(A) Collective action on a given development issue by a diverse set of stakeholders is great!!! It is one of the better models to use and perpetuate.
(See this piece: http://www.fsg.org/KnowledgeExchange/Blogs/CollectiveImpact/PostID/343.aspx)
(B) Collective action on a given development issue by a diverse set of stakeholders can be problematic. Development work should not use this as THE primary model.
(See this piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/emmett-d-carson/rethinking-collective-imp_b_1847839.html)
Preface : Collective “impact” is a significantly inaccurate term
A preface to my own thoughts on this subject has to do with the term “collective impact”. As a reseacher who has focused specifically on this subject, I believe the more accurate term is “collective action”. To your argument that this is mere semantics, I counter that choice of terminology goes straight to the heart of the debate: is a collective approach to public sector problem-solving good or bad ?
Collective ‘action’ in the social context simply indicates that a group of people are doing something together.
- Are they doing it well? Who knows?!
- Should people always work in groups? Depends on the problem!
- Does their “action” translate into “impact”? Maybe … maybe not.
There is nothing special about collective action, and there continues to be nothing special about it even if one calls it collective “impact”. That is because there is nothing in the social sphere that is NOT collective. We collectively vote on issues in democracies, so that is one form of collective action we all take on public policy issues. All over the world, neighbourhoods, communities or cultural groups get together to solve problems, organize cultural events, solidify their social institutions; this is all collective action.
In each and every one of these instances of collective action in the social or public sphere, there are both positive and negative outcomes. Sometimes, there is no outcome worth mentioning at all: the collective enterprise falls apart and nothing comes of it.
- When one says collective “impact” one is already talking about that subset of collective action instances where the outcome is positive (for the sake of convenience, I assume the word ‘impact’ to mean positive impact) . To me, this communicates a seriously biased worldview. A worldview which presumes all collective action to result in desirable impact, even if there are a few kinks to straighten.
- A debate on the merits of collective action is strange. Humans have always solved problems collectively. Rather than ask whether we should work collectively, a better question is . . .
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Not only do I believe that this is the right question to ask, but also that it is the most important question to ask. It is important because it focuses on the end, not the means.
It does not matter whether we work collectively or not, it matters whether our working collectively solves the problems we collectively face.
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Whha...... wait..... hang on. Let me qualify that statement . . .
- In many cases, creating institutions that facilitate collective action can be helpful in itself even when this does not lead to solving the current problem. Why? Because it can lay the foundation for more efficient problem-solving in the future and perhaps create a more adaptable society.
- For example, a democratic society presumes a lot of collective action, from the scale of the individual voter who adheres to voting rules to that of political factions deciding constitutional rules. This doesn't mean that all the rules will be appropriate, that voters will always make intelligent decisions, or even that bipartisan decision-making will always yield the perfect solution to the social and economic policy problems at hand.
- We have all groaned at how the Parliament or Congress gets in the way of a smart leader who could have done so much had the constitution not shackled him with rules of collective action. We have all cursed the voting power of the uninformed constituent and wished secretly that an educated, informed elite made the big voting decisions.
- I have known a number of young Indian capitalists that have expressed regret at India having become a democracy before it had the chance to develop economically ... bemoaned the large rural population that had the power to keep getting in the way of industrial growth.... been exasperated at the difficulty of reconciling the large number of interests that must be considered in a democracy.
- In the long run however, a structure where citizens and leaders can work together or a structure that allows for bipartisan policy decision-making can be invaluable. Research indicates that democracy can be economically productive in the long run (even though such conclusions are very hard to establish). Adding a lot of voices into the debate can make things difficult, but it can also allow for new ideas to emerge, new solutions to be formulated.
Look, I myself believe in trying hard to make people come together and get rid of their exclusionary, parochial outlooks. I believe in the fundamental importance of creating a society where people can get together and communicate, no matter how different their views. I believe in the need to create group conversations based on ideology but not dogmatic stubbornness. I believe all this to the point of coming across as an idealistic hippy.
- But the thing is, I also think that we should be smart and strategic in trying to effect these collaborations. So let's have a conversation about these strategies rather than going on and on about collaboration.
In the next post, I'll try to articulate some of my current thoughts on structuring collective action... but hopefully this initial post gives folks something to mull over!