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politics

Why is it so much Harder to Talk about Politics than about Policies?

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve been running into some resistance recently in writing about politics, and some interesting patterns are starting to emerge.

Firstly, when I sent round a draft piece on the politics and policies of national redistribution (i.e. when you look at the countries who have reduced inequality, what did they do and what were the politics that led to them doing it?) the subtext from a number of commentators in the countries concerned was ‘love the policies, but could you not talk about the politics please?’

They felt that talking about politics and political players (whether leaders or movements), especially in a positive way (Government of X has done brilliantly on Y), could be politically compromising or just felt anxious about being seen as naive, or being denounced by the radicals. Oppositionalism (all politicians are venal, all leaders betray, any progress is purely a grudging response to overwhelming public pressure from below) seems much easier (see right). If politics is mentioned at all, it’s just through the cop-out of lamenting the lack of political will (which all too often means telling politicians to do things that will get them chucked out of power or shot, and then condemning them when they refuse).

Reflections on Indonesia’s teacher reform

Andrew Ragatz's picture


In 2005, I had the great fortune of being in Indonesia just as its major teacher reform effort was beginning to take off.  Indonesia’s parliament had passed a comprehensive law on teachers, along with its ambitious agenda. Its signature program of certification intended to dramatically improve both teacher welfare and quality.  Certified teachers would receive a doubling of salary, and certification was to require that teachers hold a four-year degree and demonstrate possession of competencies necessary to provide good quality education.
 
The key ingredients for major change seemed in place.  Good legislation, and an effort led by a dynamic champion who headed a newly established directorate in the Education Ministry, with the specific mandate of improving the quality of teachers and of educational staff.
 

Reputation and Governance Styles: The Leader as a Smart Aleck

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Because we have a global audience, I must start by explaining that, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, a smart aleck is “a person displaying ostentatious or smug cleverness’.  It also reports that one usage of the word ‘smart’ means: “(of transactions) unscrupulous to the point of dishonesty”. If you watch crime movies the way I do, there is a tendency to admire ‘smart play’, that is, ruthlessly clever and effective maneuvers. The best crime bosses are masters of ‘smart play’. In order words, they are smart alecks.

What is fascinating is how often (particularly in the massed punditry of elite global media) a capacity for smart play by political leaders is glorified. Leaders are routinely judged and compared with regard to whether or not they appear to shape the game, determine events, or impose their will on others and so on. If they do not seem to do that, they are dismissed as effete. If they seem to do that, they are admired and glorified.  What is particularly striking is how often the writers who say these things leave out ethical standards. I believe, for instance, that true evil is a willingness to act without ethical considerations. Yet, notice how often leaders are admired for ostentatiously clever play even if the methods are odious.

But I am interested in a much narrower question. And it is this: if we leave out ethical considerations, is a reputation for ‘smart play’ good for a leader? Does it make her more effective?  To throw this into bold relief, I am going to tell two kinds of stories- one domestic, and the other global.
 

From ‘baby-making machines’ to Active Citizens: How Women are Getting Organized in Nepal (case study for comments)

Duncan Green's picture

Next up in this series of case studies in Active Citizenship is some inspiring work on women’s empowerment in Nepal. I would welcome comments on the full study: Raising Her Voice Nepal final draft 4 July

‘I was just a baby making machine’; ‘Before the project, I only ever spoke to animals and children’

‘This is the first time I have been called by my own name.’
[Quotes from women interviewed by study tour, March 2011]

While gender inequality remains extreme in Nepal, Oxfam’s Raising Her Voice (RHV) programme on women’s empowerment is contributing to and reinforcing an ongoing long-term shift in gender norms, driven by a combination of urbanization, migration, rising literacy and access to media, all of which have combined to erode women’s traditional isolation.

During the past 20 years, Nepal has also undergone major political changes. It has moved from being an absolute monarchy to a republic, from having an authoritarian regime to a more participatory governance system, from a religious state to a secular one, and from a centralized system to a more decentralized one.
 

Quote of the Week: Rachid al-Ghannouchi

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"The cure for a failed democracy is more democracy [...] dictatorship disguised in religion is the worst kind of dictatorship."

 -Rachid al-Ghannouchi, founder and chairman of Tunisia's moderate Islamist party, Ennahda. Since the 2011 Tunisian revolution, the party has become the largest and most well-organized in Tunisia.

