Last month attended the launch of a new book entitled “Beyond Governments: Making Collective Governance Work – Lessons from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative” written by the heads of the EITI secretariat, who have been involved in the initiative since its inception a decade ago. The book launch featured a panel discussion with the authors and two campaigners from Global Witness. The conversation was lively, with strong pushes on meaningful minimum standards to further address the challenge of so many countries officially compliant with EITI requirements still facing significant corruption related to natural resources extraction.
Having helped organize two workshops exploring lessons from multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs), in which EITI featured prominently, as well as coordinating a study to address the evidence related to several of these initiatives, I was eager to know more about the lessons that two insiders have drawn from their experience in collective governance.
The book itself is concise and to the point. It’s a book by practitioners for practitioners. It’s accessible and not densely footnoted or referenced, although a number of key resources are cited throughout. At its core, the book seeks to share lessons about how to make collective governance work, often against the odds. The authors are relentlessly practical in the insights they share, relatively humble about EITI and what it has achieved, and generally open to the criticisms and shortcomings of EITI (including decisions that, with the benefit of hindsight, may not have been ideal). The authors emphasize the need to think about collective governance as a mediated process, much like peace building (or relationship counseling), in which trust needs to be built around tangible wins, local ownership is key, and learning, flexibility, adaptation and opportunism are at the heart of sustained progress. Finally, the book makes clear that EITI and other MSIs are not a permanent solution; these processes should be integrated into national legislation and governance frameworks.
Thus, the book has much to recommend it and echoes points that have broader applicability in the transparency and accountability sector. But having recently written a short piece outlining critical questions for MSIs like EITI, I found myself unsatisfied by the distinct under-emphasis on several issues that I think are quite fundamental to collective governance processes in the real world.
The first big question that a book reflecting on EITI might want to answer is: Has it made any difference? The authors argue (rightly, I believe) that the issue of impact is complex, and can’t be always stated in clear and quantifiable terms. The importance of dialogue, trust, getting an activist out of jail, etc., needs to be taken into account. But nonetheless, a book offering recommendations on collective governance should at least make a compelling case that the process they have been associated with has really made important contributions to improving natural resource governance. Otherwise, there is a danger that the collective process itself shifts from being a means to becoming the end.
Furthermore, the book also doesn’t spend enough time on equally fundamental questions: When is collective governance the right approach to addressing a governance gap, and what are the minimum criteria for collective governance? The book asserts, without much justification (a recurring issue throughout the text), that the failure of governments to adequately address natural resources governance necessitates a collective governance solution. Elsewhere, however, the authors argue that collective governance was necessary because stakeholders have diverse interests and objectives that need to be harmonized. At the same time, the authors state that collective governance is ‘governance of last resort’ and not suitable for most issues. This final assertion is a particularly curious, because the book closes with a discussion of several other areas in which collective governance approaches are proposed to be appropriate, including international land acquisition and media regulation. Some of these propositions are contradictory. But more telling is how little attention the authors give to understanding the nature of the governance failures that led to the creation of the EITI in the first place, nor to the emerging lessons about governance challenges and reform that have emerged in recent years (examples here and here).
The question of when MSIs are appropriate is compounded by the authors’ fairly cavalier attitude towards power asymmetries in collective governance processes. The authors argue that the combination of skilled facilitation and increasing technical capacities mitigate the lack of real power that civil society organizations have vis-à-vis governments and multinational companies. The authors repeatedly assert that civil society can leverage EITI to hold government and companies to account, without much (if any) discussion of how, exactly, CSOs might accomplish this feat, except to say that they will become increasingly sophisticated about interpreting EITI data. The book includes only passing mention of the increasing restrictions on civic space faced by activists and organizations across the globe, including in EITI compliant countries. Apparently the fact that governments (and to only a slightly lesser extent, multinational corporations) can, and do, intimidate, harass, imprison or kill activists, often with impunity, does not seem to be a significant issue for collective governance, nor for the ability of civil society to hold government and corporations to account. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, giving civil society a seat at the table is an important advance, but many CSOs are realizing that a seat is not enough and that there are costs as well as benefits to collective governance processes. Civil society needs to be able to influence and leverage these processes by developing countervailing power, of which data interpretation is only one part.
In their often single-minded focus on keeping collective governance processes moving and producing something tangible, the authors fail to grapple with the danger that the process becomes an end in itself, and indeed a potentially distracting one at that. The authors acknowledge that EITI originally had to proceed by addressing an area around which a minimum consensus could be reached (i.e., technical reporting around data), in order to get all stakeholders to agree to come to the table. They are clear that more important, but more contentious issues could not be dealt with until trust was built around small wins. To justify the narrow original focus, the authors point to the evolution of EITI, and its growing ambition, both around the global standard and in what individual countries are pursuing.
And yet, many civil society participants are still ambivalent about EITI. Real challenges exist for CSOs to engage equitably in EITI processes, and the consensus-driven approach championed by the book’s authors can accentuate these challenges, potentially masking differences and silencing less-powerful voices in a way that voting does not. But at the end of the day, civil society organizations are often left in an unenviable position of being committed to the processes (both because of how much time/energy they have invested and because of potential funding incentives) while being unsatisfied that it has really addressed their fundamental objectives. The ambivalence of key civil society organizations was clear at the book launch, as the Global Witness representatives offered (carefully worded) criticisms while betraying no hint that they would walk away from the table. But a seat at the table is not enough.
In sum, I found the book both appealing and problematic. The authors have deep experience and keen perspectives on both the big weighty decisions and the day-to-day compromises that have kept EITI together after nearly a decade, probably against long odds. They give much credit to many individuals who have contributed to this success. Yet critical questions went unanswered, and often unacknowledged by the authors. I think they should read my think piece on MSIs before they write the next edition! Grappling with the political nature of governance challenges, thinking through the power dimensions of multi-stakeholder processes, and understanding what really drives and enables accountability are all fundamental to the success of initiatives like the EITI.
*Special thanks to Brandon Brockmyer for input on an earlier draft of this post. Any errors are my own.