In this short treatise, I conceptualize the work of NGOs in a given policy arena as existing in a three-dimensional policy space in order to get a better understanding of how can work most effectively together in the WSIS process, and beyond. I conclude with some recommendations for how civil society operates in the immediate future.
Navigating Civil Society through Policy Space
By Rik Panganiban
In this short treatise, I conceptualize the work of NGOs in a given policy arena as existing in a three-dimensional policy space in order to get a better understanding of how we can work most effectively together in the WSIS process, and beyond. I conclude with some recommendations for how civil society operates in the immediate future.
The Three-Dimensional Policy Space
Let us imagine that in a given policy arena, whether it be a UN world conference on women’s rights or a round of negotiations at the WTO, that there is a hypothetical three-dimensional policy space. The different layers can be thought of as different issue areas within that policy space, and in each layer are a spectrum of possible outcomes or developments. The layers can be quite fuzzy since there is much interaction and overlap between different issue areas. But there are definite bands of color representing mutually accepted thematic differentiations.
Each NGO can be seen as a point in that policy space, placed within the issue layer they are most concerned with and positioned as advocating a certain policy outcome or development. I.e. one feminist NGO might be placed within a layer on “education,” and positioned as favoring greater resources for girls to complete a high school degree.
This is of course an enormous simplification, since a given organization can place itself in various policy layers and favor a number of outcomes. But for our conceptualization exercise, let’s just assume that this schema is broadly accurate, since most NGOs would see themselves has having some issue-focus with a definite policy outcome they favor.
Groupings of NGOs within the Policy Space
Among NGOs there may be groupings of organizations that have elected to work together, based on shared interest or shared policy orientation. There are two distinct varieties that can be identified, that I will call “network” and “coalition.”
A “network” would exist to bring together certain groups that are concerned with the same issue, and in our exercise we could describe them as all situated within the same issue layer, but spread out among various policy orientations and supported outcomes. They might be advocating different policy outcomes, but they have a common interest in the issue broadly, and might derive benefits from information sharing and coordination of efforts.
A “coalition” in contrast brings together certain groups that are both concerned with the same issue and are favoring a similar set of policy outcomes. I.e. a coalition of groups favoring greater resources for primary school education for girls. Thus they would cluster themselves as within the same policy layer and around the same policy outcomes in our three-dimensional space. They might support a common coalition platform, organize coordinated lobbying and share resources toward their shared ends.
Stepping back from the various networks and coalitions of NGOs that might be present in a given policy arena, there may be some kind of grouping of a large number of the NGOs across policy layers into a shared structure. This larger grouping might take the form more of a network or a coalition depending on the policy arena and the groups involved. Going back to our three-dimensional model, the NGO larger grouping can serve to identify the overall policy orientations of the entire population of NGOs within the policy space.
In some policy arenas, there will be clear trends and policy positions that the large body of NGOs are supporting. I.e. there will be definite clustering and an overal direction they are advocating. This can result in more broad coalitions of NGOs working together and speaking with a more united voice.
In other policy arenas, there will be much more spread out positions, more networks than coalitions, with no clear trends or policy orientations that the larger body of NGOs are supporting. In this scenario, the large grouping of NGOs might serve more of a facilitating role, ensuring that among a competing set of actors that each has equal possibilities to make their positions known. But it would not have any kind of advocacy role, and would not attempt to represent any shared positions among such a diverse and competing set of actors.
Two Concrete Examples
Here are two examples that typify the coalition and the network-type multi-issue NGO structures:
The International Criminal Court. The negotiations surrounding the creation of an International Criminal Court in the late 1990s attracted a large population of NGOs from around the world, mostly human rights groups, but also women’s organizations, peace groups and religious NGOs, among others. The different policy layers include the different range of crimes to be handled by the court and its structure, i.e. war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, the prosecutor’s office, the judges, and the administration of the court. Within each layer of issues, NGOs favored certain positions and policy outcomes. But overall there was general clustering toward a certain defined set of policy outcomes. Thus the overall multi-issue grouping of NGOs that emerged within the negotiations took the character of a coalition rather than a network. The Coalition for the International Criminal Court took common positions, lobbied governments together, and issued common press statements.
The World Social Forum. The World Social Forum emerged as a response to the World Economic Forum, in order to bring together a certain population of groups who were opposed to neoliberal global economic policies and the worst outcomes of economic globalization. In its five years of existence, the World Social Forum has brought together hundreds of thousands of activists from around the world to the Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil (and once in Mumbai, India.) While these actors can be seen as having a certain ideological slant, they can be plotted as widely dispersed within the different policy layers of the Forum’s three-dimensional policy space. Much of the success of the Forum can be attributed to its explicit rejection of any attempt to coalesce the rainbow of policy outcomes favored by the participants into any common platform or statement. Thus it is clearly a multi-issue network, and not a coalition.
There are many other policy arenas where you can see the broader collection of NGOs coalesce themselves into more coalition-type or network-type bodies. The important point to emphasize is that neither structure is “better” than another. But an ideal structure would function well as a coordinating body of the population of NGOs given their relative positions in the policy space.
The WSIS Policy Space
For our purposes, how does this help us within the WSIS process?
In my view, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a set of like-minded NGOs and stop trying to create a multi-issue coalition of WSIS groups. That may have functioned in Phase I, when a certain set of actors with similar policy orientations were the dominant participants. But that may not be realistic now or into the future.
I am thinking not only of our work with each other between now and November 2005 in Tunis. I am concerned about the longer term viability of our work together in whatever post-WSIS process is agreed upon by governments in November. If we are really committed to our positions and shared desired outcomes, than we will build structures and processes that work into the future.
For our immediate situation, these are my thoughts and recommendations:
- Caucuses and working groups can be either coalition-type or network-type, but should be explicit in how they operate. For some issues, network-type structures make more sense (i.e. internet governance) while in others coalition-type structures work well (i.e. the women’s caucus.)
- Consensus among divergent actors should be sought in all circumstances, in order to best represent the various positions of NGOs within the policy space. Voting and majority-rule procedures just will not serve to capture very well the overall trend of our common orientations and desired outcomes. A skillful chairperson is needed to see where consensus is emerging, or to sense when it isn’t going to happen.
- Where consensus is not possible, if a clear, unreconcilable divergence in views is clearly seen, the structure involved should consider splitting into two (or more) coalitions of NGOs that better capture their shared positions and orientations. To continually debate where no consensus is likely means that we waste time that could be spent working in a more like-minded fashion.
- It is the allocation of scarce goods, i.e. speaking slots at the official plenary and common positions statements, where most of our difficulties arise. Content and Themes should manage this process, as it always has. If there are clear divergences of views on who should speak, or what content should be presented, than as much as possible both views should be represented, either by a neutral third-party or with two speakers and statements.
- If there are clearly divergent views among the various working groups and caucuses that operate within Content and Themes, C&T should consider abandoning the practice of drafting common position statements. It should fall upon interested Caucuses and Working Groups to lead the drafting of documents, which should then present the draft document to plenary (virtual and actual) for open consultation and later endorsement.
The overall goal is for us to spend as little time as possible arguing with each other, and as much time as possible impacting on the official WSIS process. We don’t need to be afraid of our differences or our diversity, we need to acknowledge it, celebrate it, and move on.