From Dictatorship to Democracy

One of the world's leading thinkers and activists for advancing democratic governance through non-violent action is Gene Sharp. He founded the Albert Einstein Institute and is a multiple-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as recipient of many other notable awards. He has authored many books, but one of his most influential and most widely translated books, as well as one of the most widely referred to books by non-violent activists, is "From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation" (1993, original). Famously, the book includes a list of 198 methods of non-violent action.

Sharp writes in the preface to the book that "the focus of this essay [it was originally written as a series for activists] is on the generic problem of how to destroy a dictatorship and to prevent the rise of a new one" (p. xix). At the outset, the author makes clear that in most instances of dictatorship, violent action will not work: "Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear. By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority" (p. 6). The alternative advocated by Sharp is non-violent action.

How? Quite succinctly, the author summarizes (p. 12): "When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:

  • One must strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;
  • One must strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;
  • One must create a powerful internal resistance force;
  • One must develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully."

Navigating the actions and reactions of a dictatorial government and its supporters requires close monitoring and analysis. Sharp does not delve into the academics of the matter, and summarizes the key factors relating to success as: "(1) the relative desire of the populace to impose limits on the government's power; (2) the relative strength of the subjects' independent organizations and institutions to withdraw collectively the sources of power; and (3) the population's relative ability to withhold their consent and assistance" (p. 33).

The book is not all positivity and encouragement. There are strong warnings about the costs as well as the responsibilities involved. For example, even "when the oppressive system was brought down, lack of planning on how to handle the transition to a democratic system has contributed to the emergence of a new dictatorship" (p. 61). In other words, all the action and all the costs can re-create the system that was fought against if long term, strategic planning is not a part of the struggle. Furthermore, Sharp emphasizes not just the planning of power, but the re-distribution of it: "The effect of nonviolent struggle is not only to weaken and remove dictators but also to empower the oppressed. This technique enables people who formerly felt themselves to be only pawns or victims to wield power directly in order to gain by their own efforts greater freedom and justice… One important long-term beneficial consequence of the use of nonviolent struggle for establishing democratic government is that the society will be more capable of dealing with continuing and future problems… The population experienced in the use of political defiance is less likely to be vulnerable to future dictatorships." (p. 121-122).

The Politics of Development in Morocco

'Doing development differently' can be interpreted as redistributing power in a decentralized way, and ensuring broad participation. How do we move these ideas from paper to practice? And, are these two objectives (not explicit in the DDD manifesto, but common in the discourse) compatible? Third, are these approaches to 'doing development differently' effective pathways to arrive at the desired objectives of the DDD agenda? A useful book to engage these questions is "The Politics of Development in Morocco: Local Governance and Participation in North Africa" (2017) by Sylvia Bergh. The book is based on data collection that occurred in the mid-2000s, and could have been updated for this publication. Nonetheless, it offers useful insight into the questions of decentralization and participation.

The author sets out to "assess the actual record and scope for state-society synergies in Morocco in the context of decentralization reforms and participatory development policies, particularly at the local (rural) level" (p. 18). Bergh argues that civil society, as manifested through community based organizations (CBOs), does not necessarily support decentralization, and is not necessarily supported by decentralized governance. Why? One reason is that "membership of these two spheres overlaps to a great extent. Local government councilors tend to use their simultaneous positions in CBOs to enhance their status as local patrons and increase their chances of re-election" (p. xxii). While the author does not view this conclusion as a novel one, Bergh believes the "main value lies in documenting how this phenomenon comes about, the extent to which it is happening, and the implications it has for the emergence of a strong local democracy" (p. xxii).

In many instances, the book highlights how power plays out in both the implementation of participatory policies and decentralization efforts. This included existing elite capturing resources, and/or utilizing the processes to further entrench their power (p. 19). In addition to the local level implementation problems, government officials viewed these processes as "instruments for implementing programs more cost-effectively and delegating responsibility for success or failure to the beneficiaries themselves, rather than as a vehicle to strengthen political capabilities that might, in the longer term, challenge existing power structures and thus bring about lasting change." (p. 20; also ps. 68, 79, 126 and 163 for more examples). In fact, Bergh argues, "the simultaneous implementation of decentralization reforms and "participatory" development programs may lead to increased elite capture and fewer, rather than more, spaces for transformative participation by ordinary citizens" (p. 228).

