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Community Contribution

Assessing Suitability for Collective Action in Your Context: Spotlight on DRG Center

Jul 27, 2023
David Jacobstein, DDI/DRG

I’ve always been consumed with the question of, “What is the Work of USAID?” Meaning, how can USAID better define the substance of what we do so that we can more effectively pursue our goals? As someone with a background in civil society support, for years I saw civil society organizations (CSOs) treated as instruments to achieve other ends, such as holding government to account or improving legal/policy frameworks, rather than intrinsically valuing citizen action. Similar critiques of focusing on institutions to the exclusion of people and their values and beliefs could be pointed at many parts of the sector.

In the democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG) sector, we’ve always aimed to support and spark collective action – interested parties taking joint actions in support of shared objectives – but it has lived as a byproduct of our scopes, not an intentional focus. Whether designing programs focusing on more inclusive social processes or promoting citizen advocacy, we have tended to view the achievements of our partners as the formulation of laws and institutions and have not measured or valued the outcomes of more vibrant collective action itself. 

However, the situation is changing. A new orientation toward resilient democratic societies is gaining momentum. But what creates resilient democratic societies? The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) notes that resilient social systems have the properties of: 

  1. Flexibility: the ability to absorb stress or pressure; 
  2. Recovery: the ability to overcome challenges or crises; 
  3. Adaptation: the ability to change in response to a stress to the system; and 
  4. Innovation: the ability to change in a way that more efficiently or effectively addresses the challenge or crisis. 

This new orientation also recognizes that supporting a democracy to be flexible, resilient, adaptive and innovative requires us to place less emphasis on particular institutional shifts and give more attention to flows of information, norms and expectations held by citizens, and the connections between people that allow them to react and adapt – much of which is centered on their capacity to undertake collective action. This new orientation is right in line with a collective action approach, and better defining this in scopes of work will allow us to more effectively manage and deliver this work.

Module 6: Writing Scopes of Work of the Collective Action Guide for Missions highlights the twin sets of results that should be built into a Scope of Work (SOW) in order to harness the power of Collective Action: 1) Capture progress toward a technical objective, and 2) Outline improvements in stakeholder collaboration expected through the engagement. The scope should specify how the Activity will support network cohesion, create shared agendas, foster and catalyze collective action, and create group accountability for making progress.

Further, articulating Collective Action in a scope of work is an example of how development is shifting to center more on local actors and systems, accepting that their attributes are as valuable outcomes as the particular goods and services they co-produce. This is core to longstanding efforts to #shiftthepower and to building locally-led development into international development, and is a best practice of the USAID efforts to be more locally-led in practice.

Overall, I’m extremely excited by the guidance around weaving Collective Action into our scopes of work, as this combines technical best practices in my sector, shifting power to locally-led development, and better articulating what is of real value in our work

About the authors
David Jacobstein

David Jacobstein has been with USAID for 12 years. He serves as a Democracy Specialist in the Policy Coordination and Integration Team in the Center for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, where he focuses on issues of capacity strengthening, systems thinking, political economy, and cross-sectoral integration. He leads work that has promulgated measurement and programming recommendations through the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, and served as a co-author of the Local Systems Framework. Previously, he worked for Pact and the American Bar Association supporting civil society strengthening and rule of law programming across Africa, Europe, and Asia.