Using the Triangle Approach to Build a Vibrant Civil Society and Drive Meaningful Change

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) began its engagement in the Western Balkans in 2001, with the goal of supporting a successful transition for the countries of that region from the wars and conflict of the 1990s to open and democratic societies. During this period of significant investment by foreign donors, a nongovernmental organization infrastructure was built in each of the countries of the Western Balkans. After about a decade of investment, as it became clear that these organizations did not have the capacity or power to push for change as a united force on their own, the RBF undertook an assessment of its Pivotal Place: Western Balkans program. Through the assessment, we explored how the RBF could best continue to support building the capacity of civil society organizations and bring together organizations with different skillsets, knowledge, and abilities to face the challenges of European Union integration and internal reform.

In addition, as by this time most donors had pulled out of the Balkans, there was strong interest in maximizing the impact of funding that was left in the region. In collaboration with strategic partners, we developed a funding approach, which later became known as the triangle approach, that aimed to support the creation of a strong, knowledge-based, credible, accountable, and viable civil society that has the capacity to hold governments accountable, tackle criminalized power structures, and drive meaningful change in an inclusive and bottom-up way, especially in countries emerging from conflict. A powerful synergy-building and grantmaking strategy, the civil society triangle has three components: think tanks that generate research, policy analysis, and recommendations; grassroots organizations that empower and engage citizens in democratic processes; and independent media organizations that conduct in-depth, investigative journalism on governance and matters of public interest.

When these types of organizations collaborate toward shared goals, their work is mutually reinforcing. Grassroots organizations articulate the needs and requests of the people they work with, which can be translated into think tanks’ policy recommendations and can trigger media investigations, while education and advocacy campaigns implemented by grassroots organizations utilize the research and analysis of think tanks and investigations conducted by journalists. Each point of the triangle plays a distinct role that contributes to, and is informed by, the other components. By having regular meetings about ongoing issues and by dividing responsibilities for specific, identified problems, the triangle stays on top of issues and can be ready to act immediately, making it easier and less expensive to mobilize on different fronts. The triangle can act as a watchdog and trigger mechanism on a variety of issues, such as expenditure of economic development funds, failure to enforce environmental protection regulations, manipulation of privatization and procurement procedures, and government accountability and transparency.

In 2007, three civil society organizations in Kosovo—the GAP Institute for Advanced Studies, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), and the Forum for Civic Initiatives (FIQ)—combined their talents to conduct town hall debates in 26 of Kosovo’s municipalities, prior to the municipal elections that year. GAP provided analysis of the candidates’ budget proposals, while FIQ, a foundation, enlisted its network of grassroots NGOs to recruit stakeholders in each municipality to be panelists and attendees, and to identify an appropriate venue. BIRN televised the debates, and its founder, Jeta Xharra, served as the moderator. The purpose was to allow the electorate to evaluate the platforms of the candidates to inform their votes.

Prior to the next election, BIRN returned to each municipality to reconvene the town hall meetings, play back the recordings of the elected mayors’ promises, and afford citizens the opportunity to question the mayors about their performance. In the subsequent municipal elections, the town hall debates focused on how to address the issues of greatest concern in that community, as determined by polls conducted by GAP. This contributed to a 50 percent turnover. In a region where democracy was practiced more in rhetoric than in actual political process, the town hall meetings broke the cycle of empty monologues by politicians and brought citizens’ concerns and budget monitoring to the fore. For the first time, a standard was set that could be used as a reference point in future elections.

The triangle approach puts citizens at the center of building and advancing civil society, utilizing their power to advocate for and achieve a higher level of accountability and transparency, and widening the space for participation by making them owners of the process. In effect, the triangle ultimately leads to the formation of movements for change. It forms a solid basis for a strong civil society sector that is able to check unaccountable power and dismantle vested interests, while resisting retaliatory behavior, infiltration, or becoming instrumentalized by the government.

Implementing the triangle is a multi-pronged approach. To ensure that civil society is positioned as a conduit between people and decision makers, funders should:

  • fund organizations that are connected to constituents and that live their missions;
  • allow ideas to flow both ways between organizations and the donor community, allowing ownership to remain with groups;
  • create space for emerging ideas, new leaders and geographic, cultural, and gender diversity, and be driven by a commitment to the issue at hand;
  • minimize the need for self-promotion, be ready to take risks, and commit to the long term, while remaining flexible; and
  • encourage a proper legal framework at all phases, so that the triangle, and civil society more broadly, is able to grow and develop.

The RBF’s Pivotal Place: Western Balkans program is organized around the triangle approach, using it as a funding strategy in Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo, and as the infrastructure for regional collaboration. To ensure the long-term sustainability and independence of civil society in these areas, the RBF is also supporting the development of Civil Society Houses; shared spaces and resource centers for civil society organizations. In addition to providing a physical home for civil society organizations, Civil Society Houses will serve as centers for connection, collaboration, and coordination for civil society within each country and between countries, including other countries in the region. In addition, Civil Society Houses will create space for nurturing new ideas and encouraging new leaders to join the sector.

Further reading: The Civil Society Triangle by Haki Abazi in Combating Criminalized Power Structures: A Toolkit.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is a member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, which just released the 2017 Peace & Security Funding Index, in partnership with Foundation Center. Click here to explore the Index and see who is active in the peace and security funding field.

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