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Sotto Voce?

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

Recently I read yet another paper advancing the idea that governance reforms should take a back seat to economic development. To which, as I watch the ongoing footage from the Middle East, I must respond: really?
If there is nothing else that recent events in Egypt have taught us, it is that people, everywhere, demand a voice. Not all democracy templates are universally applicable. But citizens of any country surely desire the freedom to express themselves, and count themselves heard. It's not merely a human right; it's a human fact. 
Many development agencies have been caught off balance by recent developments in the Middle East, and are scrambling to adjust. Why? Because we, the collective development community, still have no real way to think about issues of voice, accountability, representation, politics, and power. Our assessment templates only marginally, if at all, take into account such crucial issues; operationally, we have no established methods of building such issues into our work. Even now, governance remains a road hesitantly trod, skirting the outside of the development mainstream. And yet I challenge anyone who has watched recent global events unfold to argue that governance and politics do not matter in people's everyday lives.

The development community should take the recent events in the Middle East as an opportunity to rethink our common understanding of development. Are we seeing the things we should be seeing? Do we even know what we don't know? And once we figure those things out, how do we translate better understanding into better development outcomes?
It is easy and tempting to continue to tinker around the margins - to further emphasize public service delivery here, to conduct extra mapping exercises there. But, I would argue, that misses a real opportunity to grapple with the issues that have surfaced as so vital to development in many parts of the world - issues that include, but are not limited to: freedom of expression and strength of independent (old and new) media; the role of civil society as an autonomous force; civic culture and social capital; transparency; access to information; accountability; public opinion. This doesn't necessarily mean discarding old priorities. It means expanding and reshaping them to include these factors that have been ignored for too long, at a cost that nobody is willing to measure.


Photo Credit: Flickr user Desmond Leo

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