Rethinking Institutions in Strange Times | A Call for Collective Action

April 28, 2020


Published in General News

Humanity is immersed in a constantly changing environment, driven by unstable development forces and their complexities. Globalization dynamics that emerged by the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s have brought us at a great crossroad. This is something I call Strange Times. Strange as it is the first time in human history that we have access to incredible tools such as the internet, biotechnology, accumulated knowledge, medical improvements and global institutions. In the light of this, we face high levels of uncertainty in the near future like never before. How can this be possible? There is not a clear answer of course… That is why, here I want to share with the reader some personal thoughts about these issues and their relationship with modern times’ institutional evolution. I certainly believe we are not aware of the 21st century institutional challenges and the urgent call to encourage collective action, as a path to achieve sustainable development.

 We have reached high economic growth at an accelerated pace over the last couple decades, without considering major scale impacts, such as ecological unsustainability and economic inequality. Our aim of growth makes us insensible to market evolution and the profound damages on earth, instead leaving us more concerned about new clothes to buy, music festivals to attend and more Netflix series to watch. However, lots of life’s aspects are changing without us barely noticing. As market forces, political willingness and social beliefs are reshaping society in a multidimensional way, our lives, thoughts, lifestyles and ways of interacting undergo deep changes. Governments, educational systems, communities, companies, even religions, all our institutions are under constant change. I know it is not an easy task to intuitively understand what institutions are, what they do or do not encompass, how they shape social patterns, behavioral sciences, political settings and economic orders, etc. Here I pose a reflection about institutions, defining them as a mechanism for social interactions, reflecting culture, habits, norms, rules and traditions (written or unwritten), formally constituted or not (formal or informal).

 Our daily lives are framed by different sets of institutional arrangements. Each of us belong to particular organizations and institutions that might differ depending on where we live, what we studied and where we did it, our natural environment and the religion we profess. Those institutions have shaped who we are and how we think. Somehow, we are the result of institutional interactions; an extension (we reflect institutional settings). All these institutions that govern us have certain purposes, mechanisms of operation and reinvention, to survive over time. For example, educational and research institutions. Education has been institutionalized and formalized over the years. We have constituted different types of educational institutions, at local and global levels, which teach certain universal contents, others more specific. Think of an educational institution to which you have belonged to and how much it has changed in the last two, five or ten years ... Changes in educational institutions are enormous and constant.

 Institutional changes are driven and motivated by several internal and external factors. Governmental institutions for example, change according to internal policies and operate in accordance to international agreements. Throughout history we have learned how to create inter-institutional ties, a powerful weapon for survival and harmony. The capacity to shape and drive institutions through collective cooperation has been a major advantage to homo sapiens, something the recognized Israeli historian Harari points out about our evolution. Thanks to great cooperation efforts between institutions and organizations around the world, we have managed to stop the spread of wars, eradicate diseases such as smallpox and make significant improvements to the ozone layer, highly affected by pollution in decades past.

 Can we redirect such efforts and experiences towards structural global issues in modern times?

 Time to Rethink Our Institutions

If we have been able to overcome such great challenges, why are we facing such Strange Times? Why haven’t we been able to solve many structural issues? Have our institutions failed in this sense? I certainly do not believe they have failed. Likewise, I believe we are exerting great pressures over them without understanding the limited environment they operate, thus, it's a great time to RETHINK our institutions. Not only does a rethink on institutions signify a transformation at the narrative and conceptual levels, but also signifies an urgent change reflected on strong political and social behavior commitments. By rethinking institutions, we should improve their goals, evaluate norms, values and interactions under a multi-stakeholder framework. We must evaluate institutional future impacts on development, their scope, and limitations. Moreover, we have to establish mechanisms to keep them alive under sustainability frameworks. Even though sustainability seems to be a major challenge. The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda of the United Nations must become a priority among institutional arrangements and paradigms.

 To successfully transform our institutions, there is a need of collective participation and new policy-making process in which both top-down strategies and bottom-up initiatives are taken into account. Deep institutional changes not only encompass political agreements, as local communities play a fundamental role in proclaiming and promoting better social, environmental and economic practices. There is a call for collective action to impact different levels of society, for instance, your church, your school, your company and your family. Every institution and organization you belong to is subject of transformation. New social rules have to be enforced and more effective monitoring mechanisms are also a cornerstone… More importantly, we have to be aware that without a suitable change, there is not a promising future.

 Institutionalism and lessons from Elinor Ostrom

One of the most brilliant minds of the 19th century was Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics and who taught us great lessons about governance, collective action, and sustainability. For more than 30 years, Ostrom studied institutional arrangements and their importance in governing common-pool resources (CPRs) such as fisheries, forests, water irrigation systems and public goods. Her research outcomes around institutionalism and natural resources effective management, evidenced the importance of collective action in transforming, setting, enforcing and monitoring rules and norms in long-term social interactions. I recommend the reader, if you are interested of course, to review this literature and many others that complement it. It is inspirational work, and I firmly believe her theoretical and practical approaches are highly valuable as a strong basis for today's institutional challenges.

 Global cooperation and final thoughts

The United Nations is another clear example of how we converge globally and drive collective efforts with common purposes. Despite deep criticism, this important multilateral organization has created valuable mechanisms of action, impacting political agendas, social movements and business strategies. We look towards the World Health Organization in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, likewise how the UN environmental agency is seeking to stop climate change. We also look towards the Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in attending several forced displacement crises in Turkey, Colombia and Yemen.

 We cannot forget the important role of the private sector, which permeates all dimensions of modern society. It behooves corporations to take bold actions towards sustainability and collective action. Large research and cooperation institutes are also supporting these strategies. Besides their great efforts, we must cooperate and align our institutions, values, norms and beliefs with such global initiatives, as there are several ways to co-create socioeconomic and environmental interactions.


Juan Pablo Casadiego Guevara


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