Norms: How can we start tackling something so often ignored in governance work?

What do you get when you cross university researchers, development aid practitioners, and a few people somewhere in between? This sounds like it could be the start to a good joke, but it could actually be the start of something much more meaningful. A group of 19 researchers and practitioners got together at the CARE Nederland office to talk about a major gap in the research literature and development practice: governance norms. Yes, norms are a hot topic in research and development and much attention has been given to considering gendered norms, corruption, and other very important topics. But, thinking about how norms interact with governance systems is something that is rarely addressed head-on. CARE Nederland decided to convene this group to start the conversation.

So, what do norms have to do with governance? Perhaps more than you might think! Governments and public authorities worldwide are faced with norms every day. It could be something as simple as community members at the village level being expected to buy a drink for their local representative in order to get a small need met or as complex as maintaining power for an ethnic group at the national level. Regardless of what it is, many studies have been undertaken to try to understand different types of norms in a variety of sub-themes and numerous interventions have been launched to change them. Despite this variety of studies and interventions, few have directly tackled the theme of norms in governance directly.

There are many definitions of what constitutes a norm, but for the sake of this conversation, we’re using a shared understanding that a norm is a collective belief that influences what behaviors people do. A norm is a norm because it relies on others, whereas an attitude, for example, could be an independently-held belief. Norms could be about what people believe others are doing and about what people believe others think they should be doing. Norms can directly translate into a behavior or there could be many norms that collectively influence a behavioral outcome. Certainly, some norms are stronger than others; norms can range from being essentially obligatory in a society to something just relatively common or possible. All this in mind, of course, public authorities will encounter norms every day in many aspects of their jobs.

Norms often persist due to the propensity for solidarity, reciprocity, and a sense of obligation. In other words, corruption norms often persist because officials are expected to take care of their own. If a norm is socially accepted, it is legitimized and likely to persist even if it is damaging. For example, if a norm exists that public officials must take bribes and a new, well-meaning public official decides to break this norm, then he/she could risk being ostracized from colleagues or even risk losing his/her job. Regardless, norms require reference groups (these are the people who others believe dictate whether a norm is accepted) and sanctions (punishments or rewards for breaking or upholding the norm). In our example here, the reference group would be peer public officials and the sanction would be being ostracized or losing the job.

We should consider putting power at the center with many forces such as institutions, individuals, resources, social structures, and societal morals and values all working to create and maintain norms. And of course, people experience power dynamics and inequalities differently, so the intersectionality of power is also a driver of governance norms.

In general, norms are part of an ecosystem. They persist from the macro to the micro and can be experienced differently in different parts of the ecosystem. Norms can be changed by drivers such as the economy, through official mechanisms such as law changes, or through personal motivations from awareness raising or other activities. In fragile and conflict settings, there may be a mismatch between traditional and modern norms that could create tensions between sub-groups. In governance processes, this could create a fundamental divide between more modern or national government systems and more traditional or local governance processes, which could be a driver for enabling such norms to persist.

We have a lot of considerations if we want to tackle this issue together. Not least of all are our ethical considerations: Who are we to change a deeply-held norm? How do we balance incentives such as development aid if we tie them to norm change? How do we ensure that we’re not entangling our personal values with what is truly best for communities? How do we generate internal motivations for communities to change norms on their own? These questions and so many more are important considerations for both researchers and practitioners.

By the end of the first meeting, it was quite clear that we still have a lot of work to do to understand governance norms. We must first understand and then seek to challenge governance norms if we want to make meaningful progress toward sustainable and inclusive governance processes worldwide.

By Katie Whipkey, CARE Nederland – Do you have any ideas or resources to share? Send them my way at whipkey@carenederland.org.

This blog was based on a working group event for experts in the topic of social norms in The Netherlands on 1 July 2019. The event was sponsored through the Every Voice Counts project of CARE Nederland, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Members of the social norms expert group include: Emmely Benschop (The Hague Academy of Local Governance), Sylvia Bergh (International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam), Lori Cajegas (CARE Nederland), Ben Cislaghi (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Jacopo Costa (Basel Institute on Governance and University of Basel), Ine Cottyn (Clingendael Institute), Marleen Dekker (Leiden University African Studies Center), Volkert Doop (VNG International), Edin Elgsaether (Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy), Elsbet Lodenstein (Royal Tropical Institute), Berlinda Nolles (CARE Nederland), Pavithra Ram (RNW Media), Ambra Scaduti (Oxfam Novib), Reintje van Haeringen (CARE Nederland), Merlijn van Wass (CARE Nederland), Fatma Wakil (CARE Nederland), Katie Whipkey (CARE Nederland), Karin Willemse (Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication) and Franz Wong (Royal Tropical Institute).