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Bringing politics back in: The implications of the FCDO’s focus on open societies for diplomacy and development

Article by Graham Teskey and Tom Wingfield

October 19, 2021

Bringing politics back in: The implications of the FCDO’s focus on open societies for diplomacy and development

What differentiates an ‘open society’

What are open societies? The famed camel comes to mind: open societies may be hard to define but they are easy to recognise. Given the current importance of open societies in UK foreign policy, it is timely and important to consider a little more closely the nature of open societies, how they come about, and how external partners can support the long-run historical process by which societies become increasingly open.[1]


The term ‘open societies’ is a relatively recent one in political science, although it has some particularly influential proponents. It was first coined by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1932 (ssociété ouverte). He described it as a dynamic system inclined to moral universalism standing in contrast to closed societies, which have a closed system of law, morality or religion. It is static “like a closed mind”. For Karl Popper, the single crucial distinguishing feature of an open society is the individual: he defined an open society as one “in which individual is confronted with personal decisions”.[2] Popper added that only democracy provides an institutional mechanism for reform and leadership change without the need for bloodshed, revolution or coup d’état.


Our starting point is defining ‘society’ and understanding the rights of citizens and the role of politics. There is indeed such a thing as society, but it is heterogeneous and made up of competing and contested interests. Sometimes these interests are individual, sometimes they are communal (i.e. they represent a particular community or group). The one thing that differentiates ‘more’ open societies from ‘less’ open ones is that these competing interests are mediated and negotiated through peaceful, transparent and (largely) respectful inclusive processes. In such societies, this contestation is managed through a political process where people feel their interests are represented and political choices are openly negotiated and, ultimately, made in some idea of the ‘public interest’. The recent debate in the West on whether COVID-19 vaccinations should be mandatory or not illustrates the tension between individual rights (my right not to be vaccinated) and collective, public interests (our right not to be infected by the unvaccinated). This trade-off, this decision, in an open society is mediated through a political process, enshrined in law or government policy, and – it is hoped – accepted by citizens. Responding to COVID is thus an extremely current example of the tension that open societies must address: where does the interest of the individual end and the interest of ‘society’ (which is the aggregation of individuals/social classes/ethnicities in a polity) begin? Political philosophy and history will determine the answer to this question.


Where does politics fit in?

Open societies tolerate – welcome even – difference and diversity, debate and discussion, dissent, and discourse. The explicit adoption of the term ‘open societies’ suggests an implicit focus on ‘society’ rather than the ‘state’, with which the term is often paired in political science writing. History demonstrates that ‘the state’ does not necessarily pursue the interests of ‘individuals’ in society: rather it will privilege the interests of the state as interpreted by the political elite. In some –possibly many – developing countries the state is controlled by narrow sets of powerful interests and is often extractive and authoritarian. These states seem to be more ‘closed’ than ‘open’, which is often a clear choice as part of a strategy of ruling elites to maintain their dominance.


Politics lies at the heart of an ‘open society’. Politics is where the interests of individuals and interest groups are mediated, negotiated and where compromise is reached. It is where decisions are made and where choices and trade-offs are managed. In ‘open societies’ individual citizens have a voice: the views of individuals are represented in the political decisions that affect their lives. This gives the individual a stake in the system – even when decisions taken in the broader public interest go against their individual preference. This creates a sense of belonging and social cohesion. By contrast, where individuals – or their representatives – do not have a voice or a stake, they may disengage, resort to violence, or find solace in extremism, either religious or nationalist.


The UK has a long tradition of thinking about the relationship between the individual and the state, from the ending of feudalism, the people’s movements at the end of the 17th century to the establishment of the commonwealth and the eventual restoration of the monarchy. Today this issue continues to play out in the US, the UK, Europe, and in many developing countries. States are now grappling with the COVID pandemic, and in the longer-term are grappling with the challenge of delivering economic and social development outcomes. As regards the former, some have argued that COVID has allowed states to extend their powers at the expense of ‘individual freedoms’.[3] Regarding the latter, the ‘China variant’ (its political model and state-led approach to economic growth, not the virus…) has attracted interest from many governments. While the two things may not be connected, there certainly is convincing evidence that over the past two decades, the ‘openness’ of many societies has shrunk.[4]


‘Open societies’ carry two immediate implications, the one substantive and the other procedural. Substantively, open societies demand consideration of the norms and values that influence if not determine individual and collective human behaviour. These norms and values (difference, debate, and dissent) directly affect how we think and how we see the world. This substantive element is strongly normative: we believe these values are universal, and everyone, regardless of place of birth, deserves the right – if they so choose – to be different, to debate and to dissent.


