[Editor’s note: The role of CSOs has been overlooked in the evidence-informed policymaking field. However, these stakeholders have proven to be very important evidence producers as well as consumers of evidence generated by other actors. Their knowledge and experience can help make more informed policy decisions. This article reflects the lessons learned by the authors throughout a research study on the role and contribution of the civil society organizations in Latin America. The study was coordinated by Grupo FARO under the initiative Innovation for Change. The complete research study is available in Spanish here.]
Civil society has an increasingly important role around the world. It is difficult to think of a modern democratic State without the participation of different types of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). Especially in the last 30 years, the CSOs have assumed a leading role in promoting human rights and defending the rule of law in Latin American societies. However, when we talk about our democracies and their fundamental pillars, CSOs do not always occupy a place of relevance in the imaginary of citizens and of the actors who discuss and decide public policies. Indeed, the recognition of the effective contribution of CSOs to democratic life is a process that is still underway. It is necessary to increase the understanding of the contributions that CSOs make to development in their contexts, as well as the strategies they use and the obstacles they must face along the way.
The study “Transforming from civil society: CSOs’ strategies to influence public policies in Latin America. Argentina, Chile and Uruguay” (original title in Spanish: Transformando desde la sociedad civil: estrategias de las OSC para incidir en políticas públicas en América Latina. Argentina, Chile y Uruguay) sought to understand the processes and strategies of public impact that CSOs carry out in these countries and generate recommendations to strengthen the impact of organized civil society on public policies. The research was based on an exhaustive literature review and more than 25 interviews with CSO representatives and academics, along with a survey of industry leaders.
Our research describes a scenario that confirms the past and present relevance of CSOs and allows us to look at the future with optimism: CSOs in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay make relevant and necessary contributions to the public agenda, both in each of their countries and at the regional level. In a political culture in which the State is considered protagonist and organizer par excellence of public life, since the return of democratic governments, CSOs have been able to validate their place in public life, professionalize their actions and enrich both public debate and the cycle of creation, execution, and evaluation of public policies.
To this end, CSOs are increasingly adopting a strategic approach to intervene in public affairs, which involves both the increasing professionalization of the advocacy function and the deployment of a series of strategies, some more traditional (such as the direct lobby with decision makers, public demonstrations or participation in workspaces institutionalized by the State) and other more innovative ones (such as the use of new technologies and social networks). In practice, CSOs often combine two or more of these complementary strategies to maximize the impact of their work.
Beyond the common features of CSOs in the Southern Cone, our research suggests that national contexts (political traditions, orientations of ruling governments, the scale of the country, or the magnitude of the presence of international cooperation) determine the relationship that is built between the State and civil society and affects the choices of CSOs. However, there are certain cross-cutting challenges to the three countries that affect CSOs’ ability to influence policy decisions, such as the dependence on public financing, the difficulty to generate virtuous dialogues with representatives of the State in institutionalized spaces, or government transitions in which key leaders in the civil society sector are recruited by the new administration.
The increasing professionalization of the work of CSOs in the subregion comes with the emergence of a new generation of CSOs that turn to new methodologies to influence public decisions and debates, especially the intensive and creative use of new technologies and the emphasis on communications. The existence of cross-cutting agendas, linked to the inclusion of rights, favors the creation of multi-agency networks (also including social movements or the private sector), which strengthens the influence capacity of CSOs, promotes synergies, knowledge exchange, and legitimacy vis-à-vis other actors.
Finally, our research highlights the importance of documenting experiences that allow generating theory about CSO’s influence activity. We present a categorization of advocacy strategies that takes into account more traditional actions and incorporates more contemporary ones, product of the changes that technology has introduced in the public sphere and the way in which stakeholders interact in the public arena. It is important to continue exploring and systematizing new advocacy strategies that allow updating the categories, incorporate the emergence of new tools at the service of public discussion, and consider the features of the context and its constant changes.
[Editor’s note: Other documents of the series of research studies on the influence of CSOs in Latin America coordinated by Grupo FARO under Innovation for Change are available in Spanish here: Regional report; Andean region report; and Central America and Mexico report.]