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Community Contribution

Think Globally, Act Locally Again and Again: Collective Action and the Global Justice Gap

Apr 18, 2023
Greg Gisvold

Right now, citizens and governments are grappling over: who gets to participate in decision-making, which rights are human rights, and how to survive a changing climate. These difficult topics call to question basic ideas of justice and fairness. They also prompt the question: how will societies balance competing interests? Taken together, these questions are not only about laws but the whole jurisdiction of law. To tackle these complex and thorny issues, we have to acknowledge the multi-faceted nature of justice development and highlight the vital role of experimentation and information sharing.

USAID’s new, evidence-based Practical Guides for Effective Collective Action can help existing and emerging democracies with this dialogue by providing a framework for strategic collaboration that engages interested parties to take joint actions in support of shared objectives or a shared issue. These guides can also help development practitioners facilitate alignment and activities with a system frame so that diverse groups that may agree on the need for change, but less on the particulars or emphasis, can find ways to collaborate. This is especially useful when framed within the Agency’s Rule of Law Policy (released in March 2023) and supplemented by the USAID’s Rule of Law Reform Practitioner’s Guide.

Societies use laws to guide individual and organizational behavior. Democratic societies adhere to the rule of law, which holds that no one is above the law and that these legal codes ‘rule’ through public and legitimate laws that apply to everyone. A lack of the rule of law is often emblematic of exclusionary public spheres and a precursor to violent conflict. Unfortunately, research shows the rule of law is declining worldwide. Archaic justice systems are cracking under modern challenges, as seen by the widening global justice gap, and urgent reform is needed.

The rule of law depends on widespread and voluntary compliance by members of society. Moreover, compliance relies on the collective belief in the legitimacy of laws and the actors and institutions enforcing them. Therefore, maintaining legitimacy and realigning justice systems to meet modern challenges is a collective problem that requires a whole of society effort. This is done democratically through active engagement and dialogue among citizens, organizations, interest groups, advocates, and justice actors. 

There is no primary path or blueprint for change. However, the Collective Action approach gives a process and structure to advance the common cause shared by those closest to the issues.  Collective Action can bolster the legitimacy of the rule of law by aligning and integrating the work and objectives of stakeholder participants. Collaborating together, this group is better able to understand and articulate the dynamics, turbulence and uncertainty of the situation, and is better positioned to adapt and ultimately succeed. However, it requires all participants—donors, implementers, collaborators, included — to release the control they previously had, even over their own activities as they align with others. 

Donors and development practitioners play critical roles in developing and maintaining effective Collective Action. Donors can support justice sector reform through resource hubs, coordination meetings, and other collaborative “grease” in the wheels of a multi-polar movement. Collective Action commonly utilizes “co-creation”, one of USAID’s powerful tools for engaging diverse system voices and empowering those affected but who often lack sufficient political influence to participate in designing solutions to problems. Donors can also support data efforts that identify and define the successes, challenges, and opportunities the movement will encounter. What works in Accra is unlikely to work in Bishkek. 

Yet, as USAID’s Collective Action Guides discuss, convening for progress has more immediate value than the illusion of coming to complete agreement on a solution. Collective Action provides a workable structure for the multiplicity of actors, voices, and perspectives needed to manage the messy collision of legitimacy, justice, and institutions resistant to change. Collective efforts, such as those created through the Justice Action Coalition, spark momentum and inspire sustainable progress. 

The Collective Action guides and the related tools acknowledge the multi-faceted nature of the justice development challenge and highlight the vital role of experimentation and information sharing. USAID notes in its ROL Policy that “the rule of law is neither inevitable nor durable. It is forever a work in progress.” As these new Collective Action Guides imply, wicked problems like the justice gap are not susceptible to easy solutions, but they are vulnerable to broadly joined and creative Collective Action. 

If the Collective Action approach is new to you and you want to learn more, check out the Collective Action Guides on Learning Lab. Resources include answers to common questions about Collective Action, case studies from USAID activities as well as practical guides to Collective Action which illustrate the processes, know-how, and considerations for embarking on a Collective Action journey.

About the authors
Greg Gisvold

Greg Gisvold is a Senior Training Specialist on USAID’s Professional Development and Training Team in the Office of Acquisition and Assistance (M/OAA/PDT) and consults with the Agency’s Rule of Law team in its Center for Democracy, Rights, and Governance (DRG/JRS). For over two decades, he has served as a chief of party, team leader, and senior expert for USAID and Department of State rule of law, security sector, and anticorruption projects.