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Constructive Engagement Processes between Governments and CSOs in Asia: Are We Getting Results?

I was asked by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to facilitate a round-table discussion on the topic  “Constructive Engagement Process between Governments and CSOs: Are We Getting Results?—Experiences and Lessons from Asia”. The event, held in July 2014 and sponsored by the Government of the Philippines, the ADB, and the World Bank, featured CSOs from five Asian countries (Cambodia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal and the Philippines) and representatives of the Government of the Philippines. This note summarizes the key observations, recommendations and lessons that emerged during the roundtable discussions.

The five countries depict different levels of civil society and state relations. According to one cross-country governance indicator, the Freedom House Freedom in the World 2014 Index on civil liberties, Mongolia is ranked highest (rated 2 on a scale of 1-7 where 1 is best) among the five followed by the Philippines (3), Nepal (4) and Cambodia (5). Myanmar was not rated. Mongolia and the Philippines are OGP members.

At the outset we took note that supporting constructive engagement and collaboration between state and civil society organizations (CSOs) for better governance is a growing international movement. Support for civic engagement is a key component of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Sixty-five countries and many multilateral organizations including the Asian Development Bank have joined the OGP and the list is growing. The OGP declaration describes the process and benefits of civic engagement as follows:

Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight. We commit to making policy formulation and decision making more transparent, creating and using channels to solicit public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities. We commit to protecting the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion. We commit to creating mechanisms to enable greater collaboration between governments and civil society organizations and businesses.”

The presentations than described constructive engagement in a variety of sectors and activities:

  • Cambodia: national budget transparency, aid coordination, anti-corruption advocacy, and access to information
  • Mongolia: access to information; delivery of education services
  • Myanmar: Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative
  • Nepal: policy formulation in transport, vocational training, irrigation, participatory planning, and third party monitoring
  • The Philippines: participatory audit, service delivery (health, education), and local governance

The panelists and the discussants highlighted a number of observations and recommendations for improving the effectiveness of constructive engagement between civil society and government. These are summarized below.

  • Opportunities for citizen engagement were reported in all five countries despite the differences in the extent of government openness. All the panelists reported that constructive engagement was being practiced in their countries. They shared their experiences in engaging with their governments and presented suggestions for improving the quality of engagement. Nepal and the Philippines reported long-standing traditions of civil society and state engagement. The panelist presentations reflected the broader reality that few governments, however corrupt and unaccountable, are monolithic. In most countries there are opportunities for civil society to identify reform-minded officials and work with them constructively to promote good governance. Discussants advised that an important message to enlist champions is to point out to politicians and other public officials is that doing the right things for people often leads to doing well for themselves.
  • Good practices for effective civil society-government engagement were highlighted from Nepal, the Philippines and Cambodia given their relatively longer experiences with such engagement. They include:
  1. Engaging right from the beginning
  2. Thinking about who needs to be engaged and potential barriers
  3. Aligning strategies with government plans
  4. Working on issues of shared priorities
  5. Identifying and working with reform champions in the government.
  6. Adapting a soft advocacy approach with emphasis on regular dialogue
  7. Focusing capacity development efforts on both CSOs and public officials
  8. Engaging in evidence-based rather than ideology-based advocacy
  9. Getting involved in the official working groups for multi-stakeholder dialogue
  10. Being patient and communicating effectively (calling, messaging, writing e-mails) 
  11. Being ready to change approaches and tactics for engagement in light of experiences and results
  • Panelists reported a number of positive results from constructive engagement in terms of increased government transparency and responsiveness, but to varying degrees. The Philippines and Nepal presentations reported significant positive results while Cambodia reported modest progress in budget openness and inclusiveness of civil society in policymaking. Myanmar and Mongolia reported more mixed achievements. 
  • Mutual distrust between civil society and government officials is a key challenge. Bridging the gaps of knowledge (of subject matter and each other) between civil society and government officials improves trust. Trust-building measures include sharing of information, keeping promises and regular dialogue. The panelists from Nepal, Mongolia and the Philippines emphasized this point and progress made over the years. In Myanmar and Cambodia, building trust remains a work in progress. The discussants from the Philippines shared that they have successfully crossed over from CSOs to government and vice versa and such crossovers are very helpful for fostering CSO-government constructive engagement. The discussant from Myanmar also highlighted the importance of building trust and urged engagement and collaboration with parliamentarians.
  • Most CSOs and public officials have limited capacity to engage effectively and all panelists highlighted the need for sustained donor investment in capacity development over the longer-term. Despite differences in the age of openness in the five countries, all panelists cited this issue as a key constraint to open government. As governments become more open, civil society and public officials need to develop skills, resources and systems to engage effectively. However, this is constrained by a shortage of human resources, skills and funding. One of the discussants who has worked both in ADB and civil society pointed out that donors typically underestimate the amount and length of funding necessary for capacity development and urged changes in the policies to provide more and longer duration funding similar to program funding for the public sector. CSOs indicated that many CSOs are generally reluctant to accept government money for engagement because they fear losing their independence. They are relatively more receptive to donor funding despite some concerns about independence and sustainability.
  • Training and incentives need to be in place to enable change in officials’ behavior and attitudes to engage with civil society. It was reported that the legacy of secretive and impervious bureaucracies takes a lot of time and effort to change. Incentives and training of public officials in this area helps. For example, performance bonuses for government agency staff in the Philippines are paid only after disclosure of budgets has been done for the agency. CSOs need to show understanding and patience while persisting in engagement.
  • A gap between government openness at local and national levels is a reality in the early stages of opening up government and needs targeted actions to narrow the gap. Myanmar panelists reported that engagement is hampered as field level officials often lack information about top-level government policies for government openness and are reluctant to engage.
  • Governments seek common positions by CSOs on development issues but CSOs find it difficult to develop a consensus. Opening up space for civic engagement in countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Mongolia triggered rapid growth in the number of CSOs. Governments and donors are willing to create space for multi-stakeholder dialogue forums. However, this creates a huge challenge for CSOs to form common positions. Panelists reported this issue is being addressed through networks and coalition building.
  • To criticize, if it is needed, but not often, is an important lesson learned. Panelists from Mongolia, Nepal and the Philippines highlighted the importance of following a strategy of working together with the authorities to solve shared problems and articulating both praise and criticism of government openness and responsiveness. Myanmar and Cambodia reported that mutual trust and cooperation is still at an early stage and serious challenges lie ahead. Discussants advised that a good practice is to support good policies and responsiveness of the government and criticize policies and programs not in the interest of people and the country.
  • Legislative frameworks for civic engagement matter and vary. The Philippines, Nepal and Mongolia were reported to be relatively better off in terms of the legal framework for civic engagement. However, even there further legislative action is needed. The better enabling environment in these countries has led to significant growth of the CSO community and is a factor in their becoming members of the OGP. Cambodia panelists cited the need for a more robust legislative framework and political will to support citizen engagement and civil liberties. The Myanmar panelist reported slow and subtle change in the political will and culture of government to seek civic participation and called for a much clearer legal framework to promote transparency and accountability and access to information.

Prepared by Dr. Vinay Bhargava, Chief Technical Adviser, Partnership for Transparency Fund, in his capacity as facilitator of the round table discussion. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

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