Governments commonly support the advocacy role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in development, but studies argue that close linkages between government and CSOs are problematic. The Netherlands’ policy programme ‘Dialogue and Dissent’ brings together the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NMFA) and 25 (alliances of) CSOs as advocacy partners. The programme is set up from an awareness of the challenging nature of such collaboration.
We contribute to understanding the ways in which issues with donor–CSO collaboration can be engaged in donor policies.
This paper addresses two questions: To what extent and how does this programme confront and overcome the challenges of close collaboration between government and CSOs? What practical lessons can be learnt?
For this paper, we conducted 33 (group)interviews with CSOs and policy officers involved with the Dialogue and Dissent programme, exploring their understandings, expectations and strategies as partners in the programme. We also analysed CSO programmes, policy documents and publicly available information.
In Dialogue and Dissent, space for dissent, flexibility and relative equality between government and CSOs positively address mutuality and institutional pressures. Challenges remain as estimated strategic significance, diverging capacities and risks to autonomy work against mutuality. Certain challenges are engaged with, but we identified no strategies countering pressures that stem from managerialism within the NMFA, external political pressures and conflicting government objectives. While the programme counters tendencies towards institutionalization of CSOs as insiders, some important challenges to public engagement identified in the literature remain under‐addressed.
Conditions built into policy can address challenges identified in the literature. However, challenges remain that are rooted in wider organizational and political realities. Lessons for practice are: (1) the advocacy role of CSOs can be advanced by building in certain formal conditions and advancing these informally; (2) Flexibility allows for collaboration to develop as government and CSOs negotiate their roles, cognizant of pressures that get in the way; (3) challenges rooted beyond the support policy and government agency involved in the collaboration will constrict the power of policy design; (4) public engagement as a foundation for CSOs’ advocacy roles deserves much more attention.