Breaking the ice: Coalitions & Governments having dialogue

Unlike advocacy where civil society advocates position themselves ‘against’ government, our approaches focus on building a culture of accountability through continuous dialogue between civil society, media and government which evolves from being ‘confrontational’ to collaborative.

Through this process those at opposite ends often realise that they need each other to be able to achieve their common goals. When it comes to accountability for Reproductive Maternal Newborn Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) this collaboration is key. 

More opportunities for citizens to speak up and get involved in government decision making requires more transparency and flows of information. The Evidence for Action (E4A)-MamaYe project connects government, civil society organisations (CSOs) and media to work together in Coalitions. With evidence at the core of their work, these coalitions identify actions needed to improve maternal, neonatal and child health. These new patterns for civic engagement are becoming more prevalent, with citizens now being able to reach out to those in the government seats that seemed unreachable before and come to talks prepared with the necessary evidence in hand to claim their rights.

E4A-MamaYe has produced two case studies in Nigeria and Kenya that explore if and how dialogue between government and civil society advocates has increased and what impact this may have on accountability for RMNCAH issues in the locations we work in. The study also looks at the challenges encountered in the process of bringing together advocates and government and proposes strategies for improving dialogue between government and civil society in the selected States and Counties.  The studies show common trends but also peculiarities related to each specific context . Below, we have summarised five principles for an effective dialogue between government and civil society that emerged from the analysis. 

1. Keep the ball rolling: the need for a persistent and continued space for dialogue

Over the years, E4A’s approach has shown that a regular and institutionalised space for engagement and dialogue is the first step towards a better collaboration between actors.

In Nigeria, Lagos is a good example of how, when different stakeholders work together, significant progress can be achieved towards common objectives. Coalition members in this State recognised the change that happened over the years when E4A- MamaYe commenced project implementation in the state. At the start of this process there were no funds allocated for the Family Planning (FP) programme in the Primary Health Care Development Agency budget. The advocacy that originated from efforts of Lagos State Accountability Mechanism (LaSAM), led to an increase in budget allocations for Family Planning consumables.

In Kenya, CSOs are already working to access traditionally closed spaces to influence decision making. Before, most government fora were not accessible to the public and citizen engagement with county officials or assemblies was very limited and brief. In September 2020, the Nairobi Maternal, Newborn Health MNH Coalition wrote to the Health Committee of the County Assembly seeking to discuss sectoral budget issues ahead of the budget formulation stage. This was followed by a formal invitation to the CSO coalition to a meeting on health services in the Assembly chambers. This was a breakthrough for the coalition, considering the limitations to CSOs and citizens accessing assembly members directly, and transformed this closed space to a claimed one.

2. Sparking evidence-based conversations

Effective influencing of government requires preparation to discuss the matter that is on the table. For coalitions to be able to maximise these opportunities, it is important to prepare extensively by using data and other information to identify gaps and propose where funds for RMNCAH should be spent.

In Kenya, for instance, coalitions use this evidence when giving inputs through oral and written submissions, highlighting any shortcomings and calling for improvements. Following training and mentoring by E4A, CSOs were perceived by government as adding value to planning and budgeting processes because they spoke with authority and knowledge on the issues they advocated for. As a result, the relationship between CSOs and government improved significantly.

3. Variety is the spice of life: everyone brings something to the conversation

CSOs, government and partners are working together, and each brings their expertise to solve issues. The system they should adopt is strong coordination between government, partners and CSOs. They should think outside the box on where to source money, e.g. from banks, corporate companies, etc., the factors that effect changes, strong coordination, commitment of members, the need to carry along high stakeholders. Nisam Coalition Member says.

A coalition member adds value by bringing in different knowledge, experiences and connections. The advocates we interviewed claimed that being ‘multi-sectoral’ with members coming from different backgrounds is a core strength for their coalition. An interviewee from Bauchi noted that the coalition differs from other similar groups because it is holistic through encompassing a variety of profiles and abilities, and systemic, as it looks at all the components that may be contributing to the MNCH issue.

  • Government officer addressing Coalition members in a meeting
  • BASAM Coalition members in Nigeria

However, it is also noted that diverse ideas are sometimes difficult to harmonise. How can ‘variety’ in views and interests be managed to ensure that doesn’t become an obstacle to the achievement of the wider coalition goals? Therefore, mutual understanding of what each one can bring to the table is important, but also what their other interests and commitments are is crucial. Working with government who are guided by civil societies rules can be a challenge, but the continuous effort to meet halfway can help parties to work collaboratively. In turn, government needs to understand that its effectiveness in governance can be enhanced when civil society bring in citizen needs and perspectives.

4. Make it structured: who does what?

With various parties contributing to coalition dialogues, it is important to set clear principles and expectations among members. The group should come together and determine: the objective of the coalition, identifying joint activities, and agreeing on roles and responsibilities; reporting process and format; establish a clear system for activities monitoring and evaluation; develop basic guidelines for record keeping for governments commitments; develop guidelines to ensure that suggestions from all parties are considered. Lastly, the coalition should be guided by the principle of equity: all members should be allowed to share their opinion and contribute to discussion in the same way.

5. Building trust takes time!

Our study shows that that building trust takes time. Engagement happens at different paces and in different forms, with each coalition encountering its own challenges in the journey towards mutual trust.

In Nigeria, the study highlights important points related to trust and suspicion. In the relationship between CSOs and government in Bauchi state for instance, government officials are still looking at CSOs as the people after or below them, waiting for a mistake to be made so that they can point to and to defend the government position and work. The newly formed coalition in Niger State is still growing this relationship. In Lagos, for the LaSAM coalition, contrasts and disparities were an issue when LaSAM first started its activities. With time however, this evolved into a more harmonious and trusting relationship. LaSAM members suggested that all coalitions members should see each other as one, working to achieve common goal, not as rivals.

In Kenya, E4A has worked closely with CSOs to build effective ways to engage with though they still view us as activists, we are changing the narrative. Some personalities in political circles are receptive and accommodative, and how one presents themselves really matters to establishing a good working relationship. MNH Coalition Member

In Kenya, E4A has worked closely with CSOs to enhance their capacity on effective ways to engage with government and other partners. by By using members’ connections with decision-makers who can support their advocacy efforts, coalitions established good new relationships with government and forged old ones . These relationships with critical stakeholders and government officers are already helping CSO coalitions to access important budget documents for review to help in their advocacy.

What Next?

These findings of E4A’s research studies conducted in Nigeria and Kenya show how increased engagement and continuous ‘talks’ between government and civil society can be fostered through advocacy coalitions. The case studies also highlighted the relevance of technology and the uncertain role of digitisation in the COVID-19 era that is being seen both as an obstacle to the more traditional ways of engagement and as an opportunity to enhance relationships between government and CSOs through new and different online spaces.

Whilst coalitions readapt to the new challenges that the pandemic has generated, E4A will continue working with them to ensure the conversation about health issues is sustained for the years to come and that coalitions are able to function independently by resourcing them through flexible funding channels that protect their independence, resilience and the popular participation that makes them effective. We also want to make sure the technical assistance to coalitions is driven-by their demand and that they are leading on their advocacy strategies and that power imbalances within coalitions are addressed with more female advocates claiming their space at the table.

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