Blerjana Bino, Gentian Elezi, Knowledge Management Consultants
Saimir Musta, LevizAlbania
This article analyses the topic of local alliances and coalitions in the context of civil society in Albania. The addressed topic represents an interesting element in the framework of cooperation instruments and forms, and thus the focus of the article is mainly on the characteristics and challenges of that field. While exploring the previous concepts and experiences, subject to analysis are also elements such as the cooperation form and structuring, communication, inclusion and coordination, maintaining the organizations’ identity and profile, as well as the dimension of impact to policymakers. The article concludes with some recommendations for the donors and civil society organizations, as key aspects to address with regard to the practices of establishing alliances or coalitions with civil society organizations.
The purpose of this article is to analyze the main features of cooperation and alliances in the field of civic society, focusing on the Albanian context and experience of LevizAlbania (LA). Building new connections among the civil society actors is known in literature as a valuable and efficient tool in improving service quality, reducing costs, strengthening strategic innovations and organizational trust as well as information transparency, in particular in some fields whose main focus is civic engagement, such as the environment (Civil Society Partnerships). For that reason, after more than two decades of activism and community work of civil society organizations in Albania, it is important to know more on dimensions of such cooperation, its benefits and impact, as well as the challenges it presents. To this end, on 23 May, LA organized an open activity in Korça, where more than 50 representatives of civil society organizations and different alliances focused on environment, in particular, gathered and discussed on common challenges and ideas to further encourage cooperation. Some of the comments and recommendations of that activity are presented in this article as well. It is important to point out that the scope of this article is limited to the Albanian experience of CSOs collaboration, and does not consider inter-sectoral cooperation between CSOs and other sectors.
Initially, the article explains the concept of alliances in the framework of civil society, focusing on main definitions and features, and the context in which they develop and are more successful. Then, the analysis continues with the Albanian context by listing some of the challenges encountered by different organizations and alliances, as well as those resulting from the gathered data. More specifically, this part will address the LA experience in that context, as well as findings on projects implemented through support by alliances.
In the end, discussion will focus on lessons learned and recommendations for the future, thus focusing on the current stage of coalitions development in Albania and the LA experience with the support given to them.
Building civil society collaborations alliances
The forms of joint organization and cooperation in the field of civil society are diverse. According to the Sourcebook on Building Partnerships with CSOs of the UNDP, CSOs represent a variety of organisations through which citizens associate with one another. They are comprised not only of NGOs, but also trade unions, community-based organisations and people’s movements. Known as the ‘third sector’, these groups operate alongside and interact with the state and play a valuable role by articulating and defending the rights and interests of citizens. As such, there are mainly four important forms in practice: networks, coalitions, alliances and partnerships.
Networks consist of individuals or organizations that share information, ideas and resources to meet individual or group aims. Networking is a process of collecting resources and building the strength by using or establishing connections between two or more individuals, groups or organizations. Networks have the tendency to be flexible and get together groups of common interest or concern to exchange information and ideas.
Coalitions are groups of people or organizations working together to pursue a single goal. Coalitions do often have a more formalized structure with members that have been involved for a long time and who share responsibilities and resources. Their sustainability determines the impact they have in society and decision-making. When needed, organizations request to join a coalition to strengthen the impact of their advocacy.
On the other hand, alliances, in general, include short-term relationships among their members and are focused on a specific objective. Being limited in time and aims, alliances have the tendency to be less demanding and consuming to members. Alliances are not as permanent as coalitions, but share the same approaches and benefits.
More specifically, the grouping and cooperation of civil society organizations and activists in an alliance brings the following benefits:
- Increase of their actions’ impact
- Increase of access to policymakers and expanding contacts
- Increase of public reliability
- Increase of visibility and improvement of image
- Better opportunities to expand public support
- Opportunities to strengthen civil society in its entirety
- Organizations have different fields of expertise and complement each other, etc.
Coalitions also have some obvious benefits. Building a broad coalition increases the chances of success and has an impact on decision makers, thus indicating that an action has wide social support for the desired change of policies. Decision makers are more likely to pay attention to coalitions - and alliances - as they bring a louder voice to the decision-making table. These benefits are increased even more in difficult contexts where the need to use more the fewer human and financial resources and to avoid the doubling of efforts among organizations working in similar issue is larger. Work in coalitions ensures a coordinated way for organizations to build and maintain strategic partnerships with external actors. It is easier for a government connecting with a coalition as a single partner representing the range of civil society actors for an issue than finding who to interact with from a number of organizations, spending time, energy and resources.
