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What makes a successful coalition?

They are at the heart of all politics – but why do some coalitions work better than others?

The study of coalitions can help us to influence international development as well as give insights into political science, says Adrian Leftwich, Honorary Fellow in the University’s Department of Politics and Research Director of the Developmental Leadership Program.

Most people associate the term ‘coalition’ with governmental coalitions, such as the present government in the UK, or the more common Italian, Israeli or Belgian governments where individual parties are rarely able to form a single party government.

But, understood simply as a group of individuals or organisations that come together to achieve a goal they could not achieve on their own, coalitions are not confined to governments but are a pervasive feature of all politics in all organisations and groups, even in university departments, churches and NGOs. 

Depending on your point of view, coalitions can be ‘progressive’ or ‘predatory’

Coalitions may be formal or informal, long-lasting or transient. They may bring together NGOs to unite round a campaign; they may temporarily bring together key government leaders with those in business to achieve some economic or social policy reform. They may be at the heart of a peace settlement in a conflict situation. They may seek to achieve or overturn a specific decision, policy or piece of legislation and then (if successful) may disband; they may seek to promote a cause or campaign (like Make Poverty History, or the Pro-life coalition in the USA); they may seek (as an ‘event coalition’) to achieve the maximum possible level of protest (as in the protests at the World Trade Organisation meetings in Seattle some years ago).

And, depending on your point of view, coalitions can be ‘progressive’ or ‘predatory’ in their aims or activities. For example, regimes such as that of President Mugabe in Zimbabwe, are not simply the creature of one man, but are usually a complex coalition of different interests – such as the war veterans, the security services, favoured business enterprises, some customary leaders and others, in the case of Zimbabwe – all of whom gain from their hold on power.

Coalitions are therefore at the heart of all politics and this is nowhere more true than in the field of development where they can play a significant part in overcoming the pervasive collective action problems that define most challenges of development. But what brings coalitions into being? What factors shape more rather than less successful ones and, particularly from a developmental point of view, what facilitates the emergence and success of ‘developmental coalitions’ that promote sustainable growth, political stability and inclusive social development, rather than predatory or collusive coalitions?

With a £5m grant from the Australian Aid Agency (AusAID) the Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) has been working over the last three years to answer some of these questions and to generate policy messages that can assist the international community to help developmental leaderships and coalitions to emerge and succeed.

Work is about to start on the urban coalition that was instrumental in significantly reducing the violence that tore apart the Colombian city of Medellin for many years

We have researched a wide range of coalitions in different countries, sectors and issue areas, including women’s coalitions in Jordan, Egypt, South Africa and the Philippines; at HIV-AIDs prevention coalitions in Uganda and South Africa; as well as at the inner politics of regimes such as those in Yemen, Mauritius, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Work is about to start on the urban coalition that was instrumental in significantly reducing the violence that tore apart the Colombian city of Medellin for many years. And the DLP will shortly publish a comparative study of how informal coalitions at sub-national levels have shaped the different patterns of emissions reduction politics in China and India.

The work this far suggests some interesting hypotheses that we will continue to explore. For instance, ‘trigger’ events (sometimes called ‘critical junctures’ in the literature) often appear to play a catalysing role in the formation of coalitions for reform or change (and these may be a ‘threat’, a ‘crisis’ or an opportunity). The size and composition of the coalition, relative to its goals, can influence its effectiveness, as can the manner in which it both frames and strategises its activities in often very different institutional and political contexts.

The ability to draw on prior networks or to establish links with key players in the state organisations (in the case of advocacy coalitions) is often important, as is the ability to agree on goals, generate trust and sustain credible commitments to the purposes and functioning of the coalition. And the extent to which leaders of the constituent parts of coalitions can bring their followers with them, and the processes of internal management, matter too.

The study of coalitions serves as a lens through which to explore some of the key theoretical issues in political science, such as collective action problems and the relationship between structure and agency. With the prospect of a doubling of funding for the next three years, the DLP is beginning to make an impact on the thinking of key players in international development with particular regard to shifting their thinking and practices from predominantly technical approaches to one that understands better and engages more with the inner politics of development.

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