Promoting Active Citizenship: What have we learned from 10 case studies of Oxfam’s work?

Duncan Green


This paper pulls together insights and lessons that arise from ten case studies of Oxfam’s work in promoting active citizenship. The case studies cover a wide range of programmes, both in terms of geography and sector (humanitarian, long-term development, advocacy and campaigns). Lessons on promoting active citizenship include building citizens’ self-confidence and assertiveness, and identifying or building organisations that provide long-term foundations for collective activism. Many of the initiatives studied involved more than a decade of work, and relied on donors’ willingness to take risks.

Common elements emerging from the studies in terms of how to design effective active citizenship programmes include:

  • The right partners are indispensable: Good partners bring an understanding of local context and culture; they often have well-developed networks with those in positions of local power – crucial for brokering negotiations with citizens’ groups.
  • Start with power analysis: Promoting active citizenship means building the power of citizens, starting with their ‘power within’ – self-confidence and assertiveness.
  • Build the grains of change: The case studies demonstrate that the exercise of active citizenship is often built on collective organisation. Marginalised individuals in any society are weak when isolated; coming together can transform their influence.
  • Individuals and relationships matter: There will be some individuals on both sides of the negotiating table who are more able and willing to understand the dreams and demands of all sides, and more interested in seeking change and compromise. Identifying, understanding and building relationships with them is an essential part of making change happen.

Recommendations include:

  • Design active citizenship programmes from complexity. Encourage flexibility. Once groups of citizens have a sense of their own rights and power and are organised, it is highly unlikely that they will ‘stick to the script’ as set out in the project plan. Let go.
  • Effectively engaging the state means understanding its internal structures and incentive systems in order to identify potential allies (for example on community forest rights in India) as well as foes. Publicly congratulating officials and politicians when they do something right (rather than immediately moving the goalposts and issuing new demands) can help build trust. Framing demands in ways that make sense to politicians, whether local or national, can greatly improve the chances of success.
  • Choosing promising targets and working within existing legal frameworks helps to build momentum early on and makes citizens’ demands seem more realistic to policymakers. Rather than lobbying for new laws, target the gaps between existing rules and practice.


Green, D. (2015). Promoting Active Citizenship: What have we learned from 10 case studies of Oxfam’s work? Oxford: Oxfam.