From all these forms of cooperation, communication is of paramount importance. Maintaining the communication flow and information update is an essential aspect of the work of alliances and coalitions. These cooperation forms of civil society are known for long time, but they have been significantly used in the last decades. A key factor in the emergence of broad alliances and coalitions, always referring to 1990s, is the dramatic evolution of communication technology. The massive cooperation enabled by the opportunity of sending the same message to hundreds of thousands of people via an email has changed the dynamics of alliances and coalitions’ campaigns. It has made it easier for individual voices to have a unified voice for a certain issue, to stay updated on developments, to plan together, to adapt and exercise maximum impact on decisions made at national and local level.
Partnerships between local, national and international civil society organisations (CSOs) are a powerful tool to achieve societal change. They help local and national CSOs to empower citizens to perform their civic rights and to ensure representation of local communities as well as local ownership of programmes. Moreover, partnerships create benefits on both sides if partners work equally empowered towards mutually-agreed objectives. International CSOs have a better chance to achieve long-term effects with higher legitimacy if they engage in partnerships with local and national CSOs (Partnership Principles, Civicus). Partnerships need to be based on common and shared principles including share vision, building upon shared organizational values, recognising and respecting differences between the organisations, having specific roles and responsibilities and building accountability tools.
Experiences and lessons learned
The experience of civil society in Albania with various forms of cooperation has been diverse and has had its fluctuations. Recent studies show that without strategic coalition building, networking, and coordination among CSOs, their impact in legislative and policy processes is limited. In Albania, CSOs oftentimes do not coordinate, show more competitiveness than cooperation, do repetitive work, and ultimately are not taken seriously by the public authorities. This is also observed when attempting to produce a joint stance on issues. There are difficulties in creating networks that function on mutual trust, regardless of the diversity of opinions (Study on university to society collaborations and Study Participation of CSOs in Decision Making Processes in Albania). Based on the previous experiences and practices, LA has made meaningful efforts to encourage and structure cooperation for joint purposes by strongly suggesting in the call for applications the necessity to build alliances and encouraging also larger CSOs cooperation with smaller ones. The LA approach has favored the establishment of alliances and cooperation in that context, stimulating a more organic interconnectedness between the grassroots and think tanks. Regardless of challenges and difficulties, this approach has produced some positive outcomes through years, with the support of approximately 36 projects with cooperation among various actors, out of 194 that is the total of projects implemented by organizations. Despite the efforts, the majority of the projects are not implemented in partnerships which also speaks for the need to further strengthen CSOs cooperation in Albania. Collaboration efforts happen often when required by donors (in the call criteria) rather than by genuine necessity of the project methodology during the design phase. In this respect, there is a general need to focus more (as LA has been doing) in providing incentives for expanding the coverage and range of interventions with grassroot and local actors, by designing calls which do not simply impose partnership.
90 organizations (with respective activities and defined budget) have been involved in the implementation of 36 partnership projects. Usually, LA has incentivized partnership building in the call for applications and in other cases, CSOs have identified the need and suggested to cooperate with other CSOs themselves so as to have more outreach and impact. Most partnerships include one leading organisation and one local group from the area of intervention. While in other cases, there is a larger number of partners, if the territory covered is bigger (more than one municipality).
However, challenges have always been present. More specifically, the level of formalizing cooperation and procedures to decide on cooperation have had different perceptions among organizations, based on the size, mission, as well as the form of organization, experience, very different expectations related to procedures, etc. On the one hand, these standards are necessary to ensure progress, concentration and results. However, on the other hand, the lack of capacities and experience, as well as the time and energy necessary for formal aspects can be often perceived as a burden as pointed out by representatives of CSOs in the LA rountable and corroborated from other studies as well (Study on university to society collaborations and Study Participation of CSOs in Decision Making Processes in Albania). For instance, the alliances and coalitions supported by activists and experts in specific field should not be taken for granted as all share the same understanding on the organization of joint work. This is more evident when the nature of alliance members is different, as may be the cases of environment protection initiatives where the diversity of activists goes from large organizations (think tanks) to simple activists of the community. This element leads to a significant challenge from the perspective of balance requiring work flexibility and structuring with strict procedures and formalized rules.
