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The Dialogue Host
In order to deliver concrete results policy dialogue needs to be structured, especially when it aims at bringing together stakeholders from different sectors – public, private, non-profit – and with different mandates, areas of specialization and organizational cultures. Quite frankly, reuniting such a disparate array of actors and pretending that they will get along and reach an agreement just by themselves is a recipe for disaster. Someone needs to coordinate their exchanges, frame the debates and steer the discussions to ensure that they remain relevant and productive. Such is the role of the Dialogue Host.
Up to now, all our Dialogue Hosts have been civil society organisations specialised in the topics addressed by the dialogue process, although nothing prevents public actors from adopting that role within their policy field. A high level of peer recognition is important, but what is crucial is that the structure is perceived by all the stakeholders as being, if not neutral, at least impartial. In strongly polarised environments this is not an easy task, as most independent actors are eventually pushed into taking sides by the confrontational dynamics that govern the political arena. But this is precisely the main purpose of inclusive and participatory policy dialogue: to create the conditions for consensus to emerge among otherwise confronted stakeholders.
The case of Bolivia is quite illustrative in this regard. After more than a decade in power and following two constitutional referenda to extend his periods in office, Evo Morales’ government had cut ties with almost all civil society organizations without links to their “Movimiento al Socialismo” or MAS, which was originally conceived as a coalition of social and peasant movements rather than a political party. Building on these origins and in line with Louis XIV’s famous assertion, “L’Etat c’est moi”, Evo and his colleagues seemed to say: “civil society is us”. In his books and articles, his right-hand man Alvaro Garcia Linera had repeatedly declared all donor-funded CSOs as agents of imperialism, openly questioning their legitimacy and cornering them through draconian regulations that aimed at cutting off their foreign financial support. In such a dire context, it was extremely difficult to find a Dialogue Host for the INSPIRED dialogue process, which was to address the (lack of) access to health of the most vulnerable populations. Our final choice for the UNITAS network was dictated by its longstanding reputation as the backbone of Bolivian social movements –it was founded in 1976, under the military dictatorship, and even had a younger Evo among the many alumni of its training programmes– as well as its country- wide outreach and support base. At the same time, the fact that the organisation had been one of the most outspoken critics of the government’s efforts to co-opt civil society and restrict its freedom of expression entailed the risk of putting the incumbent officials on the defensive.
Nevertheless, it was precisely the organisation’s strong ethos and its prestige among civil society, including many peasant movements affiliated to MAS, that allowed the INSPIRED dialogue process to access the government through the backdoor and to eventually place the topic of Universal Health Care in the political agenda, pushing Morales himself to champion the initiative ahead of the upcoming presidential elections.
There are multiple strategies that Dialogue Hosts can adopt in order to broker consensus among the many stakeholders involved in the process. Identifying windows of opportunity for policy reform requires political vision and the capacity to react collectively in a concerted manner. However, as the above-mentioned example suggests, the most important skill for the Dialogue Host to deliver results consists in its ability to generate and nurture trust among the diversity of actors that take part in the dialogue process, who represent the core cluster or “dominant coalition” of the nascent policy network.
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