Politics at stake: a note on stakeholder analysis

23 07 2008
July 2008
Mark Butler and David Ntseng

People in government, business, and political and civil society organisations routinely talk about ’stakeholders’. They do exercises in stakeholder analysis to inform their ’strategic planning’. Invariably they use the stakeholder language to advertise claims about the inclusivity of their thinking, their processes, and their practice. The organisation we work with was asked recently to prepare an input for a ’stakeholder analysis’ for a collegial NGO and this forced us to reflect on why we were so uncomfortable with the very idea. We presented some of our thinking as the basis for discussions at the NGO meeting. It was good that there was a mix of people there including grassroots militants as well as civil society employees. The note below includes some thoughts we had prepared, as well as things we learned from people at the meeting. It outlines why we conclude that the stakeholder discourse, and the practices that go along with it, are in fact part of an order that functions to exclude and silence. For those at the meeting who came from grassroots formations, it was clear that this approach fitted very much with their analysis and experience. Summarising their key points, it was said that the stakeholder approaches exclude, enslave, silence and demobilise. The combined effect is to try and reduce their struggles to what can be managed within the terms set by the rich and powerful.

Stakeholders = those who count. Emancipatory Politics = made by the uncounted.

By definition, stakeholders must mean those people or groups who are recognised as having a stake in something. Part of CLP’s evolving way of understanding the world we’re in has meant moving decisively away from the assumption that we get toward good praxis by analysing, and working with, relations with ’stakeholders’. It’s not that we think stakeholders don’t matter - on the contrary, they constitute ‘what is’ and they therefore affect a lot of things that people have to deal with. But they cannot constitute spaces for a liberatory politics. The ’stakeholders’ are those who are counted and who are qualified to speak - their counting, qualifications and speaking being constituted by and within the terms of the existant order (of ‘the police’ as Rancier would have it). A liberatory politics is the opposite - it is precisely the disruption of those terms by those who are not counted, not qualified, and therefore, should not be speaking. In short: naming the stakeholders is in order - liberatory praxis is the ‘out of order’ of those who do not qualify to be stakeholders.

This critique of stakeholder (anti)politics seems to us in line with the analysis of the French philosopher, Jacque Rancier. Luka Arsenjuk, says of Rancier’s thinking that he is opposed to kind of politics “that makes decisions on the people, for the people, instead of the people; a politics that holds that in the political order, all sections of the community have been assigned their proper place.” The critique in turn finds support in the experience of those whose struggle and are, as a result get ‘assigned their proper place’ as stakeholders. Mama Rose who is a street trader argued that:

“For us street traders, being a stakeholder is a slavery term. This is because government and big business think for us, plan for us and all we are left with is to fit in their plan and do as we told, even if we feel hurt and oppressed by their plans”.

Rancier himself says:

“There are two ways of counting the parts of the community: The first only counts empirical parts - actual groups defined by differences in birth, by different functions, locations, and interests that constitute the social body. The second counts ‘in addition’ a part of the no-part. We will call the first police and the second politics…. there is politics inasmuch as ‘the people’ refers to subjects inscribed as a supplement to the count of the parts of society, a specific figure of ‘the part of those who have no-part.’…Politics exists as a deviation from this normal order of things. It is this anomaly that is expressed in the nature of political subjects who are not social groups but rather forms of inscription of ‘the (ac)count of the unaccounted-for.’ The ‘poor,’ … does not designate an economically disadvantaged part of the population; it simply designates the category of peoples who do not count, those who have no qualifications to part-take…, no qualification for being taken into account.” (Ten Theses on Politics).

Ironically of course, notwithstanding the claims of liberal apologists (including those on the left in civil society) for the inclusivity of the “stakeholders + state” machinery, that machinery actually really excludes nearly everyone by now - if inclusion meant more than managing them and their opinions! As Alain Badiou has it: “Today the great majority of people do not have a name; the only name available is ‘excluded’, which is the name of those who do not have a name. Today the great majority of humanity counts for nothing”.

Mr. Ndlovu, who is a street trader activist stated:

“we are being used under the banner of being stakeholders. Whenever the government makes a policy they consult us individually and say different things to us. Having caused enough chaos among us, they say they have consulted stakeholders. Whereas those among us who are not well learned they are often ignored”.

