Nov 28, 2011

Rethinking the Three-sector Governance Framework in the Middle East

From October 24 - 26 a group of scholars and practitioners met for the first in a regional collaborative seminar series at NYU Abu Dhabi, "Deepening research on cross-sector social partnerships (CSSPs)". Organized by RCLA and hosted by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, the series aims to explore the landscape of scholarly work on CSSPs in the Middle East, advance the scholarly conversation by infusing it with international perspectives and support regional scholars in opening possibilities for further research on CSSPs. CSSPs take the form of collaboration between the government, nonprofit and business in addressing shared social problems. Such partnerships are considered a promising and innovative policy intervention, though they come with inherent challenges and risks.

Among the primary tasks of the group were to explore how this important global trend is taking shape in the Middle East and consider implications for governance and democracy amidst a changing socio-political landscape. But before launching into specific examples of partnerships, the group took a step back and explored the applicability of the conventional three-sector governance model that is well known to Western democracies, and serves as the implicit framework for CSSPs. The conversation raised some important questions about the continued resonance of this model, even in the West; surfaced interesting assumptions; and highlighted differences in how the sectors are understood across borders.

In the conventional tri-sector model, each sector is conceived of as having a distinct role: the state or the public sector has the primary functions of upholding the rule of law and providing frameworks for both the market and civil society; the market or the private sector is considered the generator of wealth, and is the realm of innovation and productivity; the civil society, through its values orientation, promotes the right to assembly and public welfare and holds the other two sectors accountable. In this conceptualization, the lines around each sector are clearly demarcated. Scholars have argued that it is precisely because some social issues are so complex and do not lie neatly within the mandate of any one sector, and because neither sector alone has the capacity to address these issues that cross sector social partnerships form1.

Scholars in the convening argued that while in theory, the tri-sector division of labor seems like the key to a healthy society, in reality there are many factors that complicate the above diagram in the Middle East. The weight and size of each sector is far from equal. The public sector is many Middle Eastern states is disproportionately large and authoritarian and civil society is weak and marginalized, though it is progressively gaining in strength with the advent of the Arab spring. While CSSPs are considered sector blurring mechanisms, among other trends that make for more porous boundaries between the sectors, the group thought that "sector distortion" is a more apt description of the changing nature of the sectors. The disproportionate size and power of the sectors inevitably creates challenges for CSSPs.

Depicting governance as shared between three sectors obscures the role of a large and important sector: international NGOs and donors. Participants discussed how international aid can undermine local government and how in a disturbing new trend, international NGOs are taking over local NGOs and rebranding them. International civil society is a powerful force that is missing from the model, along with other transnational forces such as global private business.

The phenomenon of sector blurring takes on interesting inflections in the Middle East. The global drivers for CSSPs such as the push for leaner governments, the increasing complexity of social issues and the rise of corporate social responsibility do exist in the Middle East. All these factors contribute to increased convergence between the sectors. Sector convergence also manifests itself in the form of the same powerful elite occupying top ranks in the government, business sphere and civil society. It is common in some Middle Eastern contexts that a powerful individual wears multiple hats. While it is not clear how this kind of sector blurring impacts CSSPs, participants in the convening agreed that sector blurring, regardless of what is driving it, is not desired by a growingly astute public that is demanding accountability - accountability that can be undermined by murky lines and shared responsibilities between the sectors.

Despite all these reservations, participants agreed that CSSPs are on the rise in the Middle East and they indicate an acknowledgement of the magnitude and complexity of social issues facing the region (Cross Sector Social Parnerships: Prospects and Challenges for Social Change in the Middle East). It will be interesting to see, amidst the changing landscape at best, and sheer chaos at worst, what form CSSPs will take and how they will impact on the version of tri-sector governance that exists in each country. According to Bryson and Crosby2, times of turbulence and changing conditions provide perturbations that act as opportunities for the system to re-organize. They propose that CSSPs are more likely to form under volatile conditions. There is probably no better time to test this hypothesis in the Middle East.

1Bryson, J. M., Crosby, B. C., & Stone, M. M. 2006. The design and implementation of cross-sector collaborations: Propositions from the literature. Public Administration Review, 66: 44-55.
2Crosby, B. C., and Bryson, J.M. 2011. Integrative Leadership and the Creation and Maintenance of Cross-Sector Collaborations." The Leadership Quarterly, 21: 211-30.

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