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Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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3 Institutions as ‘big players’

There is one way of seeing institutions that demonstrates the value of holding together an ‘action’ approach and a ‘structural’ approach to understanding social behaviour and change.

When talking of, in particular, international development we often make reference to agencies such as the World Bank, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the African Union, the European Union, the Economic Commission for Latin America, national governments, to give just a few of the most obvious examples: the ‘big players’. Their size, their bigness, is important: they dominate the worlds of development in ways that other agencies cannot match, and this invests their action with great significance. Note, though, that these agencies can also be seen as institutions in the ways I have already discussed: they set the rules for development, they provide frameworks of meaning – structures – within which they expect other actors to negotiate.

Another way of recognising the significance of the big players is to suggest they establish the ‘dominant orthodoxy’ of development. What does this term mean?

It refers to the key norms and values, the accepted principles and practices, through which development is undertaken. The content of the dominant orthodoxy changes over time. Today we might talk about a ‘prevailing growth-centred vision’ (Korten, 1990, p. 4), the value attached to ‘market forces’ and privatisation, the central role ascribed to ‘good governance’, the reframing of the state as an ‘enabler’, and the focus on partnership building and the participation of diverse stakeholders in the planning and implementation of interventions. We would certainly recognise the central role played by the Millennium Development Goals in current development discourse – perhaps more in the north than the south.

It is important not to overstate the bigness, the dominance, of these institutions and to recognise that, even if they establish the framework within which development is to take place, other actors have or create room for manoeuvre within that framework. It is also important to recognise that the dominant orthodoxy is an arena of constant struggle, as individuals and agencies challenge the dominant norms and values, work outside the dominant principles and practices. As a consequence, the dominant orthodoxy itself undergoes constant change. Nonetheless, the big players feature largely in the institutional landscape of development.

Activity 5 Identifying the big players

Timing: You should spend no more than 1 hour on this activity

David Hulme, a British development theorist, paints a vivid picture of this landscape, part of which is reproduced in Box 3. Look at this, and identify the main features of his picture. From your own experience, extend this picture, adding to the global picture and adding in big players – and how they operate – at other levels, for example, national and local.

Box 3 The institutional landscape for attacking global poverty

The institutional landscape for tackling global poverty is a vast terrain which lacks clear boundaries and involves a web of multilateral, national, sub-national and local institutions spread across the public sector, private business and civil society. It is also a dynamic landscape comprised of institutions reflecting the power structures and principles of different eras. While several of the key institutions date back to the founding of the UN and Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs) in the 1940s there are many new institutions based on 21st century international power relations, such as the G20, and complex public–private partnerships, such as the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. There are many ambiguities about the roles of different institutions and their overlapping mandates. While the assumption underpinning the UN institutions is of unquestioned state sovereignty, with wise men negotiating compromises between well-articulated national interests, contemporary practices of deliberation, decision-making and practical action on global poverty have increasingly been influenced by the growing number, and increasing influence, of non-state actors. These different institutions have differing interests and visions of ‘what should be done’ and coalesce into a variety of formal and informal associations and networks.

From the outset it must be understood that the institutions, associations and networks examined here are not elements of a rationally designed international institutional architecture. Their roles, responsibilities and authorities are often unclear and they overlap, sometimes in ill-defined ways. While some are mandated to eradicate poverty around the world, others have taken on poverty reduction as an additional goal to a pre-existing mission. Policies, plans and actions occur on both a coordinated and uncoordinated basis and involve different sets of players in multiple arenas. As for other global issues – such as food supply, climate change and financial sector regulation – there is no over-arching or agreed institutional authority and, as a result, no-one is in charge of global poverty eradication.

The values that underpin international efforts to tackle global poverty, and the policies and actions that are pursued, are constrained – some would say are undermined – by the day-to-day realities of power politics in international relations. While the most powerful nations can agree that the contemporary architecture, the UN and the BWIs, is inadequate, agreeing changes has proved difficult. The most important institutions were designed to meet the needs and serve the interests of the power structure of the mid-20th century. Reforming them to recognise the configuration of economic and military power in the early 21st century remains a work in progress. The acronyms of many new organisations litter this chapter – the G20 (a recognition that no longer are there a mere handful of industrial powers), GAVI (the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunisation – a recognition of the significance of the commercial and non-profit sectors) and others. While both the old and the new institutions and associations are commonly identified as having specific policies and interests, it is important to recognise how porous their boundaries and positions are. For example, radical critics of the World Bank present it as a monolithic organisation with all its departments and staff determinedly pursuing a clear mission and set of policies to neo-liberalise the world. In reality the Bank is more complex, with departments set against each other and staff networking with ‘like-minded’ people in other institutions – sometimes to challenge or oppose Bank policies and actions. Forms of influence that are not focused on specific institutions – such as the epistemic community of ‘Chicago economists’ spread throughout the BWIs and ministries of finance and universities around the world – have been and can be very powerful.

(Hulme, 2010, pp. 81–2)


I find this an immensely rich picture, the kind of picture to which one can return time and again and find new details and new insights. Four things strike me in particular:

  1. Hulme conveys the dynamic complexity of this institutional landscape. Not only is it made up of many different and differing actors – from the public sector, private business and civil society – at any one point in time, it is also constantly changing. It reflects and represents interests that emerged at different points in time, and ‘remains work in progress’. It’s useful to think of it as being an emergent landscape – always.
  2. The extract is full of terms that remind us that agencies do not undertake development on their own, but rather in relationships with other players. Terms such as ‘web’, ‘associations’, ‘networks’, ‘configuration’ point to a collaborative – although certainly not necessarily a conflict-free – process.
  3. Though not using the word, Hulme presents a picture that could well be viewed using the two ‘lenses’ I talked about earlier. Of course, agencies look to identify and pursue particular courses of action: the lens of ‘institutional development as intervention’. But Hulme is careful to point out that the agencies are ‘not elements of a rationally designed international institutional architecture’ (Hulme, 2010, p. 81–2). What they do emerges from a long and continuing series of interactions, some complementary, some contradictory: the lens of ‘institutional development as history’.
  4. Perhaps most strikingly, the picture is one of power plays and politics. I’m not sure that I agree with Hulme’s formulation in this respect: ‘The values that underpin international efforts to tackle global poverty, and the policies and actions that are pursued, are constrained – some would say undermined – by the day-to-day realities of power politics in international relations’ (p. 82). ‘Constrained’ and, even more, ‘undermined’ reflect a negative view of politics – or at least of ‘power politics’. It might be better to say simply that ‘power politics’ are unavoidable, a part of the reality that development managers must negotiate. That reservation aside, I entirely agree with Hulme in his wider concern to put power and politics at the heart of the particular process of institutional development – that of poverty eradication – that he is exploring.

So for me it seems entirely appropriate, necessary even, to conclude this opening look at ways of seeing institutions and institutional development by affirming the centrality of power.