As the world’s self-appointed steering committee gathers in Davos, 2014 is already shaping up as a big year for inequality. The World Economic Forum’s ‘Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014’ ranks widening income disparities as the second greatest worldwide risk in the coming 12 to 18 months (Middle East and North Africa came top, since you ask).
So it’s great to see ‘Working for the Few’, a really excellent new Oxfam paper by Ricardo Fuentes and Nick Galasso, tackling an issue best summed up by US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the aftermath of the Great Depression, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.’ i.e. the politics of inequality and redistribution.
The Brandeis quote is particularly relevant because this time really is different. After the 2008 global meltdown, we have not seen anything like the New Deal, in terms of redistribution or reform. The paper argues that this is because political capture by a small economic elite is much more complete this time around.
Our Top Ten Blog Posts by readership in 2013
This post was originally published on Jaunary 14, 2013
2011 was a year of turmoil. Internationally, economic meltdown deepened and continued, massive earthquakes struck New Zealand and a tsunami hit Japan. But 2011 will be also remembered for a different type of earthquake – the Arab Spring – an event that shook the Middle East, causing regimes across the region to totter and fall. Unlike other revolutions, this one used relatively new tools and technologies – networked or social media.
Much has already been written about the Arab Spring but what is already clear from the current body of work being produced is that it was the use of social media that acted as the catalyst for change in an already unpredictable environment. The use and availability of social media easily created connections between prominent thought leaders and activists to ordinary citizens, rapidly expanding the network of people willing to take action.
If you were asked to describe culture, what would come to mind? —The magnificent Roman Catholic Church of Sagrada Família, the must-reads by Charles Dickens, or perhaps your grandma’s savory borsht? Well, these are all good thoughts. But think harder. At a societal level, culture is indeed reflected through art, literature, religion, and what’s on your dinner table. But at an individual level, it boils down to how we think—how individuals process information and form perceptions.
Whether or not you believe it, those tiny machines in our mind might operate differently in different cultures (e.g. read this New York Times story). Understanding these differences is valuable to campaigners, opinion researchers, and almost everyone who cares about engaging the public in the field of international development.
Over the past decades researchers found several differences in the way Westerners and East Asians process information and form views. Some of the differences might possibly influence public opinion. These differences include what I call in plain language “adopting a side or seeking a middle path,” “blaming me or blaming the situation,” and “logic versus experience.”
Does the state of public opinion on a public policy issue create obligations for political leaders, obligations they ignore at their peril? This is an issue being debated in the United States right now about a specific public policy controversy – gun control – but the core issue applies everywhere. In the specific case of the United States, many readers will know that there was an attempt to pass legislation requiring background checks before you can buy guns online or at gun shows. The legislation was blocked in the US Senate in spite of the fact that opinion polls say again and again that 90 per cent of Americans polled support the measure. So, the question is being asked and debated: how can 90% of the people support a measure and it does not become law? Very often the question is asked with real heat. Now, we are not going to get into the Byzantine complexities of American politics. What I am interested in is bringing to your attention what professional political scientists who blog have been saying about the core, universally relevant issue: does the state of public opinion create unavoidable obligations for political leaders?
In a couple of blog posts Jonathan Bernstein (he writes the excellent A Plain Blog about Politics) offers the following insights:
Many policy entrepreneurs and technocrats waving sundry blueprints dislike uncooperative public opinion. Sometimes the dislike is intense. But since you cannot go around insulting mass publics on television what they do is turn on leaders and they ask these leaders to show true leadership by ignoring public opinion…or transforming it with a feat of oratory.
We have at least two instances playing out right now. First, we have deficit slashing, austerity zealotry running amok. In country after country, governments are being asked by experts to slash budgets no matter who is hurt (but, naturally, common people bear the brunt of the hurt). Unelected prime ministers are being used to push through painful budget cuts and then the establishment is surprised when people refuse to vote for these technocratic ‘saviors’. And we get the reaction: ‘What is wrong with the people of that country?’
The global community faces an epic governance and accountability challenge: the big banks that we all use either directly or indirectly are out of control and nobody seems to know what to do about them. As we mark the fifth anniversary of the global financial crisis this month, it appears as if every new week brings news of a fresh banking scandal. The recent list:
I recently ran a fascinating workshop with colleagues at Intermón Oxfam (Oxfam’s Spanish affiliate) at which the different country programmes brought examples of change processes at work. One that particularly struck me was about our work in Colombia on sexual violence and conflict. Here’s the write up, jointly authored with Intermon’s Alejandro Matos.
The campaign began in 2009, jointly agreed by Intermón Oxfam and 9 national women’s and human rights organizations. The main aim was to make visible, at national and international level, the widespread use of sexual violence as a tactic by all sides in the armed conflict, and the gaps and failings in the responses of the Colombian state, in terms of prevention and punishment, the end of impunity and the care of women victims.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
New Platforms, New Public Opinion?
"With the continued growth of new communication media and technologies, the public opinion and research sector is abuzz with equal doses of optimism and skepticism for its future. In a world of falling response rates and increasing costs for phone and face-to-face surveys, does this new frontier ask us to merely measure the chatter on Twitter and Facebook or does it reframe the definition of public opinion itself? This is among the many questions challenging the Digital Team here at InterMedia." READ MORE
DFID Research for Development
The engagement of women's movements with religion: legal reform in Anambra state, Nigeria
"Campaigning by the women's movement in Anambra State was instrumental to the introduction of a new law in 2005 designed to prevent the maltreatment of widows. Religion is often implicated in gender inequality and discrimination against women, but religious leaders and organizations played key roles in this campaign. The case study enabled the researchers to address the questions of when, why and how religious actors facilitate rather than obstruct legal reform intended to realize women's rights." READ MORE
So, what’s governance anyway? No, don’t ask me for a definition. I can, however, tell you how we frame it. People, Spaces, Deliberation has been around for about four years now, and we hope we have made our modest contribution to the discussion of governance, especially in a development context.
To give an idea about how we frame governance, I took a look at the tags we use most frequently for our posts. Each post in which the tag occurred was counted. And here it is: Governance, on this blog, is about, first and foremost, public opinion and accountability. It’s also about the media as institutions of accountability and media development, about transparency, about fighting corruption, about social media – and about communication.