Does the state of public opinion on a public policy issue create obligations for political leaders, obligations they ignore at their peril? This is an issue being debated in the United States right now about a specific public policy controversy – gun control – but the core issue applies everywhere. In the specific case of the United States, many readers will know that there was an attempt to pass legislation requiring background checks before you can buy guns online or at gun shows. The legislation was blocked in the US Senate in spite of the fact that opinion polls say again and again that 90 per cent of Americans polled support the measure. So, the question is being asked and debated: how can 90% of the people support a measure and it does not become law? Very often the question is asked with real heat. Now, we are not going to get into the Byzantine complexities of American politics. What I am interested in is bringing to your attention what professional political scientists who blog have been saying about the core, universally relevant issue: does the state of public opinion create unavoidable obligations for political leaders?
Having had my professional and political interests shaped during the somewhat heady days of the 1980s in Sandinista Nicaragua, I’ve long been interested in the potential and limits of collective action—of people organizing and mobilizing through associations, unions, cooperatives, community organizations, fairtrade networks and so on. The Sandinista “revolution” soon gave way to the “neoliberal” 1990s. As in much of the world, collective action went on the backburner or assumed new forms via NGO networks and identity politics. Fast forward two decades and we are witnessing a significant rebound in collective action associated with workers, producers and consumers. Whether in response to global crises (finance and food), the structural conditions of precarious employment or new opportunities for cultural expression and social interaction afforded by the internet age, old and new forms are on the rise.
The term social and solidarity economy (SSE) is increasingly being used to refer to a broad range of organizations that are distinguished from conventional for-profit enterprise, entrepreneurship and informal economy by two core features. First, they have explicit economic AND social (and often environmental) objectives. Second, they involve varying forms of co-operative, associative and solidarity relations. They include, for example, cooperatives, mutual associations, NGOs engaged in income generating activities, women’s self-help groups, community forestry and other organizations, associations of informal sector workers, social enterprise and fair trade organizations and networks.
My last few days have been dominated by conversations around ‘convening and brokering’, including an exchange between assorted ODI wonks and a bunch of NGOs on the findings of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and a ‘webinar’ (ugh), with our Latin American staff on the nature of ‘leverage’ (a closely associated development fuzzword). Last week, I set out the best example of this approach that I’ve found to date, the Tajikistan water and sanitation network. Today it’s some overall conclusions from the various discussions.
David Booth from ODI described the question he is trying to answer as ‘why don’t people in power do the right thing?’ He thinks aid agencies (both official and NGOs) have moved from thinking that the answer is building capacity in government (supply side) to strengthening the voice of citizens to demand better services (demand side), but argues that both approaches are wrong.
The mistake, he argues is seeing power as a zero sum game, whereas often the barrier to progress is better seen as a collective action problem: ‘doing the right thing involves cooperating with others and people aren’t prepared to take risks and bear the costs of working with others, unless they believe that everyone else will do so too.’
That requires a different approach, getting everyone into a room to build trust and find joint solutions to a common problem.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Different Take on Africa
Good Governance vs. collective action
"It’s time for donors to get out of their addiction to Good Governance! No country has ever implemented the current donor-promoted Good Governance agenda before embarking on social and economic development. This was true for rich countries before they became rich, and it is true for the rapidly ‘catching up’ countries of Asia today. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are no exception. They are therefore not helped to get out of poverty by donor insistence on prior achievement of Good Governance, meaning adoption of the institutional ‘best practices’ that emerged in much richer countries only at a later stage in their development. This is a main message of the Joint Statement of five research programmes, which has just been published. You may also like to see the PowerPoint presentation of the Joint Statement." READ MORE
This is the age of hopeful citizens where in almost every part of the globe citizens are mobilizing, marching and, often successfully, pushing for change. But this is also the age of increasingly frustrated citizens. In some cases, the frustration is occasioned by the failure to achieve changes in regimes even after an astonishing sequence of heroic efforts and sacrifices by citizens. In other cases, the efforts originally appeared successful. Long-entrenched dictators fell and citizens were ecstatic, believing glorious days were imminent. Yet, in many of these cases, one disappointment is jumping on top of another. Change is proving far more difficult to achieve; it is even proving elusive.
- The World Region
- Sustained Social Movements
- Sustained Citizen Action
- Stamina of Citizens
- Social Movement
- Social Mobilization
- social change
- Public Opinion
- Public Narrative
- Public Activism
- Public Action
- Power Structures
- Power and Elites
- Poor Governance
- Political Participation
- Political Opportunities
- Political Movement
- Political Change
- Persistence of Citizen Movements
- Iron Law of Oligarchy
- Collective Action
- Cognitive Liberation
- Civil Protest
- Citizen Movements
- Citizen Engagement
- Accountable Governance
"Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or governments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members. Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination."
Associate Arts Professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and Distinguished Writer in Residence in the Journalism Department, New York University
Quoted in Foreign Affairs article, The Political Power of Social Media, Jan/Feb 2011
CommGAP is delighted to announce the publication of its third edited volume, "Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action." The book is edited by CommGAP's Program Head Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee, Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of California, Berkeley. Authors from development practice and academia discuss in 28 chapters how citizens can hold their governments accountable, and how genuine demand for accountability can be created.
The idea for the book was born at a CommGAP workshop in 2007 in Paris on "Generating Genuine Demand with Social Accountability Mechanisms." A few years later, we proudly present a compilation of essays that are relevant for current events in the Middle East and in North Africa as much as for any efforts to strengthen citizen's agency vis a vis their governments.
- West Bank and Gaza
- United States
- South Africa
- Congo, Democratic Republic of
- The World Region
- Social Development
- Public Sector and Governance
- Information and Communication Technologies
- Culture and Development
- Taeku Lee
- Public Opinion
- Public Action
- Collective Action
Citizen participation, access to information and action usher in much needed reforms. The process to engage citizens is easy to describe but hard to achieve. So how do you grab and keep the attention of community stakeholders and keep them informed? This week’s answer is “Participedia.”
"Participedia is a wiki-based platform with an ambitious goal: strengthening democracy around the world. The website consists of a user-generated library of examples and methods of participatory governance, public deliberation, and collaborative public action. From citizen involvement in budgeting to oversight groups that ensure better health care and social service delivery, government initiatives that encourage democratic participation demonstrate powerful results." Launched in 2009, Participedia is a project of Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of British Columbia. Participedia uses the same wiki platform as Wikipedia except they use it to tell democratic reform stories.
Regarding my recent post on 'The Collective Action Problem: The Case of America's Uninsured' here is a little nugget from William A. Galston:
While I have stressed the significance of changes in structures of power and interests in the United States, there is as well an enduring political reality stressed by analysts from Machiavelli to Dahl: the forces of the status quo enjoy a systemic advantage over the forces of change. Those who benefit from the status quo know who they are, can calculate what they have to lose, and have strong incentives to organize to protect themselves against losses. By contrast, the beneficiaries of broad change are a diffuse group. They can only project or imagine (not experience) the impact of the proposed change on their lives, and many will be disposed to doubt that the promised benefits will reach them at all. For these reasons, among others, they are harder to organize than are those who seek to protect what they already have. (The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, p. 554)
Numbers alone do not confer strength, and if that can happen in an advanced democracy just imagine how tough it is to make numbers count in a poor, developing country.