How Social Movements Can Reenergize Budget Activism

Brendan Halloran, Senior Fellow, Strategy and Learning, International Budget Partnership— Aug 17, 2017

This post is from “That’s How the Light Gets In”: Making Change in Closing Political Environmentsa collection of essays that examine evidence of how to pursue fiscal accountability in a tougher political environment. The collection is a companion to IBP’s 2016 Annual Report. Read more essays from the collection on the Open Budgets Blog here.


India’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) provides food and health care to more than 100 million children and pregnant mothers around the country, employing 2.7 million workers. The 40-year-old program is chronically underfunded and workers earn less than half the government’s minimum wage. Yet in 2016, government decision makers at the national and state levels were planning draconian budget cuts that would further weaken the ICDS’ ability to deliver services. In Maharashtra, a state with the sixth highest malnutrition burden in the country, the planned budget for child nutrition was cut by 62 percent, down to 0.5 percent of the state’s total budget.

How Social Movements Can Reenergize Budget Activism
Credit: Flickr / DFID

CBGA, a long time IBP partner, quickly identified and publicized the scale of the proposed cuts in Maharashtra and across the country. At the national level, massive protests by ICDS workers already had the government back on its heels. In Maharashtra, IBP partner SATHI helped bring a wider movement of health organizations — the Right to Live campaign — to join with the state’s ICDS workers union to analyze the cuts and plan joint actions. SATHI and other civil society organizations played a less visible support role, while the workers staged a massive protest in Mumbai. Maharashtra’s Finance Minister agreed to reverse the cuts, and nearly all funding was restored in the next parliamentary session. While the immediate crisis was averted, ICDS funding is still inadequate, its workers continue to be exploited at low wages, and there are continuing threats to privatize the program, despite court rulings to the contrary.

In South Africa, our partner the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) has organized an expanding campaign to convince the government of Cape Town to invest in sanitation infrastructure that meets the needs of residents of poor communities — and allows them to live with greater dignity — while also cutting costs in the long term. The government has consistently resisted these demands, and singled out the SJC for criticism. But the group has persisted, mobilizing its members to participate massively in the city’s own participatory budget process, which had previously been dormant and barely used. Thousands of residents have submitted budget requests, and SJC forced the government to take these demands seriously. In its latest move to force the city government to listen to its own citizens, the SJC is pursuing litigation.

The clear lesson from these cases is that there is rarely a shortcut to realizing rights and achieving tangible improvements for the poorest and most marginalized people. Neither the openness gains over the past decade nor the more recent restrictions on civic space have changed the fundamental fact that entrenched social and economic exclusion are deeply rooted in unequal power relations and sustained by status quo institutional systems. Meaningful steps toward more inclusive and effective governance means going beyond openness to navigating and reshaping politics. In the words of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of the book Why Nations Fail:

“Making institutions more inclusive is about changing the politics of a society to empower the poor — the empowerment of those disenfranchised, excluded and often repressed by those monopolising power.”

For IBP and our partners, this presents a great opportunity, particularly in the increasingly challenging contexts in which we work. In both cases above, IBP was able to support engagement that combined sophisticated budget analysis with multipronged engagement strategies focused on enabling and leveraging collective citizen action on a significant scale. In both cases, the objective was to shift specific policies, funding for child nutrition and for dignified sanitation in informal communities, but more than that, it was about changing politics by building countervailing citizen power. Neither fight is over, but both have the potential to not only get a policy “win” but also to build a movement that democratizes the relationship between government and some of its most marginalized people.

According to a comprehensive study of over 100 cases of citizen engagement by John Gaventa and Gregory Barrett, “while people may engage with the state in a variety of ways, associations and social movements are far more important vehicles for gaining development and democratic outcomes than perhaps has been previously understood.” The experiences of IBP in India, South Africa, and elsewhere reinforce this message. Indeed we have seen it play out over the course of modern history, from the women’s suffrage movement to the influence of labor unions on working conditions in the U.S. and Europe, to the social media and people power of Tahrir Square. But it has also happened in a thousand smaller and less visible ways, as people have organized in cooperatives, savings groups, and cultural organizations. All of these forms of more spontaneous and more durable organizing and mobilizing have a role to play in make our societies and governments more democratic. As the famous observer of America’s fledgling democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it, “The task of preserving political democracy, then, consists in creating countervailing forces not controlled by the state, which would involve citizens in the public sphere.”

In some ways, the closing of civic space and the increase in intolerant politics have rejuvenated citizen action. In countries across the world, people are looking for new ways to organize and are raising their voices. Despite clear evidence for the efficacy of people’s organizations and movements, we shouldn’t romanticize them. Such organizations and movements are very difficult to grow and sustain and are not the “magic bullet” for accountable governance. People, particularly from marginalized groups, face significant barriers to collective action and many protests fizzle out or fail to produce sustainable change. Nevertheless, the experiences of IBP and our partners, as well as many other organizations around the world, demonstrate the promise of bringing together different kinds of organizations and movements, from formal NGOs with specific technical capacities to more fluid mobilizations to cooperatives and unions. There is much to be learned about how to work most effectively together and leverage different tactics and capacities, but IBP is committed to exploring these questions and deepening our engagement with a more diverse set of citizen organizations and movements. Our experience, and an increasing body of evidence, tells us that if our work is to contribute to more inclusive governance and development, we need to better harness the collective action and mobilization of citizens to strengthen a vibrant ecosystem of organizations and movements that really brings power to the people.

Related Resources


Further Reading

2016 International Budget Partnership Annual ReportThat’s How the Light Gets In”: Making Change in Closing Political Environments

This collection of essays — a companion to IBP’s 2016 Annual Report — examines evidence of how to pursue fiscal accountability in  tougher political environments.
Download »


2016 International Budget Partnership Annual ReportInternational Budget Partnership 2016 Annual Report

The International Budget Partnership’s 2016 Annual Report documents our work over the past year, focusing on what we have achieved and what we have learned.
Download »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *