Benny Jackson

New Roles of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) for Inclusive Development

Investigating the assumptions of the Theory of Change underlying the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ civil society policy framework ‘Dialogue & Dissent’.


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About the research programme

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NWO-WOTRO Science for Global development, and INCLUDE joined forces for the research programme ‘New Roles of CSOs for Inclusive Development’. The programme investigates the assumptions, solutions and problems underlying the civil society policy framework ‘Dialogue & Dissent’. Research projects were selected to contribute to the evidence-base for the policy framework Dialogue & Dissent and support CSOs. It looked at if and how the assumptions underlying the theory of change on which the Dialogue & Dissent framework is based play out in the power and stakeholder context in which CSOs operate. Scrutinizing these assumptions is essential to build a more credible policy framework and sustainable policy strategy.

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is using the knowledge generated in the ongoing learning agenda with its partners in the current Dialogue & Dissent framework (2016–2020) and as input for the design of the next civil society policy framework from 2019 onwards.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are groups of citizens who organize themselves to pursue goals that concern a wider group in society. They are present in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members. CSOs can fulfil social, economic and political roles. CSOs are becoming increasing important and are focusing on lobbying, advocacy and service delivery. The issues that CSOs raise are interconnected and demand an allied approach from local and global policy actors. This interconnectedness also requires different types of cooperation between northern and southern CSOs.



Core themes
  • CSOs and civic engagement
  • CSOs and the aid chain
  • CSOs in an enabling environment
  • Generating new, evidence-based knowledge on the assumptions of the theory of change underlying the Dialogue & Dissent framework
  • Making this knowledge accessible, available and applicable to policymakers and CSOs in the Netherlands and in LLMICs

Role for research projects

Six research projects (three in Kenya and one in the Ukraine, India and Ethiopia) were selected in a first call for proposals from NWO-WOTRO, running from December 2017 until mid-October 2019. Two extra, shorter research projects were then selected, starting and finishing later (December 2018 until 31 October 2019). The geographical scope of the two new projects was wider to allow a cross-continental comparison, in both cases Africa with Asia (one compares Zambia and Bangladesh; the other Zimbabwe, Palestine and Bangladesh).

All eight projects were linked to projects implemented in low and lower middle income countries (LLMICs) by CSOs supported by the Dialogue & Dissent framework. In December 2017, the research projects started with a literature review followed by empirical research.

The research groups shared their knowledge with policymakers and CSOs in the Netherlands and LLMICs to ensure changes in practices and policies. During the project, INCLUDE organized knowledge sharing activities that brought together researchers and other stakeholders to make the generated knowledge available and accessible to possible (end-) users.


The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs supports CSOs in LLMICs in their development role. This policy is based on the assumption that diversity in civil society is essential for inclusive development. Based on the increased importance of the political role of CSOs, the Ministry has shifted the focus in its civil society policy framework to the political role of CSOs. The policy framework, Dialogue & Dissent, aims to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality while taking into account the interconnectedness between issues in developing countries and the Netherlands.

The overall goal of Dialogue & Dissent is to enhance the lobbying and advocacy capacities of CSOs in LLMICs. The framework aims to support CSOs in their mission to contribute to sustainable, inclusive development through their local, national and international networks. Underlying the framework is a theory of change. The framework, which was implemented in 2016 and will run up to 2020, contains five main support elements:

  • Strategic Partnerships (SPs): In the SPs, a consortia of 25 CSO will work to strengthen the lobbying and advocacy capacity of CSOs in LLMICs. Subsequent lobbying and advocacy activities will focus on various themes including women’s rights, press freedom and the sustainable use of natural resources. This policy is unique as it will channel €1 billion euros exclusively towards fostering the political role of CSOs, and because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will play an active and strategic role as partner in helping achieve the jointly-agreed objectives.
  • Accountability Fund (AF): The AF allows Dutch embassies to provide direct funding to CSOs in LLMICs. Embassies are often keenly aware of the political scope that CSOs have in a particular country and the AF allows them to respond directly to existing needs. This approach recognizes the increased importance of CSOs and their growing capacity to achieve results independently. Regular aid programmes often fail to sufficiently reach those who are excluded because of disability, ethnic origin, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or gender. In response, the Voice programme was started to reach and support advocacy organizations for the most marginalized and discriminated groups to enable them to effectively defend their interests.
  • Leading from the South: Three Southern regional women’s funds (Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean) and one worldwide indigenous women’s fund have been selected to finance women’s organizations, movements and networks in the South to strengthen their lobbying and advocacy capacity on gender equality and women’s empowerment and on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 5.
  • Defending political space: In many countries it is becoming more and more difficult for CSOs to do their work due to restrictive legislation, and even threats and intimidation. It is, therefore, essential that donors not only provide financial, but also political support to create an enabling environment for CSOs. In this regard, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs monitors political space through its embassies, takes part in various international networks, and supports the international civil rights movement CIVICUS.

As described in the call for proposals by NWO-WOTRO, June 2017.