Policy reformers often make bold promises to improve government responsiveness to citizen demands. Yet such proclaimed openings from above often fall short, get diverted, or are blocked. A new study published in World Development from the Accountability Research Center's Jonathan Fox, Rachel Sullivan Robinson, and Naomi Hossain uses the state-society synergy approach to analyze exceptional cases when reformers within the state managed to deliver openings for citizen action that tangibly empowered otherwise excluded or marginalized groups.
What happens when these reform strategies are attempted? The authors used process tracing, combined with qualitative comparative analysis, to identify patterns across 19 cases in the global South where state actors created a more enabling environment for citizens’ collective action. The study compares the triggers and scope of enabling state actions, the breadth and intensity of collective action, roadblocks within the state, and whether or not these interactive processes led to substantive power shifts in favor of the excluded.
Fox, Robinson, and Hossain find that half of these openings led to shifts towards greater power for either citizens or reformist actors within public institutions, in spite of both structural obstacles and governmental roadblocks. Notably, power shifts occurred where reformers’ initiatives to enable collective action were themselves most intensive (often but not always backed by political change). Windows of opportunity were often open only briefly, until reformers lost power, and the pathways that led to power shifts combined collaborative and adversarial relationships. The power shifts identified were all incremental and uneven, and many were limited to subnational arenas. Though some later stalled or were partly rolled back, from the point of view of socially and politically excluded groups they represented tangible improvements in the balance of power.
While tangible openings from above are rare and conventional theory would expect little institutional change, the state-society synergy framework shows how state actions to reduce the risks or costs of collective action can enable pathways to power shifts.
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