Two Key Lessons for Development Organisations from Large-Scale Citizens’ Movements

FROM: Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 30. January 2019

“We toppled the government. Our movement that started in the city of Sidi Bouzid also spilled beyond Tunisia. Eight years later, I wonder why I participated in the movement. Look around and you’ll see that the anger in the streets looks all too familiar.” This was an honest assessment of a young Tunisian, Ahmed, who is 29 and still forced to eke out a living on society’s margins.

I was in Tunisia in December 2018 on a private visit. The country was the cradle of a movement, dubbed the Arab Spring, that engulfed the whole region. I used my stay in the country to speak to several people as well as other experts that work on issues of governance. The objective of this blog post is to highlight important lessons for development organisations that (seek to) support citizens’ participation in processes or to raise their voice on matters that directly affect their lives.

Long-term partnership for challenging deeply rooted injustices

The first lesson is the importance of partnerships. The movement in Tunisia seemed to have embolden young women and men. The conversation I had with a group of students from the University of Tunis was frank. They were high school students when the movement started in 2011. They felt that while citizens, mainly the youth, were able to topple a strongman like President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the international community didn’t play a strong and meaningful role to sustain the demands of the movement. Jens Engeli, Regional Director for Eastern Europe in HELVETAS, stresses that “when participatory mechanisms in formal governance coincide with citizen mobilisation - whether in the form of associations or social movements - that the effectiveness of such pathway is ensured.”

In other words, partnerships should lead to clear outcomes and impacts. It is increasingly becoming important that development organisations take a firm stand in supporting civil society organisations, adds Lydia Plüss, Coordinator for Partnerships and Capacity Development in HELVETAS. This is despite the risk that such a role may bring about in terms of development organisations’ relationships with governments and private sector enterprises. For Valbona Karakaçi, who manages a decentralisation and local development programme (DLDP) in Albania, most development organisations work in fragile contexts and it’s often a challenge to remain “neutral”. The roles that development organisations can play, therefore, may constitute showing solidarity, supporting their cause and applying additional political pressure on the ones in power.

Understanding what drives citizens’ movements and supporting the establishment of platforms/channels for articulation of voice

There are no shortages of challenges facing large-scale citizens’ movements. The movements, to begin with, aren’t homogenous. They relate to the existence and action of a network of individuals and groups that share a certain sense of collective objective. Forming and strengthening partnerships means that there are no quick fixes to fundamental political, economic and social changes. For this, says Jesper E. Lauridsen, who heads the Governance and Peace unit of HELVETAS, that development organisations will need to have a multifaced process that include “citizens empowerment, civil society solidarity and connectivity, social dialogue, advocacy and campaigning.” Practically speaking, development organisations need to understand not only the demand side by citizens, but also openness/willingness and capacity of the power holders (local and national government).

Jesper cites the example of Egypt: getting rid of Mubarak is one thing but acknowledging and challenging the deeply rooted power wielded by other players, such as the military is also key to a successful citizens’ movement. A good comparison is with the recent movements in Armenia and Serbia. In Armenia, the goal wasn’t just to dispose a dictatorial regime, but had a clear vision of the future and communicated that. And they were very successful. The Serbian movement, on the other hand, focused on the country’s president Aleksandar Vucic. The government let them demonstrate, and it fizzled out by itself. “Large scale citizens’ movements require a longer-term vision for their success,” concludes Martin Dietz, Manager of a governance project (PERFORM) in Serbia and Albania.

Yet the challenge is whether development organisations are agile enough to fit into the speed and objective of citizens’ movements. Bernd Steimann, Development Policy Coordinator in HELVETAS, points out that development organisations haven’t “really made a step forward, as they are still caught in project and logframe logic, where citizen movements and more political forms of civic engagement hardly ever fit.” In other words, these types of movement and change simply don’t “obey” development organizations’ project cycle management, adds Andrew Wilson, who manages a multi-country project in Asia Regional Project Manager in Asia. Andrew also experienced the 2014 Bosnian protests that didn’t take root and quickly fizzled. Often the transition of citizens’ movement is messy – starting from a single issue and then morphing into bigger governance issues. Understanding the “messiness” of the movements, argues Ben Blumenthal, Country Director of HELVETAS Burkina Faso, will be critical for development organisations to have a meaningful role.


Seasoned observers of Tunisia and the Arab world were stunned by the ferocity, speed and scope of the protests. My conversations with Tunisians gave me the sense that the movement was never an illusion. Socially, it brought about fundamental changes to women rights (e.g. marriage, inheritance). Such success has elements of a healthy political culture that has been running for many years in the country. In his book, Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, Safwan Masri argues that Tunisia’s history of reform in education, religion and women’s rights are results of long years of relative political discourse.

What started in Tunisia and spread across the Arab world has indeed accelerated the discussion on how development organizations can systematically support the movements for sustaining demands for changes. A more fundamental question along this line is “why the current systems don’t allow people to voice their grievances.” Matthias Herr, Regional Director for Eastern Europe, brings in the experiences of recent movements in Europe – from Macron’s “En marche” to Brexit and Alternative for Germany. These populist movements, he argues, are working through established democratic processes and institutions. In the Arab world, where these institutions are either not there or only very weak, the movements took on the form of violent revolts and even civil wars against the elite. Matthias concludes that development organisations will need to “offer channels for a political discourse… and support the establishment of platforms/channels for articulation of voice, in particular for those disenfranchised by the system.”

It is perhaps far-fetched to talk about “Tunisian exceptionalism” where other countries that went through the Arab Spring failed or had limited results. Despite the declaration of “total war against corruption”, Tunisian political and economic elite has still a strong grip on institutions, making concrete and positive gains out of the reach of excluded citizens. More is needed to ensure sustainable changes through regulatory frameworks and better capacities – to frame messages in a strategic, non-violent, and evidence-based manner.

The story of Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in January 2012 and triggered widespread protests in Tunisia that led to the Arab Spring, provides insight into the contemporary politics of the Arab world. Against the shrinking space for civil society as a crucial institutional player, development organisations can have meaningful roles in pushing back and stimulating broader governance issues for successful citizens’ movements. Their contributions can happen through long-term partnership for challenging deeply rooted injustices and understanding what drives citizens’ movements and supporting the establishment of platforms/channels for articulation of voice.


Additional Sources


©cover picture: INDEPENDENT

Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies