Lesson 3: Create, convene and coordinate coalitions
In complex systems, information and decision-making are often distributed among many actors, making it exceedingly difficult to map a way forward. Even identifying and creating a shared understanding of problems themselves is arduous when myriad individuals and institutions have differing perspectives and motivations. Each of the organizations studied has chosen, in some capacity, to work alongside institutions that can accelerate change through policies, service delivery, research, investment or other means. However, several of the systems entrepreneurs have gone even further, convening multiple groups and actors across disciplines and traditional boundaries to build common understanding and collective action.
In the context of systems change, the power of convening is the ability to bring together disparate players, potentially from sectors that have not historically worked with one other. This ensures the system is seen as a whole, and paves the way for new policies and rules that govern it. Importantly, the study showed that convening is not a precursor to controlling outcomes. While the organizations studied have used their convening power to promote values and principles, they have not sought to prescribe solutions or endorse their own products and services. In fact, to be an effective convener, these organizations have learned that it is critical to be an objective actor, as Billimoria discovered at CYFI.
When Billimoria considered advocating for new policies and attitudes under the auspices of Aflatoun, she met with considerable resistance from the decision-makers she was aiming to influence. Aflatoun was seen as a service provider with its own vested interests (promoting its curriculum), which prevented it from being an “honest broker” pursuing systemic goals. The decision to create CYFI as a new entity was largely due to a perceived need for an objective convener, who could effectively coordinate the disparate actors in the system to advocate for political change.
As a convener, CYFI brings together key actors from the finance and education sectors to change regulations and policies that prevent children from opening bank accounts and learning how to manage their own finances. Its flagship programme, Global Money Week, is designed to be a “door-opener”, an easy first step for countries to become involved in the CYFI network. Through this event, countries form committees, often hosted by a government ministry or the central bank, which become an enduring mechanism for advocating for local reform. Over time, CYFI exerts what it calls positive peer pressure to encourage country representatives to follow through on commitments to dismantle barriers and implement educational reforms that empower children financially. As more countries have made commitments, CYFI’s regional summits and advisory services have become important for tracking implementation and measuring progress.
Nidan, another organization interviewed, is convening from the other end of the spectrum: the grassroots communities that have the most to gain or lose from systems change. Based in India, Nidan works to confront the vast inequalities and social injustices experienced by informal workers, who make up over 90% of India’s workforce and generate more than 50% of the national income.1
Informal workers have irregular and insecure income, are unable to access standard labour protections (e.g. social security) and are vulnerable to exploitation by employers. Self-employed informal workers have similar issues, combined with lower access to finance and to market and government incentives for micro- and small businesses. To respond to these injustices, Nidan incubates “people’s institutions” that allow informal workers to create markets for their goods and services, while also organizing and advocating for their rights. With this model, Nidan has initiated and established 22 independent, self-sustaining organizations that have brought together and empowered more than 700,000 workers and their families across nine states in India.
Although Nidan focuses heavily on creating sustainable business models and markets for informal workers, the larger network formed by these organizations constitutes its greatest power. When Arbind Singh, Nidan’s founder, began his work with street vendors in the late 1990s, he introduced the idea of a national network of street vending associations, bringing greater numbers in support of their demands. As he explained, “We do big organizing, creating force in membership. We try to work in large numbers because there is strength in numbers – this gives them confidence and a sense of belonging to a larger family.”
In 1998, Nidan assisted with forming the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), which brought together nearly 900 organizations from across the country. Over more than a decade, through massive data gathering, training, information sessions and eventually protests and hunger strikes, NASVI and its constituents advocated the adoption of a national policy for street vendors, which later became the Street Vendors Act, the first of its kind in the world. The Act provides substantial protection for these vendors and, most importantly, formalizes their participation in local decision-making. Today, the experience of NASVI and the developed network forms the backbone of Nidan’s organizing activities for informal workers more generally.
In the process of systems change, convening and advocating – rather than the change itself – are ultimately crucial steps forward. Policies and frameworks are only as good as the implementation that follows. In this regard, CYFI’s global network for children as economic citizens rests largely on its member countries’ commitment to follow through on their commitments. And while Nidan’s achievement with the Street Vendors Act is significant, it will only prove useful if Indian states are successful in implementing the Act locally. Therefore, for CYFI and Nidan, the work of systems change has only just begun.