I believe one of the most interesting contributions of this book is not the processes of how, but unique insight into the challenges and limitations of civil society organizations. While these organizations are tasked with large responsibilities, their capacity is low and their resources limited to absent. Without providing support and capacity building (common in these Moroccan study areas), international organizations are setting community based organizations up for failure. Bergh concludes "the growth of CBOs following "participatory" development projects does not equate with the expansion of a "civil society" that could engage in partnerships with local governments, either for service provision or co-governance. Rather, I find that a high proportion of these CBOs lack the capacities and/or incentives to do so due to their instrumentalization by actors in "political society" for clientelist purposes." (p. 228).

As it relates to the 'good governance' agenda, and its emphasis upon decentralization and participation, this book challenges the "assumptions that citizen participation consists exclusively of involvement in NGOs and local associations, that this "civil society" can exert organized pressure on autocratic and unresponsive states, and that this is enough to bring about a democracy with substance and depth" (p. 232). In many ways, the case studies from Morocco demonstrate the opposite. As the DDD manifesto argues, altering these power structures requires a radically different approach to 'doing development', one that more often has to do with process (how), than the objective (such as decentralization). 

New Publication: Who is Defining Effectiveness?

Cochrane, L. and Thornton, A. (2017) Charity Rankers: Who is Defining Effectiveness? (Ch. 18, p 108-113). In Smart Risks: How Small Grants are Helping to Solve Some of the World's Biggest Problems, edited by J. Lentfer and T. Cothran. Practical Action Publishing: Warwickshire.

Preview (first page) of chapter available here, email me for a full copy.

Doctoral Dissertation: Strengthening Food Security in Rural Ethiopia

Cochrane, L. 2017. Strengthening Food Security in Rural Ethiopia. Doctoral Dissertation, University of British Columbia. 

Abstract: Food insecurity in rural areas of southern Ethiopia is widespread; in recent years over half of all communities in this region have been reliant upon emergency support. However, food security status varies significantly from year to year, as the region experiences variations in rainfall patterns. Research is required to better understand how food security can be strengthened. To do so, this research was driven by three research questions. First, what makes smallholder farmers in southern Ethiopia vulnerable to food insecurity. Second, according to the literature, the adoption of programs and services is low, and thus a community-based assessment was undertaken to understand why. The third question reflected on the methodology – a participatory, co-produced approach, evaluating whether this form of engaged research enabled positive change. The findings suggest that vulnerability to food insecurity differs by scale. At the community level, access to irrigation infrastructure strengthened food security, and was the most transformative difference between the communities. Within communities, food security distribution was complex and few generalizations can be made. The participatory processes identified that research often makes invisible the purposeful and insightful choices farmers make. When surveyed, they are asked to provide generalizations about input use, crop choice and practices, when in reality each crop, input and practice varies. Similarly, some commonly used measures of vulnerability can also be expressions of security; aggregated averages obfuscate localized inequality. For some programs and services, adoption was found to be quite high – it was only when all services were analyzed as a package that adoption was low. However, not all programs and services served the food insecure households, and the reasons for this are explored in detail. The participatory, co-produced approach enabled unique research questions and metrics and added significant value to the research process, which may also enable long-term positive change to programs and services.

Full text is available for download here.

New Publication: Seeing Like an Anthropologist

Cochrane, L. (2017) Seeing Like an Anthropologist: Anthropology in Practice. In Cultural Anthropology: An Open Access Textbook, edited by N. Brown, L. Gonzalez, T. McIlwraith, P. Stein and J. Thompson. Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges.

Part of an Open Access textbook for Cultural Anthropology. Full textbook available here:

Chapter Seeing like an Anthropologist: Anthropology in Practice available here.

