Institutional inertia in representation and participation

Representation and participation are cornerstones of liberal representative democracy.  Institutions that facilitate equal participation and representation are part and parcel of the very definition of democracy itself, whilst also serving as vehicles for achieving democratic outcomes and administering democratic politics.  However, there is real concern in both mature and young democracies that the institutions that should in theory support effective and meaningful representation and participation – elections, political parties and parliamentary representatives – are in practice failing to do so.

Effective democratic institutions can take decades, if not centuries, to develop and embed themselves in society.  Existing institutions can of course be tweaked or reformed, old institutions abolished and new ones established.  However, the politics and behaviour that they are designed to shape and channel do not change overnight.  Just like other institutional spheres, democracy is prone to institutional inertia.  This raises the important question as to whether the institutions of liberal democracy that we are so familiar with today, with their roots in particular moments of primarily European history, are suited to contemporary political, economic and social contexts across the world.

As in most contemporary democracies, formal political participation in the UK is effectively limited to periodic elections.  These often offer voters little meaningful choice over who should represent them in national politics. Electoral candidates tend to have similar socio-economic backgrounds, and party policies have on the whole converged around the centre of the ideological spectrum.   The UK electoral system is majoritarian, with party political affiliation often overlapping with constituency boundaries. Political mobilisation and campaigning therefore focuses on marginal constituencies in which voters are undecided or can be “swung” to vote for one party or another. Systems for selecting democratic representatives are thus deeply flawed, which surely diminishes the likelihood of effective representation and participation in everyday politics.

In between elections, citizens can attend local surgeries to speak with their parliamentary representatives, create lobby groups or contribute to public consultations on policy when invited to do so.  However, it is clear that the opportunities available for formal political participation do not meet contemporary needs and wants.  Levels of political cynicism and alienation are high amongst the British public, and membership of political parties is in overall decline.  The Power Inquiry A major study into citizen attitudes towards democracy conducted in 2005 found that British citizens are not politically apathetic.  They do care about political issues, and find alternative ways to participate in political life outside of the party political system.  The study concludes that the roots of the problem lie in institutional inertia:

“the British political system is structured as though the lifestyles, expectations and values of the industrial era are still in place. Citizens have changed”.

Despite the fact that the traditional institutions of liberal representative politics are failing to translate into meaningful participation and representation in mature democracies, these same institutions are being established and promoted in the world’s new democracies.  Unsurprisingly, these are similarly failing to foster genuine political empowerment and inclusion.  On paper, all people have equal rights to participate in, and be served by, politics and governance.  However in reality political careers are only available to those who already have political and/or economic power.  Poor and marginalised groups often lack the capacity and opportunity to influence government policy, either directly via elected representatives or indirectly via public debate.  Patronage politics often rules supreme, with the representative function being reduced to channelling direct economic benefits, whether legitimately or illegitimately acquired, to communities in return for votes.  Democratic institutions that should in theory translate the principles of equality, participation and representation into reality are left hollow, meaningless, and even damaging.

Whilst representation and participation are now commonly accepted to be indispensible and interrelated elements of healthy democracy, this has not always been the case.  Pitkin (2004) highlights how representation as a political concept evolved entirely separately from notions of democracy.  The Athenian brand of democracy was very different to that which is commonly practiced today, being deeply participatory and unrelated to any notion of universal human rights or suffrage.  Adult male citizens who had completed their military training were entitled to propose policies and legislation, and vote directly on them.  Citizens who met these criteria had equal rights of participation, but this principle of political equality did not extend to women or servant classes.  Nor was representation a component of Athenian democracy, reflected in the absence of a word to describe the term within Ancient Greek.

In England, until the 18th Century, representation was imposed from above as a means of control, rather than acting as a mechanism of political empowerment.  The monarch required each local shire and borough to send representatives to report back to residents about taxation requirements.  Pitkin describes how the function of this representation evolved over time, with the consent of constituents gradually becoming conditional on their grievances and issues being conveyed and addressed via their representatives.  It was only after the revolution of the late 18th Century that representation came to be viewed as a vehicle for democracy.  Even then, there were differing conceptions about the relationship between political representation and participation.  Whilst democrats believed that elected representatives could act as a voice of the people and a vehicle for popular participation, conservatives viewed representation as a means of controlling the political participation of the uneducated and unruly masses, and of limiting political influence to a trusted elite (ibid).