But in order to function, open societies require a set of procedures – the settled ‘rules of the game’. These rules of the game will structure and manage the processes and mechanisms whereby the different – and yes, competing – interests of diverse groups of individuals can be mediated and negotiated, and ultimately, where compromise and consensus can be reached.


At a high level, organic laws and constitutions determine how power is allocated. Other laws set out procedures under the principles set out in the constitution. In common law systems without a written constitution, ‘precedent’ is the critical factor ensuring every person receives the same justice.


Open societies are societies governed by consent rather than by command; by impersonal rules, rather than patronage and ad hoc favour. In open societies, citizens give their consent to those holding political power by means of periodic elections, held with universal suffrage. The quid pro quo underlying citizens granting powers to state authorities is that decisions are made in the interests of the common good; the so-called public interest. Despite being routinely abused by politicians pursuing their own narrow interests, there really is such a thing as the public interest: decisions and policies that benefit the many rather than the few. Further, citizens in open societies enjoys two sets of freedoms: first ‘freedom to’ express their views, practice their faith, keep the property they legitimately own, join a union, open businesses and reap the rewards of success (on indeed failure); and second, ‘freedom from’ fear of violence, persecution, and arbitrary state interference in their lives.



The importance of ideas and their impact on institutions

Open societies evolve because of ideas being debated, contested (which we know can be violent), and over time, accepted and absorbed into the body politic. ‘Good politics’ is a battle of ideas as the basis for the allocation of resources. ‘Bad politics’ is a bidding war for patronage and largesse, irrespective of principle or policy.


When ideas become shared and accepted within ‘society’, citizens collaborate to create institutions which enable those ideas to be put into practice and to handle diversity and choice. These institutions take two forms: first, the formal institutions such as constitutions, national assemblies, political parties, parliaments, local governments, electoral commissions, and ombudspersons; and second, the informal institutions, many of which are layered on previous formal and informal institutions, such as the norms and values that underpin the operation and functioning of formal institutions (losers’ consent, tolerance and respect for the views of people that see the world differently, and the willingness to be held accountable for decisions or actions taken).


In turn these institutions create incentives and constraints on how citizens behave and which, in turn, deliver outcomes – in this case, functioning and sustainable open societies (see the schematic on the right).[5] This simple representation summarises why ideas are so important: ideas that become dominant in any society have a habit of being translated into sets of formal and informal institutions that create incentives for behaviour and thus societal outcomes. If dominant ideas in any society start with the state and its pre-eminence, then the institutions it creates tend to reflect this and reinforce incentives militating against openness.



It is not melodramatic to argue that globally, we are currently seeing a battle for ideas and a clash of institutions. It was never likely that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 would constitute the end of history; it’s just that the battle of ideas and what institutions we want to live by has taken a new and different turn. Key to this is distinguishing between different types of political systems and the way decisions are made. This ranges from responsive, one-party systems with elite internal decision-making (China, Vietnam, Singapore), through hybrid regimes or ‘flawed’ democracies (Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria), to rule by dictat (Myanmar, Russia) and on to associational democracy and political deliberation (Switzerland).


Those working in ‘diplomacy and development’ – by which is meant promoting a more equitable global economy – have no choice but to engage with ideas and institutions. It is likely that most practitioners already do so, but unknowingly. Worse, and unintentionally, actions can be taken which undermine open societies by meddling with the social contract and working around domestic political processes. In more authoritarian or predatory states, externally funded service delivery can take the heat out of the social contract and provide international legitimacy to illegitimate regimes. In more open political systems, it can undermine politics and political accountability by removing the discretion of elected leaders through earmarking funds and constructing parallel ‘project implementation units’ to deliver ‘results’. It is time therefore to articulate how external partners can design and deliver investments which strengthen those institutions which that form the core of Open Societies.


