Ann-Charlotte Sallmann  

Social Watch Benin was established in 2005, at a crucial moment. In spite of the government commitments to the principles of poverty eradication, this small West African country has experienced a period of recession with no significant progress in reducing poverty since 2003. Although Benin benefits from a rich civil society, some organizations felt there was a lack in public scrutiny on how the government was doing in its fight against poverty, especially concerning the progress towards the MDGs.

The establishment of a Social Watch coalition in Benin filled the gap by focusing its actions on establishing a true citizen scrutiny process targeting both the national budget and the country’s poverty reduction strategy.

The initiative was undertaken by the organization Sœurs Unies à l’Oeuvre (SUO), together with Centre Afrika Obota” (CAO), Women In Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF/Bénin), le Groupe de Recherche et d’Action pour la Promotion de l’Agriculture et le Développement” (GRAPAD), le Réseau d’Intégration des Femmes des ONG et Associations” (RIFONGA/Bénin) and le Réseau Glégbénu/Chantier Jeunes.  Social Watch Benin was created on in March 2005 during a national workshop organised by SUO, with technical and financial advice from both Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) and UNDP.

Social Watch Benin is a very extensive and all-inclusive network. However, the subscription of new members, which had been done in an all-inclusive way at the start, was changed in order to look more at the competences valuable for the different thematic groups for future adhesion.

Social Watch Benin mobilises civil society around the main themes of the Benin Poverty Reduction Strategy and the MDGs, particularly on poverty reduction and the improvement of basic services, by publishing reports and carrying out public information activities. The national coalition, besides contributing to the Social Watch International Annual Report, produces a series of Alternative Annual Reports on the progress towards the MDGs in the country.  The network’s activities have generally proven to be very effective, especially with regards to its work on the national budget and on the poverty strategy paper.

The organization of capacity building workshops is one of the coalition’s main tools and assets, enabling even small, local organizations to do their own scrutiny of complicated budget documents.

The fact that the coalition gets numerous invitations to private consultations with government officials, public administration functionaries and international partners can be seen as a sign of how valued their opinion is.

Many local member organizations can testify that local authorities are now more responsive to the inputs of civil society. In some cases, local authority representatives have even attended the workshops that the coalition has organised on capacity building and on the national budget and the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) process.

The coalition’s media strategy has also been an important tool: in spite of its lack of resources, the Communication unit has been able to sign contracts with a variety of important media actors, in five languages, displayed through different communication channels (three documentaries on Benin’s progress towards the MDGs have been produced as well).

During these three years of existence, Social Watch Benin has managed to build a network that includes many of the most important local civil society organizations. The coalition has also good relations with organizations outside the network, collaborating with them on a number of common priorities and activities. The coalition is itself a member of a couple of other umbrella organizations, bringing together the entirety of Benin’s civil society organizations.

The approach of bringing the national agenda to the local level and the local agenda to the national level, has given Social Watch Benin a unique concept and position. Paradoxically, its big success has made the coalition very attractive to, and dependent on, external donors. This is a major concern for the network and for its members since the subscriber fees are not enough to keep the coalition alive.

In the near future, the coalition hopes to spread the concept of citizens’ scrutiny to other parts of francophone West Africa and to build more local offices in order to cover all corners of Benin.

Good practices learnt from the Beninese Social Watch Coalition:

• Clear, detailed organizational structure.
• Good networking on both the governmental and the local level.
• Great expertise, resourceful people on a number of different areas.