Questions for consideration
• To what extent is the coalition representative of CSOs working in its field?
• To whom is the coalition accountable?
• Which key individuals can add political weight to the organisation?
• Is there a membership criterion that limits the involvement of organisations whose contribution is minimal?
Given the aim of coalitions, as groups of organisations that come together to achieve social change, political weight is important. This can be achieved by a number of means.
One way to accrue political weight is through a large membership base. Indeed some argue that, if a coalition is not big enough, it cannot be representative. However, while ‘broad social bases enable credible representation and local voice’ (Brown and Fox, 2000, p. 17), in attempting to achieve representativeness, networks often go for breadth and lose their focus. As a result, rather than becoming more representative, coalitions become less so, because ‘when coalitions become too big they are less connected with the grassroots and they really are just a mouthpiece’.
Funders and INGOs often assume that CSOs are representative of civil society. Yet these organisations are formed, in the main, by an educated minority - individuals with career paths and appropriate skills - rather than being elected by civil society to represent them. Thus although some community based organisations (CBOs) do represent their communities, in most cases CSOs work to improve the lot of beneficiaries rather than constituents. This assumption of representativeness is sometimes carried over into the idea of coalitions; the assumption here being that they are united and coordinated representatives of civil society, and therefore conduits linking civil society, government and donors at the micro–macro levels.
Coalitions are also not established to be representative of civil society; they are established to give certain organisations working on a particular issue a stronger voice.
However, while coalitions may not themselves be representative of civil society, the issues that they advocate gain legitimacy through the involvement in the coalition of organisations working at the grassroots level. ‘National level coalitions or networks that have no representation from the community level are less legitimate than those who are connected to activity on the ground. The latter have, therefore, a high degree of legitimacy and visible impact’. Additionally, forming or strengthening national coalitions runs the risk of building power at the top of the pyramid rather than at the community level.
Representative or not, coalitions grow, gain pace, develop and attract new organisations. And indeed there can be clear benefits to organizations joining a coalition, but these are not always seen to include contributing to the cause for which the coalition was established.
Equally, membership can wane over the lifetime of a coalition, often in response to the above issues. This tension reflects those inherent in having a broad membership that is countered by some organizations not contributing to the aims of the coalition, or indeed being extractive, which can lead to a loss of the vision that binds the coalition. Indeed, commitment to the cause is a difficult thing to ensure in members, yet experience shows that those coalitions that do have committed members are those that are able to build critical mass and move their agendas forwards.
This information has been drawn from the CEF's report Driving the bus: the journey of national education coalitions.