Citizen Action and National Policy Reform

"Citizen Action and National Policy Reform: Making Change Happen" (2010), edited by Gaventa and McGee, presents a series of case studies of citizen movements and advocacy for national policy change. The book fits well within the "How Change Happens" space. Cases are presented from: South Africa, Philippines, Mexico, Chile, India, Brazil, Morocco and Turkey. The cases represent "emerging or existing democracies characterized by functioning states and at least some democratic space" (p. 4), even if that was not the intended objective of the volume. However, these effective cases suggested to the editors that it was "precisely because these are the kinds of settings where we can most expect collective citizen action on national policy to emerge" (p. 4).

Give the difficulty of summarizing the diversity of the cases, this review will share the key lessons learned about citizen action for policy change, as outlined by the editors in a series of propositions:

  • Proposition 1: Political opportunities are opened and closed through historic, dynamic and iterative processes. While political opportunities create possibilities for collective action for policy change, these openings themselves may have been created by prior mobilization.
  • Proposition 2: Civil society engagement in policy processes is not enough by itself to make change happen. Competition for formal political power is also central, creating new impetus for reform and bringing key allies into positions of influence, often in synergy with collective action from below.
  • Proposition 3: While international allies, covenants and norms of state behaviour can strengthen domestic openings for reform, they can also be the subject of fierce domestic opposition. Successful reform campaigns depend on careful navigation to link international pressures with differing and constantly changing local and national contexts.
  • Proposition 4: Successful policy change occurs not through professional advocacy alone, but involves complex and highly developed mobilizing structures which link national reformers to local and faith-based groups, the media and repositories of expertise. Such structures are built over time, deeply grounded in the societies where they are found, and linked to the biographies of those who lead them.
  • Proposition 5: Alliances between social actors and champions of change inside the state are critical to make policy change happen. Social mobilization structures provide opportunities for state-based reformers to generate change from within, just as political opportunity structures provide spaces for social actors to do so from without.
  • Proposition 6: Policy change on contentious issues requires contentious forms of mobilization. Contentiousness is a dynamic and contingent concept. Successful collective action must also be dynamic, with the ability to frame issues carefully, adjust to changing circumstances and audiences, and draw upon a wide repertoire of strategies.
  • Proposition 7: 'Success' can be understood in many different ways, especially among the different actors in a broad-based campaign or social movement. In general, robust and sustainable changes require campaigns which link the national to the local and which pay attention to the processes of empowering citizens and deepening democratic governance as well as to effecting policy change itself.

This book is a great resource. One note of caution, although the book was published in 2010, it appears most of the case studies were written around 2004-2006, and largely reflective of activities from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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Logan Cochrane

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