"The cure for a failed democracy is more democracy [...] dictatorship disguised in religion is the worst kind of dictatorship."
"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.
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?”
Last week, we invited Jennifer Bussell from UC Berkeley to present her fascinating study on corruption, politics and public service reforms in the digital age. The study is based in India and draws on a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data collected in 2009 from 20 subnational states, investigating how pre-existing institutional conditions influence e-Governance reforms.
Public service reforms in the digital age constitute a new era of relations between the citizen and the state. However, scholars have argued that much of the discourse on e-Government has been normative, with fairly optimistic predictions, and wanting deeper moorings in public management theory (Coursey & Norris, 2008; Heeks & Bailur, 2007; Yildiz, 2007).
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.”
"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.
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.
“We have been led to believe that the market is some kind of natural phenomenon. But in the end, the market is a political construct.”
- Ha-Joon Chang, a leading heterodox economist and institutional economist who specialises in development economics. Chang has written several widely-discussed books on policy, including Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective (2002). Prospect Magazine ranked him as one of the top World Thinkers in 2013.
Women’s empowerment is one of the greatest areas of progress in the last century, so what better theme for a post on ‘voice’ than gender rights?
Globally, the gradual empowerment of women is one of the standout features of the past century. The transformation in terms of access to justice and education, to literacy, sexual and reproductive rights and political representation is striking.
That progress has been driven by a combination of factors: the spread of effective states that are able to turn ‘rights thinking’ into actual practice, and broader normative shifts; new technologies that have freed up women’s time and enabled them to control their own fertility; the vast expansion of primary education – particularly for girls – and improved health facilities.
Politics and power have been central to many, if not all, of these advances. At a global political level, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) appears to be one of those pieces of international law that exerts genuine traction at a national level, as it is ratified and codified in domestic legislation.
A common notion in public policy is that policy-making and implementation are divorced from each other, in the sense that politics surrounds decision-making activities (to be carried out by the elected political leadership) while implementation is an administrative activity (to be handled by bureaucracies). However, researchers have found that such distinctions are not helpful in understanding policy implementation in developing countries.