I’ve been on a bit of a blog hiatus as I made a move from London to DC, and got acclimated in my new position at the International Budget Partnership. But been doing lots of thinking so eager to share some of those ideas. Thoughts and feedback very welcome!
There has been some important work done in recent years on the politics of inclusive development, and much of this has direct implications for those of us working on open governance. In essence the question is whether open governance is contributing to inclusive development. The answer may intuitively seem to be a yes, but I will argue that this isn’t necessarily the case. I’ll then suggest some ways the links between openness and inclusion can be strengthened.
The Politics of Inclusive Development: What do we know?
The central thesis of the book Why Nations Fail by Deron Acemoglu and James Robinson (which is not without its detractors) is that inclusive political institutions and governance lead to more inclusive economies, and thus shared prosperity. If you understand the root causes of poverty to be based in inequitable social, political and economic structures that concentrate wealth and privilege and exclude the poor and other marginalized groups, then the idea that we need challenge these systems by moving towards more inclusive governance is intuitive. The question, of course, is: how?
I’m a big fan of both the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) and the Developmental Leadership Programme (DLP) research initiatives, and both of these are gathering evidence about the politics of development. And research from both programs strongly emphasizes that inclusive development is an inherently political process. Thus, what we are really talking about is inclusive politics.
Both of these research efforts have produced important insights and both seek to provide guidance for development practitioners and funders. An example is an exploration of rural cooperatives in Uganda that are, incrementally and in an unfavorable context, building democracy from below. This study challenges many of the tenets of mainstream social accountability approaches, and suggests a need to be much more mindful of context (a repeated refrain, but often our contextual analysis doesn’t ask the right questions), look at existing forms of organization rather than creating new ones, and think about social transformation rather than just instrumental improvements to specific services.
In terms of understanding the politics of development, a seminal DLP paper challenges the prevailing practices of political economy analysis. Instead of a narrower focus on interests and institutions, Hudson and Leftwich propose a more nuanced political analysis that incorporates an understanding of ideas, agency, multi-dimensional power, and navigating systems.
This wealth of evidence and insight has not yielded a silver bullet for inclusive politics, governance and development. I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise. It has instead raised more questions, and pointed back to the need for more nuanced, savvy, flexible, and above all, politically-aware approaches to supporting the long-term and multi-faceted processes and institutions of inclusion. And coming back to Acemoglu and Johnson, the road to more inclusive institutions is that of politics:
Making institutions more inclusive is about changing the politics of a society to empower the poor — the empowerment of those disenfranchised, excluded and often repressed by those monopolising power.
So we have a what (inclusive institutions), and a how (politics). But the order matters too – it’s not necessarily about changing politics to empower the poor, but often the need to strengthen the collective agency of the excluded in order to change politics. Of course, this is not linear, and there are multiple entry points for both empowerment, politics, and shaping institutions. But what do these insights suggest in the realm of transparency, participation and accountability?
What does this mean for open governance?
The core message about the need for inclusive institutions should be good news for open governance advocates. However, two big problems quickly emerge. First, inclusiveness is not really an explicit element of the open governance agenda. A second and closely related issue is that the open governance sector has an uncomfortable relationship with politics, which as noted above is at the heart of inclusive governance and development.
For a number of years, work on open governance was called ‘transparency and accountability’ (see for example, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, where I used to work). The role of citizens has often been implicit, rather than at the heart of the agenda. And questions of who can and does participate are still underemphasized, despite a wealth of evidence that marginalized groups face many barriers for meaningful engagement. And where citizen participation is a focus, such as in the realm of social accountability, it is often narrow and instrumentalized as citizen feedback to decision makers or service providers – with the assumption that those actors can and will take action based on new information.
Technical tools and approaches have predominated in the open governance space, particularly the focus on open data and ICTs. Recently, there has been a growing acceptance of the political dimensions of open governance, particularly of meaningful accountability. One example is, new research on the flagship open governance initiative, the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Looking across five OGP countries, the researchers found that there was often a disconnect between OGP processes and inputs, on the one hand, and national political and institutional reform dynamics on the other. Thus, if open governance reformers want to more effectively leverage OGP, they need to “plot, understand, and act collectively to navigate and shape the political reform landscape in their country”. So, just as ESID and DLP evidence strongly suggests, they need to be thinking and working politically.
Interesting new research from the World Bank looking at the politics of development helps bring politics back into open governance discussions (why do we keep having to bring politics back in every couple of years? Who keeps kicking it out? See here, here and here). The essential insight is that transparency is not enough (we knew that), and it is really inclusive and meaningful political engagement by citizens leveraging transparency that leads to improved governance. Effective political engagement must entail organizing together and exercising collective agency – no simple proposition for individuals and groups in situations of marginalization – both in existing spaces and processes, and those created and shaped by popular mobilization.
Ok, you win. It’s all about the politics. But we should we do, and please be specific.
Or so a reader might justifiably respond to what I’ve outlined so far. I’ll give it a try:
- For one thing, it means understanding political and institutional dynamics. And not just commissioning political economy analyses, but building up capacities for political analysis among front line civil society organizations and other governance actors. I outline this more fully here.
- Supporting and strengthening citizen-centric organizations and that enable collective action by excluded individuals and groups and thus constitute a ‘countervailing power’ in both formal political engagement and creating their own forms of political expression. Although supporting grassroots organizations and movements without distorting or instrumentalizing them requires careful thought, this would lead to a more balanced civil society ecosystem.
- Relatedly, we need to take seriously the distortions and inequalities among civil society actors in the global north and south, much as Danny Sriskandarajah of Civicus and others have argued, so that more effective partnerships and coalitions can emerge. If we are to effectively connect the dots to form more effective campaigns and movements, that will require a more balanced and coherent civil society ecosystem. Too often external organizations monopolize resources and strategizing, outsourcing short-term and linear projects to local civil society rather than prioritizing and supporting local actors’ priorities and approaches.
- Where citizen organizations and movements exist, helping them to access and engage in decision making spaces, like the budget process or reviewing service performance, in order to push their priorities and needs, and reshape these mechanisms to be more inclusive – not just open. However, for this to be effective, engagement in formal spaces needs to be balanced with mobilization outside of those channels, sometimes of an unruly nature , as well as connecting the dots from local to national (and international) levels.
- Take inclusion much more seriously in our efforts to promote open governance. Openness in itself may yield most benefits to those who are educated, for example, and can thus file information requests and engage in spaces for public participation. Often times, the interests of the middle class conflict with those of marginalized citizens. How do we level the playing field so that excluded groups benefit from more transparency and accountability? First step is to acknowledge barriers. Second is to channel resources to address these, not assume them away. A third might be to make a positive case for openness and inclusion in our engagements with government actors.
Think I’m on to something? Disagree completely? Please let me know! Special thanks to Albert, Micol and Blair for thoughts on early draft, but all errors and omissions are my own.