Dec
14

How Democracies Die

We tend to assume that democratic processes, norms and structures are 'sticky' and rarely 'die'. The cases we might think about are those that ended due to war and conflict, with the emergence of dictatorship in the form of fascism or military rule. In "How Democracies Die" (2018) Levitsky and Ziblatt provide a clear counter-narrative, and one seemingly much more relevant than the war and conflict narrative. In sum, that counter-narrative is: "Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chavez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box" (p. 5). It is democratic processes themselves being used to unravel themselves.

Many commentaries of late have focused on the power of the people, and their vote, as a way to ensure democratic processes reflect what people expect of them. Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that there is more to understanding why democratic governance has been sticky in the American context: political parties, and specifically the gatekeeping involved in those political parties that kept outsiders and radicals out. To be clear, these political party gatekeeping processes were not democratic: "candidates were chosen by a small group of power brokers who were not accountable to the party rank and file, much less to average citizens" (p. 38). Oddly, non-democratic (often elite run and non-transparent) processes are held up as a key source for democratic continuity.

The authors also point out a gradual change of norms: "Democracies work best – and survive longer – where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms. Two basic norms have preserved America's checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives" (p. 8-9). They continue, later in the book: "Some polarization is healthy – even necessary – for democracy. And indeed, the historical experience of democracies in Western Europe shows us that norms can be sustained even when parties are separated by considerable ideological differences. But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs. This may encourage the rise of antisystem groups that reject democracy's rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble." (p. 116)

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May
02

A Diplomat’s Memoir of South Sudan

When I first came across Nicholas Coghlan's "Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat's Memoir of South Sudan" (2017), I passed it up. Memoirs can be interesting, but not always great (unless you are interested in the day to day activities and experiences, often without in-depth contextualization). However, while on route to South Sudan myself, I read the book, and highly recommend it. It is a fascinating read, and quite well contextualized in issues well beyond a typical memoir.

On governance, one of the journalists he speaks with explains "Yes, there is a tendency towards dictatorship in South Sudan," he admit. "But you know what? This will never be a dictatorship like Eritrea's. To be a dictator you have to be efficient and you have to have a vision. Neither apply in our case." (p. 47).

On conflict resolution: The resolution of the Jonglei Crisis had followed a well-worn pattern. A Big Man becomes dissatisfied with the status quo and finds himself unable to get his way by peaceful means. He takes to the bush and assembles an armed militia. He creates mayhem. In the end, he accepts an offer of cash and promotion and comes back in. Until next time. The practice often brought peace in the short term, but over the medium to long term, It encouraged and rewarded rebellion." (p. 70). See also De Waal (2015) on this point. There are some challenging reflections on the future, such as Coghlan's reflection that "it would take more than a generation for South Sudan to get over this situation [lived experiences of conflict]" (p. 32). As the peace negotiations enter into new rounds, with similar faces making few compromises, the prediction continues to be a likely one.

On aid and priority setting: "A particularly interesting finding of the in-country surveys was that most communities identified inter-ethnic reconciliation as their top priority for donor support (this with the caveat that polling and surveys are notoriously problematic in South Sudan). I was intrigued but not surprised by this after years of observing the civil war, which as often as not pitted southerners against each other rather than against northerners. But for newcomers to South Sudan, this seemed aberrant. More to the point, how could you achieve "reconciliation" and how did you establish benchmarks? When we huddled with the government to reach a consensus over priorities, reconciliation shifted near the bottom of the list" (p. 108).