Emancipation is not a ‘deliverable’

For our context, it is for these sorts of reasons we agree with the analysis of Michael Neocosmos that the terrain of (anti)politics established by, and in relation to, the state project is essentially dead. At a certain level, so many people’s experience and analysis shows this to be so - the list of un-met expectations of what the state promises and consistently fails to deliver is so long, that most people really do feel deep anger or despair. But the space where the possibility of actual emancipation emerges, is constituted in the moment when people’s movements and actions proceed from the brutal truth that “we are on our own” and move forward only once they have clarified that we are finished with (anti)politics of the state project. In a similar way, Frantz Fanon observed so long ago that:

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the magic hands of the people” (The Wretched of the Earth, 159).

This break is decisive - it is a movement from illusion to truth. The illusion is that the state project as a vehicle for delivery is also the vehicle for human liberation (an illusion absolutely necessary for perpetuating the tyranny of the liberal democratic rule). Truth is in the insight that the reinvention of politics through the out-of-order actions of the uncounted on the principle of a genuine, living democracy (that everyone really matters) is the meaning, means and content of human emancipation. On the basis of that insight, people first announce their humanity and, as a consequence, make explicit their prescriptions on the state. Perhaps from that point on, they may establish a sequence of politics and action where they are ’stakeholders’ - but they must first (or at least simultaneously through their action/struggle) make everyone see that they are precisely those with no stake in what exists! It is their status as non-stakeholders that explains the contempt and disregard of the rich and powerful and that makes the people’s reclamation of humanity and dignity so scandalous that it cannot but be out-of-order and unable to be accommodated without a rupture to the existing order.

In our own searching for a better praxis, we have concluded that we only find a certain kind of human freedom and solidarity in and through our connection with politics defined as the disruption of the order of the existant by those who are excluded - and in working with the processes that flow from, and that remain in fidelity to, these moments. The clear implication is that, to define our own praxis on the basis of a stakeholder analysis would be to inevitably inscribe our praxis as part of the existing order - precisely the dead-end that we needed to break with!

So we needed to clarify for ourselves: what can it mean to make a contribution to a ’stakeholder analysis’? What is more important?:

• to try to list those groups, classes, categories that make up ‘what is’; to analyse what they are doing or trying to do; to make informed guesses about who’s likely to win and lose what given the current ‘balance of power’??; or
• to analyse ‘what is’ by showing how all these different groups and ‘forces’ are in fact simply part of a moribund system of unfreedom, stultification, oppression and exploitation - even though some of them imagine themselves as part of its opposition?;
• perhaps to try and describe what we have learned about ‘what is’ from the perspective of the politics of those who are not, those whose politics would establish something actually new and liberating?.

Who counts?

Perhaps first we must remember the inappropriateness of a civil society or NGO elite sitting around discussing and analysing ’stakeholders’ - inappropriate because it still assumes that the real agency for change is located in this civil society. In the liberal and neo-liberal discourses of this civil society, what are counted as the stakeholders are the ‘interest groups’ who engage with (and include) the state. From our experience, the typical stakeholder list would be something like: labour, business (black and white, big and small), churches, universities, women’s organisations, ‘communities’, political parties, the media, NGOs, and so on. In our discussions at the meeting, Rev. Willem said: “It seems that the poor and excluded are perpetually being fragmented by the authorities in the name of being stakeholders”.

Underpinning this approach has to be the rule that there are grounds for the justification of each stakeholder and each interest group’s voice. But this reduces all ‘politics’ to the management of partial claims within the ambit of the terrain of the state. A proper politics is the opposite - it exists only in the universal truth claims implied in the political actions of those who have no ‘place’, no justification. Thus in Neocosmos’ rendering of Badiou: “an emancipatory politics is universal and not linked to any specific interest, it is ‘for all’ never ‘for some’. It follows we can say that for Badiou emancipatory politics does not ‘represent’ anyone:

‘Politics begins when one decides not to represent victims [...] but to be faithful to those events during which victims politically assert themselves [...] Politics in no way represents the proletariat, class or nation [...] it is not a question of whether something which exists may be represented. Rather it concerns that through which something comes to exist which nothing represents, and which purely and simply presents its own existence’ (Badiou, 1985)”(Michael Neocosmos “Civil society, citizenship and the politics of the (im)possible: rethinking militancy in Africa today”).

It would be more appropriate to recognise that these questions can only be answered in specific contexts of specific people’s struggle. When those who suffer it lead self-initiated action/s against it, then part of that process might presumably look something like a ’stakeholder analysis’. But the stakeholders that matter in that analysis would be those that actually affect the real situation of the people and that actually feature in the thinking and analysis of that situation by the people.