Colonial Attitudes in Contemporary Writing

It is not easy to convey the respect one has for the people with whom they work or with whom they conduct research. Similarly, it can be challenging to identify colonial and paternalistic attitudes. "I know it when I see it", a judge famously stated in seeking to draw a line within fuzzy grey areas. Recently I ran into one of these instances. I wanted to learn more about Pakistan, and randomly picked up "Pakistan: A Hard Country" (2011) by Anatol Lieven. The author is a professor at King's College and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.

For clarity: I am not arguing that Lieven is a supporter of colonialism or the subordination of the ideas and interests of others. The author describes a deep love for the nation. I use some selected lines of his writing to demonstrate how we can attempt to identify attitudes that do not convey respect, and may contain a sense of superiority. I hope these lines were made in error. Regardless of intentions, 'knowing it when we see it' helps us to critically engage with texts, authors and statements.

In explaining a particular point, Anatol explains: "to judge by my own interviews and those of other Western colleagues, an absolutely overwhelming majority not just of the Pakistani masses but of the Pakistani elites believe…" (p. 47). Note that his own experience and those of "other Western colleagues" are more valuable than any non-Western scholar, never mind a citizen of the nation. One might wonder what the author thinks of the people of the nation about which he is writing and claims to deeply love. Anatol continues, about encountering "more rarely, a sensible Pakistani" (p. 47). They are irrational. Illogical. Untrustable. Best assessed and judged by "Westerners", even by those that, like Anatol, do not even speak local languages.

It ought to come as no surprise, then, that at the outset of the book Anatol describes Pakistan as "divided, disorganized, economically backward, corrupt, violent, unjust, often savagely oppressive" (p. 4). For anyone wondering why such a portrayal is problematic, I encourage you to read Orientalism by Said (1978). For those wondering why valuing "Western" opinions as more logical, rational, true and right than those of the people themselves is problematic, I encourage you to read Chambers' Whose Reality Counts (1997). In our effort to uphold the dignity and respect of everyone, we need to confront paternalistic and colonial attitudes wherever we encounter them. We need not only to be able to recognize them, but to contest and challenge them.

New Publication: Collaborative Adaptation Research in Africa and Asia

​Cochrane, L., Cundill, G., Ludi, E., New, M., Nicholls, R. J., Wester, P., Cantin, B., Murali, K. S., Leone, M., Kituyi, E. and Landry, M.-E. (2017) A Reflection on Collaborative Adaptation Research in Africa and Asia. Regional Environmental Change 17(5): 1553-1561.

AbstractThe reality of global climate change demands novel approaches to science that are reflective of the scales at which changes are likely to occur, and of the new forms of knowledge required to positively influence policy to support vulnerable populations. We examine some of the opportunities and challenges presented by a collaborative, transdisciplinary research project on climate change adaptation in Africa and Asia that utilized a hotspot approach. A large-scale effort to develop appropriate baselines was a key challenge at the outset of the program, as was the need to develop innovative methodologies to enable researchers to work at appropriate spatial scales. Efforts to match research to the biophysical scales at which change occurs need to be aware of the mismatch that can develop between these regional scales and the governance scales at which decisions are made.

Full paper available from journal as an Open Access article.

How Change Happens: Climate Change

​Naomi Klien believes in the power of the people, and of collective action, to change the world. As outlined in "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate" (2014), she writes: "Slavery wasn't a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination want a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn't a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn't a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one. In the very same way, if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril" (p. 6). A previous post covered the main arguments of the book, while this one focuses upon the author's vision for how change happens.

The author writes that "building a mass movement that has a chance of taking on the corporate forces arrayed against science-based emission reduction will require the broadest possible spectrum of allies" (p. 157). But, how to get there? Klien looks back to the history of the environmental movement, to understand how activism of past decades were more effective wherein struggles were not to narrow nor negative, they were "for greater community control, democracy, and sovereignty" (p. 309). Building  alliances requires looking for commonalities, often extending beyond one's own specific interests.