As mentioned in the previous section on theoretical concepts and general experiences on alliances and coalitions, the issues of trust and communication are evident even in the case of Albania (LA experience and also Study on university to society collaborations and Study Participation of CSOs in Decision Making Processes in Albania). Although coalitions and alliances are established and developed, it is the trust among involved individuals and organizations and the communication flow that will turn a group of organizations into a strong force for the change of policies. Trust can be developed by quality communication, in particular by effective communication in the face of disagreements and tensions. The special challenge for civil society alliances and coalitions is that there are no fixed rules or practices related to the way these dynamics should be addressed or resolved. Such tensions may be valuable, requiring a detailed review of positions of work policies, strategies or ways, but they may also create large problems if not effectively addressed. They may lead to a lack of cooperation or fictitiousness of alliance, which would weaken their operational strength. Even the practice in Albania has shown that alliances are more successful if they have a better organization of the communication and mutual trust.
Another challenge encountered by civil society organizations when facing the alliance dilemma is the fear of identity weakening and organization profile. Regardless of the awareness that joint actions increase the impact power to policymakers, the perception of merger into a large and diverse community risks to change the image of a certain organization and its positioning in a specific field. An alliance needs to agree upon clear messages and a joint stance. In doing this, it is important to clearly see the sharing of duties, as well as the profiling and expertise of everyone, so that there is visibility for every organization, without risking their identity, thus strongly contributing to the joint cause. The lack of those elements may cause misunderstandings and disagreements even in the Albanian context, thus fragmenting the action of civil society, even in cases when they have specific joint causes and objectives.
Another issue encountered and brought to attention by civil society organizations in Albania is that, in some cases, alliances are dominated by a large and strong organization, which recruits others for its purposes with limited ownership on the action by smaller organisations. Such practice may reduce the space for small organizations and might lower the voice in making strategic decisions within the alliance, thus expecting more from the lead organization that has know how and risking not developing its capacities. This means that careful consideration must be done by all members of an alliance to ensure that the power structure is equal and builds its members and not only the lead organisation. On the other hand, the alliances and coalitions need efficient organization and structure. In addition, the association with large organizations and participation in many activities where they would have not had access if they were alone might result in additional benefits even for small or local organizations. The comprehensive and transversal cooperation and joining is a key element in increasing the impacting potential to policymakers, in particular in the field of environment.
Based on the experience of LevizAlbania with grant award for causes of local democracy, the establishment of alliances and partnerships among organizations has been encouraged since 2017, with the first call “UPSCALE”.
LëvizAlbania aims to have a wider coverage and to support initiatives from as many units and communities as possible, be them isolated and rural.
The approach of local initiatives far from Tirana, undertaken by new small organizations, which are generally categorized as grassroots, is accompanied by problems related to implementing capacities and experience in project management. On the other hand, consolidated CSOs operating mainly in the capital and large cities find it difficult to penetrate rural and remote areas, not only because of the physical distance, but even due to the lack of understanding community issues and features.
In response to those two issues, observed during the implementation, LevizAlbania has redesigned the criteria of grant selection by conditioning on the one hand - in the second phase - the grant award for grassroots organizations (lead partner in project implementation operating in one of the municipalities of the region where the proposed project activities will be developed) and, on the other hand, by prioritizing the partnership between grassroots and consolidated organizations. Maintaining ongoing contacts with LevizAlbania and continuous participation in training, counselling and leading activities of LevizAlbania has created the appropriate environment and circumstances for these local organizations to increase their capacities, while also maintaining contacts with an experienced organization.
The analysis of cases identified as less successful has shown that one of the widely observed aspects considered as the most significant in not achieving results is the lack of simplicity in the established relationship. As mentioned earlier, clarity on the roles, mandates, and procedures, when implementing a joint project has been reported as an important factor by local CSOs. Regardless of having a short-term and involving nature in implementing a single joint initiative, factors such as different profiling of fields of activity, large variations in experience or being part of an unnatural partnership have had a significant impact on achieving joint objectives.
Conclusions and recommendations for the future
The stimulation of organizing civil society actors and their cooperation for joint causes presents some disadvantages, and raises some questions.
