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Session Overview
2-HP128: Southern Civil Society Actors and Advocacy Policies for Development
Tuesday, 06/July/2021:
11:00am - 12:15pm

Session Chair: Willem Elbers, Radboud university, Netherlands, The
Session Chair: Dr. Lau Schulpen, Radboud University, the Netherlands, Netherlands, The
Session Chair: Margit van Wessel, Wageningen University, The Netherlands, Netherlands, The
Session Chair: Dr. Jelmer Kamstra, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Netherlands, The

Session Abstract

Thus far, advocacy research has primarily focused on international campaigns, putting large INGOs at the center of attention. In contrast, local advocacy dynamics in the global South remain poorly understood. This applies even more to advocacy undertaken by less formalized actors that are not connected to the international aid system, such as social movements or community based organizations. This panel provides a space for finished research papers that cover new ground, centering on ways to foreground the role of Southern CSOs’ advocacy in the context of development. In doing so, it aims to shift the agenda on advocacy in development research.

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What Autonomy and Flexibility Mean at the Grassroots Level: Evidence from Advocacy Projects in Uganda and Vietnam

Lena Gutheil1,2

1Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, Germany; 2Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen

While there is plenty of literature on civil society organizations (CSOs) both in the global South and the global North, research in the global South mostly relies on data collected in the capital cities of developing countries. This might be due to funding and time constraints, language restrictions or lack of access. This under-coverage does not only result in a knowledge gap, but also contributes to the fact that grassroots actors, such as community based organizations (CBOs) are less represented in academic and policy discourse. It is also assumed that CBOs participate less in agenda setting and the coordination and management of an intervention, if they are located far away from decision-making centers (socially and geographically). But does that mean that grassroots actors are at the same time subject to less scrutiny and monitoring of donors, because they are “out of sight” and deal with smaller budgets? And does this in turn automatically lead to more flexibility in implementation? By relying on a comparative case study of a donor-funded intervention, this article examines empirically to what extent CBOs are included in decision-making in the overall project set-up and are benefitting from autonomy and flexibility in implementing advocacy activities.

The case study compares the same donor-funded intervention implemented in Uganda and Vietnam aimed at building CBOs’ capacities in advocating for budget transparency and influencing local governments’ spending decisions. Participant observation and semi-structured interviews were used to understand how CBOs navigate both the relationship with their clients/members and the relationship with their partner CSOs that are based in the capital. By making use of practice theory, the article shows that even though the donor emphasizes the importance of CBOs as actors in their own right, grassroots actors have little influence on the overall project set-up and management. The analysis finds striking similarities across the different country contexts: CBOs are mainly included on an ad-hoc basis and paid by activity, hampering organizational sustainability. While the overall project is supposed to offer flexibility for all partners to adapt their work plan to changing contexts, this flexibility reaches CBOs in the form of spontaneous requests for the facilitation of activities by national CSOs. As CBOs’ involvement consists largely of capacity building workshops, these have come to assume the function of a local currency in the form of the per diems that are being paid. At the same time, national CSO actors are highly dependent on CBOs. They act as gatekeepers by providing access to the communities and are thus essential for producing results. Due to the geographical distance, they receive few monitoring visits and as they do not participate in official reporting, the accountability relationship with the donor is largely based on oral accounts. This carves out space for CBO actors to make use of the intervention to engage in their own projects, which are not always in line with the advocacy goals set out in the project plan.

How Southern Development Organizations Engage In Representation: A Closer Look Using The Case Of Disaster Management In India

Suparana Katyaini1, Margit van Wessel2, Sarbeswar Sahoo1

1Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India; 2Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands

Many development organizations can be seen as engaging in representation in that they commonly act for others (articulating groups’ needs and rights, advancing problem definitions impacting different societal groups, and advocating solutions for problems faced by specific groups). However, there has been little attention to this representative role. To the extent that attention to representation is seen in the field, it largely centres on legitimacy—or rather the questioning of it—and is often geared towards international nongovernmental organizations, challenging their ‘representation’ from a powerful and distant position. The lack of attention we find may indeed also be because the idea of representation is problematic for international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which apparently are often uncomfortable with claiming to represent others (Jordan & Van Tuijl, 2000, p. 2053), presenting themselves instead as partners to the groups they seek to assist and the organizations with which they work (Rubenstein, 2014).

This paper charts important reasons to further explore non-electoral representation by development organizations, in particular in Southern contexts where representation is constituted in closer interaction with constituencies and embedded in local contexts. The paper does this on the basis of a case study of Indian development organizations. We chart the ways in which these organizations give shape to their role as advocates for others’ views, needs, and interests, and we examine the ways and extent to which these roles can be understood in terms of representation. We focus on the case of development organizations working on disaster management in two Indian states, in particular for people who are vulnerable to disaster risk. We chose to explore representation at the state level because relatively close engagement with constituencies can be expected here, allowing us to move beyond existing understandings of representation as problematic constructions by powerful actors representing others from a distance (Holmén & Jirström, 2009).