It falls to three sets of institutions to protect, deepen, and sustain open societies:

  1. The institutions and the organisations that produce, collate, analysis and disseminate data and information. Data and information must be transparent and accessible to all. Disinformation will undermine open societies. Citizens need to be able to tell the difference and debate the data, and civil society needs the space and freedoms necessary to demand information and share their views;
  2. Institutions that foster open, inclusive, transparent, contestable, and accountable political decision-making in the public interest based on evidence and reasoning. Open societies are founded on open politics where political decision-making – and debates over options and trade-offs – are both transparent and inclusive. These are the institutions that enable citizens to use information to hold public servants, the private sector, civil society leaders, and politicians (especially politicians) to account for what they say and for what they do. At heart this constitutes the political process – where interests of all individuals and groups are mediated and negotiated. Open societies are founded on open, inclusive, and accountable politics; and
  3. Institutions that foster the rule of law, not the rule by law. In open societies rules and laws are impersonal and inclusive – they apply to all, regardless of status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or religion. They are tabled, debated, and enacted by duly elected representatives in national and subnational legislatures, and such laws apply to all, regardless of status or rank. These laws codify the rights of citizens and are enforced by the ‘coercive yet independent’ infrastructure of the state – the police, the courts, and the judiciary. This is the opposite of states where the governed are ruled by law – where laws are issued by command of governors, usually to advance or protect their own interests.


These three sets of institutions are mutually dependent. Accountability requires that both information and the rule of law to be accessible, contestable, and transparent. They are also mutually reinforcing; and stand or fall together, as shown in the schematic on the right.



Neither can these institutions be bought. The UK’s legal history runs to a thousand years. Free and fair elections under universal suffrage had to be fought for – especially for women. Emily Davison famously died for the vote.


The Open Societies Agenda has implications for the political process, how political decisions are implemented by the administration and how the state operates. It has implications for the economy, where the rule of law encourages entrepreneurs to start up business without fearing that the state will appropriate their assets or steal any profits they make. Open societies encourage business to engage in cross-border trade without having to bribe customs officers or port officials. Should businesses infringe against the rightful laws, rules, and regulations governing the economy, the owners of capital know they have access to fair legal redress.


Open societies have implications for how public services are designed and delivered. Open societies seek to engage public servants based on merit, rather than patronage or the ‘old boys’ network’. The governed expect equality of opportunity in accessing services such as education, health, water, and sanitation. The values and norms fostered by open societies generate expectations of fairness and equal treatment among the governed. If the governors do not meet these expectations, they will be held accountable at the next election.


It is in both the fact and functioning of these three sets of institutions that legitimate open societies. Citizens in open societies confer legitimacy upon not only the overall political system, but also on the current government of the day. They do this based on the intrinsic value of these institutions, as well as their instrumental value in leading to more and better development outcomes. However, it is in the instrumentalisation of open societies that their greatest challenge lies. It is clear from the evidence that, given the choice, most people prefer to live in open societies; they like to exercise their agency in choosing who rules them. But while being ruled by consent is more intrinsically appealing than being ruled by command, governance and institutional arrangements in practice reflect underlying economic and social power relations. As these underlying conditions change, they create a challenge to existing governance arrangements. Although open societies are often associated with high income countries, there is no intrinsic link between an open society and economic growth.


Few countries, if any, have reached high income status by first embracing the full (emphasise full) range of open society institutions outlined above. The UK, the US and Australia certainly did not. Historically, where and when new states have been formed – due to war and violence, urbanisation and migration, growth, new technology or the depletion of natural resources – demands for governance change is triggered. Political change often comes as new social classes seek a voice to match their new economic and social power.


The so-called ‘third-wave’ of democratisation that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has stalled. The 2020 Annual Report of the US-based Freedom House noted that 2019 was the fourteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The many and various ‘colour revolutions’ failed to deliver the (admittedly unrealistic) developmental expectations of the governed in those countries.


Herein therefore lies the challenge facing societies governed by consent. On the one hand they may intuitively be more compelling: to a great extent they remove the threat of arbitrary, unjustified, and prejudicial interference in the lives of the governed. But on the other hand their record in delivering material progress and better development outcomes for the governed – today, in the here and now, and in the period demanded by duly elected by time-poor governors – is not as compelling.


