Why don’t people in power do the right thing – supply, demand or collective action problem? And what do we do about it?

January 18, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

My last few days have been dominated by conversations around ‘convening and brokering’, including an exchange between assorted ODI wonks and a meetings Africabunch 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). Yesterday 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.

ODI argues that on the ground, a lot of aid agencies realize this, and are doing it already. But the official line (often driven by donors’ funding decisions) is that they are exclusively building demand-side accountability, so their reports and narrative airbrush out all that ‘collaborationist’ activity with local government officials, politicians etc. That’s a problem because it inhibits their ability to share experiences and learn how to do things better.

As evidence, ODI cited an evaluation it did for Plan of a ‘Community Scorecards’ project in Malawi that was proving remarkably successful. The programme design was classic demand-side: entitlements, rights, holding duty bearers to account etc. But when ODI investigated, they found that reality involved brokering local-level reform processes and working with local officials to help them raise concerns with central government. Solutions included communities agreeing to help with school construction. In agriculture, problems included fertilizer subsidies being traded on secondary markets, sometimes for sex. The project brokered contacts with police and the courts to help sort it out. Little of this appeared in the official project narrative.

All well and good, but Oxfam’s Jo Rowlands argued that the NGOs’ approach is different to ODI’s in one important aspect. While ODI argues for ‘going with the grain’ of existing institutions and traditions, the NGOs are more normative – going with the grain but at the same time seeking to change it, through a kind of ‘affirmative action convening and brokering’ that ensures the voices of previously excluded groups are at the table. So for example, our work with protection committees in the DRC involves helping them build trust with local government and ‘armed actors’, but also ensuring the committees have an even gender balance, which has transformed the confidence and self-perception of many women participants.

would they get more results from a meeting?

would they get more results from a meeting?

This kind of transformative approach usually involves something additional to just convening and brokering (Tajikistan is a bit of an exception). In livelihoods it involves investing in technical assistance and building organizational capacity so that smallholder assocations can benefit from value chains. In women’s rights it involves building ‘power within’ as well as brokering the kinds of discussions the protection committees have in the DRC. Elsewhere it may involve running pilot programmes to demonstrate new solutions around which the discussions can take place.

Which leads me to a key dividing line between two kinds of convening and brokering. The more innovative kind involves acknowledging that there is a problem, but admitting that we don’t have a solution, and want to get everyone in the room to try and find one. That’s the Tajikistan model, but is still something of a rarity (NGOs often think they know the answer, even when they don’t….). That is very different from merely trying to build an alliance around a predetermined policy demand (a much more common approach).

Which all left some important questions and dilemmas hanging in the air. They include:

  • Given that social change often takes place through a cycle of cooperation and conflict (see diag), when and where is the ‘problem-solving approach’conflict-cooperation-cycle the best answer? Just during the kiss and make up phase, or more generally?
  • Is this approach easier in some sectors (children, water) than others (taxation, livelihoods)? Or is it easier in service delivery work (more pragmatic) than influencing (more normative)?
  • ODI argues that the trick is to pick the moments when the stars are aligned for some kind of collective action breakthrough, but how do you recognize such moments, apart from in hindsight (not a lot of use for practitioners)?
  • What kinds of people are good at this, and do they work for aid agencies? In my experience, lovers of ambiguity, policy entrepreneurs willing to take risks, and networkers happy to talk to people they disagree with or even dislike are in pretty short supply in the aid world
  • David Booth argues that ‘meetings are of the essence’, but what distinguishes useful convening-type meetings from pointless NGO gabfests. (JAM – Just Another Meeting)?
  • Which brings us to the role of donors. To what extent can they cope with the uncertainty over attribution and the long timescales involved in this kind of work? How do we take them with us?

Finally, we agreed to ask for your help. David Booth reckons we need a good snappy name for this new approach – open-minded on solutions, trust-building, convening and brokering, problem-solving etc. Any ideas?

And since ODI is funky and digital these days, here’s my 3 minute download, which they filmed straight after the meeting


January 18, 2013
Duncan Green