Global Cooperation

Uniting for change: the enablers and barriers to collective action

People placing their hands together, illustrating collective action

When people work together in collective action much can be achieved Image: Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Khushboo Awasthi Kumari
Evangelist, Designer, Punjab Education Collective
Rucha Pande
Co-leader, Punjab Education Collective
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  • There is growing collective wisdom on what enables collective action and what could be potential barriers to it.
  • If we can learn from past and ongoing experiences of collective action, the better and quicker we will be able to act.
  • Having the right partners, specific goals and finding the right canvas for collective action are critical to its success.

In our first blog on collective action, we delved into what collective action is, why it is so crucial right now and how it helps. Amplifying impact, leveraging diverse perspectives, sharing burdens and responsibilities, building networks and alliances and catalysing policy change were some of the benefits discussed.

While there is no denying that collective action is the need of the hour, it is also hard. Often the (very clear) difficulty in the short term wins over the (not always very clear) gain in the long term. This article delves into the enablers and barriers to collective action.

Catalysing collective action

There is growing collective wisdom on what enables collective action and what could be potential barriers to it. Unpacking some of these will help all of us better prepare, pursue and persist in our efforts of collective action. Based on the experiences of practitioners of collective action, the following five points should be covered:

1. Find the right partners

Though we may not debate on the merit of collective action, debates arise on how we understand challenges and opportunities in the system, approaches to improvement and what values we align with. A key aspect of finding the right partners is alignment on the fundamental values. At times, even when partners align on explicit goals, they prioritise different ‘unsaid’ goals when a conflict situation arises.

One notable instance of collective action failure was the League of Nations’ response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Under Mussolini’s leadership, Italy aimed to establish an empire in East Africa. There was a lack of action by the League, even though several nation-states condemned the invasion. The League's response was hampered by a lack of unity among its member states, as some nations were reluctant to impose economic sanctions or military intervention due to their own political and economic interests; while some nations pursued policies of appeasement.

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2. Have role clarity among partners

In the first part of this series, sharing responsibilities was highlighted as an advantage of engaging in collective action. Leveraging this advantage requires explicit and shared clarity among partners about the roles that they play. Otherwise, it can be very easy for teams to feel that they are walking on eggshells, afraid to step on others’ toes or worse - duplicate efforts.

Take the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa as an example. The urgent need for healthcare brought together an international community of governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international health agencies to address the outbreak and support the affected population. The lack of clear roles and responsibilities among these partners, however, hindered effective collective action. There were instances of duplication of efforts, as well as parties working in silos, both of which resulted in poor coordination. There were instances where the Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) were established by different partners in close proximity or in the same areas, resulting in redundant resources. Similarly, recognizing the critical need for data prompted multiple actors to collect data on the outbreak, without necessarily coordinating efforts with other actors involved. This lack of a standardised data collection and reporting system made it challenging to obtain a comprehensive and shared understanding of the situation.

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3. Balance immediate 'relief' action with long-term missions

Crises, such as natural disasters or pandemics like Covid-19, create a perfect opportunity for collective action. This is fuelled by the need for immediate action, relief for communities and quick alignment on solutions. On the other hand, it’s a challenge to maintain similar momentum when it comes to other societal challenges, such as education and employment, where the negative impact shows up years or decades later. If we compress the last 25 years on the timeline, significantly more people would have suffered a loss in their quality of life because of poor education than due to any pandemic or natural disaster.

In our work with the Telangana School Improvement Collective in India - a collective of the state education department of Telangana and non-profit organizations, such as Alokit, Vidhya Vidhai, Mantra4Change and ShikshaLokam - when the partners first came together in April 2023, working on parent engagement was an immediate and relevant need in the state. Over time, however, the collective also began focusing on other long-term, relevant areas of improvement, such as school leadership development, institutional strengthening etc., expanding beyond the immediate needs that had brought the collective together.

4. Build a shared understanding of tangible and specific goals

Teams and individual actors are in constant flow and flux. Collective action is not a once-and-done - it needs constant polishing. While people find it easy to come together and rally against an undesirable status, e.g. economic inequality or injustices, the movement gets difficult to sustain in the absence of clear, tangible goals that are shared and communicated well.

The Occupy Wall Street movement from 2011 shows that while the movement succeeded in drawing attention to issues of economic inequality and initiating a public discourse on the subject, it faced challenges in translating its goals into concrete policy changes or sustained impact. The decentralised nature of the movement, with a lack of specific demands, made it difficult to achieve tangible outcomes. It is an example of how transformative change through sustained collective action needs clear objectives and specific achievable goals communicated clearly by cohesive leadership.

5. Connect with donors who see the value and the challenges of collective action

Collective action takes time and can be messy. Not all donors see the value of collective action. However, there are an increasing number of examples where philanthropic giving is recognizing the need for collective action.

For example, the Internet Saathi programme, supported by Google and Tata Trusts, enables multiple actors, including the government and non-profit organizations, to empower women in rural India through digital literacy. By combining resources, expertise and an on-the-ground presence, the programme has achieved a positive, tangible impact on not just the women in focus, but also local governments and communities.

Committing to collective action

The better we can learn from past and ongoing experiences of collective action, the better and quicker we will be able to act. Having the right partners, specific goals and finding the right canvas for collective action are critical to its success.

We are at a time now where the question to ask is not should we? It is how should we?

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