Governance and social movements: How funders can help bridge an unnecessary divide


Michael Jarvis


The coronavirus pandemic poses a challenge and opportunity for governance funders. There is an immediate need to support transparency, participation and accountability efforts as integral to the pandemic response. There is also an opportunity to reinforce calls for more fundamental societal change – a rethink of the social contract.

People taking to the streets worldwide to demand justice and equality despite health risks. They are banging pots and pans not just to express support for health care workers but to protest scandal and government failings. And these movements are having an effect – recent polling suggests a sharp uptick in support for policies previously considered more radical, such as wealth taxes, measures to limit corporations profits from the crisis, or a rebalancing of social spending in support of equity.

This is a moment when governance practitioners can reinforce and complement broader social movements. Yet the reality is that those connections have proved hard to forge and sustain. Social movements have focused on systemic change and shifting power – typically a long-term process. Governance funding has largely supported groups embedded more in the technical realm of policy reform, accountability for service delivery, and opening up government within current power structures.

What can funders do to learn from and link these two approaches?

This is a question that funder members of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) collaborative are wrestling with. Five points from initial research and conversations stand out:

1. Invest in relationship building between social movements and more specialised governance practitioners. Each can reinforce the other to deliver lasting change, though be aware of barriers to collaboration. Abigail Bellows points to a deepened ‘elite-grassroots divide’ in the anti-corruption community that hampers efforts to strengthen integrity long term. While governance groups rely on technical expertise that lends credibility with policy makers, social movements talk more of rights, rooted in community experience. They can see the relevance of transparency and accountability demands, but may lack the technical expertise, human capacity, or funding to pursue; or simply do not trust that working ‘with’ the current system will yield change. Where collaborations have taken hold, they have typically done so around established personal connections. Funders can invest in bridge building.

2. Be patient. Funders of good governance programming already tend to take a long-term perspective, but that becomes more crucial when supporting an ecosystem of actors, including social movements. Moments of reform can be hard to anticipate, but even harder to sustain, according to research by US Institute of Peace (USIP). Scandals can encourage people into the streets and may lead to the ‘win’ of a political resignation or even change in government, but public attention then fades, and the underlying system of incentives goes unchanged leading to an absence of meaningful change. Sustained resourcing to leverage complementary roles among different accountability actors can increase the chances of accountability gains.

3. Think beyond traditional governance labels. Most official development assistance for good governance goes to governments. Most private funder governance support goes to formal civil society organisations, think tanks, or investigative journalists. Social movements have typically not been funded at scale, yet individuals and groups both formal and informal championing a wide array of causes can also prove effective governance champions. Funders can consider diversifying recipients of support. For example, the grant facility Voice in partnership with TAI is piloting funding those most at risk of being left behind, including youth groups, those representing the disabled and indigenous communities, to take advantage of transparency and accountability approaches in securing their needs.

4. Adapt funder mechanisms to enable more effective support to social movements and coalitions of governance actors. This can mean adjustments on funding procedures and thinking – everything from what is appropriate due diligence to rethinking what funders consider ‘success’ from a grant to a willingness to be more political. Governance funders have financed untold political economy analyses, but that does not mean there is a ready comfort with talking of their role in helping to shift power. There is much that can be learned from funders who have a longer track record of supporting social movements, from groups with first hand expertise, such as Rhize, and from those, such as the Innovation Network, doing the leg work or rethinking metrics and the role of social movements in funder theories of change.

5. Do no harm. As Abigail Bellows found in conducting her research, funders of governance programming may inadvertently be exacerbating a divide between specialised and more grassroots groups. For example, by assuming that grantee CSOs represent ‘the people,’ or rewarding grantees for claiming policy victories when credit should be shared with multiple actors. Even when CSOs share resources with local partners there is still unlikely to be equitable decision making in shaping their use. Grantmakers can turn to the excellent questions that Ruth Levine poses to assess how INGOs work with local partners, which can provide a clearer view of how to foster constructive collaborations with social movements. That is not to say that direct funding to social movements is automatically a positive. CSOs focused on governance issues tend to be highly dependent on external support and this has made them vulnerable to accusations of being foreign agents. Social movements do not want to open themselves to new risks to their own legitimacy. These questions deserve more investigation. Perhaps it is time for a set of ‘do no harm’ principles to guide funder decision making and avoid deepening disconnects.

Amid today’s crises, business as usual is not an option and that extends to the governance community. It is exciting to see new connections being forged amid responses to the pandemic – a federation of women farmers monitoring pandemic stimulus packages in Nigeria, a national federation of people with disabilities fighting for COVID-19 benefit eligibility in Senegal, students fighting for Dalit rights to COVID-19 relief as they return to home villages in India. It is exciting to see an organisation like International Budget Partnership – a mainstay of the governance field – laying out a vision for broader-based coalitions for more equitable taxation post-COVID. Appropriate philanthropic support can help assure these connections are sustained, more visions turned into reality if we are to build better governed, more equitable societies on the other side of this great disruption.

Michael Jarvis is Executive Director of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative – a funder collaborative dedicated to increasing the impact of governance funding – and expert on collaborative approaches in development.

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