Is it useful/right to see Development as a Collective Action Problem?

September 4, 2015 3 By Duncan Green
Could everyone just sit down please?

Could everyone just sit down please?

The Developmental Leadership Programme is producing a good series of bluffer’s guides Concept Briefs. The latest is on Collective Action (previous ones on Political Settlements and State Legitimacy). They’re just 3 pages, including further reading, and are ideal for anyone who wants to impress in a meeting by bandying around the latest jargon.

According to the paper, written by Caryn Peiffer, ‘ A collective action problem arises when the members of a group fail to act together to secure an outcome that has most potential to benefit the group as a whole.’

I like to think of it as the problem of standing up at football matches – if everyone sits down, they could all see just as well, but how do you get everyone to sit down?

CAP 2In development, collective action problems cover everything from climate change (the greatest collective action problem in history), to curbing corruption or ending the race to the bottom on tax competition (‘if I/we don’t do it, others will – I’ll just lose out and look like a mug’) or more subtly, the effort of setting up new institutions that benefit everyone, including future generations, but take a lot of time and energy to establish.

The paper sets out two reasons why groups struggle to address collective action problems:

Type A: ‘Coordination: Collective action problems tend to persist because the efficient coordination of many group members is difficult. For example, a vibrant, highly participatory democracy is viewed as a collective benefit, especially from a Northern perspective. However, civil society groups can face significant coordination challenges when trying to mobilise citizens to vote.’

Type B: ‘Diverging interests: Some citizens may decide it is in their interest to act in concert for the collective good, while others may not. If only a few of the potential actors mobilise, the collective good may not materialise to its full potential.’

This is a really useful distinction, and goes to the heart of why I feel unconvinced/worried by a lot of the talk about development as being primarily about confronting collective action problems. Type A is the football match problem – how do you get everyone to sit down at the same time? You either need an authority figure with a megaphone, or a high level of mutual trust and a way of getting everyone to commit – for example taking the pledge (the paper cites Transparency International’s Integrity Pacts on anti-corruption as an example).

But type B is about power, politics and conflicting interests. Some people have vested interests in climate change, or CAP3conflict – they are not going to magically change their ways just because the issue is misleadingly presented as a type A problem. That may even apply to the Integrity Pacts, for all I know – corruption is clearly a lot more than a simple coordination problem; a lot of people get rich from it, and are not going to give up their cashcow because of signing some pact.

The reason I’m worried is that it seems to me that there is a tendency to interpret type B problems as type A – reflecting the aid and development industry’s deep preference for technocratic solutions that airbrush out power, politics and struggle.  As the paper acknowledges:

‘Development might not be best understood as a collective good. Hughes and Hutchinson (2012) argue that it is problematic to view development challenges as collective action problems, because this mistakenly casts development as a collective good. They suggest that even the most encouraging developmental trends are the consequence of political struggles among groups, where net ‘positive’ results often come at the cost of certain parties suffering, having to compromise their position and/or losing access to certain resources.’

Exactly. All reminiscent of the recent debate on this blog over whether empowerment is a positive or zero sum game and what kind of mixture of the two pertains in different situations.

CAP1One other caveat: even if you  accept that some problems require politics and struggle rather than just nice technocratic type A approaches, there are still likely to be type A problems nested within them. Take the problem of activism for example – how do you convince enough people to give up their day to go on a demo or do community work, when they could be sitting at home watching the telly? Or on a different scale, to take the kinds of risks involved in protesting in Tahrir Square or anywhere else where the possible outcomes include a beating, tear gas or worse? I know he’s seen as damaged goods these days, but Malcolm Gladwell is very good on that.