Coalitions in the Politics of Development

Author: 
Developmental Leadership Program
Publisher: 
Developmental Leadership Program
Year of publication: 
2012

This report outlines the main findings of a workshop on the formation and functioning of successful coalitions. Findings from the Developmental Leadership Program, plus many other studies, show that coalitions are fundamental but poorly understood players in the politics of development. The report notes that coalitions are particularly important for overcoming collective action problems, and can advance social change and build capacity within civil society and other organisations. Development agencies have productively supported coalitions for change in a number of developing countries. These efforts benefited from planning based on political analysis, flexible aid modalities, a willingness to take risks, effective local partners and strong local ownership, a quiet role for donors, and leadership support within donor agencies.

Coalitions and Development

Development is a political process, and involves not just technical aspects of governance and administration, but also the inner politics of change, which requires a focus on actors, or agency: that is, how individuals and groups work politically in different institutional contexts. Leadership is an important part of this focus, but leaders need coalitions (whether formal or informal) in order to get things done. Development agencies should thus pay more attention to the developmental role of coalition-building at national and sub-national levels and in all sectoral and issue areas.

Building Effective Coalitions

Key Questions

In forming a coalition, organizers and facilitators must address a series of central questions:

  • Who will be invited to join the coalition and how large should it be?
  • How will issues and goals be determined?
  • Will the coalition be short or long-term?
  • How much long-term planning will be done and how will the coalition adapt to changing circumstances?
  • Will it focus on building relationships between its members or taking immediate action?
  • How will the coalition deal with distrust between its members and ensure credible commitments?
  • Where will resources come from and how will they be shared? Who will get recognition for coalition successes

Success Factors

An effective coalition must be highly adapted to both its local political and institutional context and its objectives, and there are few clear best practices. Effective coalitions nevertheless appear to share certain features. These include agreement around a common goal and on the rules of the game, a coalition size as small as possible to achieve its goals, clear understanding among members of their role and interest in the coalition, and the inclusion of members who can fill different roles (e.g. leaders, connectors, gatekeepers, enablers, change champions and links to key players outside the coalition).

Membership in a pre-existing network can help coalition members build trust, but it can also often be valuable to reach out to non-traditional partners. Effective coalitions also require mechanisms for dealing with distrust and inequality among members, credible and enforceable commitments, sufficient planning to anticipate strategic opportunities balanced with the flexibility to adapt to unexpected events, and learning through evaluation.

Donor Assistance to Coalitions

How Do Donors Change the Dynamic?

Donor-supported coalitions face the same issues as other coalitions, but they must also deal with several additional challenges. Donors are outsiders with often incomplete understanding of local context and actors. They have their own development priorities, which might not align with local priorities and interests. Donors also have their political interests and thus the internal political economy of each donor organization shapes its outlook and policies.

Donor funding can also deepen inequality of resources among coalition members and skew participant incentives or attract members who are primarily interested in the money. The availability of donor funding can initiate a competitive funding feeding frenzy among organisations and thus frustrate rather than promote collective action.

Operational Challenges

Supporting coalitions requires donors to operate differently from traditional aid programmes. Development actors will require detailed political context knowledge to identify the right issues, partners, people and methods. They need to determine how willing they are to engage with sensitive issues such as the underlying political settlement and what level of political involvement is appropriate.

Donors also need to reconsider their role, and often serve as brokers of local change rather than doers. This requires more flexible mechanisms for delivering aid and evaluating results.

Donors and other development actors, local and external, need to be vigilant to be able to identify and seize key opportunities or critical junctures when support for coalitions can gain traction, or to adjust strategies, activities and framing to fit the new conditions.

Success Factors

Development agencies have productively supported coalitions for change in developing countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Tonga. These efforts benefited from planning based on political analysis, flexible aid modalities, a willingness to take risks, effective local partners and strong local ownership, a quiet role for donors, and leadership support within donor agencies. The cases discussed here all involved working through an intermediary organisation with strong local knowledge and flexible funding mechanisms such as grants.