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South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)

Influencing APRM: A checklist for civil society

Ross Herbert

South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)


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The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) – Africa’s premier governance selfmonitoring system – represents a valuable opportunity for civil society to get key problems and solutions onto the national agenda. It can be a useful advocacy tool to usher in a more inclusive national conversation on policy and to ensure implementation of government promises. However, APRM is also complex and demanding. It can strain the resources, time, funding, and ingenuity of all its participants, particularly civil society groups without the funds and staff available to government.

In deciding how to engage with APRM, civil society should carefully weigh the political implications. Peer review hopes to inspire a more open, collaborative national conversation on governance. But APRM touches on very sensitive subjects. Many governments fear the consequences of an unrestrained APRM debate and thus have significant incentives to want to control the process by appointing allies to the various peer review institutions.

Having a realistic sense of the political dimension can be crucial for civil society. It would be desirable, from a civil society point of view, if every country were to follow the Ghana model and turn the process over to an exclusively civil society governing council. But faced with deviations to the rules by subsequent countries, the APR Secretariat and Panel of Eminent Persons made clear they were unwilling to censure or attempt to change the intended course of a determined government.

“Let us look at the APRM as contested terrain. Let’s not be very romantic about it,” argued Peter Anyang’ N’yongo at a UNECA-SAIIA training workshop for national focal points.1 The former Kenyan APRM Focal Point and minister of planning, N’yongo argued that neither civil society nor government can expect to command the APRM stage without the other. “In as much as possible we would like civil society in all African countries to bloom like flowers and express themselves fully to the APRM. The reality is that this is not going to happen.”

If N’yongo’s view prevails, some governments will inevitably attempt to take a more controlling approach to peer review.

Three overall lessons are clear from civil society engagement with APRM. First, civil society has a tendency to sit back and wait for government to announce the governing council members and timeline for the process. This is an important mistake because once the plan has been announced governments can be very reluctant to change it, if for no other reason than the desire to avoid the embarrassment of admitting a mistake. By waiting for government, civil society also misses a crucial opportunity to influence government’s formative thoughts on APRM. Putting ideas and demands into the public domain can signal that civil society is serious about APRM and that if government opts for a controlled approach, it will face months or years of public criticism as a result.

Second, exploiting the opportunity offered by APRM requires pressure in many forms with many people over a long period of time. One overture or public statement won’t work. Civil society must build flexible coalitions and alliances to bring pressure and persuasion from multiple directions and institutions.

Third, the process has been reasonably robust and the country review teams have been conscientious. Civil society thus should do its best to influence the country self-assessment and programme of action, but influencing the country review team is also very important.

Civil society will have to defend its interests and convince governments so inclined that efforts to dominate APRM will result in complaint, protest, embarrassment and, potentially, as occurred in South Africa, a substantially critical review report.

While contestation is inevitable when various parties hold opposing views, civil society should consider what tone and approach should guide efforts to persuade government.

Even under the Ghana model, which turned the entire process of drafting the country selfassessment over to an exclusively civil society panel, government had to become involved when the process began developing a programme of action.

To make the most out of APRM, civil society must plan ahead – to overcome challenges and exploit opportunities. It is important to note that APRM is a multi-dimensional process involving many organisations and individuals – government, the national governing council, research institutions, and many civil society constituencies. Each has separate priorities and approaches. Achieving the best outcome requires that civil society think not only about what the APRM report should say but how to influence these various participants and the decisions that must be taken at key stages of the process.

Civil society will find that the sheer number of meetings and potential targets of influence will strain time and resources. Therefore it is vital to set priorities and build alliances. No one group can do it all. And if APRM is to result in long-term change to the systems of governance, civil society must see it not as an opportunity to score political points but to broaden consensus behind various reform proposals. It must particularly bring government and political parties around to its way of thinking. Ultimately, neither the national APRM process nor continental authorities can force governments into decisions with which they are uncomfortable.

  1. “APRM Best Practices and Lessons Learned: Exploring the Process and National Experiences”, seminar for APRM Focal Points by United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the South African Institute of International Affairs and the APRM Secretariat, 20-21 February 2007, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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