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Civil society participation in the PRSP:
The role of evidence and the impact on policy choices?

PPA Synthesis Study

Zaza Curran

SARPN acknowledges the University fo Manchester as a source of this document.
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This synthesis study looks at civil society’s participation in the PRSP process. Most of the analyses written on the participation processes of the first wave of PRSPs have been critical of the superficial nature of the consultations. However, many civil society organisations (CSOs) did mobilise around PRSPs and, in many cases, had unprecedented access to the policy making process. Taking the examples of Bolivia and Tanzania, this paper looks at more detail at the evidence used by CSOs in the PRSP discussions and examines whether the arguments and recommendations made by CSOs were taken on board by the government and included in the final PRSP documents.

A number of common themes and issues emerged from the case studies. The paper concludes with some observations including that the PRSP offers an excellent opportunity for CSOs to engage in the policy process. For many CSOs, this was their first experience of advocacy work on policy issues and the process itself contributed to strengthening their capacities. However, this potential was often not fulfilled and many CSOs felt that their views and recommendations were not listened to or integrated into the final documents. While there are some examples of CSOs having an impact on policy choices, there is an over-riding sense that there is not much of a link between the consultations and the final documents and, furthermore, that many issues are not put on the table for discussion in the first place. The reasons for this are many but include the political nature of policy processes, the influence of donors and IFIs in the PRSP process and the limited capacity in many CSOs to conduct rigorous analysis on highly technical issues.

As the PRSP approach moves into its second and third waves, the interest in civil society’s role in policy processes will increase. The PRSP does provide an excellent entry point into the policy process but there is work for CSOs to do to make sure that their contribution to the process will continue to improve. An important part of this will be for CSOs to invest the time and resources in carrying out thorough research at the local and national level to ensure that evidence-based advocacy work around the PRSP process has a positive impact on the policy choices and content of the PRSP.


Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) were formally endorsed by the Executive Boards of the World Bank and IMF in September 1999 as the mechanism for distributing HIPC (or debt relief) funds and as the basis for IFI concessional lending.1 Since then, PRSPs have been on the agendas of around 70 low-income countries around the world and have stimulated much debate and some controversy. The PRSP approach was developed out of best practice on how to tackle poverty and includes some innovative practices; most significantly the requirement that the PRSP must be nationally owned and drawn up in consultation with national stakeholders. This opening up of policy processes to new forms of participation resulted, in practice, in a variety of consultation processes, with civil society organisations (CSOs) – usually NGOs – as the main non-government actors, during the formulation phase of the full PRSP.

A great deal has been written on civil society’s participation in the first round of PRSP processes.2 The main criticism of the participation in this first wave of PRSPs was that they were poorly conceived, very narrow (only certain issues – usually ‘safe’ social sectors - were open for discussion), exclusive (the governments decided who was invited) and rushed. In many countries, the processes were rushed because governments were in need of the debt relief funds linked to the PRSP but in other instances, governments were not interested in including civil society in policy discussions so did the minimal amount of consultations required.3 The general conclusion of most of this literature is that in the first round of PRSP formulation ‘participation’ consisted of rather superficial ‘poverty diagnostic consultations’ that did manage to contribute to expanding the definitions of poverty but, broadly speaking, were not able to alter the substance of policy choices.

To some extent the participation processes in the first round of PRSPs were superficial due to a lack of capacity in both the governments and CSOs. For some governments, this lack of capacity prevented them from conducting meaningful processes. It also hindered the possibilities of CSOs recommendations being translated into policies. For CSOs, a lack of capacity among some organisations to understand complex policy processes and economic arguments meant that they were unable to engage effectively in discussions. While many CSOs were able to present information on the negative impacts of government policies, many did not have the capacity to put forward viable alternatives.

However, the analyses on civil society’s engagement in the PRSP highlight that many Southern CSOs did actively mobilise around the PRSP, either in the official consultations or in parallel CSO-led participation processes. Furthermore, a number of strong networks were formed specifically to engage in the PRSP process. For many CSOs in PRSP countries, this was their first experience of engaging directly with the policy process and it was viewed as an important opportunity to present evidence on the impact of policies on reducing poverty and to influence the policy content of future national poverty reduction plans.

This synthesis study takes the examples of the PRSP processes in Bolivia and Tanzania. The paper looks at the consultation process itself and the types of evidence used by CSOs. A recent study by Pollard and Court (2004) looks at how CSOs use evidence to influence policy. The study argues that in order for the evidence to have an impact on the policy process, it must be relevant, appropriate and timely as well as valid, reliable, convincing to its audience and communicated in an effective way. The issue of what evidence was used by CSOs in PRSP consultations is not often discussed in commentaries on the process. This paper will set out the evidence used by some CSOs that participation in these PRSP processes in an attempt to understand the role of evidence in influencing the policy content of the PRSPs.

The paper then goes on to explore the impact CSOs had on influencing the policy content of the PRSPs in Bolivia and Tanzania. Assessing this impact is very difficult and is often limited by a number of different factors. This paper focuses on the views of the CSO members interviewed and presents their opinions on whether the final PRSP document represented their views and recommendations and what impact they felt they had on policy choices made in the PRSP. There are obvious limitations in judging the impact CSOs had on influencing the content of PRSPs on the basis of what these organisations say about themselves. It is unlikely that CSOs will completely dismiss their role in, and influence on, the process and also openly critique their own capacities to engage in some of the more substantive topics. However, there is still scope to gain valuable insights based on CSOs’ perceptions of their influence on the policy process. Recognising the limitation indicated above, this paper asks whether there is anything to be learnt about how CSOs went about making policy recommendations. Did this mobilisation of civil society have any significant impacts on the PRSP and did they manage to change the course of policy choices within it?

Both Bolivia and Tanzania have revised their first PRSPs and are now about to start implementing their second strategy. The paper will also look at how the process has evolved between the first and second PRSPs and whether CSOs have managed to increase their impact on policy choices.

The case studies are based on published and grey literature on the PRSP processes in these two countries and interviews with members of CSOs that actively engaged in the PRSPs. These interviews aimed to get a better understanding of how CSOs used information to support their policy recommendations and what impact they felt they had had on the policy content of the PRSP.

  1. A fuller history of the PRSP approach is given in Christiansen, K. and Hovland, I. (2003)
  2. See, for example, McGee et al (2002), Christian Aid (2001), ActionAid (2002) and Driscoll et al (2004)
  3. One of the core principles of the PRSP approach is that the strategies should be partnership-oriented, involving coordinated participation of development partners (bilateral, multilateral, and nongovernmental). However, the World Bank and IMF’s Joint Staff Assessment - their signalling device that the PRSP produced provides a sound basis for concessional assistance – only briefly describes the participation process and does not assess the merits or failures of the participation which can act as a disincentive for governments to carry out extensive consultation processes.

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