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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Asia-Pacific Coalition for Change: Building Effective Institutions

Written by: Cara Heaven

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Early Critiques of Institution-Building

Just as in other parts of the world, UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16) seeks to build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions in the Asia Pacific region.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, it became apparent to development practitioners and scholars alike that good governance programmes were failing to build effective institutions since they were overly focused on technical fixes (such as technological inputs) and replicating Western institutions. These programmes lacked understanding of and engagement with the underlying political and social dynamics in the aid-recipient countries. As a result, many governance aid programmes did not contribute to strong and sustainable institutions, as is the objective today of SDG 16. Instead, they built institutional facades; what appeared to be strong institutions lacked any real function and were largely ineffective. As a result of the ineffectiveness of governance aid, about 15 years ago aid practitioners and development scholars began advocating for a new approach to aid programmes. What emerged was the Coalitions for Change programme.

Alignment with Realities on the Ground

The new approaches to development practice were much more in  sync with the political and social institutions realities in the programme countries and their own desires to bring about sustainable change. These approaches are embedded in the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice and the Development Leadership Program.

A Changed Mindset

The Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice was established in 2013 by a group of governance advisors working for the UK’s Department of International Development (which has since been succeeded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office). Today, the network has about 300 participants and is dedicated to understanding how aid programmes can engage with the underlying political realities of aid-recipient countries. The Development Leadership Program is a research programme founded on the premise that governance aid programmes had focused too much on bringing about institutional change by replicating the formal structures of Western institutions (policies, rules, procedures), while ignoring the  role of local leaders and other decision-makers. The Development Leadership Program focuses on how local leaders, coalitions and groups of elites can bring about institutional change.

A Success Story: The Coalitions for Change Programme

Evidence has emerged of successful governance aid programmes that engage with the social and political realities of aid receiving countries. One example is the Coalitions for Change Program (CFC) in the Philippines. It was developed by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and California-based Asia Foundation. It has been operating since 2012 and supports Filipino leaders and coalitions in civil society, government, and the private sector to purse policy reforms. Crucially, CFC does not lead the reforms but rather it supports local coalitions that are embedded in public policymaking.

CFC: The ‘Sin Tax Law’ Reform

CFC’s successes have included an improved universal health care service, securing land titles, and improved public transport. One of CFC’s success stories has been the so-called ‘Sin Tax Law’ reform, which introduced a tax on tobacco and alcohol products in 2012. The tax money was then allocated by the government to a universal health care program. CFC’s role in contributing to the Sin Tax Law reform involved the provision of financial and technical support to the advocacy group Action for Economic Reforms. CFC also provided networking and advocacy assistance to the group and helped activists to advocate to the government of President Aquino III to make the Sin Tax reform bill a policy priority. It also developed close links with prominent doctors involved in anti-smoking advocacy work, health specialists and economists and drew on their expertise to campaign for the Sin Tax Law via traditional media outlets as well as social media channels.

CFC: Land Titling Reforms

Another example of a CFC-supported reform in the Philippines was the overhaul of the secondary education system. The overcrowding of schools was a major concern and it became apparent to the CFC team that a major obstacle to overcoming school congestion was not the need for government resources to construct more classrooms (as was previously thought), but rather the removing bureaucratic procedures for the purchase of land. As a result, the CFC team worked flexibly and changed the focus of its programme to include land titling reforms. Through networking, financial and technical assistance, CFC helped to extend the coverage of the Residential Free Patent Act to secure land titles for thousands of school sites across the Philippines. Those land titles have helped protect schools from increasing insecurity from legal claims and disputes, including procedural constraints over the construction of new classrooms and facilities.

Impact on Other Aid Programmes

Despite its success, the CFC approach was not been easily replicated across other nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Graham Teskey, former Principal Governance Specialist for DFAT, and currently the Principal Global Lead of Governance Practice at Abt Associates, argues that there is no reason why the CFC approach cannot be implemented in other countries’ contexts. However, Teskey points out that the CFC started its work at a time when Australian aid budgets were growing, and it was a high point in Australia’s development optimism. Today, aid budgets have shrunk and the promotion of the national interest in aid programmes has come to the fore. Teskey argues that this donor environment has made it more difficult to “privilege long-term transformational objectives over short-term transactional ones”. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that the approach to development that underpins the CFC programme will keep informing aspects of the design and operation of more traditional and mainstream aid programmes, ultimately leading to a gradual change in donor-faciliated development projects.

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