From 2014 to 2018 the Strengthening Advocacy and Civic Engagement (SACE) project in Nigeria sought to build a stronger, more resilient, and more nimble Nigerian civil society by strengthening the capacities of civil society actors to form common agendas, coordinate strategies, align outcome measurements, and share knowledge. SACE organized 18 clusters of civil society organizations working on clearly-defined thematic issue areas with shared visions for change. These clusters were anchored by organizations charged with facilitating and managing collaboration, strategy alignment, and communication. We want to credit and thank our Nigerian colleagues, particularly SACE Chief of Party, Charles Abani, and his team for developing these approaches with us and doing the brunt of the work in supporting clusters. Their creativity contributed to many of the ideas and stories behind our lessons.
Last fall we concluded 5 years of testing new models of collective action to strengthen Nigerian civil society with a cohort of nearly 157 pioneering Nigerian organizations. With the close of the SACE program we’ve had the very welcome nudge of end-of-program reporting to begin to synthesize our lessons. We’ve shared some of this work in an internal learning event, public summit at the OpenGov Hub, and a presentation at the American Evaluation Association conference with our implementing partner, Chemonics. Over the next several months we plan to share much more and invite critical engagement with our lessons and data; especially in exploring how civil society and citizens coordinate to hold government and business accountable. SACE not only represents a possible new model for social accountability and civil society strengthening programming, but also the tools and data to support and sustain that model.
Throughout the SACE program, clusters of advocacy organizations used network analysis and outcome harvesting tools to coordinate their activities, generating a few large datasets for us to explore. As we’ve dug into the mountain of network data reflecting roughly 2,800 relationships among 1,300 actors working in Nigeria and the mixture of index cards, Post-Its, and Excel sheets clusters used to coordinate their activities and outcomes in strategy meetings, we’ve identified a few high level lessons. The 18 advocacy clusters launched in SACE contributed to over 60 legislative achievements–reallocating budgets for youth, advancing social inclusion for women and people with different abilities, creating or enforcing oversight mechanisms in the extractive industry, and other policy and implementation changes across the clusters’ range of social issues. In contributing to these captured and verified outcomes (and many more reported changes including representation in government committees, changes to regulatory operations, and project completion, among other institutional changes), these clusters’ work provides compelling evidence for three high level lessons:
1. Aid programs can support the creation of divergent and resilient locally-owned collectives anchored by diverse (local) organizations. In successfully introducing the cluster model and collective impact principles across Nigerian society, SACE offers an example of how a USAID-funded program can nurture locally owned collective impact initiatives. The importance of this can’t be taken for granted. As USAID and other funding agencies begin to use systems strengthening and collective impact language, too often international organizations play backbone roles or create new organizations without established legitimacy or history for the function. Rather, funders should support the development of new resource hubs (established and respected organizations or networks) to play convening and facilitating roles.
2. Program tools should be designed in response to the needs and demand of local organizations and adapted as they learn and evolve their understanding of them. Collective impact happens in a particular place to resolve particular problems. We developed our approach to support these Nigerian civil society organizations progressively, responding to what we learned from clusters as they grew and their strategies emerged. Over the course of the SACE program our mixed methods approach included our network analysis platform and reflective capacity assessment tools in 2014, most significant change and outcome harvesting in 2015, and advocacy strategy framework to coordinate cluster strategy in 2016.
3. Local clusters or coalitions take diverse forms depending on the history of their social issue, the group’s regional focus, and the characteristics and personalities of its members. In working with advocacy clusters focused on a range of issues, advocating at all levels of Nigerian society, and composed of diverse actors united under a common agenda, SACE revealed how new relationships and opportunities can combine efforts and accelerate change. SACE allowed space for clusters to preserve their own style and personality, making the growth of each cluster’s relationships and strategies take quite different forms. Precisely because influencing policy in diverse issues, geographies, and governance levels defies clear recipes for success, clustered approaches allow the emergence of context-specific relationships and knowledge.
Throughout SACE we emphasized the importance of considering contribution over attribution in making systems change. We assume based on decades of research and experience that systems change through the accumulation of smaller actions and reactions, often in unexpected ways. Taking this perspective, these advocacy clusters worked backward from their observed outcomes to map plausible contributions from cluster activities and coordination. Using this information to learn from success, without getting hung up on who deserved credit, and develop more informed strategies going forward, the clusters hint at ways programs can support true collective action based on mutual trust and learning. We hope to contribute more of our own lessons and questions to the conversations around the world asking how systems change and what organizations can do.