Klien thus argues that, not only is climate change action going to require political change, it is advocacy for greater democracy that will build the alliances and allies for those changes to take place: "In the past, people committed to social change often believed they had to choose between fighting the system and building alternatives to it. So, in the 1960s, the counterculture splintered between those who stayed in cities to try and stop wars and bash away at inequalities and those who chose to drop out and live their ecological values among like-minded people on organic farms… Today's activists do not have the luxury of these choices even if they wanted them" (p. 403).

Naomi Klien argues that "only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternative pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything." (p. 450).

That movement, however, is not "some shiny new movement that will magically succeed where others failed. Rather, as the furthest-reaching crisis created by the extractivist worldview, and one that puts humanity on a firm and unyielding deadline, climate change can be the force – the grand push – that will bring together all of these still living movements. A rushing river fed by countless streams, gathering collective force to finally reach the sea" (p. 459). Furthermore, it is not a movement that can fully create its own destiny, it is a movement that needs to take advantage of the critical junctures, where opportunities for change are greater. "The real question is what progressive forces will make of that moment, the power and confidence with which it will be seized… The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, but build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst…" (p. 466).

Capitalism vs The Climate

Naomi Klien's "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate" (2014) is not a case for how climate change is real or important to consider, it is a call to action. From a research perspective, I was not overly impressed with the book. However, a few chapters into my reading I realized I had approached the book incorrectly. This is not a research book by a researcher; Naomi is an activist and this book is calling for action. It is a book about how the author thinks the public can change the ways things work. It is not the pragmatic, middle of the road argument. It is to "move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health" (p. 26).

The main reason why action has not yet occurred, despite the consensus about climate change, is "those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis" (p. 18). The solution, Klien argues, "is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it's that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious effort to respond to climate change" (p. 23). While the author makes a clear argument for the challenges that are value based, much of the book is a collection of examples of how we can transform not just those values, but also translate new values into actions.

Yet, it is not just climate change that is at issue. It is the ability for citizens to express their will using democratic systems. "The process of taking on the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate – whether at the municipal, state/provincial, national, or international level. It is this corroded state of our political systems – as fossilized as the fuel at the center of these battles – that is fast turning Blockadia into a grassroots pro-democracy movement." (p. 361). Change is possible, and change on this scale has happened before, and the author specifically highlights the responses made to the Great Depression, the abolition of slavey and the independence movements against colonial powers, as these not only included political shifts but also economic ones (p. 545-545).

The book makes two arguments for action: support the smallscale efforts (and many examples of this are given) and use your collective power as citizens to change the system (policies and programs). Where to start? "That means cheap public transit and clean light rail accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along those transit lines; cities planned for high-density living; bike lanes in which riders aren't asked to risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and encourages local, low-energy forms of agriculture; urban designs that clusters essential services like schools and health care along transit routes and in pedestrian-friendly areas; programs that require manufacturers to be responsible for the electronic waste they produce, and to radically reduce built-in redundancies and obsolescences" (p. 91). Doing so "requires visionary long-term planning, tough regulation of business, higher level of taxation for the affluent, big public sector expenditure, and in many cases reversals of core privatizations in order to give communities the power to make the change they desire." (p. 95).

New Publication: Participatory Geoweb

​Corbett, J. and Cochrane, L. (2017) Engaging with the Participatory Geoweb: Exploring the Dynamics of VGI. In Volunteered Geographic Information and the Future of Geospatial Data edited by C. Campelo, M. Bertolotto and P. Corcoran. IGI Global.

Abstract: Maps were historically used as tools of the elite to maintain and expand power and control. The development of participatory mapmaking and the geoweb have opened new avenues for broader citizen engagement and therefore challenge traditional power dynamics. This chapter analyzes three examples and presents experiential learning around participatory processes and VGI contributions. Specifically we explore who is contributing their information, what are their motivations and incentives, in what ways do users interact with available technologies, and how is this contributing to change? We conclude by discussing the roles of motivations, the type of contribution, organizational capacity and leadership, and objectives. In comparing and contrasting these case studies we examine the individual and organizational dynamics of engagement, and how this can better inform the discourse about VGI.

Full version of chapter available here.

Logan Cochrane

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