Pitkin is fearful that the same belief in the function of representation held by conservatives in late 18th Century England dominates in modern liberal democratic systems today.  Representation serves as a means of political exclusion rather than inclusion.  She concludes:

“representation has supplanted democracy instead of serving it….The representatives act not as agents of the people but simply instead of them”.

This is a worrying but seemingly accurate analysis.  It suggests the need for a complete rethink of contemporary assumptions about what democratic institutions can be expected to achieve in reality.  This is particularly important in the context of young democracies in developing countries.  The principles of equality, participation and representation are still entirely valid and important goals to pursue.  But the institutions that we have developed in order to achieve them are simply not proving to be up to the task.

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Linking online activism to offline political change

Events currently unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia are momentous.  After decades of authoritarian rule and closed government, established landscapes of political power and control are rupturing.  It isn’t yet clear what long term effects the protests in Egypt will have; whether Mubarak’s grip on power will be loosened in any meaningful or sustainable way.  What is clear, however, is that everyday citizens have joined committed activists and campaigners in their protests on a scale unprecedented in recent history.  This suggests that the balance of power has tipped slightly away from the government and towards the people.  Whether long-lived or not, this is a significant development.

Analysts are unanimous in their assessment of the importance of the role that digital social media are playing in initiating and sustaining protest.  Activists and fellow citizens have coordinated via Facebook and Twitter, with real time information being released about the issues at stake, protest dynamics and retaliation by the authorities.  The very power of digital media platforms is illustrated by the speed with which the government of Egypt moved to block them as protests escalated.  In Tunisia, announcing that the Internet would no longer be blocked was one of the concessions offered by Ben Ali in what was to be his final speech as President before he fled the country.

Seeing the role that digital communications are playing in North Africa and elsewhere, donors and democracy practitioners are starting to look at how they can support democracy and accountable governance through assisting digital activists.  However, we have to be careful in our assessment of the role that digital communications are playing in processes of democratisation and political transition.  It is clear that the Internet in general, and social media in particular, are having considerable influence on offline politics.  But the exact nature of this influence is not yet fully understood.  Global attention tends to focus on moments of political crisis, with relatively little analysis of longer term work by journalists, activists and everyday citizens to push open spaces for expression and association online.  Moreover, debate tends to focus rather simplistically on whether or not change was driven by social media.  We need a much more nuanced analysis of contemporary processes of political transition – one which places social media in the wider political, economic and social landscape and considers the interplay between these different factors over the long term.

The concept of “political settlement”, discussed in a previous blog post, is useful for analysing current events in North Africa.  Political settlements are bargains that are struck between groups contesting for power, or agreements about how to share power.  They represent the balance of power between different individuals and groups in society, resulting from economic and social relationships, incentive structures and the distribution and use of levers of influence.  Settlements change over time, either through slow and incremental evolution or through disruptive events, such as political coups or electoral defeat.

In Tunisia, a definite shift in the political settlement has occurred, at least for the time being.  Former President Ben Ali has fled the country.  The newly established cabinet includes committed activists such as blogger Slim Amamou who had initially been arrested as protests escalated this month in an attempt to chill dissent.  However, rather focusing on the short term, we need to consider the longer term balance of power between citizens and the state.  Will the new powers of voice and active citizenship that the people of Tunisia have found in digital communications be enough to forge meaningful and accountable democracy in the long term?  Or will the scales of political power remain tipped away from citizens, with long-established power holders finding new ways of co-opting and co-existing with digital media?  Protests in Tunisia are currently continuing as citizens call for sympathisers of the previous regime to be barred from the new government.  People clearly fear that, once the dust settles, the temporarily ruptured political settlement will heal, and won’t end up looking much different from the settlement of old. 

The development and strengthening of democracy in Tunisia will depend on the parallel strengthening of active citizenship.  Digital communications can play a role in this.  In addition to being used to mobilise and sustain protest, citizen uses of digital communications in countries across the world are also having less obvious, longer term impacts on state-society relations and political settlements.  People with internet access have new powers to search for information, to monitor government activity, and to engage in public debate.  These activities may not appear to have immediate impact on the established political settlement.  However, anecdotal evidence suggests that they cause minor shifts in political power or instigate particular governmental responses that have significant longer term ramifications on state-society relations.

