(A civic leadership training session for cash transfer beneficiaries in progress. Photo by Nina McMurry.) This piece written by Lily L. Tsai, Nina McMurry, Swetha Rajeswaran, and Alisa Zomer originally appeared on the Making All Voices Count blog.

At a barangay assembly (town hall meeting), “Carmen”, a local resident, asks probing questions directed at the local officials. She tells the officials they should take more responsibility for the cleanliness of the barangay (village). While Carmen’s request is reasonable, her voicing complaint and standing up against local officials is remarkable.

Carmen is from among the ‘poorest of the poor’ in the Philippines, representing the bottom 20% of income earners, and is a beneficiary of the government’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. For people like her, who receive government assistance and can feel beholden to elected officials, speaking up against government officials in public can be risky. Officials often mislead CCT beneficiaries like Carmen into thinking that they ‘owe’ additional work to the barangay when in fact their cash transfers are not tied to such duties. Carmen challenges this idea during the assembly, telling officials they should ask all members of the community to clean the village and school, not only her fellow beneficiaries.

Carmen has further criticism. Observing the barangay officials are on duty for 24 hours a day at the barangay hall (as part of the community crime watches required by the national anti-drugs campaign), she suggests they spend some of that time on the upkeep of public spaces: “Now, they [the officials] are just sitting while on duty.” Put on the spot in a public forum, the officials concede Carmen’s point and agree to start mowing the grass around the barangay hall.

When do citizens voice their concerns to local officials, and speak up for their rights, like in this example? How can poor and marginalized citizens be empowered to engage with their local officials? Can civic leadership training help?

Measuring the effect of civic engagement training

To answer these questions on citizen engagement and government responsiveness, MIT GOV/LAB collaborated with local civil society partners to conduct a field experiment in the Philippines. We studied the effect of providing civic leadership training to leaders from marginalized groups. The intervention targeted existing beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, a large-scale government conditional cash transfer programme aimed to benefit the ‘poorest of the poor’.

To measure the program’s effect, we randomly selected 8 out of the 16 municipalities in the study to receive civic leadership training (see research design). The training focused on community leaders of the conditional cash transfer program, who served as liaisons between their fellow beneficiaries and government. The study population included 703 community leaders, of which about half (342) received the leadership training, and in turn led training sessions for fellow beneficiaries in their communities. The monthly trainings consisted of 10-12 modules on topics ranging from the duties of local officials, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, to local government budgeting and social accountability.

Results show that the training mattered. Not only did civic leadership training increase political participation and engagement among community leaders, there was also a measurable change in government responsiveness to citizen input.

Building on existing civic empowerment research

These findings contribute to a growing body of literature examining efforts to elevate the voices of the poor. Many governance interventions focus on providing citizens with information on government performance and how to participate in decision-making processes. However, there is a growing consensus that providing information alone rarely works (Kosack and Fung 2014; Lieberman, Posner and Tsai 2014).

Citizens from marginalised groups lack not only information about why and how they should participate, but also the skills needed for participation, and opportunities to put those skills into practice. In our partner’s intervention, newly trained community leaders had the opportunity to apply the civic leadership skills they learned by disseminating information from their monthly training workshops to other beneficiaries in their barangay and participating in meetings with local government officials.

However, empowering citizens may also create a more adversarial relationship between citizens and officials. In developing democracies, where the rule of law is weak and there are no guarantees that one will not be punished for challenging authorities, complaining about government performance — or even asking questions that seem critical — can be a risky prospect.

Newly developed participation and leadership skills may very well go unused in these contexts. Additionally, in a context where clientelistic exchanges and vote-buying are the norm during elections, there is also some risk that these skills will make leaders from poor communities attractive for politicians to co-opt as vote brokers (Stokes et al. 2013). For these and other reasons, the Philippines provides a ‘hard test’ for the theory that a civic skills training programme for community leaders can work.

Learning from successful civic leadership training

Overall, our initial results are encouraging. Newly trained community leaders showed greater political participation: for example, they had higher attendance rates at local town hall meetings and participated more directly with local officials (e.g. by asking questions and providing comments). Community leaders who received training also demonstrated greater knowledge of government regulations and citizens’ rights, and were more likely to report interacting with local officials outside the context of town hall meetings.

While there was little difference in citizen perceptions of government responsiveness to citizen complaints and concerns, local officials in communities where community leaders were trained complied at higher rates with government transparency regulations by posting the budget in public places and reporting on budgetary revenues and expenditures during town hall meetings. These findings suggest that the impact of the intervention may have gone beyond the community leaders who participated directly in the training to affect the behavior of local government officials. Most of these differences were not statistically significant but were substantively large and merit further investigation.

Moving forward, the findings from this research collaboration will contribute to our understanding of leadership capacity-building programs in similar contexts, and help inform our decisions about the scaling up of this particular model throughout the Philippines. Though getting officials to help with their share of clean-up is a step in the right direction, the clientelistic nature of government relationships with the marginalized, and the pervasive patronage politics is more difficult to change. Our research provides evidence that civic training for community leaders has the potential to empower the poor to raise their voice and actively engage in local governance — starting with a little housekeeping.

The full research report is available online through Making All Voices Count.

References Cited

Kosack, S. and Fung, A. (2014) ‘Does Transparency Improve Governance?’ Annual Review of Political Science 17: 65–87.

Lieberman, E.S.; Posner, D.N. and Tsai, L.L. (2014) ‘Does Information Lead to More Active Citizenship? Evidence from an Education Intervention in Rural Kenya’, World Development 60 (August): 69–83.

Stokes, S. et al. (2013). Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism: The Puzzle of Distributive Politics. Cambridge University Press.


This research could not have been undertaken without the support, guidance, and hard work of our partners in the Philippines, Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government (CCAGG) and Responsible Citizens, Empowered Communities in Solidarity for Social Change (RECITE, Inc.), and the Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF), with special thanks to Pura Sumangil for her leadership and to Ester Alkonga and Bing van Tooren for their intellectual contributions and unflagging enthusiasm.