Time to Get Political: Why the Open Governance Community Needs to Start Engaging with Grassroots Movements

Given the events of the last 24 hours, seemed appropriate to repost this blog here (originally posted on the International Budget Partnership site).  Change a few words and it applies to the U.S. context, not just today or on Jan. 20, but always.  

There’s been a slow-dawning realization among open governance advocates that pushing for more inclusive and accountable governance requires a much deeper engagement with politics. As a community, promoters of open governance have often sought short cuts around the messiness of political dynamics. Or have understood the need to address politics but struggled to adapt their tools and approaches. Yet there is mounting evidence that initiatives that fail to grapple with the political dimensions of this work have not been as effective as they could have been.

Take the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the flagship initiative of the open governance community. Although OGP has expanded rapidly and participating governments have committed to, and undertaken, hundreds of actions, questions are being raised about the real impacts on the ground.  A significant challenge for the initiative is the gap between OGP inputs and processes, and the actual political dynamics of reform in member countries. In particular there seems to be a significant disconnect between the discussions and progress happening in OGP and similar international initiatives, and the increasingly vocal demands for change made by citizens in many of these same countries. The OGP is by no means alone. Even open governance projects that are explicitly set up to engage with citizens have often been narrow, circumscribed, and apolitical. They have generally had little impact.

Given these shortcomings, the need to engage much more intentionally with politics is obvious. But what does it mean to “bring politics in” to open governance discourse and practice?

It’s All About Power

We need to get better at recognizing that entrenched poverty and inequality are deeply rooted in unequal power relations and sustained by status quo governance systems. Meaningful steps toward more inclusive and effective governance means navigating and reshaping politics. In the words of Deron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of the book Why Nations Fail:

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.

And that is just what many NGOs try to do: challenge inequitable systems and pursue social justice. But is our work really reshaping power relationships? Does it build the collective agency of poor and marginalized people to challenge the politics of exclusion?  Or are we trying to get the policies and outcomes right without reshaping the politics that determines them?

Bringing in Politics Through the Grassroots

Making politics — and thus governance, and thus development — more inclusive means building up the countervailing power of those who are excluded. A team led by John Gaventa from the Institute of Development Studies examined 100 case studies on citizen engagement initiatives to better understand how they can contribute to more inclusive politics, better governance, and improved development outcomes. Their findings are revealing: advances toward more inclusive politics are most often accomplished by citizen-centered organizations and movements, not by the advocacy campaigns undertaken by professional NGOs.  In other words, organizations and movements built and led by citizens strengthen and leverage capacities for collective empowerment and action that can shape politics, not just policy.

Such membership-based associations include rural cooperatives, women’s savings federations, religious societies, and labor unions, among others. Mass protests are the most visible manifestations of citizen collective action, but this is just one tactic, and one that doesn’t always leading to long-term impact: mobilizing is not the same as organizing, and we need more durable movements of citizen-led organizations to build inclusive governance from the ground up.

This insight is a direct challenge to professional NGOs pursuing more direct change strategies on their own.  Open Society Foundations fellow Lucia Nader has pointed to the need for “solid” organizations to adapt to more ”fluid” mobilizations and change dynamics. International NGOs in particular have been questioned with regards to their model for pursuing change. New thinking is already beginning to emerge, but this process needs to be accelerated to ensure that NGOs are using their resources most strategically.

But what does this mean in practice?  How can we bridge this gap and bring together organizations, both NGOs and grassroots groups, working toward common goals?

Forging Coalitions to Drive Change

This is not to say that NGOs can’t and don’t play an important role in driving social change. In many ways NGOs can help grassroots movements to campaign for sustained change. Around the globe, there are numerous cases of NGOs working with grassroots organizations and movements.

These examples are all different. But leveraging complementary capacities and approaches was a common thread. There are, of course, many challenges and questions with respect to these kinds of engagements. Building and sustaining trust is not easy, nor is finding a mutually agreeable approach to engaging with governments. Yet there is increasing evidence that, if our work is to contribute to more inclusive governance and development, we need to better harness the collective action and mobilization of citizens. Membership-based organizations and social movements may be just the right ally to help to do so.

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