Using ethnographic research from Pakistan, this paper argues that social accountability programmes that overlook the role of intermediaries in clientelistic states risk undermining the wider democratising projects they seek to support. It proposes a theory of ‘isomorphic activism’ that describes how these public authorities appropriate others' opportunities to participate in politics and, in the process, undermine democratic norms. Isomorphic activism is shown to be more likely when programmes are based on ideals of civil society that render activism a technical exercise, depoliticise it and blind donors to power inequalities. The challenges the paper highlights are important given calls for development programmes to change by whom and how politics is done, whilst granting local ownership to participants and demonstrating value for money. They should also be of interest to those concerned by the spread of reductive views of civil society activism within donor organisations.
- Isomorphic activism is a risk when programmes rely on intermediaries to act as interlocutors with communities, and when they have predefined, often quantifiably measurable, templates of what civil society mobilisation, responsive governance, and democratic political participation—in short, ‘success’—looks like.
- Those keen not to strengthen antidemocratic norms and processes should pay more attention to how public authority is claimed and exercised in clientelistic states rather than the technical and sanitised portrayals of programmes found in the official documentation.
- A stronger case for how social accountability programmes can contribute to ongoing democratising projects can be made by acknowledging their participants' political identities and ensuring activities occur in the public sphere.
Photo by Aa Dil