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Thinking politically about the role of MSIs in Governance

Brendan Halloran's picture

The recent rapid expansion of multi-stakeholders initiatives (MSI) promoting improved governance raises critical questions about the role of these mechanisms in addressing problems of government transparency, responsiveness, and accountability, specifically whether and how they generate on-the-ground impact.

HOW DO WE THINK MSIs CONTRIBUTE TO CHANGE?  MSIs, like other efforts to promote change, are built around a theory of change (TOC) about how they will contribute to the achievement of their goals.  These proposed causal pathways may be explicitly stated or implicit.  How do MSIs in the governance sphere articulate their role in contributing to change?  Do they base their theories of change on questionable assumptions, or lack a change hypothesis altogether?  TOCs also reflect a specific understanding of the challenge they seek to address.  It should not be surprising that a technical framing of governance problems would lead to a technocratic approach to a solution.  For example, the framing in OGP of ‘open’ government, with little explicit emphasis on democratic governance, may contribute to an emphasis on open data, e-government, and other technical aspects of governance, which are unlikely to address the core political dynamics that underlie governance deficits.

Narrowly technical approaches could lead to isomorphic mimicry, where public institutions and processes look right, but fail to promote democratic governance.  This may be more likely when MSI donors want to see quantitative outputs (e.g. government data made available, percentage of ambitious OGP commitments, changes in governance rankings) rather than intermediary points in the ‘long game’ of democratic reform, that are often harder to measure.   

MSIs, CIVIL SOCIETY, AND CITIZENS.  In the spaces and processes created at the national level by MSIs, what real possibilities of influence do citizens and CSOs have?  Can civil society actors question the assumptions, challenge the agenda and promote alternative visions for change processes? Participation by social actors can lead to real influence or cooptation and placation, often determined by whether citizens have both voice and ‘teeth’.  It is important to analyze the incentives for power elites to address civil society proposals and concerns.  Do MSIs increase CSOs leverage with governmental actors, and does this really influence the political calculus of those in power to alter the fundamental rules of the game?  Does participation by CSOs in MSI processes incentivize them to engage in a narrower set of advocacy strategies, for example, to forgo potentially more confrontational strategies or approaches based on grassroots mobilization? Or can top-down and bottom-up be pursued as part of a ‘sandwich strategy’ or more nuanced, holistic and multi-scalar campaigns by pro-reform coalitions of actors?  Are external actors strengthening the capacities of CSOs to analyze the opportunities (and opportunity costs) of participating in MSI mechanisms, so that they can make informed decisions about how to best invest their time and resources? 

Often external actors promoting improved governance have focused narrowly on local, citizen-centric approaches, but do MSIs go to the opposite extreme, with a limited scope for citizen involvement?  Even where civil society actors are able to engage in MSI processes, it is important to understand the composition of civil society representation.  Are citizens represented by professional NGOs, based in capital cities and conversant in the technical aspects of change, donor priorities, and international best practices?  Can meaningful governance reform that addresses the power dynamics and political calculus implicit in democratizing processes be advanced through voluntary agreements by government elites negotiating with an overwhelming imbalance of power vis-à-vis participating CSOs, and little engagement by organized citizens that might constitute a source of countervailing power?    

MSIs AND NATIONAL INSTITUTIONS AND PROCESSSES.  MSIs bring together diverse actors at the national (and international) level to seek solutions to complex governance problems.  But how do MSI mechanisms interact with national political institutions, processes and context?  Many MSIs create parallel spaces for decision making and action, deliberately separate from national political processes of decision making, for example via parliamentary legislation or electoral mechanisms.  Do MSIs bolster indigenous institutions and mechanisms by giving citizens and pro-reform actors alternative fora to advance their claims?  Or do they undermine national political processes, by seeking to promote technical solutions isolated (or perhaps insulated) from political dynamics?  How do MSI articulate their role in promoting change vis-à-vis national governance institutions, political processes and other contextual factors?  Do national and external actors understand MSI spaces and processes as part of a multi-level ecosystem of efforts to promote democratic governance?  If so, how do MSIs interact with other elements in this system?    How can MSIs contribute to strengthening national institutions and processes vital for democratic governance, such as weak or absent institutional checks and balances, unrepresentative political parties, and elections that are fraudulent or driven by patronage and vote buying?  And if these factors are not addressed, does this undermine the governance changes MSIs are established to promote?

THE OPPORTUNITY OF MSIs.  Despite the above questions and concerns, MSIs are increasingly seen as an approach to gaining some purchase on complex governance challenges in contexts of shallow democracy, fragile governance and shrinking spaces for civic activity by citizens and NGOs. MSI processes can produce tangible outcomes (data about revenues and budgeting, mechanisms of citizen reporting about service delivery) and intangible benefits (building trust among actors with diverse interests, keeping governance issues on the public agenda). 

At their best, MSIs contribute resources (including global norms and standards) and spaces that pro-reform actors (in government, civil society and private sector) can leverage to contribute to the longer-term process (or struggle) of democratizing governance and politics. 

But for MSIs to be meaningful contributors to change, pro-reform actors need to analyze these approaches and processes, especially how they fit within a broader governance ecosystem.  And MSIs entail opportunity costs as well, as their processes may substitute for other avenues of pursuing change, for example efforts to mobilize democratizing citizens’ movements and create broader coalitions of pro-reform actors across multiple scales of governance.

The point is to urge more critical thinking by pro-reform actors about the role of MSIs in contributing to democratic governance.  Thinking about democratic change in a systematic and politically-informed way will help us better understand the role of MSIs, how to best leverage them, and what additional approaches might be necessary to achieve meaningful and sustainable impacts.

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