Egypt is a particularly relevant example, given the ongoing political protests that are taking place across the country.  It is clear that young, digitally literate people have driven these protests, and that social media played a role in helping them to organise and mobilise.  However, digital communications were also used by people to prise open spaces for political debate and action online in the years running up to the protests.  During a recent consultation with civil society groups on freedom of expression in Egypt, activists suggested that the internet has played a role in tipping the balance of power away from the Egyptian state over time.  For example, the longstanding taboo around discussion of the degrading treatment of women in public has been eroded by an initiative that encourages women to report incidents of sexual harassment on the street via their mobile phones and then logs them on an online map. The project helped to promote public awareness and debate around the issue.  Cases began to be reported in the offline media, the police started to pay greater attention to reported incidents, and draft legislation to prohibit sexual harassment is now under discussion. 

In the media sphere, the small number of independent newspapers that exist in Egypt report that they have significantly more freedom over what they can publish online than they do offline.  Because of this, the news outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm has invested significant resources in an online, participatory version of its site, on which citizens engage in active debate around a range of social and political issues.  Despite the Egyptian government’s regular harassment and monitoring of online journalists and bloggers, online communications persistently pushed the boundaries of politically acceptable expression in the country.  Activists are adamant that this longer term opening of democratic space via digital media helped to tip the balance of power away from the state, laying the grounds for the current revolutionary, broad-based citizen movement for democracy.

Governments across the world have proved highly efficient at clamping down on online communication.  Pre-revolution Tunisia had a highly sophisticated regime of internet censorship and control in place, and Egypt is notorious for effectively encouraging self-censorship through techniques such as intimidation and propaganda.  States are also increasingly using digital media to maintain established political settlements, fighting back through digital propaganda and covert surveillance of dissenters.  However, in neither Tunisia or Egypt did state use and control of digital media deter citizens from innovating with technology to push for change.  This suggests that digital media are not straightforward tools for political repression or liberation; they are part and parcel of the shifting terrain of power and negotiation between citizens and the state.

In short, in our assessment of the relationship between digital communications technology and democracy, we should we careful not to either undersell or overstate the role that they are playing in shifting power relationships between citizens and the state.  In order to help build accountable and effective democracy in the long term, we need a realistic, evidence-based understanding of the ways that the internet and mobile phones are being used, both by citizens to challenge established political settlements and by power holders in an attempt to maintain the status quo.

We’ve yet to see what the long term outcomes of political turmoil will be in Egypt and Tunisia.  But whatever happens, the drivers of change won’t be found solely in the online or offline world, but rather in the interaction between the two.  As one Tunisian Tweeter put it when the president fled the country,

“It’s not over… The revolution is not gauged with our ivory-tour-Tweets, but with people’s determination on the ground”.


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Diagnosing democracy deficits: convergence around power, politics and incentives

A wide range of analysts and democracy practitioners in different academic and professional spheres are working to diagnose the problems and weaknesses of contemporary democracies and to propose solutions to address them.  Three broad approaches are of particular relevance from a development and human rights perspective.

1)  Political economy approaches

Political economy approaches to governance and democracy focus on economic structures and power relations between different sections of society.  Of particular relevance to is the concept of “political settlement”, described by  Whaites (2008) as “the forging of a common understanding, usually among elites, that their interests or beliefs are served by a particular way of organising political power.”  Settlements often constitute bargains between groups contesting for power, or agreements about how to share power.  Political settlements have often been conceived of as the bargain struck between warring factions during peace agreements, or the power sharing arrangement between different groups that provides the basis of the state.  However, analysts have more recently begun to think of settlements as processes of shifting power relationships and incentive structures, rather than static agreements rooted in a specific moment and context.  Settlements can therefore change over time, either through slow evolution and incremental shifts, or through disruptive events, for example when incumbent regimes are overthrown by political coup or electoral defeat.