First of all, the community of donors should bear in mind finding the balance between demand and supply. The excessive top-down approach (e.g. imposing cooperation among the organizations that have no cooperation experience) must be moderated, paying attention to the inclusion of some additional criteria in building a more organic alliance or coalition. Otherwise, we risk the classical outcome of “box ticking”, with a non-integrated involvement of all the alliance members and with a not fully met objective. On the other hand, this practice cannot be dependent only on the bottom-up “inspiration, as the Albanian society still reflects structural problems from the past, with regard to civic engagement and activism. Therefore, the stimulating approach and capacity building and strengthening for the organizations of local nature must be strengthened and oriented towards cooperation.
The focus and orientation of alliances must be on the impact they have on the cause or the final objective. This needs to be highlighted as the local approach towards the support of projects balances the mission of the organization with the location, thus sometimes favoring the latter, to increase the intervention authorship. Firstly, as mentioned above, the authorship does not necessarily fall only on local partners, as this is mostly related to the form how an alliance is built and how the cooperation is structured. Secondly, the mission of an organization can be a “fuel” much more valuable than the geographical aspect. For this reason, in building future alliances and coalitions, a balance among those components must be considered, so that potential contributors are not excluded from cooperation, thus favoring local organizations of low impact and experience.
Another element in building alliances, in particular in the field of environmental protection, is the engagement and involvement of directly affected communities. Wherever possible, the alliances or coalitions must be led by representatives of this communities, and not from other organizations. This approach increases the alliance potential to expand inclusion, building more trust and knowledge from other communities.
Although, as mentioned above, there is no standard recipe for forms of cooperation, there are some criteria deemed as necessary. A better coordination is key for any form of cooperation. Clearly formulated and joint interest- and value-based messages or actions should be accurately coordinated, in particular with regard to policymakers or external actors. This is closely related to the importance of communication, which was addressed in this article.
Inclusion (from grassroots to the academia), hearing the voice of alliance members, encouraging the sense of belonging and promotion of everyone’s sensitivities must also be considered in establishing a successful alliance. The practical approach of presenting objectives by requesting others to follow, without any discussion with the members, may result in failure or weakening of the joint action, thus questioning the reliability. Therefore, alliances must pay attention to directly involve members in joint activities and works, by dividing tasks and using the skills of everyone to the benefit of the objective. This approach increases trust, which must not be underestimated for the importance it has in such types of cooperation. In particular, when organizations or individuals that have closely worked with each other in previous causes, they must play a central role in coordinating and organizing the joint work due to the trust they have built.
LevizAlbania is a project of the Local Democracy of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), implemented by a consortium composed of: (i) Open Society Foundation for Albania (OSFA), (ii) Partners Albania and (iii) Co-Plan. Since 2015, LA has contributed to strengthen local democracy through grants awarded to Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs), informal groups and individuals, thus supporting their request for transparent and responsible local governance, and efficient public services. The project supports building coalitions to boost structural and systematic changes at local and national level, and to promote positive practices in support of local democracy.
Knowledge Management System and Civic Engagement Platform
The Knowledge Management and Civic Engagement Platform of Lëviz Albania aims at collecting, structuring and capitalizing the whole contribution and achievements of LA in the last 6 years. At the same time, this exercise reviews the challenges encountered by Lëviz Albania in meeting its objectives, as well as the challenges of grant recipients and the broad context of local democracy. The knowledge management analyzes internal and external processes of LA, as well as designs the establishment of mechanisms based on identified needs. This selected approach aims to improve the new projects effectiveness and to instill the culture of systematic and structured use of acquired knowledge, using the set up instruments and mechanisms (platform). The Knowledge Management System and Civic Engagement Platform contributes to the increase of intervention effectiveness and allows a detailed analysis and overview of challenges related to the support of local democracy and civic engagement. The experts engaged in this aspect by LevizAlbania (in alphabetical order): Blerjana Bino and Gentian Elezi. Since 2016, LevizAlbania has supported 300 projects, out of which 194 projects have been implemented by civil society organizations (NGO) and xx from individuals and informal groups  One of the main directions of call no. 4 for grants initiated by LevizAlbania, aiming at “Continuity”. This call was addressed to all grant recipients of LevizAlbania, who were supported in the previous calls for application 1, 2 and 3. The purpose of the continuity direction had as its essence the objective to support projects that were successful in their interventions, and have produces concrete outcomes in strengthening local democracy, increasing transparency, accountability, participation and involvement in local decision-making.