SPEAKING OF INTERNATIONAL T/A INITIATIVES AND CSO-RESEARCHER DIALOGUE ...
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//SPEAKING OF INTERNATIONAL T/A think piece INITIATIVES AND CSO- RESEARCHER DIALOGUE ... Jonathan Fox School of International Service, American University Nov. 10, 2013 A recent TAI think piece by Florencia middle’. Beth Simmons compares the uneven Guerzovich and Ari Shaw not only took national level impacts of international human stock of the state of knowledge about rights treaties, addressing country differences international T/A efforts, it also served as a and change over time. Judith Kelley digs point of departure for a recent Round Table deep into the uneven terrain of international convened as part of the Transparency and election monitoring: sometimes outside Accountability Initiative’s (T/AI) learning actors can promote democracy, but they process. They pointedly asked: ‘international often have no actual leverage and sometimes initiatives use scarce resources, but for what?’ even do harm. Lesley Wexler’s legal analysis In late September, a couple of dozen civil assesses the drivers and impacts of a wide society strategists, multilateral development range of international humanitarian law bank governance specialists, and international initiatives. These scholars find that we should relations/law scholars came together to not expect international initiatives to make a exchange ideas about whether and how big difference in nation states that are already international initiatives generate change, solidly democratic, or where authoritarian what kinds of support strategies can bolster rule is entrenched. In countries in transition, in on-the-ground impact, how do the impacts contrast, international initiatives can bolster vary – and how do we know? The gathering national actors who have the motive and was especially timely, in the run-up to the means to mobilize – and they can get the Open Government Partnership’s London attention of those governments that might Summit. Open government advocates were actually care about naming and shaming. well-represented, though the workshop also The ‘train has to be moving’ for international included perspectives immersed in extractive actors to come in and play a reinforcing role. industries campaigns, anti-corruption reforms, This reality check is helpful for calibrating our human rights treaties, World Bank reforms, expectations, especially given the capacity environmental policy, financial transparency, of more savvy authoritarian regimes to game and international election monitoring. some of the international metrics and create These notes will share a few follow-up ‘islands of transparency’ within a sea of rot. reflections, filtered through the lens of a Indeed, one campaigner cautioned about participant who comes at the issues from the the rise of ‘zombie transparency,’ superficial perspective of a scholar/semi-practitioner. gestures by corrupt regimes. How do we figure out when The longer our causal chains, the international initiatives make a greater the likelihood of weak difference? links Yes, context matters – but when and how? This proposition may sound abstract, but it 1 The now-vast scholarly literature on previous actually refers to a very concrete question waves of international governance reforms, about how change happens. Put another including some with much longer track way: The more steps there are in between records, is quite relevant for the discussion immediate CSO campaign goals and their of more recent T/A initiatives. Scholars intended eventual impacts, the greater the who look back at human rights campaigns possibility that bottlenecks will get in the way. and treaties, or at international election For example, what specific chain of events monitoring, find that ‘the action is in the is supposed to unfold after an international
monitoring initiative releases its report? This is an especially hot topic in those Beyond the initial media splash, what country- countries whose governments seem intent level leadership, strategies, and capacities can on restricting the civic space for independent turn such moments into tangible, sustainable public debate. The national evaluations institutional change? The effort to figure commissioned by the Independent Reporting out how international initiatives can help to Mechanism are taking a close look at whether promote national-level reforms, in specific governments moved forward on both fronts country contexts, is yet another example of – their own substantive open government the challenge involved in fully spelling out commitments in their Action Plans, and our theories of change – to close the loop. the degree to which they consulted with That’s what ‘identifying the links in the causal CSOs to set those goals. Most of the IRM chain’ refers to – unpacking our theories reports on the first Action Plans in the eight of change into their distinct components. OGP founding countries found civil society This kind of strategic planning exercise can consultation processes to be rather thin, help to identify possible weak links. In other though in some cases government-civil words, how can we pinpoint the steps where society engagement improved in the course we make assumptions that may turn out to of preparing