"Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is."
Economists dominate international development, and, in the case of the World Bank, well, that is an instance of full spectrum dominance. In an article in Public Choice (2010) 142:1-8, titled 'Persuasion, slack, and traps: how can economists change the world?', Bryan Caplan has some bad news as well as some good news.
The bad news is a restatement of the argument of his The Myth of the Rational Voter (Caplan 2007): "I argue that economically inefficient policies survive by popular demand. The public systematically misunderstands economics - and probably many other policy relevant subjects - leading voters to support policies contrary to their best interests. I also maintain that the public's misconceptions are, in a sense, wilful. Most people embrace political and economic beliefs on the basis of their emotional appeal, not dispassionate analysis."
As you can see from many of our blog posts, we're somewhat struggling with getting a good grip on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and their role for governance and accountability. We're also somewhat split along the lines of enthusiasm and scepticism with regard to the possibilities of using ICTs to straighten out a distorted public sphere and further development. This morning I learned about eProcurement, a very particular application of ICT in the context of government accountability, that seems to me a good argument in favor of us technology enthusiasts.
"It’s a structural flaw of any totalitarian regime that the more you prohibit things the more valuable they become – it’s a market thing. If information is rationed and filtered, it becomes very valuable. One single word becomes a weapon, because you are not supposed to say it."
-- Vladimir Bukovsky (as quoted in Financial Times, January 15, 2010)
As the Bank and others prepare their response plans for Haiti, it is worthwhile taking a moment to stress the importance of media and communication in the aftermath of the disaster, as well as in the more long-term post-crisis reconstruction period.
In both post-conflict and natural disaster situations, donors focus on filling people’s basic needs: shelter, sustenance, medical care. But there is another basic need that people have in emergencies: information. People need to find out if their loved ones are safe, and if so, how they can communicate with them. They need to find out where they can access basic services. They need to find out if it is safe to go back to their homes, and if not, where they can stay. And in the longer term, they need to reconnect with others in society, to come together to rebuild a nation.
On a recent trip to Hong Kong and Macau, China’s two Special Administrative Regions (SARs), I was reminded repeatedly of people's tendency to search for heroes to make things better in public life. The two SARs are engines of growth in the region -- the former due primarily to international trade and finance and the latter due to tourism and gambling -- and have highly developed infrastructure and efficient transportation services. I was traveling with a large group of fellow Filipinos, all of us from a country struggling to improve governance in various sectors and the provision of public services. Walking the streets of Hong Kong and Macau, many comments were made regarding the ease of public transport and modern facilities, from sidewalks and roads to air and sea ports. Almost all of these conversations led to two persistent questions: “When will our own country catch up?” and “Who will stamp out corruption and lead the country to prosperity?” I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t much discussion about how.
Will public opinion kill health care reform in the US? Naturally, I don't know the answer to that question. What is interesting is how a reform process that appeared close to conclusion can wobble mightily upon the apparent signaling of public displeasure. If reinforces once again the centrality of politics - and of public opinion- to processes of reform. What matters now, as the leaders of US government grapple with how to conclude or abandon the reform effort, is to reflect on some of the lessons coming out of the process at this point that might be applicable to reform processes generally. The following seem fairly clear:
"Liberal democracy offers religious believers a bargain. Accept, as a price of citizenship, that you may never impose your convictions on your neighbor, or use state power to compel belief. In return, you will be free to practice your own faith as you see fit — and free, as well, to compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas."
-- Ross Douthat, Let’s Talk About Faith, New York Times, January 10, 2010
In my last blog post, I introduced agenda setting as a fundamental media effect: The media sets the public and the political agenda by bringing issues to the attention of the audience and of policy makers. Agenda setting has a little brother, priming, sometimes called second order agenda setting. Priming effects of communication are important for decision making, for example which candidate to vote for in an upcoming election.
CommGAP believes that social norms transformation is key to fighting petty corruption; we believe that one of the biggest impediments to anti-corruption efforts from the perspective of ordinary citizens is when corruption and bribery become so institutionalized in society that people view corruption as the fixed and incontestable norm. To break down such a system, the public’s ignorance of their rights, cynicism, fear of reprisal and mentality of submission to the status quo must first be defeated. Perhaps most importantly, the efficacy challenge needs to be addressed—people need to believe that they can actually do something about corruption so that they can act on that belief.