As democracy is in effect a system for organising and administering political power, an understanding of the political settlements that underlie democratic systems in different countries is key for understanding how these systems function.  A number of scholars working in this field have argued that efforts to build democracy over the past twenty years have not paid enough attention to the local political settlement.  Institutions have therefore been built on top of, rather than in line with, power dynamics and incentive structures.  At best, such institutions are ineffective and do not alter underlying neopatrimonial logics that govern social, political and economic relations.  At worst, they exacerbate these logics, with seemingly democratic processes “helping to burnish the specious reformist credentials of entrenched strongmen” (Carothers, 2009:10-11).

Research into local governance systems in a number of African countries confirms these fears.  For example, a study conducted by the Africa Power and Politics Programme found that a number of people in rural areas of Uganda believe that democratic processes are equated with freedom from civic obligation and impunity from sanction.  Ineffective local political leaders shelter under an umbrella of legitimacy leant to them by flawed electoral processes.  Politicians that want to effect change are unwilling to implement policies that may be unpopular with certain sections of the population for fear of losing votes (Booth, 2010).  In Malawi, the history of political development in the country has left local public goods under party political rather than state control.  When the previously dominant party suffered electoral defeat, the local party in Blantyre was able to withdraw funds from the Water Board, forcing it to cut off the water supply to local residents (ibid).  In such scenarios, it is not surprising that local citizens associate democracy with poor management of local resources rather than with effective governance.

A number of political economists go so far as to argue that democracy is not compatible with economic development.  Development requires the redistribution of resources away from economically unproductive elite groups in society.  However, democracy provides such groups with the tools to reject change (Khan, 2002).  Tactics may include political or resource mobilisation to harm reformists or elected leaders, competing directly for office, and influencing cash-strapped politicians through donations (Leftwich, 2002).  Democracy can also have the effect of concentrating energy and resources on political infighting and elite squabbles over resources, rather than on policy development and implementation.However, rather than rejecting democracy as a political system, many researchers and analysts working in this field are calling for better appreciation of the impact that incentive structures, informal institutions and power relationships are having on democratic processes and development.  Whilst democratic states are not automatically effective states, this does not automatically rule out the possibility of democratic states that are (Fritz and Menocal, 2007).  The challenge is to work with the grain of incentive structures and existing institutions and realities, exploiting the areas in which these overlap with progressive agendas whilst at the same time being realistic about what development and democracy interventions can hope to achieve.

2) Strengthening the formal institutions of liberal democracy

Institutional approaches to democratic development focus on formal institutions as drivers of change.  Accordingly, the rise of illiberal and authoritarian democracies is mainly attributed to weaknesses in democratic institutions, systems and processes.  It follows that the quality of democracy can be improved through strengthening the institutions upon which it rests.  Scholars and practitioners working in this field have tended to look at the structure of institutions and the rules that determine how they function.  These include constitutional arrangements, the design of electoral systems and the rules that govern political competition and legislative politics.  For example, the “grand coalitions” or power sharing agreements advocated by Arend Lijphart might help to ensure that all groups in society are represented within the governing apparatus.  Electoral quotas and list-based proportional representation systems can also help to ensure broad representation in government.  Work in this field encompasses analysis and support of the demand side of democracy as well as the supply side, for example through encouraging constitutional and legislative arrangements that support and protect civil society.  It also addresses horizontal accountability institutions, including human rights institutions, legislatures and judiciaries.

Institutional approaches to diagnosing and addressing democracy deficits have received criticism for being too technical in their approach, failing to appreciate or address the impact that informal institutions and incentive structures have on political behaviour.  Donors and democracy practitioners working in this field are responding to this criticism in three main ways.  Firstly, increasing attention is being paid to formal institutions that have tended to be neglected in development work, but which in reality have significant impact on political dynamics and prospects for building democratic and effective states.  The most significant of these are political parties.  Until recently, donors have been reluctant to engage with political parties for fear of being accused of political partisanship.  Party support work has largely been conducted through sister party organisations in mature democracies which offer capacity building assistance to their political counterparts in younger democracies.  However, there are indications that donors are recognising the importance of engaging with parties and party systems as a direct and integrated component of democracy and governance work.  In doing so, they are attempting both to mitigate the role that parties often play as political spoilers to peace and development, and to harness their political power for developmental ends.  Work in this area includes capacity building with individual parties, fostering inter-party dialogue, and strengthening party systems through reform of their rules and regulations.