their second Action Plans. These require large leaps of faith. The more links in process issues were the minds of many civil a proposed causal chain, though, the harder society participants at the London OGP this thought exercise turns out to be. Summit. In the open government advocacy After international summits, how community, many wonder about how to do reforms get embedded more tighten up the links between emerging deeply into states? international standards, national level reforms, and actual changes in how governments For workshop participants, the remarkably interface with citizens. This is indeed a tall rapid take-off of the OGP process order. In response, the International Budget underscores the importance of high level Partnership recently published a manual buy-in, building on pre-existing networks that marks a big step forward in making this that brought together leaders in society and exercise more accessible. Their Super-Duper the state at both national and international Impact Planning Guide applies evidence- levels. Yet getting governments to make based approaches to the action strategies commitments is one thing, while transforming behind CSO reform initiatives. public institutions so that meaningful reforms actually get carried out is another Who decides what international -- and usually requires a different set of norms are? coalitions and incentives. OGP strategists are well aware of this, envisioning change as International T/A campaigners may differ in driven by distinct top-down, mid-level, and terms of their ideas about what norms are, bottom-up processes that interact with each not to mention who should set them. One other. Indeed, diverse actors are pursuing OGP strategist stressed that the process several different change strategies under is not about global norm setting – in the the OGP umbrella simultaneously. Yet as a sense of promoting a one-size-fits-all set of delicately negotiated, strictly voluntary, multi- substantive reform standards. Indeed, one of stakeholder, now really global initiative, the the strengths of the process is that it does OGP process is not well positioned to ‘reach not involve one set of governments telling deeply into countries’. Instead, the best-case another what do to. In contrast, the OGP scenario is to ‘tip the balance in favour of process is about each government setting its those that want open government’. Though own new open government goals, ostensibly it’s almost a cliché to talk about ‘unpacking in consultation with their respective civil the state’, many agreed that that’s what civil society stakeholders. These national debates societies need to do – to find and bolster may well be informed by – or may even possible reform champions and get buy-in explicitly reference other international from those government officials with their norms, such as the Extractive Industries hands on the levers that really control the Transparency Initiative (as in the US and UK). various branches of the state apparatus, Yet another participant, from the international while identifying and politically isolating anti-corruption movement, pointed out that anti-accountability bottlenecks within the the OGP is very much about promoting government. Incoming civil society OGP 2 global procedural norms, insofar as it requires co-chair Rakesh Rajani recently offered a minimum standards of consultation with civil balanced assessment of these challenges, in society. the Tanzanian context.
Is a crowded field of international proponents of international reform initiatives, T/A initiatives a strength or a whether in government or civil society, limitation? when does continued engagement end up legitimating fundamentally unacceptable Now that the international governance reform national processes? In one paradigm case, space is filling up with so many initiatives, Global Witness pulled out of the Kimberly it is far from clear when they find positive Process for dealing with conflict diamonds. synergy with each other, when some crowd Does CSO engagement with international others out, and when some may even act at initiatives sometimes risk becoming an end cross-purposes. Florencia Guerzovich and in itself? At what cost, and who decides? Roberto DeMichele make this point in their How do international reform initiatives take 2010 study of international anti-corruption the possible downsides for local and national initiatives in Latin America. In Africa, Latin organizers into account? The diversity of America, and Europe, for example, the OGP possible answers is likely to remind us that entered regional civic spaces that were where one stands depends on where one sits. already occupied by closely related initiatives – with several regional CSO governance What resources and incentives reform initiatives in Latin America involving are available to national civil transparency (see here, here, and here, for society actors, to move these T/A example), and a decade of intergovernmental agendas forward? governance reform ‘peer review’ efforts by the Follow-Up Mechanisms to anti-corruption Since international open government reforms conventions based at the Organization of need national civil society partners to actually American States, the Council of Europe, and use them as leverage to help to reform states, the