The paper takes a closer look at representation by 1) exploring representation that happens close to the constituencies involved and 2) examining the acts of representation, seeking to identify and understand them. The paper shows how different types of locally embedded development organizations represent groups vulnerable to disaster risk in diverse ways—as different types of intermediaries, facilitators of representation, or self-representers. It also shows how representation is embedded in a wide set of relations going beyond the linear relation between the represented and the representative. Finally, the paper demonstrates how representation by development organizations in India takes shape through the intertwining of capacity development, service delivery, and advocacy, as organizations engage in representation in multiple ways through the diverse opportunities they create in their development work. The article concludes that representation by development organizations deserves further attention, in particular considering the opportunities and potential significance of representation in Southern contexts, given these organizations’ close relations with constituencies and other actors in the context of their work.


Holmén, H., & Jirström, M. (2009). Look who’s talking! Second thoughts about NGOs as representing civil society. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 44(4), 429–448.

Jordan, L., & Van Tuijl, P. (2000). Political responsibility in transnational NGO advocacy. World development, 28(12), 2051-2065.

Rubenstein, J. C. (2014). The Misuse of Power, Not Bad Representation: Why It Is Beside the Point that No One Elected Oxfam. Journal of Political Philosophy, 22(2), 204-230.

Combining External Funding And Local Legitimacy – The Agency Of A Community-based Organization Advocating For Land Rights In Kenya

Selma Zijlstra1, Marja Spierenburg2

1Radboud University, Netherlands, The; 2Leiden University, Netherlands, The

In response to the growing critique about a perceived lack of legitimacy of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the global aid system, scholars and practitioners are calling for more leadership from NGOs, or local civil society organizations (CSOs) in the South. One of the proposed solutions to achieve this is to support already existing CSOs or social movements. The drawback is that donor support to social movements can separate them from the grassroots as they become professionalized. However, scant effort has been invested in documenting how CSOs try to maintain (or regain) legitimacy of their constituents in defiance of de-legitimization risks. We therefore aim to uncover how CSOs construct their legitimacy in their day to day encounters with communities, while negotiating their position vis-à-vis their INGO partners. Furthermore, we will explore what ‘Leading from the South’ means in practice, when social movements have to navigate in complex environments with multiple actors that affect their ability to mobilize. In this study, a social constructivist lens towards legitimacy is applied, which is conceptualized as dynamic, relational, and continuously contested.

The empirical base of this contribution consists of nine months of fieldwork in Kenya, part of which has been dedicated to an ethnographic study of a CBO that advocates for land rights in an area occupied by salt mines. We used participant observation, held interviews with CBO-staff and community members, as well as with business and government representatives. Further, we conducted a survey among people living in the area affected by salt mines.

The CBO itself is a perfect example of ‘Starting from the South’. The organization originated from local farmer groups that organized themselves as a reaction to land dispossession by salt-mining companies. When the struggle attracted national attention, two INGO partners started to fund the CBO. They continue to be committed to supporting advocacy processes, so that the CBO has been able to prioritize its original mission. Yet, our findings suggest that community members are increasingly difficult to mobilize. Part of this reason can be linked to incorporation into the aid system. This incorporation came with power asymmetry issues and sobering consequences of professionalization. However, this decline in mobilization should also be interpreted in the light of socio-economic and political factors. Counter-strategies of the state and the private sector as well as divisions within communities itself contributed to a certain ‘resistance-fatigue’. Yet, the CBO exercises agency as a response to these challenges, and attempts to re-invent its legitimacy through various strategies directed towards INGO partners as well as their constituents. These strategies can be mutually reinforcing as more ownership enables the CBO to strengthen its ties with the grassroots.

This contribution will show that upward as well as downward accountabilities can be combined. At the same time, the quest for legitimacy must be understood as a process, continuously contested, and impacted by counterstrategies of many stakeholders such as the private sector. INGO partners can support CSOs in their quest for legitimacy if aid chain dynamics adequately enhances the freedom of CSOs to exercise their agency and reflect creatively on their roles in the midst of mobilization challenges in a volatile political-economic context.

Who’s In The Driving Seat? Professional Civil Society Organisations Mobilising Community Anti-coal Resistance In Rural Eastern Kenya

Maaike Matelski

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands, The

While land struggles among the poor are generally analysed in terms of popular social movements, in practice not all areas are equally susceptible to mass mobilisation. In regions without a history of self-organisation or where popular movements are violently suppressed, land struggles may be instigated by professional outsiders instead. This article describes a case study in Kitui county, eastern Kenya, a marginalised rural area without a notable history of popular protest. In response to a planned coal mining project in the region, professional civil society organisations from the regional and national capital entered the area in order to mobilise the local population against the mining plans. Citing risks of displacement, environmental damage and community disruption, these professional activists informed local inhabitants of their right to participate in decision making, or to resist the mining plans altogether. The coal mining plan, which was first announced in 2010, had not started when the research took place in 2018, and remains pending at the time of writing. Meanwhile, the constant threat of relocation has inhibited the development of rural activities and community building in the area.

This paper argues that, while the involvement of professional activists strengthens local community members’ position towards the authorities and companies involved, it also comes with a number of risks. CSOs enter the field with different and sometimes conflicting approaches and messages, and each seek to create activist ‘structures’ among local communities, which can result in conflict and fragmentation. As CSOs seek to unify resistance to the mining plans, they occasionally resort to ‘aspiration manipulation’ (Najam, 1996): steering community interests in the direction of fruitful campaigning, rather than centring the campaign around community priorities. This paper thus explores the diverse impacts of professional CSO involvement on the communities inhabiting a prospective mining site.

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