The second, related response to accusations of overly technical approaches to institutional strengthening has been an attempt to inject appreciation of politics into work with formal institutions.  Drawing on insights from the field of new institutional economics, this work is focusing on the incentive structures that influence the behaviour of individuals working within institutions, which in turn impacts on the effectiveness of the institution as a whole.  This is a relatively new line of work within the academic and policy communities.  Examples of research and thinking include Power’s (2010) analysis of the drivers of change within legislatures and the Africa Power and Politics Programme’s work stream on the contradictory pressures that affect the behaviour of members of parliament (Lindberg and Gyimah-Boadi, 2009).  There is now rough consensus within the donor community that democracy and governance programming work has to address politics, incentives and power structures.  However, most donors and practitioners seem to be struggling to apply these lessons in practice, with the result that work with democratic institutions is still overwhelmingly technical in its approach (Coleman and Power, 2010).

The third notable trend within research and programming related to institutional strengthening is the increasing attention that is being paid to so-called “traditional” institutions such as traditional local justice systems and leadership structures.  The role that these institutions play in influencing the behaviour of citizens and the legitimacy and effectiveness of formal institutions has been highlighted by a number of analysts and researchers (see for example Cammack, 2009; IDS, 2010).  The advice from this literature to the donor and democracy practitioner communities is to make sure that they understand the roles that these institutions play in local communities, and how they interact with and affect the legitimacy of formal institutions.  Donors are also encouraged to work with existing institutional structures wherever possible, coordinating with them and building upon them rather than attempting to supplant them with new institutions.  Thinking in this area is more advanced in relation to working with traditional justice systems than it is for working with traditional authorities in promoting good governance and democracy.

3) Socio-cultural and participatory approaches

Socio-cultural approaches to democracy tend to emphasise the demand side of the democratic equation, focusing on the democratic values of citizens and their perceptions of the legitimacy of democratic leaders and institutions.  According to this perspective, the roots of failure in new democracies lie in the absence of common understandings within and between communities and stakeholders about what democratic and legitimate leadership looks like, how it should function and what it should deliver.  Based on Eckstein’s theories of political legitimacy, Norris (2011) argues that democratic regimes are more likely to be sustainable if people’s expectations of them are in line with how they actually function in practice.  If democratic systems are perceived as legitimate and fair, people and politicians are more likely accept the election of leaders that they don’t like, and democratic values and practices are entrenched within society.

An important strand of thinking and programming that has emerged from this area of work focuses on participatory forms of democracy.  Often presented in contrast with representative liberal democracy, academics and practitioners working in this field tend to emphasise the importance of direct citizen engagement in political processes.  This might be through the formation of associations which engage with politics, participation in social movements, or the development of new formal spaces for direct participation in politics.  Such participatory mechanisms are believed to enhance people’s control over their lives, allowing them to demand more accountable governance from leaders and shape, or directly participate in, policy making and management of public resources.  Such processes can help to build notions of citizenship, inclusion and social cohesion, in turn helping to foster popular legitimacy of governance systems, peace and stability.  Work in this area has often been labelled as “deepening democracy”:  “the political project of developing and sustaining more substantive and empowered citizen participation in the political process than what is normally found in liberal representative democracy alone” (Gaventa, 2005:1).

As is the case for institutional approaches, socio-cultural and participatory approaches to democracy building have been criticised for failing to pay adequate attention to politics and power structures.  Participatory processes and spaces are usually underlain by similar patterns of inclusion and exclusion as formal democratic institutions.  Associations, movements and participatory spaces are prone to capture by elite and political factions, and it is not always clear that individual and organisational claims to represent or speak for certain constituents are valid.  Despite this criticism, there is a growing body of case study evidence that suggests that participatory forms of democracy do have positive effects.  Gaventa and Barrett (2010) analysed the findings of over 100 studies of citizen engagement and participation in 20 countries, finding that they had positive impacts in 75% of cases.  These included a stronger sense of citizenship, enhanced participation, more accountable states and more cohesive societies.  Scholars working in this field acknowledge the limitations of participatory democracy, and increasing attention is being paid by practitioners to the ways in which political and power inequalities affect the outcomes of participatory projects.  Gaventa and Barrett stress the importance of moving on from asking whether participation can have positive impacts, to analysis of the conditions and factors that influence the impact and outcome that participatory institutions and processes have.  This is where questions of the underlying political settlement and power relations come into play.