African Peer Review Mechanism. Most what do those pro-accountability CSO actors of the African governments involved with need to help to broaden the constituencies OGP have also participated in the APRM, for change? New apps? Better access to the underscoring the need to harmonize such mass media? Electoral clout? Legislative efforts at the national level. lobbying capacity? Strategic litigation? More naming and shaming? What about broad- Should international initiatives based grassroots organizing? Probably some set the bar for entry low, to mix of ‘all of the above’ - which suggests encourage governmental that international funders should consider engagement – at the risk of multi-pronged, versatile support strategies watering down reform goals? that are embedded in national contexts and constituencies. One rationale for making it easy for ‘imperfect’ governments to sign up to Where do civil society infomediaries fit in international reform initiatives is to bolster to this broader reform landscape, and how incomplete regime transitions and insider can they punch above their weight? This reform champions. This is a theory of change. kind of public information production and But what if this doesn’t happen? What if less- processing role could be filled by universities, than-democratic regimes deliberately try to think tanks, or campaigning organizations. game the system by improving performance The main challenge is how such actors can on narrow metrics to deflect international become the information processing hubs attention from the rest of what they are for broader civic movements for democracy doing? For example, what if governments and accountability, grounded in actually- pass information access laws – on paper - and existing national social and political forces. release just enough budget data to meet As economists might put it – how can we the OGP eligibility criteria, but they still fix better align the supply and demand for the elections and have political prisoners? Is there kind of information that broad-based social a risk that “open-washing?” will taint the OGP and civic actors will really use to motivate brand? collective action, to gain legitimacy in the mass media, and thereby to create, trigger, or This issue comes up in the case of embolden public accountability institutions? international election observers, where After all, CSOs rarely have the power to hold savvy regimes that are not interested in governments accountable on their own. free and fair elections can permit the arrival 3 When pro-democracy infomediaries develop of many external monitoring teams, as long as some are likely to disagree with their agendas for the production of civic others – thereby cancelling each other out. information – how do their change strategies The broader issue keeps coming up: for guide their choice of target audiences?
When planning their public awareness real-time case studies of open government campaigns, policy monitoring exercises, initiatives). At the same time, practitioners performance indexes, and technical reports, could do more to influence scholarly research who exactly are the intended ‘consumers’, as agendas, especially since academics are it were? Workshop participants shared their well-positioned to ask larger questions that experiences of ‘reporting fatigue,’ suggesting go beyond the next short-term evaluation, that more long reports are not the answer, including examining assumptions. nor are scholarly tomes published half a decade later. Some participants reported ‘What works?’ may be the wrong that they only read blogs, relying on them question to boil down the takeaways from others’ in-depth monitoring and research exercises. Research can certainly help to address the Yet the use of the term could be understood ‘what works’ question, yet that framing of the in several different ways. Does ‘reporting question can distort the answer. As stated, fatigue’ refer to the reader’s point of view, in the question implies a yes-or-no answer, terms of the accessibility, length, and growing yet much of what we do know falls into the number of the reports themselves? Or does it not-very-satisfying category of ‘it depends…’. refer to how a report’s message may or may Given how hard the T/A reform agenda is, not stand out in a possibly crowded field? and the fact that there are few magic bullets, Or does the fatigue refer to the experience the best that we can hope for is usually of those who produce the reports, who are some partial degree of progress. That means uncertain as to whether they are worth the reframing the question: how often does effort? Either way, this question brings us something work, by what criteria, and to what back to spelling out the links in the causal degree? Plus, who decides ‘what counts’ as chain – the need to specify how a given working? If a T/A intervention only ‘works’ in information or reporting exercise is going to some sense, let’s say, a third of the time – is put actionable tools in the hands of relevant that a success or a failure? Why should we social, civic, and political actors. expect reforms that have enemies to go viral as quickly as Facebook? If we go further and The keyword here is ‘user-centred’. The ask ‘under what conditions’ does it work, and capacity of civic information