around service delivery issues and make it harder for government actors to claim they are unaware of the scale or intensity of the problems.
Journalists’ involvement with SPARK coalitions has also allowed them to deepen their own investigative work. When the pandemic broke out, journalists were among the few able to travel freely in Nigeria. Our team helped SWOFON to create an effective partnership with the International Center for Investigative Reporting so that its journalists could report on the problems their women farmers faced. These investigative journalists quickly became vocal independent advocates for SWOFON’s cause. They raised public support for women farmers and showed the critical role they played feeding the nation during the pandemic. One well-positioned journalist managed to secure commitments directly from a state governor, complementing SPARK engagement efforts.
Lesson 5: Through careful negotiation, frontline workers can be valuable coalition members
SPARK coalitions have sometimes started off perceiving frontline workers as adversaries or advocacy targets, but later shifted to working with them as allies. SPARK partners have often found that frontline workers are not the decision-makers or responsible for the causes of service delivery failures. They are often victims of dysfunctional public finance systems, and unhappy with the status quo. In some cases, new, more trusting, and empathetic relationships needed to be built between community members – who had seen frontline workers as the source of problems – and the workers – who felt unjustly criticized by the community. In some cases, this has also required difficult conversations to take place, such as to address community concerns around frontline workers’ absenteeism or poor treatment of patients. In other words, the same balance between critical engagement and collaboration needs to be found with frontline workers as with other actors in government.
Working with frontline workers as part of reform coalitions has improved the targeting of campaigns, the information available through detailed insider knowledge, and the legitimacy of claims made by grassroots groups. In Nigeria, frontline health workers have been more “invisible” allies in efforts to improve primary health care facilities. In India, their active involvement in engagements with local authorities has added numerical strength to campaigns. In both cases, their engagement was important in campaigns that increased the resources available at the local level, and in India the release of payments owed to workers.
Following on our first learning brief on how SPARK has built grassroots groups’ collective agency, this paper has underscored the importance of building coalitions as a means to more effective campaigns for budgets and services that meet the needs of marginalized communities. Even strong grassroots actors cannot “go it alone” and bringing them together with other capable civil society organizations, media, and government allies, including oversight actors, has contributed significantly to SPARK’s outcomes. These emerging collective approaches go beyond many of the isolated, project-based efforts common in civil society in SPARK countries.
However, as we look forward, building sustainable, empowered coalitions is an objective in itself that deserves further attention. Advocacy history includes both coalitions that collapse when external funding is withdrawn, and legendary coalitions that live on in adapted forms or turn their energies and skills to new issues. There are several strategic questions for SPARK moving forward. First, what will keep grassroots groups engaged in campaigns, when they move from securing quicker improvements in service delivery to addressing issues in the PFM system that will take longer to reform? How can these coalitions keep grassroots groups engaged and front and center for as long as it takes to bring systemic change (building on the learnings that we explore in our learning brief on government engagement)? Second, how can SPARK connect grassroots groups with more allies and help them consolidate relationships not mediated by funding? Lastly, should SPARK’s strategic accompaniment focus on building the coalitions or on building the capacities of grassroots groups so they can move forward after SPARK and join and leave coalitions as circumstances dictate? These questions will be critical for SPARK coalitions to be sustainable long-term.
This brief is based on a longer Learning Note produced by Rosie McGee and Colin Anderson.