As part of their compliance with ratified international treaties, conventions and declarations, governments are typically required to submit a report to the international body associated with the agreement to which they are a signatory. These reports describe the progress made toward various requirements outlined in the signed agreements. To monitor and raise awareness of the progress, civil society groups conduct research on how well their respective government is complying with an agreement and produce a supplement or alternative “shadow” report of the national government’s “official” report.

Monitoring Purpose

Shadow reports allow groups to use the international agreement’s principles and standards to hold their government accountable for enhancing public service delivery and strengthening laws and policies addressing the relevant issue.

Shadow reporting is typically part of a broader effort to influence change within an issue area. Developing and publishing a shadow report creates an opportunity for groups already active in an issue area to raise awareness and establish relationships with both national and international stakeholders.

Typically, shadow reporting initiatives have been organized around holding governments accountable, specifically for promises to end discriminatory practices that most often affect traditionally marginalized populations. Other example objectives for shadow reporting initiatives include:

  • Identifying gaps in government policy development and implementation;
  • Increased collaboration between governments, CSOs and political parties on policy development and implementation; and
  • Increased political party and government accountability and responsiveness.
Monitoring Preparation Stage

A coalition of groups almost always develops shadow reports because the data collection process is time-intensive, and the report-writing process requires specialized expertise in both technical writing and the issue area. Shadow reports are also more powerful when a variety of stakeholders are involved, because the different perspectives lead to a more nuanced and representative report.

When forming a coalition, it is important that all of the coalition members are aware of the potential risks involved with participating in a shadow reporting initiative — such as negative reactions by governments — as well as the benefits. To ensure that all of the coalition members are in agreement concerning the purpose of the coalition and how it relates to the shadow report, groups should first identify the coalition’s values, mission, vision and governing structure. Developing and signing a memorandum of understanding has also helped coalitions clarify and confirm each of the members’ roles, responsibilities and expectations.

Once the coalition is established and the members have agreed on expectations, members can develop a monitoring strategy and plan by:

  • Determining a monitoring objective that relates to the coalition’s purpose;
  • Outlining the steps in the shadow reporting process;
  • Developing an action plan;
  • Determining a division of labor; and
  • Identifying the possible internal implications for the coalition, including follow-on initiatives.

When developing the methodology and action plan, special consideration should be given to timing. Typically, governments are required to submit reports to the relevant multilateral agency according to a set schedule — usually every two to four years depending on the agreement. Under most circumstances, the aim should be to submit the shadow report at the same time that the government submits its official report.

At this stage, the monitoring coalition also identifies or develops the tools needed to conduct the research and gather the information needed for the shadow report. Commonly, monitoring groups develop questionnaires for public officials that focus on the relevant national policies and laws in order to gauge the government’s compliance. Questionnaires, interview forms and focus group guidelines can also be created in order to collect information from relevant citizens about their experiences with public services and perspectives on how well the government is ensuring their rights.

Data Collection and Analysis Stage

In order to rigorously collect information on the government’s compliance with an agreement, monitoring groups must engage government officials and citizens in the data collection process. Typically, coalitions have collected information through examining government documents, administering questionnaires, and conducting interviews with public officials. Groups often will need to request government documents in person or by phone with the relevant government agency or submit formal written requests. In some instances, groups have used official government websites to request public documents or submit monitoring-related questions. This can be a useful data collection method for coalitions that want to avoid taking a confrontational approach or in political contexts where interviews with public officials would be difficult to arrange. Analysis of public documents and information from public officials can provide groups with a better understanding of the full range of government policies, programs and laws aimed at fulfilling the obligations laid out in the relevant international agreement. The United Nations and other multilateral institutions, national governments and local groups may also have more accurate and in-depth information on government compliance with international treaties, conventions, and accords.

Coalitions can also administer questionnaires to citizens affected by the relevant international agreement. These questionnaires, as opposed to those developed for public officials, gather information about government performance. They are used to provide insight into how well government initiatives have delivered on the international agreement. The questionnaires can directly ask citizens to comment on their satisfaction with public services or the protection of rights, for example, or they can collect information on citizens’ experiences. The first approach is most appropriate in countries with relatively open political space, and the second is most appropriate in environments where citizens might be hesitant to openly criticize the government.