On the (lack) of accountability: "A very large convoy of World Food Program trucks carrying mainly food supplies north to the POC camp in Bentiu was hijacked and looted near Mundri, Western Equatoria State. When they were released, the drivers described their assailants as armed and uniformed. There was no doubt about where at least three of the trucks were taken; GPS tracking showed them to be inside the SPLA barracks in Yei. WFP supplied all donors with a list of the value of their goods that had been stolen; in the case of Canada, the total was US$ 300,000. But WFP insisted that we not a make public statement, let alone press the government for an explanation. They were more concerned with getting the trucks back in tact – forget the food seized – and not endangering further their already difficult relationship with the government." (p. 199)

On Canada and staffing challenges (and some self-reflection): "It seemed that the younger generation in the Canadian foreign service were not motivated by what had attracted me: the prospect of travel to exotic places, a whiff of danger and excitement, and being a big fish in a small pond. They preferred the classic "cushy" posts – London, Rome, Washington – if they wanted to go abroad at all." (p. 197)

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Jan
13

The Peasant and the State

Dessalegn Rahmato is one of Ethiopian social scientists, his ideas and publications have shifted public perceptions on issues of land and the rural smallholder farmers. This posts draws upon his work, "The Peasant and the State: Studies in Agrarian Change in Ethiopia, 1950s-2000s" (2008), which is essential reading for anyone interesting in rural Ethiopia.

As a book that covers five decades, Dessalegn begins by setting the stage for how the change of governments was experienced by the rural farming majority: "Over this half century much has changed in the country but much also remains the same. Similarly, while the three political regimes differ radically in a number of significant respects, they also have many things in common, particularly in their relations to the peasantry, their quest for a strong presence in the countryside, and, in some respects, in their approach to development management" (p. 13). What is the same? "An enduring element of state peasant relations is the paternalist attitude towards peasants held by local officials and party activists. Indeed, paternalism permeates all levels of state officialdom, including authorities at the top, and this is reflected in some of the main rural policies of the government. The underlying assumption is that the peasantry needs strong leadership to guide it to the greater good of modernization, as well as to protect it from outsiders with evil intentions, or the foolishness of peasants themselves" (p. 261).

Regarding the shifts: "On the one hand, agrarian change has removed some of the forces of peasant domination, but on the other hand, it has enhanced the power of the state over the peasant and inhibited the agency of the rural producers" (p. 23). On the Derg, the land reform "abolished landlordism, and this, in my view, is its enduring legacy and its greatest achievement" (p. 139). On the current government and land certification: "peasant insecurity is more deep-rooted and cannot be removed merely by issuing user certificates. Peasants are dependant on local officials for interpreting the law and interpretation is frequently made to suit the given circumstances. This is one of the factors for peasant subordination, and insecurity cannot be cured without addressing the causes of subordination" (p. 205). Further, he adds the land certification is viewed by some as a success as is used low cost and local administration, but "this is a misunderstanding of the whole point of the program: title registration is meant to provide security and to minimize disputes, and this can only be possible if the program is credible in the eyes of the beneficiaries concerned" (p. 210, also see p. 240).

His focal argument in the book is that "the role played by the human agent and the institutional environment impacting on human agency is either ignored or given insufficient attention… the question of human agency, that is the agency of the men and women who are responsible for cultivating the land and managing the resources associated with it, and the institutions that have helped or hindered them in their endeavour, must be placed at the centre of the agrarian debate. My concept of the term human agency here is similar to Sen's idea of capability. By agency I mean the ability to make independent decisions and free choices to bring about a desired outcome, and to secure the benefits free of imposition or coercion. It means the ability to have a voice, and to be an active force even if in a small way… a major determining factor is the nature of the rules of governance, particularly rights, freedoms and obligations embodied either in social values and norms or formal political institutions" (p. 21). He concludes the book in arguing that "human agency is an indispensable factor in accelerating change and invigorating the economy. As we have seen already, the agrarian systems we have dealt with stifled, in one way or another, the agency of the rural producer with dire consequences of which some have been discussed at length in the preceding pages. A fundamental rethink of this issue, which I believe is overdue, will have wider implications in terms of political institutions, power relations, attitudinal and management approaches" (p. 350).

