White Ribbon Alliance


Who will you give up your spot for?

October 4, 2013

“We need a citizens’ movement”

“Changes will only come when citizens demand.”

“It is what people do on the ground, it doesn’t matter what we do here.”

“Accountability cannot only be top down.”

The above quotes were the constant refrain through last week’s United Nation’s General Assembly from the ‘top table’, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan, UNICEF’s CEO Tony Lake, and many others.

While this year’s UNGA had a strong focus on progress made under Every Woman, Every Child, there was also a sense of urgency on what more needs to be done to achieve Millennium Development Goals 4 & 5 in the remaining 800+ days before the 2015 deadline. The Independent Expert Review Group, appointed by the Secretary General, was very clear in its recommendations this year: “Civil Society must be actively supported in its work of independent scrutiny.   We cannot stress the role of civil society too highly. The evidence is clear: activists have a crucial role in holding governments, policymakers, and health services accountable...”

I couldn’t agree more. What is incredibly disappointing, however, is the lack of actual support (read money!) for national advocacy and accountability efforts. There is a massive assumption that citizen movements demanding change just happen. In reality, every example of social change has required leadership, detailed strategy and tactics development, and strong communication and coordination.    While indeed these movements are successful by mobilizing citizens, it is unrealistic to ignore the skills and resources required to successfully campaign on any issue. While I believe all of the actors at the UNGA believe what they said, it isn’t lost on advocates that these individuals are not wondering if they will be able to feed their children if they become a full-time volunteer activist.

For the rare donors that do support national advocacy in some way, the parameters are hardly conducive to a citizen-led movement. Many of us are guilty of making available incredibly small amounts of resources intended to be ‘catalytic’ for national advocacy and accountability efforts, and then seem surprised when there are no results to show from one meeting held.

Social accountability approaches have demonstrated they do deliver results, but they require ongoing efforts in a feedback loop between duty bearers and citizens.

Other donors support prescribed or commissioned advocacy: we will support X organization to get Y policy adopted. This can work to get a particular policy adopted or national resources allocated.   However, as we move from commitments to delivery on these commitments, from intent to results, it requires citizens defining for themselves their priorities and holding those responsible for delivering to account.

Here’s my plea:

  • To donors: Invest in multi-year national advocacy and accountability efforts led by civil society and defined by actual citizen engagement. Recognize and agree that this also means investing in sometimes weak organizational structures that require strengthening; that it costs more to actually involve communities and to get beyond the national level; and trust national advocates to identify the most important priorities – and best tactics for achieving change in their own countries.  For the few and wonderful donors already on board, work with us to provide evidence and make the case to others.
  • To prominent and well-known leaders in women and children’s health:  Next time you are asked to speak, just say no and give your spot to a civil society leader! We need to give more than lip-service to civil society engagement, but actually allow them to be heard, even (hopefully!) when it means asking tough questions.

White Ribbon Alliance will continue to push for the delivery of commitments to women and children’s health. We will also continue to put citizens’ voices at the forefront, like we did last week with Dr Jasper Nduasinde from Tanzania, Dr Philippa Momah from Nigeria and Maziko Matemba in Malawi. These are the national advocates who are mobilizing citizens and holding their governments accountable.

I hope that we all take these recommendations seriously and see a real shift when we all meet again next year. I look forward to many more national advocates taking center stage at next year’s UNGA and being fully supported in their work. Only then will we be making real progress.


Betsy McCallon
Executive Director
White Ribbon Alliance