reach its if the short answer is ‘context matters’, then potential to both motivate and guide how, when, and where? collective action for accountability depends on the degree to which it is designed with Getting around methodological users in mind. This is where the idea of walls targeted transparency comes in, a concept that hones in on the kinds of really accessible Once we start reframing the ‘what difference information that reach people where they are are we making’ questions in this way, we start at. In contrast to weighty technical reports to hit a methodological wall erected by the and online indices about seemingly far-away dominant dichotomy between quantitative policies, targeted transparency initiatives and qualitative methods – the longstanding provide evidence that allows specific duel between large N statistical correlations stakeholder constituencies to make informed vs. case studies. Quantitative approaches decisions about whether and how to act. can document how often institutional change happens (if it’s measurable) – but they have In the T/A field, research needs a harder time with the question of ‘why to catch up to practitioners – and and how’ it happens. Meanwhile, qualitative who sets the agenda? institutional analysis can answer ‘why and how’ change happens, but is not so good CSO, governmental, and multilateral T/A at documenting how often it happens. initiatives have been gaining momentum at You can see where this is going… Each local, national, and international levels, yet the approach turns out to be incomplete, yet state of research on the field is just beginning with complementary strengths. Fortunately, to ramp up. Most of those researchers ‘mixed methods’ are becoming increasingly who are engaged with this agenda tend de rigueur in some scholarly circles. Yet there to have a focus that is more applied than is still a missing link. If we circle back to the scholarly. Scholarly research also tends to ‘how does context matter’ question, this is be retrospective rather than engaged with where the comparative method comes in. practitioners in real time – as well as being 4 divided by discipline and methodology. Comparison is often used in everyday (The International Budget Partnership conversation merely to illustrate a point, or recently completed a set of innovative, because it seems interesting to juxtapose
cases. But there is an entire school of Wrap-up comparative analysis that focuses on carefully This workshop contributed to T/AI’s silo- defining and selecting cases, holding busting mission by bringing together some variables constant in ways that allow practitioners and researchers from across researchers to rule out some explanations a wide range of issues and perspectives – and to bolster others. Scholars go back and provoking new and better questions for the forth over how to define the ideal number of future cases, ‘what counts’ as a comparable case or an outlier, and whether to look across many cases at once vs. focusing more deeply and historically on just a few cases. (For classic academic works, The main point here is that the comparative see, among others, Arend Lijphart, ‘II. The Comparable- method is a broad logic of inquiry within Cases Strategy in Comparative Research’ Comparative Political which quantitative and qualitative approaches Studies, 8(2), July 1975, are merely tools whose relevance depends Giovanni Sartori, ‘Concept Misformation in Comparative on the question. Yet in the applied research Politics,’ American Political Science Review 64, 1970, world, the comparative method remains Charles Ragin and Howard crowded out by the dominant qualitative- Becker, eds., What is a Case? Exploring the Foundations quantitative divide. of Social Inquiry (Cambridge University Press, 1992). Taking comparative analysis seriously is relevant for international T/A initiatives because it allows us to ask three sets of questions that get excluded by the simple ‘does it work’ question. First, if a specific international reform effort begins to get taken up, it is likely to have varying impacts across countries – but what explains the variation? Second, within countries where such reform efforts begin to gain traction, how does impact vary across different issue areas, government agencies or regions? This subnational focus is key for the goal of closing the loop. (See Richard Snyder’s classic synthesis of the subnational comparative method.) Third, what about the different political dynamics across the wide range of VISIT: different international reform initiatives? http://jonathan-fox.org/ They vary widely not only by issue and target, but also in terms of their tools and theories of change – starting with the huge difference *THANKS TO: between the hard law represented by treaties Thanks very much to the and conventions and the very soft power workshop participants for their represented by voluntary, multi-stakeholder participation in the discussion, agreements. Indeed, at the concluding and to Florencia Guerzovich and plenary of the OGP London Summit, incoming Vanessa Herringshaw for editorial civil society co-chair Suneeta Kaimal stressed suggestions. that OGP needed “dentures” to give it “bite.” & 6 Transparency ACCOUNTABILITY Initiative
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