An emerging common theme: politics, power and incentives

The importance of taking politics, power and incentives into consideration when diagnosing the causes of democratic deficits and defining possible remedies is emerging as a common strand of thinking across the three main approaches to democratic development.  There also appears to be growing consensus around the importance of bringing the three main approaches together, analysing the ways in which they interact and impact on each other rather than prioritising one approach over the other.  In short, there appears to be increasing recognition of the importance of looking at democracy and politics across their many different axes and through a range of theoretical lenses.  The emphasis is being placed on understanding what is actually happening in reality, rather than narrowly focusing on what should be happening in theory.  Whether this will lead to more flexible, context specific support and innovations in democracy building has yet to be seen.

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About this blog

Over the past century, democracy has emerged at the international level as the most widely accepted system for managing politics and allocating power over the state.  This is as true for the international development community as for other spheres of international relations, with broad consensus emerging amongst many donors that democracy is an integral component of development.  Democracy is supported for its intrinsic value as a fundamental human right, and also for the instrumental benefits that it is believed to bring.  These include: improved governance of development aid resources by recipient governments; the emergence of governments that are more accountable and responsive to the needs of poor and marginalised communities; development programmes that are better targeted towards poverty reduction; and improved institutional environments for business and economic development.

However, in recent years, concern has been rising within the academic, donor and practitioner communities that democracy is failing to deliver on either its supposed intrinsic or instrumental benefits.  Aggregate indices of democracy suggest that civil liberties and political freedoms are in decline at the global level.  Rather than seeing the emergence of inclusive, responsive and capable democratic states, scholars have bemoaned the rise of so-called “partial”, “illiberal”, and “low-intensity” democracies.  In such states, democracy exists as a “thin veneer of Western concepts”; a set of formal institutions which have failed to provoke meaningful democratic empowerment or accountability.

In many nominally democratic developing countries, power remains concentrated in the hands of political elite who manipulate democratic institutions to shore up their power and legitimacy.  State resources are allocated and used to maintain political loyalty and support, supplanting notions of democratic accountability and representation.  Such countries are commonly referred to as “hybrid states”, caught between traditional governance by patronage and the modern ideal of governance by liberal political and economic institutions.  Shifting focus from the broader concept of governance to the narrower subset of political governance, these states might be termed “hybrid democracies”.  Formal institutions of liberal representative democracy are mixing with traditional or pre-existing political institutions, processes and structures to create new, hybrid forms of political participation and representation.  These follow their own logics and have their own outcomes, often quite different to those predicted by models of liberal representative democracy.

There are some instances in which new, home-grown modalities of politics and decision making are helping to advance the political rights of poor and marginalised people, helping to build more inclusive political settlements and have a voice in decision making.  But in too many cases, seemingly democratic institutions are actually undermining prospects for peace, poverty reduction and human development, rather than advancing them.  They are serving to amplify rather than reduce incentives for zero-sum and personality politics, political instability and violence, corruption and poor governance of public resources.

This is not to say that we should abandon democracy, or stop working to strengthen democratic systems and processes in younger and older democracies alike.  Democracy is a fundamental right and value, the absence of which would do more harm than good for human rights and development at the global level.  However, there is a need for the international development community to take a step back and reassess its motivations, goals and approaches in the governance and democracy arenas.  In particular, there is a need to acknowledge the tensions that exist between the form that so-called democratic politics is taking in countries across the world, and other development goals such as poverty reduction, political stability and effective policy making.  We need to assess what is feasible and realistic to expect from young democracies in fragile states.  To explore the feasibility of developing new democratic institutions, processes and cultures that are better able to meet the needs of the poorest sections of society.  And to find ways of providing the space that is needed for innovation to build home-grown and locally owned political systems, whilst also remaining true to our values and ideals.

I’ve set up this blog to explore these ideas.  Please do get in touch if you are working on related issues, interested in research collaboration, or if you have thoughts and opinions to share.

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