Echelon Feb 2015: ‘People Power’ Beyond Elections

Illustration by Echelon magazine, http://www.echelon.lk

Illustration by Echelon magazine, http://www.echelon.lk

Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, Feb 2015 issue. Published online at: http://www.echelon.lk/home/people-power-beyond-elections/

‘People Power’ Beyond Elections

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials were put to test once again during the Presidential Election on 8 January 2015.

An impressive 81.52% of registered voters turned up, and their majority choice changed the regime. A well-oiled system that has been holding elections since 1931 proved its efficacy again. And if its integrity came under threat, the formidable Commissioner of Elections stood up for the due process.

As we pat ourselves on the back, however, let us remember: an election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a vibrant democracy. There is much more to democracy than holding free and fair elections.

The ‘sufficient conditions’ include having public institutions that allow citizens the chance to participate in political process on an on-going basis; a guarantee that all people are equal before the law (independent and apolitical judiciary); respect for cultural, ethnic and religious diversity; and freedom of opinion without fearing any repercussions. Sri Lanka has much work to do on all these fronts.

Democracy itself, as practised for centuries, can do with some ‘upgrading’ to catch up with modern information societies.

Historically, people have responded to bad governance by changing governments at elections, or by occasionally overthrowing corrupt or despotic regimes through mass agitation.

Yet such ‘people power’ has its own limits: in country after country where one political party – or the entire political system — was replaced with another through popular vote (or revolt), people have been disappointed at how quickly the new brooms lose their bristles.

The solution must, therefore, lie in not just participating in elections (or revolutions), but in constantly engaging governments and keeping the pressure on them to govern well.

In practice, we citizens must juggle it along with our personal and professional lives. As information society advances, however, new tools and methods are becoming available to make it easier.

Social Accountability

This relatively new approach involves citizens gathering data, systematically analysing it and then engaging (or confronting, when necessary) elected and other officials in government. Citizens across the developing world are using information to improve the use of common property resources (e.g. water, state land and electromagnetic spectrum, etc.), and management of funds collected through taxation or borrowed from international sources.

Such engagement enables citizens as well as civil society organisations (CSOs) to engage with policymakers and citizen service providers. Some call it social accountability (or SAcc), and others refer to it as participatory democracy. Whatever the label, the idea is to ensure greater accountability in how the public sector manages public funds and responds to citizens’ needs.

For this to work, citizens need to access public sector information – about budgets, expenditures, problems and performance. Over 100 countries now have laws guaranteeing people’s right to information (RTI). Sadly, Sri Lanka is lagging behind all other SAARC countries, five of which have already enacted RTI laws and two (Afghanistan and Bhutan) have draft bills under consideration. Attempts to introduce RTI in Sri Lanka were repeatedly thwarted by the previous government.

Economist Hernando de Soto (image from Wikipedia)

Economist Hernando de Soto (image from Wikipedia)

An early champion of social accountability was the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto who has been researching on poverty, development and governance issues. He says: “Supposedly in a democracy, if the majority of people are poor, then they set the criteria of what is right. Yet all those mechanisms that allow [society] to decide where the money goes — and that it is appropriately allocated — are not in place throughout the Third World.”

The result? “We take turns electing authoritarian governments. The country, therefore, is left to the [whims] of big-time interests, and whoever funded the elections or parties. We have no right of review or oversight. We have no way for the people’s voice to be heard — except for eight hours on election day!”

It is this important right of review and oversight in between elections that SAcc promotes. Call it an ‘insurance’ against democracy being subverted by big money, corrupt officials or special interest groups…

A dozen years ago, concerned by development investments being undermined by pervasive corruption and excessive bureaucracy, the World Bank started advocating SAcc. Their research shows how, even in the most hopeless situations, ordinary people often come together to collect their voice and exert pressure on governments to be responsive.

“Social accountability is about affirming and operationalising direct accountability relationships between citizens and the state. It refers to the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account,” says a World Bank sourcebook on the subject. (See: http://go.worldbank.org/Y0UDF953D0)

What does that mean in plain language? Seeking to go beyond theory and jargon, the Bank funded a global documentary in 2003, which I co-produced. Titled ‘Earth Report: People Power’ and first broadcast on BBC in February 2004, it featured four inspiring SAcc examples drawn from Brazil, India, Ireland and Malawi (online: http://goo.gl/xQnr9v).

These case studies, among the best at the time, showed how SAcc concepts could be adapted in different societies and economic systems

 

  • In Porto Alegre, Brazil, community members participate annually in a series of meetings to decide on the City Budget. This material is presented to Parliament which finds it difficult to refuse the recommendations — because over 20,000 have contribute to its preparation. As many or more watch how the budget is spent.

 

  • In Rajasthan, India, an advocacy group named MKSS holds a public meeting where the affidavits of local candidates standing for the state elections are available to the people. This ‘right to information’ extends all the way down to villages where people can find out about public spending.

 

  • In Ireland, the government has partnered with trade unions, employers, training institutions and community groups on a strategy to deal with problems affecting youth (such as school drop-outs and high unemployment). Citizens set priorities for social spending.

 

  • In Malawi, villagers participate in assessing local health clinics by scoring various elements of the service. A Health Village Committee then meets the service providers who also assess themselves. Together, they work out ways to improve the service.

During the last decade, many more examples have emerged – some driven by public intellectuals, others by civil society groups or socially responsible companies. Their issues, challenges and responses vary but everyone is looking for practical ways to sustain civic engagement in between elections.

The development community has long held romanticized views on grassroots empowerment. While SAcc builds on that, it is no castle in the air: the rise of digital technologies, web and social media allows better monitoring, analysis and dissemination. And government monopolies over public information have been breached — not just by progressive policies and RTI laws but also by efforts such as WikiLeaks.

Confronted by the growing flood of often technical information, citizens need to be well organised and skilled to use in the public interest. Evidence-based advocacy is harder than rhetorical protests.

Dr Bela Bhatia, then an associate fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in India, says on the film: “Ultimately the responsibility in a democracy is ours…and if today we have corrupt politicians, it is because we have allowed corruption to happen, to take root.”

Rather than debating endlessly on how things became so bad, SAcc promoters show a way forward – with emphasis on collaboration, not confrontation.

“It’s up to the governments to make up their mind whether they want to respect the more participatory model or invite more confrontation, to invite violence and perhaps ultimately the dismantling of the very democratic system,” says Bhatia.

How can we deepen our democracy with SAcc? Start with RTI, and see what happens.

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