It might be possible to try and make some very tentative notes about what the kinds of stakeholders that do seem to feature in many such struggles at the moment in our context. Of necessity, what we hint at here is incomplete. Nonetheless, it seems to us that what people fairly consistently name in this regard are what we might call the apparatus of the liberal democratic state - including its armed wing/s. (It is noticeable that this conclusion is systematically ignored, mis-read and/or ridiculed by all the elite observers, commentators, analysts and practitioners - including those of the Left.) The most common targets of critique and rebellion are thus: local councillors, local government (and often too, the provincial - less often, national government), local activists and fora of the political parties, the police. Then there is a layer of stakeholders that, often together with players in the preceding list, shape local spaces of democratic discussion and politics - especially elites who oppress the majority (whether these are purely political elites tied to the parties or those with very localised economic interests - e.g. shacklords, landowners, etc - or those with power derived from other resource bases like formal education, connection with mainstream churches etc.) Perhaps another layer of stakeholders that seems to emerge again and again are those from civil society, who try to mediate and control the relation between people’s action and the state project - lawyers, churches, NGOs, Left activists, etc..

Fanon stessed that “The nation does not exist in a programme which has been worked out by revolutionary leaders”; it is created by “the muscles and brains of the citizens”. Abahlali baseMjondolo President, S’bu Zikode, has articulated a powerful extension of this idea in his commentary on a discussion of globalisation in the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo (i.e., a learning space constituted and populated by shack-dwellers) during September 2007. Regarding globalisation, Zikode said:

“It was clear to all that you have to approach it from the bottom, start small in a form like struggling against Baig, Mlaba etc, because in no ways you can jump into the World Bank while failing to identify a close enemy that you can see, touch, an enemy that denies us a right to life. Thus as much as all debates are good, fighting only by talking does not take us much further. Sometimes we need to strengthen our muscles for an action debate, that is a living debate that does not only end on theories [Zikode 2007].

Indeed, as Fanon insists: “we must rid ourselves of the very Western, very bourgeois and therefore contemptuous attitude that the masses are incapable of governing themselves”.

Under current conditions then, emancipatory politics can only be initiated by those who are not stakeholders. The basis of any decent politics that is faithful to the universal principles elaborated in their thinking and struggles is that everyone counts (i.e., the opposite to what currently obtains). What kind of analysis could be done under that assumption? Surely not an analysis by elite analysts of the stakeholders who currently count? Surely only by and with those who speak and act out-of-order?

Even if we began with an idea that presumes everybody is or should be somehow a stakeholder of the state system (on the democratic basis that they are here and are human), we still reduce politics and people to the idea that they are recipients of something that the state will ‘deliver’ to them (a toilet, freedom, whatever). This is the deadening impact of both the ‘human rights’ and ‘basic services’ discourses - both of which, when applied to the massive number and scale of rebellion and action across the country, function to hide the demand for a human(ising) politics which is usually at the top of what the people actually involved in these actions list! It is also the deadening effect of conscripting those rebellions and voices into the ’stakeholder forums’ that are the ‘in order’ channels for sustained enslavement.

It is necessary to repeat and clarify that by talking of the ’state project’ and the (anti)politics it establishes, we include (most of) civil society which, even in its apparently oppositional roles, is very much part of what is counted. Discussions with grassroots militants helped us to see that civil society organisations often land up playing a key role in de-politicising their struggles by jumping in with ‘capacity building’ and ‘education’ interventions that are designed not primarily to strengthen the poor in their own struggles but to bring them into order and to play according the rules and expectations of the dominant order by teaching them to be better ’stakeholders’. Dudu from the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition asserted: “having observed social formations and their politics, I have this question to ask: Why is it that every time the Poor come together, NGOs and Leftists jump in and take over? In their conventional praxis they provide capacity building. Whereas my observation is that capacity building demobilises people, it takes them away from their original agenda”.

With this sort of ‘help’ from civil society, it can hardly be surprising that the experience of grassroots militants was that the move from being part of the -not-counted’ to being a ’stakeholder’ is not really a move from exclusion to real inclusion - it is is just a move to another kind of enslavement and exclusion: “They bring us into these structures and then they tell us what must be conveyed down to our people! This keeps us in a kind of slavery”. Mr. Mqabi (also a street trader activist) correctly concluded: “We need to look within ourselves to find strength and courage to fight our own battles first, and then look outside for additional support”.

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