Dessalegn argues that "Famine is a measure of the vulnerability of the peasant world as well as of its resilience, a reflection of the nature of class relations as well as of the relations between the state and peasantry. Famines do not occur if [the] peasant economy is robust, if the popular classes in the rural areas have a tradition of social assertiveness and resistance, or if the state is in some manner accountable to the people" (p. 43). And, that "Ethiopian peasants have not enjoyed this kind of freedom [to choose one's leaders, to justice, to freedom of speech], and I believe this has been responsible to a large extent for the failure of agrarian progress in this country" (p. 22). He later concludes: "Rural poverty cannot be solved through the instrumentality of the state alone, but requires the active engagement of the poor themselves. Democratizations, property rights that are inclusive of the poor, enabling citizens' groups, including poor people's organizations: these, individually or in ensemble, help to expand human agency, the agency of the poor in particular" (p. 276-277)

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Dec
19

Civil Society and the Aid Industry

Civil society is said to provide "the agents of change that will cure a range of social and economic ills left by failures of government and the marketplace: autocracy, poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression, social malaise. Cornucopian expectations for social change have been heaped on this idea and, indeed, for some Northern donors in particular (both official and non-governmental), the 'discovery' of civil society has promised a solution to the enduring problems of development and democratic change" (p. 1). With the rise of 'civil society' in research and practice in the 1990s, there was a great need to critically engage the questions being raised. An important book that arose to do just that was "Civil Society and the Aid Industry" (1998), edited by Alison Van Rooy. The book "chronicles one part of the story and highlights some of the promises and dangers that the language of civil society brings with it" (p.1).

The origin of 'civil society' thinking is deep: "there are two phases in the family history of civil society theory. The first, dating from the Romans, grappled with why and how humankind should be governed and under what conditions. From the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, however, we see a line drawn starkly between the governed and the governors: all of a sudden, there is a State that needs to be defended against, and a civil society that harbours the citizenry and trains them to keep the State at bay" (p. 7). Due to 'civil society' being commonly used but rarely defined explicitly, there is "mix-and-matching from the centuries old debate on civil society" with the authors identifying six key perspectives utilized: civil society "as values and norms, as a collective noun, as a space for action, as a historical moment, as an anti-hegemonic movement, and as an antidote to the State" (p. 11-12).

While there are challenges, the contributors view civil society positively: "civil society is a good thing: many of the groups that interest us form to compensate for the failures of the State, the market or other parts of society to fulfill their aspirations. The idea assumes that a third sector is necessary to guarantee a just society" (p. 30). But, this is not a simplistic promotion of civil society. For example, they argue that "much of the literature frequently overlooks the ways in which the larger conflicts in political society are reproduced in civil society. The orthodox belief that civil society is an arena for negotiating interests, itself a touchstone of democratic deepening, masks the point that civil society can and often does feed into and aggravate existing social and political cleavages" (p. 136). As Ndegwa (1996) wrote about the 'two faces' of NGOs, the authors also outline the multiple faces of civil society: "Civil society has to be seen as an ad hoc melting pot and battleground of diverse interests and actors. This public arena is never homogenous; constituting itself as a permanent regrouping and renegotiating process. Its complex fabric and interwoven interdependencies are built on the voluntary will of individuals taking part in social and political affairs" (p. 76).

Fortunately, the authors provide not only assessment and criticism, but also suggestions for the way forward. This includes "broadening as well as deepening knowledge of African civil society; in particular understanding what might sap or energize it" (p. 166). It also means exploring indirect engagements by donors to "resume its role as an encouragement to existing movements for change, not the strong arm that sets them rolling" (p. 207). Along these lines, the book concludes that "if any project of social and political change is to be enduring it must come from the voices of local people" (p. 217). Other recommendations include understanding enabling environments, including the right to associate, the rule of law, a free press and other basic rights (p. 215). Importantly, it is being more explicit, open, reflexive and cognizant of the political nature of engaging with civil society: "The question is not whether politics can be avoided, but whether one's particular choice of political stance and partnerships can be justified and, if so, to whom" (p. 211). 

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