Questionnaires can be sent out to the appropriate population groups in the form of a survey, or they can be completed during an interview conducted by coalition activists. The first method of disbursal involves less effort from the coalition but may result in fewer responses. The second method requires that the coalition recruit and train activists to conduct interviews, but this may lead to a better response rate than a mail-in or online survey. See the Data Collection chapter in Section II of the guidebook below for more information on online distribution mechanisms for surveys.

Once the coalitions have collected enough qualitative and quantitative data to have an unbiased view of the extent to which the government has implemented the international treaty, they organize and process the data accordingly. Data entry systems can make sorting and organizing information more manageable to support data analysis. Some groups choose to use volunteers to enter the data into the system. The benefit of using volunteers is two-pronged: the volunteers have sorted the data at low cost, and knowledge of the issue addressed in the shadow report has been spread to a wider audience.

Monitoring Communications Stage

The primary product of the shadow reporting process is the report sent to the appropriate multilateral organization for review, such as a committee of the United Nations. After analyzing the data, groups develop recommendations and compile them into a carefully formatted report, organized according to the way the international agreement is divided into articles or sections.

A shadow report usually includes:

  • The text of the treaty, convention or accord;
  • The government’s stance on its compliance; The coalition’s findings on the government’s compliance; and
  • The coalition’s recommendations for improving government compliance.

The findings should also identify the government’s successes in meeting the requirements of the agreement, as well as the gaps in policy, laws and services. Taking this approach provides a more complete picture of the government’s progress and can also help in making local public officials feel less threatened by the shadow report. The recommendations should put forth practical, concrete ways the government can improve its compliance with the international agreement if necessary. Framing shadow reports to be constructive rather than combative allows coalitions to use them as awareness-raising tools and mechanisms for change.

The timing of the publication is also dependent on when the government presents its progress report. Shadow reports generally have the most impact when multilateral organizations receive them at the same time as the official government report.

The monitoring coalition should present their findings to the appropriate committee or body within the relevant multilateral organization for review; presentations should be in a format that aligns with the needs and interests of their target audience. Shadow reports should be viewed as tools for creating change instead of the final step of the monitoring initiative. Groups can strategically use them to support their awareness-raising and advocacy initiatives, as well as other initiatives that support the coalition or the individual member organizations’ goals and objectives. For example, coalitions have publicized their shadow reports in order to raise awareness of their focus issue at both national and international levels — often using the findings from the report to garner citizen support for the issue and to increase the report’s legitimacy in the international arena and get the attention of international organizations and donors. As they publicize the report and their findings, coalitions should also ensure that they communicate the results to the stakeholders from whom they collected the data. This demonstrates respect for the stakeholders and contributes to the transparency of the shadow reporting process.

The large amount of data collected during the shadow reporting process can also be used to strengthen new or ongoing evidence-based advocacy campaigns conducted by either the coalition or its individual members. If the shadow report was framed to be constructively critical, it can create a basis for conversations with key decision-makers on the gaps in the implementation of the international agreement, as well as ways to address those gaps. Coalitions can use these conversations to facilitate better relationships with government officials, bring civil society more meaningfully into decision-making processes, and create real change to address target issues.

Recommendations for Program Implementers

  • Establish a coalition of CSOs to develop the shadow report. It is too large a task for one organization to tackle on its own.
  • There should be at least one person dedicated to work full-time on the shadow report. This person should have connections with CSOs and government officials at the local and international levels, as well as expertise in human rights, shadow reporting and the issues addressed by the report.
  • The coalition should seek out external funding so that it can hire the necessary full-time staff.
  • While establishing the coalition, ensure that the CSOs are interested in developing a shadow report and willing to work together with other organizations to do so.
  • While establishing the coalition, consider how the local government and other local and international CSOs view the potential coalition members.
  • Before beginning work on the shadow report, the coalition should map the context in which they are working, specifically what other organizations are doing in their issue area and if other organizations are developing shadow reports.
  • Often, shadow reporting conducted at an international level will have set data collection and presentation standards. Sharing information with entities in other countries can reduce the burden of identifying methodologies, tools and strategies.