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Time to scale up - Civil Society Organisations need to collaborate and improve their political acumen

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) need to rethink the ways in which they attempt to influence government policy processes, according to a new report published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) today. The report, Policy engagement: How civil society can be more effective, is being launched at the CIVICUS World Assembly in Scotland, a five-day event that brings together over 1,000 global civil society activists.

CSOs are a vital component of development - globally NGOs reach 20% of the world’s poor. In Ghana, Zimbabwe and Kenya they provide 40% of all healthcare and education. There are an estimated 22,000 development NGOs in Bangladesh alone. But according to Julius Court, ODI researcher and lead author of the report: ‘CSOs are having a limited impact on policy and practice, and ultimately the lives of poor people because they often act on their own or in opposition to the state. This needs to change as, with increased democratisation, reductions in conflict and advances in information and communication technologies, there is massive potential to build more progressive partnerships between CSOs and policymakers in the developing world.’

Kumi Naidoo, the CIVICUS Secretary General, acknowledges it’s an area that CSOs need to address: ‘It is only a minority of governments that reach out to use policy knowledge that can be found in Civil Society Organisations and to consider it as a part of their policy making.’

A powerful solution, Court advocates, is to make better use of research-based evidence. ‘The use of rigorous evidence addresses policy-makers’ concerns about legitimacy and accountability. In some countries, adverse political contexts continue to be the main barrier to informed policy engagement. But often, the extent of CSOs’ influence on policy is in their own hands. By getting the fundamentals right, by assessing context, engaging policy-makers, getting evidence, working with partners, and communicating well, CSOs can overcome key internal obstacles,’ he says. ‘The result will be more effective, influential and sustained policy engagement for poverty reduction.’

Are NGOs linking up where they can? And are they using evidence to increase the policy influence and pro-poor impact of their work? Court argues that: ‘Better utilisation of research and evidence in development policy and practice can help save lives. In order to have greater impact, civil society must improve its interaction with, and effect on, the political world.’