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Public Opinion

Measuring Public Opinion in Challenging Contexts

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

As we have discussed in other blog posts, public opinion is particularly important in countries with weak institutions of governance and accountability. Especially in fragile and conflict states, it can lend legitimacy to the government, help creating a national identity, and support governance reform. Unfortunately, public opinion is particularly hard to measure in those societies where it could be most important.

The Approaching Boom for Sultans of Spin

Sina Odugbemi's picture

As the Arab Spring struggles not to return to winter - sometimes with a little help from powerful friends -- I came across this fascinating thought concerning one of the likely but entirely unintended consequences of the emerging political reality in North Africa and the Middle East. In a piece contributed to TIME Magazine, the articulate and insightful blogger, Issandr El Amrani, [I recommend his blog: the Arabist] wrote:

 

In these countries where leaders were long used to sycophantic interviews, they now face combative interviewers out to make a reputation for themselves. It will be a while before spin doctors come in to teach the politicians to stay on-message  ---in the meantime, they are walking the tightrope without a net.

Give Peace a Chance

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Talk of citizen agency and citizen power is all over the place these days - the media, the international community, academia and everybody else who cares about change and how it happens is looking in awe at current events. Civil protests have changed the political face of an important part of this world, and so far they have done so mostly peacefully. The persistence of protesters to not use violence is one of the most outstanding features of what we're seeing unfold in some Northern African countries. The rejection of violence may be one of the most important factors that contribute to the success of these uprisings.

How Do You Measure History?

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Over and over again, and then again, and then some more, we get asked about evidence for the role of public opinion for development. Where's the impact? How do we know that the public really plays a role? What's the evidence, and is the effect size significant? Go turn on the television. Go open your newspaper. Go to any news website. Do tell me how we're supposed to put that in numbers.

Here's a thought: maybe the role of public opinion in development is just too big to be measured in those economic units that we mostly use in development? How do you squeeze history into a regression model? Let's have a little fun with this question. Let's assume that
y = b0 + b1x1 + b2x2 + b3x3 + b4x4 + b5x5 + b6x6 + b7x7 + b8(x1x4) + b9(x3x4) + e

Deconstructing People Power

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

If you're interested in some of the nuts and bolts behind "people power," this short piece on nonviolent resistance is worth checking out. As my colleague Anne noted in her earlier post on coalition building, even the most amorphous-looking of crowds often have a strategy and discipline behind them that is based on core principles and smart organizational strategy. 

The article highlights three key ingredients for success: 1) overcoming fear and obedience/apathy; 2) targeted noncooperation; and 3) nonviolent discipline. Of these, the fascinating one to me (from a CommGAP perspective) is the first one: after all, this basically entails engineering a mass (and rapid) shift in public opinion under what must be, by definition, adverse circumstances. How does this occur when the government is able to literally pull the plug on major communication channels? Could it have something to do with the nature or robustness of the public sphere in the country concerned? I suspect it does, but unfortunately we do not yet have the tools or the conceptual frameworks to properly consider this question (from an operationally oriented development perspective rather than an academic standpoint). At the very least, it would be worth exploring how we might develop frameworks and diagnostics that would shed further illumination on these important events.

The People versus the Leviathan

Sina Odugbemi's picture

 "Only fools, pure theorists, or apprentices fail to take public opinion into account."

Jacques Necker (1792) finance minister to King Louis XVI of France.
 

Recent events confirm, once again, that public opinion is the basis of power, and the very definition of legitimacy. If it comes to pass that the preponderance of the citizens of a country come to despise or hate their rulers...an event that occurs over a period of time and is the outcome of  experiences, debate and discussion ... that crystallization of public opinion is a serious development, one capable of leading to momentous consequences. The regime in question becomes a hollow leviathan. One can only hope that autocratic leaders as well as the cynical technocrats who advise them are paying attention to the lessons of both recent and ongoing struggles between citizens and a variety of autocracies. 

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.

Just Because the Revolution Will Not Be Digital Does Not Mean it Will Not Happen

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Much is being made of ICT and social media in the context of public protests. Governments in distress clearly seem to believe in their power, since they continue to try, sometimes successfully, switching off the many-to-many communication channels that protestors use to organize themselves and to distribute information and materials. When new media were truly new and scholars wondered about the phenomenon and its political effects for the first time, the major question was whether ICT could mobilize people that would not otherwise have been politically active or whether it is "merely" a channel for the already active to organize themselves more efficiently. 

Jeremy Bentham and Dictators Around the World

Sina Odugbemi's picture

A desperate, totally fed up young graduate sets himself on fire in a small, provincial town in his country and within weeks eddies of violent protests by citizens all over the country bring down an authoritarian regime. And everyone is stunned by both the suddenness and the scale of it all. But the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), would not have been surprised. He would have reminded the world of three things that he always said in the course of his long life:

An American Lesson: Counter-Reform Can Shape Public Opinion

Sina Odugbemi's picture

What might be the generalizable lessons of the recent mid-term elections in the United States? There are several that this blog would be interested in. The one that I would like to draw attention to today is the fact that despite the huge reform bills that Democrats successfully passed - the biggest being the health care reform bill - it seems clear that they lost the battle for public opinion, and that losing that battle did not help them on election day, whatever else shaped voter preferences on that day.  Reformers everywhere need to reflect on that experience very carefully.

When reforms fail what is often blamed is 'lack of political will'; in other words, not enough leaders in leadership positions in the specific country context supported the proposed reform and it failed. Suppose you secure political will, as in this case, and the reform succeeds, is it game-over? Clearly not. To quote Robert  O. Varenik of the Open Society Justice Initiative (at the end of a  review of a series of pretrial detention reform experiences from around the world): "The acid test of reform should not be what can be attained but what can be sustained."

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