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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‘Can you hear us now?’ India’s bottom millions connect to information society

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

At the end of the world’s largest general election that lasted nearly a month, Indians have just re-elected the Congress Party to govern over the world’s largest democracy for another five year term.

It’s too early to discuss what role, if any, the recently enhanced telecommunications services played in this outcome. But there is no doubt that access to telephones – especially mobiles – has revolutionised the life of the billion plus Indians in the past few years.

Farmer Sayar Singh epitomises this change. Earlier this year, we filmed a day in the life of Sayar, a resident of Pushkar Nala in India’s Rajasthan state. This was part of a profiling of telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid – or BOP – in emerging Asian economies, undertaken by TVE Asia Pacific on behalf of LIRNEasia.

Sayar is definitely BOP: growing wheat and flowers on his ancestral land, he makes around INR 6,000 (USD 115) a month – on which income he sustains an extended family that comprises his wife, four children, elderly father and an unmarried sister. Life isn’t easy for this 33-year-old, but his spirit of enterprise is as abundant as his praise for his newly acquired mobile phone.

He only bought a mobile in mid 2008, but eight months later, that investment had definitely improved business and social life for him. So much so that his life’s narrative is clearly divided as Before Mobile and After Mobile.

“Our life before the mobile phone was hard,” he says. “I took two days to do what I can now do in a day. Now I can get in touch immediately and all my work happens faster and more easily!”

He now tracks market prices and moves his produce quickly for better profits. With workload reduced and income doubled, Sayar has reaped dual benefits from his mobile.

Watch our short profile of Sayar Singh, ardent promoter of mobile phones in rural India:

This isn’t Sayar’s first experience with owning a telephone. Earlier, he was frustrated with a fixed phone that didn’t work half the time. The service was so bad that he gave up the phone after a while.

He recalls: “Phone wires in our village were often faulty. They used to be out of order for 2 or 4 days, sometimes even half a month! All my work was affected. I couldn’t talk to my brothers and sisters. Call charges were also high. When my phone line was down, I had to call from STD booths or neighbours’ phones.”

In our interview, Sayar kept referring to his fixed phone connection as ‘government phone’ – a reflection of the state-owned former monopoly. It was a reminder of just how bad telecom services were in India until only a few years ago.

As Shashi Tharoor, the former UN Undersecretary General – who, incidentally, has just been elected into Indian Parliament from his native Kerala state – has remarked, India had possibly the worst telephone penetration rates in the world.

He wrote in 2007: “Bureaucratic statism committed a long list of sins against the Indian people, but communications was high up on the list; the woeful state of India’s telephones right up to the 1990s, with only eight million connections and a further 20 million on waiting lists, would have been a joke if it wasn’t also a tragedy — and a man-made one at that.”

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Tharoor recalled the infamous words of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s communications minister in the 1970s, C.M. Stephen. In response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, the minister declared in Parliament that telephones were a luxury, not a right. He added that ‘any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone’ — since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.

According to Tharoor, Mr Stephen’s statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government’s attitude: ignorant, wrong-headed, unconstructive, self-righteous, complacent, unresponsive and insulting. “It was altogether typical of an approach to governance in the economic arena which assumed that the government knew what was good for the country, felt no obligation to prove it by actual performance and didn’t, in any case, care what anyone else thought.”

All this didn’t change overnight, and as Tharoor reflects, the key contribution of the government was ‘in getting out of the way’ — in cutting license fees and streamlining tariffs, easing the overly complex regulations and restrictions that discouraged investors from coming in to the Indian market, and allowing foreign firms to own up to 74 per cent of their Indian subsidiary companies. “The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has also been a model of its kind, a regulatory agency that saw its role as facilitating the growth of the business it was regulating, rather than stifling it with rules and restrictions.”

It still took time for this revolution to be felt at the bottom of the pyramid. As LIRNEasia says: “Just five years ago, the Indian telecom industry’s massive momentum barely included the poor. The country had slightly over seven access paths (fixed and mobile connections) per 100 people, but in rural India 100 people were served by only 1.5 access paths. Even in urban India, the poor were unconnected.”

Then things started changing rapidly. According to LIRNEasia’s latest teleuse@BOP survey, 45 per cent of Indian BOP teleuser households had a phone in late 2008: 37% had a mobile only; 5% had a fixed phone only; and 3% had both. This is massive progress from the 19 percent of BOP homes with a phone just two years ago. Read more about BOP telephone penetration and use in India.

Tharoor has called this the “mobile miracle” — one that has accomplished something socialist policies talked about but did little to achieve: empowering the less fortunate. Rapid mobile penetration in my native Sri Lanka has had a comparable social transformation – in a commentary last year, I called the ubiquitous mobile ‘Everyman’s new trousers’.

Of course, the mobile revolution is far from over. There are many more millions yet to be connected, and those already connected expect affordable, reliable and value-added services.

“Indian BOP is still in the mobile 1.0 mode using mainly voice and missed calls functionality. Messaging is being used by only a third of the BOP population. Mobile payment and government services use is almost non-existent,” Rohan Samarajiva, chairman and CEO, LIRNEasia, was quoted as saying soon after the latest study was presented in India in February 2009.

How far and how much value added mobile services can penetrate the BOP remains to be seen. Sayar Singh, for example, currently spends US$ 8.6 to 9.5 a month on phone services – over 8% of his enhanced monthly income.

“I haven’t subscribed to any services like cricket news or astrological forecasts. I don’t need them…and I don’t want to spend on them,” he said in our interview.

But mobile telephony is an area where the boldest projections have been exceeded – so never say never.

Photos by Suchit Nanda for TVE Asia Pacific

Cellphones and the Economic Modernization of India: Listen to Shashi Tharoor at Asia Society, NY, in 2007: