Coalition Building for Effective Institutions

Evie Browne
Learning Network on Capacity Development
Year of publication: 

The importance of building coalitions of groups working towards common goals is frequently referred to in change management literature. There is also a strong theoretical understanding of the importance of internal stakeholder buy-in to change processes, internal ownership, political commitment, and leadership. However, there is only a very limited body of literature specifically on building coalitions. Plenty of development literature refers to the need for leadership, champions of change, and constituencies for change, but not much that refers specifically to coalitions and their role in driving change. There is some literature on how these groups form and the function they play, but there is almost no discussion of how anyone, including internal actors and external consultants and donors, can support this essentially endogenous process, with the notable exception of the Developmental Leadership Programme ( The literature thus focuses on describing why coalitions are important, but has little practical information on how they can be built.

General messages from the literature point towards the need for flexible, long-term support from donors, and incremental change engineered through a gradual process of gathering public and wide-ranging support. Broad alliances drawing together disparate stakeholders are the lynchpin of successful coalitions pushing a reform agenda, and this also suggests that shifting public opinion is of key importance. This bottom-up, public-facing approach, which focuses on issues, informal networks and relationships is considered to be more effective than large-scale, top-down or quick reform. This theory is supported by some evidence from a wide range of reform and advocacy processes, including political change.  This approach may be difficult for donors and external actors to support, since it necessitates changing public opinion.  The literature thus shows what successful coalitions look like, but not much on how to stimulate or create these.

Two major difficulties with coalitions described here are that they are not necessarily responsive to external actors, and that they are prone to collusion and rent-seeking. There is little or no evidence on the role that external actors can play in helping coalitions form, or supporting them to do their work. Most examples of successful coalitions have been due to their strong political and citizen constituencies of support from powerful internal actors. The evidence suggests that coalitions are best formed when there is a clear demand and realisation of the need for change from internal actors. It is difficult to see where donors can support this process beyond brokering initial meetings and providing hands-off financing. There is a strong need for further research in this area. Donors may be able to finance coalitions, but the prospect of external funding can create perverse incentives for participation. As political arrangements of powerful actors, coalitions can be prone to rent-seeking and corruption. This can sometimes be prevented by keeping arrangements formal and transparent.

In terms of lessons and results, there is no consensus in the literature on the best practice of coalitions beyond the need for a clear goal (DLP 2012). DLP suggests some success factors based on its research programme: agreement on a goal, the smallest possible size, understanding of roles, wide range of actors, good mechanisms, and learning. Other key capacities for success which are suggested by the literature are leadership, which is vital to achieving change, and communications, which can play a strong role in influencing and advocating for the success of the coalition’s mandate. Leveraging pre-existing networks is also mentioned quite often as a starting point for coalition formation, both positively and negatively. Informal and cross-sectoral networks are both suggested to be conducive to successful coalitions, but hard to work with. Donors need to be more politically aware than ever before in order to engage with explicitly political institutions such as coalitions. Donors can facilitate, broker and support coalitions, or help create the pro-reform public constituencies needed to drive change, but there is limited evidence about what donors can do to support the coalition building process.