Quote of the Week: Brendan Nyhan

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"Journalists have strong incentives to inflate the likelihood of worst-case scenarios for whoever is losing the current news cycle, which produces a lot of phony “game changers”. After so much hype and so many failed predictions, who can blame citizens for tuning these stories out?"
 

Brendan Nyhan, an American political scientist, liberal to moderate political blogger, author, and assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College.
 

Bits and Atoms: ICTs in Areas of Limited Statehood

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

Imagine that you’re a citizen of a country that has just experienced one of the worst earthquakes in history. You, your neighbors, and fellow country-men are immediately thrown into danger, chaos, and destitution. As one of the fortunate survivors, you wait for authorities to provide medical care, shelter, food, and other immediate needs, but you receive little or no help. Yet, to your surprise, a large group of ordinary citizens begin organizing a massive disaster response by using blogs, twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks. Their efforts have provided you with life-saving resources. And all of a sudden, within days, digital technologies have facilitated an entire social movement around this earthquake. These are the types of stories that Steven Livingston and Gregor Walter-Drop examine in their new edited series, Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood.
 
If you are interested in digital media and politics, there is a plethora of literature on the role of ICTs in powerful political systems in the industrialized world. However, there has been very little focus on the role of digital technology in weak states with inadequate governance systems. Bits and Atoms is a comprehensive volume that examines the extent to which ICTs can help fill governance voids in a number of countries in Eastern Europe, Sub-Sahara Africa, and the Middle East. A distinguished group of scholars attempt to answer some important questions like, “Can ICTs help fill the gap between pressing human needs and weak states’ ability to meet them? Can communities use ICTs to meet challenges such as indiscriminate violence, disease, drought, famine, crime, and other problems arising from deficient and non-responsive state institutions? How does ICT affect the legitimacy of the state?”

The Case for Democracy- A New Study on India, South Africa and Brazil (shame it’s not much good – missed opportunity)

Duncan Green's picture

The ODI is a 10 minute train ride from my home, so I’m easily tempted out of my lair for the occasional lunchtime meeting. Last week it was the launch of ‘Democracy Works: The Democratic Alternative from the South’, a paper on the three ‘rapidly developing democracies’ of Brazil, India and South Africa, co-authored by the Legatum Institute and South Africa’s Centre for Development and Enterprise (not ODI, who merely hosted the launch). I was underwhelmed.

Which is a shame, because the topic is great – China’s rise and the West’s economic implosion are undermining arguments for democratic and open systems around the world. The report quotes Jacob Zuma: “the economic crisis facing countries in the West has put a question mark on the paradigm and approaches which a few years ago were celebrated as dogma to be worshipped.”
 

Quote of the Week: Arvind Kejriwal

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"I used to hate politics and politicians."

- Arvind Kejriwal, an Indian politician and former civil servant. He leads the Aam Aadmi Party (translation: Common Man Party), which he launched in 2012. He is well-known for his efforts to enact and implement the Right to Information Act (RTI) and in drafting a proposed Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizen's Ombudsman Bill) that sought the appointment of a Jan Lokpal, an independent body, to investigate corruption cases.  In the 2013 Delhi Legislative Assembly election, the Aam Aadmi Party won 28 seats, propelling him to serve as the chief minister in Delhi from December 28, 2013 to February 14, 2014.

 

Is Advocacy Only Feasible in Formal Democracies? Lessons from 6 Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives in Vietnam

Duncan Green's picture

Andrew Wells-Dang (right) and Pham Quang Tu (left) on how multi-stakeholder initiatives can flourish even in relatively closed political systems such as Vietnam

How can NGOs be effective advocates in restrictive political settings? Global comparative research (such as this study by CIVICUS on ‘enabling environments’) often concludes that at least a modest degree of formal democracy is necessary for civil society to flourish…including, but not limited to NGOs. Yet our experiences in Vietnam, which is commonly thought to be one of those restrictive settings, have shown that there is somewhat more space to carry out advocacy than appears at first blush – if advocates have a clear understanding of the national context and appropriate advocacy strategies.

We’ve seen effective advocacy take place around environmental and health issues through the initiatives of networks of formal and informal actors. At times, such as the disputes over bauxite mining in the Central Highlands (see here and here), networks have gone beyond the ‘invited spaces’ of embedded advocacy to boundary-stretching strategies of blogging, petitions and media campaigns. These actions defy the standard state-society dichotomy, bringing together activists and officials, intellectuals and community groups from around the country. At base is a realisation that social and policy problems are too big and chaotic to be resolved by state or non-state actors alone.


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