3.1 Associations

Associations represent the interests of a class, or sectoral or professional groups. The associative organisation is based on the idea that interests of members may be negotiated, represented and mediated with those of the state. This corporatist-associative arrangement means that public policy functions are delegated to these private interest self-governing associations in “an attempt to utilize the collective self-interest of social groups to create and maintain a generally acceptable social order” (Streeck and Schmitter, 1985). This operates through a complex bargaining process.

The intermediary associative body plays a self-governing role based on building solidarity and co-operation with its member organisations (or individuals). This has advantages for the state (reduced transaction costs, improved legitimacy, and the possibility of better implementation of regulation), and means that the member organisations of a particular sector are more likely to reach a mediated compromise that involves some adjustment towards the general interest, but that is mutually satisfactory. Typically the functions carried out by associations are regulating quality/standards, managing labour markets, negotiating market protection in exchange for development objectives etc. However this doesn’t work in all sectors, for example in some sectors the state may take a direct regulatory role, while in other sectors it may not be possible to negotiate agreements amongst the interests of members. Associations can help overcome market failures, by for example managing the training and qualifications of a professional or occupational group.

Although associations are reasonably common, they are not always well regarded: economists have viewed associations as inefficient, price-fixing cartels; political scientists have viewed them as corporate devices that undermine democracy through the representation of strong interest groups. Associations include: trade unions co-ordinating and negotiating wages, conditions and services for their members; agricultural co-operatives which might have oligopolistic control of a market of small producers (balancing the power of larger wholesalers, and/or giving some protection to smaller rural producers). Where there is a high degree of state involvement in a sector (for contracting or regulatory purposes) there may be more scope for associations. Thus, for example, in welfare services in many European countries, the state contracts with large corporatist voluntary sector associations which then manage the carrying out of contracts through their member organisations (as in Germany and Holland). And in other areas of the voluntary sector there is often a high degree of self-regulation through national associations.

Associations operate not only at the national sectoral level, but can also operate regionally and locally where for example chambers of commerce or their equivalents perform multi-sectoral functions. Thus associations are an important part of the institutional landscape, and carry out a range of functions: regulatory, market stabilisation, promoting co-operation, and facilitating research collaboration, etc.

3 Associations, NGOs and networks

3.2 Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)