Participatory Systems Approaches to Advocacy in Nigeria: A Three-Volume Series

Rachel DickinsonRebooting Systems

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.

The USAID-funded Strengthening Advocacy and Civic Engagement (SACE) program pioneered a unique and exciting combination of participatory systems approaches that brought together and strengthened coordination among 18 clusters of more than 200 Nigerian civil society organizations. Over the course of five years, these organizations achieved 60 important policy outcomes. Examples include the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, the National Policy on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities, and budget allocation for the Basic Healthcare Provision Package, among many others. According to SACE program staff, “these impressive policy outcomes were achieved in part because of CSOs’ enhanced capacity, garnered through SACE’s capacity building efforts to improve their advocacy skills, strengthen their networks and stakeholder relationships, and boost public awareness.” In an effort to introduce the SACE approaches and share lessons learned from our work, Root Change and Chemonics published a three-volume series, summarized below, on the theories and tools behind the SACE program.

Volume 1: Understanding Systems Approaches in Advocacy Initiatives presents the theories that helped to shape the SACE approach:

  • Theories of complexity, which acknowledge that no one organization can create lasting change on its own, led to diverse  actors coming together in clusters to work towards a common goal, and to reflect on and listen to the system where they are working.
  • The SACE theory of change sees project engagement as something that must trickle far beyond official organizational partners into a broader system. It used ‘spheres’ to organize engagement with diverse actors in the system and offered a framework for thinking about engagement beyond just the cluster.
  • Accountability ecosystems theory highlighted the need to connect the dots between existing structures and cluster approaches. The analogy of an ‘ecosystem’ is useful for accountability, because it highlights the numerous spaces and processes (both formal and informal) through which government, civil society and others interact, and the power dynamics that result from those interactions. This allowed organizations participating in SACE to leverage and strengthen existing accountability structures like courts, audit bodies, and media. It also pushed them to think about how new accountability mechanisms might capitalize on power dynamics to ensure their effectiveness.
  • The Collective Impact Model offered a framework for cluster members and anchors to effectively work with one another. The five pillars of collective impact are: common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support. Root Change added a sixth pillar to the collective impact model—trust building through attribution and acknowledgement of fellow cluster members—which members found to be an essential incentive to working and strategizing together. These six pillars provided the foundation for cluster activities and helped align interests and incentives.

Volume 2: Using the Advocacy Strategy Matrix for Collective Impact presents a tool used by the clusters to organize their strategies, and draws from multiple cluster examples to highlight the collective impact dimensions in the SACE approach:

  • The Advocacy Strategy Matrix (ASM) is a tool adapted from the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s Advocacy Strategy Framework. Clusters adapted this framework to map their activities and outcomes, discover causal linkages between activities and outcomes, and collaboratively explore  promising strategies based on the outcomes achieved.
  • Each of the five elements of the Collective Impact Model were alive in the SACE approach. A common agenda was agreed upon when clusters were first formed. Clusters were anchored by a backbone organization who was tasked with convening and facilitating. Continuous communication occurred through cluster coaching and feedback surveys every six months. Mutually reinforcing activities were planned using the ASM. Shared measurement came in the form of participatory MEL, also supported by the ASM. Trust was built during all cluster convenings and annual learning events, and acknowledgement occurred when identifying activities and outcomes using the ASM.

Volume 3: Participatory Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) in Complex Adaptive Environments highlights how participatory monitoring, evaluation, and learning techniques evolved and how they empowered the cluster members using them:

  • Most Significant Change (MSC) is the process of collecting personal accounts of change and deciding as a group which was the most important and why. MSC was introduced to SACE to monitor how organizations’ ability to work in a cluster towards a collective goal had improved. This method provided monitoring indicators in the form of eight change types, such as stakeholder engagement, improved strategies and tactics, and innovation/experimentation. Evidence for stories was peer-reviewed by other cluster members.
  • Combining the ASM with the MSC method, a new framework for outcome harvesting and mapping was formed. Outcome harvesting is a participatory method where a group discusses what happened, who contributed, what evidence there is, and why it is important. Outcome mapping uses logic to link outcomes to activities. Clusters engaged both of these methods every six months while completing an ASM with the most significant changes for their collective issue. The end product was a roadmap of outcomes and activities clusters could use to strategize, and program managers could collect over the life of the project for use in MEL reporting.

Even though the SACE program closed at the end of 2018, the tools and methods continue to be of value to and used by those who were part of this five-year project. We recently heard from a colleague in Nigeria how she has introduced participatory MEL to her new organization. Moreover, a post project evaluation of the SACE program from USAID confirmed that SACE tools and methods continue to be used by partner organizations, are likely to continue to be used in advocacy and policy reform, have increased participation of marginalized groups, and have promoted economic development in the Niger Delta.