The implications for FCDO and external actors

If external partners wish to promote open societies, they must focus on understanding – and if plausible – strengthening the institutions which characterise them. This is easy to say but hard to do. It requires:

  • Humility: the influence of even the best external actors will be marginal. Diplomacy and aid cannot ‘deliver’ an open society. At best, external actors will start by understanding how power is organised, where the plausible sources of positive change lie; and tuck in behind locally-driven change processes. This also points to the value of developing long-term, trust-based relationships with key actors. It can provide the wisdom and legitimacy necessary for external actors to play a positive role;
  • Distinguishing the form of a formal organisation within a wider institutional setting (say an election commission) with its function (how it delivers its remit, and if it has the independence, legitimacy, capacity, and authority to undertake its formal tasks);
  • Avoiding ‘perfect institutions’ or exporting neo-liberal, democratic models: there is a vast graveyard of failed governance interventions based on externally-imposed solutions, hubris and optimism bias. The starting point should be understanding the context, what is locally relevant and building partnerships around shared interests (not assuming shared values); and
  • Focus on diplomacy and ‘a whole of portfolio approach’: More often than not, external actors can undermine the basic elements of an open society with orthodox development programmes (health, climate, infrastructure, growth) that bypass the political process and provide unearned resources which ‘take the heat out of’ the social contract and reinforce patronage. Further, there are clear instances where corrupt and/or military dominated governments benefit from military/security assistance from one arm of an external partner government and democracy assistance from another, the former undermining the latter. To stay true to its foreign policy objective, the FCDO should start with country strategy, assess individual programmes for unintended consequences and commit to a time-bound, measurable realignment if required.


The ‘new’ agenda of open societies and the three institutions summarised above must not fully eclipse the ‘old’ agenda of effective states designed to improve policy settings, resource allocation, and public service systems functionality. The good news is that there is contemporary evidence which points towards one unequivocal starting point for donor policy formulation and programme design: that growing intra-state inequality undermines both the intrinsic values of open societies and the instrumental development outcomes delivered by effective states. By working in ways that supports partner country political processes and efforts to address collective, public interests and internal inequalities, external partners will simultaneously be legitimating and promoting the intrinsic values of open societies as well as helping reduce poverty.


Graham Teskey is the Principal Global Lead for Governance for Abt Associates, based in Canberra Australia. Before joining Abt Associates in 2015, Graham was the Principal Governance Specialist for the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs, where his role was to advise DFAT on its governance and public sector programs across the full aid program. Prior to moving to Canberra Graham was Senior Adviser and Head of the Governance and Anti-Corruption Secretariat Governance at the World Bank. Before joining the World Bank Graham spent 16 years with DFID and enjoyed postings to Fiji, Kenya and Uganda. In 1996 he helped establish DFID’s ‘Governance and Institutions Department’. His last two DFID Senior Civil Service posts were in London as Head of Africa Policy Department and Head of Governance and Social Development. Graham began his career as an economist in the Central Planning Office in Fiji, which was followed by appointments in the National Planning and Statistics Office in Vanuatu, in Rukwa region in South-West Tanzania with NORAD, and a lectureship teaching development studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Graham has degrees in economics, planning and business administration.


Tom Wingfield is the Senior Advisor for Governance for Abt Associates based in London. Alongside Abt’s Global Governance Lead (Graham Teskey), Tom leads the governance practice at Abt. He serves as project director for the FCDO Good Governance Fund: Eastern Partnership Technical Assistance Facility in Ukraine. Before joining Abt, Tom was a Senior Governance Adviser in DFID/FCDO for 18 years. He held a range of senior leadership roles, including leading governance and service delivery teams in Nepal and Cambodia and the governance, conflict and social development research team in London. He has been at the forefront of aid reform and improving development impact through learning and adaptation in fragile and conflict-affected countries. This included co-leading FCDO’s (then DFID) ‘better delivery’ reforms and the Smart Rules in 2014-15. He also helped establish an innovative partnership with FCDO Nepal, SOAS University of London, and Yale University testing UK country strategy with independent research. Prior to joining DFID, Tom was a Lecturer in Southeast Asian Politics at the University of Leeds. He began his career in journalism writing on business and politics in Indochina, Myanmar and Thailand. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v2.0.


[1] This is not to say that history is teleological. It merely points out that modern day ‘open societies’ reached this point as the result of a centuries long, hard-won struggle.

[2] Karl Popper. 1945. ‘The Open Society and its enemies’.

[3] See The Economist, The Long Goodbye, 3 July 2021: p 11.

[4] Carothers, Thomas and Benjamin Press. Understanding Protests in Authoritarian States. SAIS Review of International Affairs, vol. 40 no. 2, 2020: 15-24.

[5] Acknowledgement to Wayne A Leighton and Edward J Lopez for the original formulation of this schematic. See ‘Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change’, Stanford Economics, 2013, page 133.

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