Bridging the Elite-Grassroots Divide Among Anticorruption Activists

Abigail Bellows at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Corruption-fueled political change is occurring at a historic rate—but is not necessarily producing the desired systemic reforms. There are many reasons for this, but one is the dramatic dissipation of public momentum after a transition. In countries like Armenia, the surge in civic participation that generated 2018’s Velvet Revolution largely evaporated after the new government assumed power. That sort of civic demobilization makes it difficult for government reformers, facing stubbornly entrenched interests, to enact a transformative agenda.

The dynamics in Armenia reflect a trend across the anticorruption landscape, which is also echoed in other sectors. As the field has become more professionalized, anticorruption nongovernment organizations (NGOs) have developed the legal and technical expertise to serve as excellent counterparts/watchdogs for government. Yet this strength can also be a hurdle when it comes to building credibility with the everyday people they seek to represent. The result is a disconnect between elite and grassroots actors, which is problematic at multiple levels:

  • Technocratic NGOs lack the “people power” to advance their policy recommendations and are exposed to attack as illegitimate or foreign-sponsored.
  • Grassroots networks struggle to turn protest energy into targeted demands and lasting reform, which can leave citizens frustrated and disillusioned about democracy itself.
  • Government reformers lack the sustained popular mandate to deliver on the ambitious agenda they promised, leaving them politically vulnerable to the next convulsion of public anger at corruption.

Two strategies can help civil society address this challenge. First, organizations can seek to hybridize, with in-house capacities for both policy analysis and mass mobilization. Alternatively, organizations can build formal or informal coalitions between groups operating at the elite and grassroots levels, respectively. Both strategies pose challenges: learning new skills, weaving together distinct organizational cultures and methodologies, and defining demands that are both technically sound and publicly appealing. In many instances, coalition-building will be an easier road given it does not require altering internal organizational and personnel structures. Political windows-of-opportunity on anticorruption may lend urgency to this difficult task and help crystallize what both sides have to gain from increased partnership….(More)“.