Reframing democratic development — vision, strategy and process

no_easy_walk_to_freedom How,  in today’s complex and uncertain times, can those of us working at the interface between governance and development sustain  what the great twentieth century development economist, Albert Hirschman, called  “a bias for hope”?

In two recent blog posts (click HERE and HERE)  I took stock of the evidence as to the extent of governance improvement between 1998 and 2013 among 65 democratic countries (the large majority of which made their initial transition to democracy subsequent to 1990). The results left me feeling even more skeptical than when I wrote Working with the Grain as to the practical relevance of maximalist “good governance” agendas. We need an alternative approach.

To tease out an alternative, it is useful to begin with the classic three-part tripod for orchestrating change – clarifying the vision, developing a strategy for moving towards the realization of that vision,  and delineating step-by-step processes for facilitating implementation. Using this lens, the classic ‘good governance’ discourse turns out to be all vision, empty of strategic content, and counterproductive vis-à-vis process.

‘Good governance’ generally directs attention to the destination, to   how a well-functioning democratic society is supposed to work — and seeks to motivate by cultivating dissatisfaction with the gap between the destination and the way things are. Yes – electoral accountability, a strong rule of law, a capable public sector, robust control of corruption, and a ‘level playing field’ business environment are all desirable.  But the institutional underpinnings for many of these are demanding – and advocates generally stop short of laying out any practical program for getting from here to there. With no proactive agenda for action, the all-too-common result is to end up fuelling  disillusion and despair, rather than cultivating hope.

There is, though, an even deeper problem with maximalist advocacy: it sells democracy short. In its essence, what democracy offers – and authoritarian alternatives do not – is an invitation to citizens to work to shape their own lives and to participate peacefully in the shaping of their societies, according to their distinctive visions of freedom and justice.  This journey is a challenging one – with much democratic ‘messiness’, and corresponding disappointment along the way. But no matter how challenging the journey, once the invitation to engage has been embraced, the personal dignity it offers cannot be taken away. This invitation, not empty guarantees of success,  is at the core of the democratic vision — its inspiration, its source of sustainability.

This brings us to process —  the second pillar of the change tripod. In the later stages of his career, Albert Hirschman turned his attention from trying to understand strategies for economic development, to trying to understand  how we thought and spoke about them. His  purpose, he asserted, was: “…. to move public discourse beyond extreme, intransigent postures of either kind, with the hope that in the process….participants engage in meaningful discussion, ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of other arguments and new information..”

 The renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, points to why the quality of discourse matters greatly.  “Peace”, he suggested  “is every step:Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves…. here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see…. (in) every breath we take, every step we take….. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.” Insofar as democracy is an affirmation of dignity, its promise is not accessible only when some distant destination is reached. Its potential is also here and now — realizable through a process that, in and of itself, is an affirmation of that dignity.

Dignity also is central  to the third leg of the tripod for the orchestration of change –a strategy for democratic development which has the affirmation of human dignity at its heart. As an alternative to what one might call ‘Big-G’ reforms of governance systems,   Working with the Grain (Oxford, 2014) lays out a ‘small-g governance’ strategy for deepening democracy among countries which have formally embraced democratic forms, but whose practices fall far, far short of a normative ideal. A ‘small-g’ strategy focuses on a search for concrete gains vis-à-vis specific problems – and emphasizes the pursuit of these gains through active citizenship, through participation and engagement among equals.

The immediate goal of a  ‘small-g’ strategy is to nurture “islands of effectiveness” — to identify entry points for focused engagement among a variety of stakeholders with high-powered incentives to see the outcomes achieved.  Working with the Grain explores in depth a variety of potential entry points:

  • Public entrepreneurs at multiple layers of government can foster ‘islands of effectiveness’ even within a broadly dysfunctional public service —   focusing on achievement of a very specific public purpose (better schools, better infrastructure, less stifling regulation), and endeavoring to build within their domain both a team with the skills and commitment to achieve that purpose, and the network of external alliances needed to fend off opposition.
  • Civil society groups can forge a middle path of engagement —   neither locking-in to confrontational action, nor surrendering principle in search of the next donor- or government-funded contract, but rather focusing on the quality of service provision, both partnering with providers and holding them accountable for how public resources are used.
  • Northern activists can seek eyes-wide-open partnerships with globalized firms – anchored in collectively designed and transparent, mutually monitored commitments to, say, rein in bribe-giving, or to target exploitative practices vis-à-vis environmental protection, labor standards, and the extraction of natural resources.
  • Scholars and practitioners can monitor governance in ways that encourage a long view – foreswearing overheated rhetoric in the face of year-to-year changes in indicators of corruption, the rule of law, or government effectiveness, and using monitoring to provide a platform for nurturing constructive dialogue on trends, identifying lagging areas, and exploring how they might be addressed.

Gains from any individual initiative might initially seem small, but individual islands can pull a wide variety of related activities in their wake, adding up over time into far-reaching economic , social and political change – while affirming, at each step along the way, the positive promise of democratic development.

Vision, process and strategy become a mutually reinforcing pathway of democratic development. The vision brings the promise of dignity to center stage;  the process is one that systematically affirms that dignity; and the ‘small-g’ strategy  offers ample opportunity for the practice of ‘active citizenship’ for engagement among equals. Taken together, these elements perhaps indeed offer a new basis for sustaining Albert Hirschman’s ‘bias for hope’ — but in a different intonation from that usually evoked by democracy’s advocates.

The usual intonation of democracy advocacy is a drumbeat of exhortation, of a world on the march to some more perfect destination on the horizon. But, as per Albert Hirschman and Thich Nhat Hanh, hope can also come in a quieter pitch: softer voices, calming rather than raising the temperature, searching, encouraging deliberation, reflection, co-operation.  Over the past two decades, democracy advocates have been sobered by the messy complexity of what it takes to get from here to there. Perhaps going forward, it is not in the drumbeat of exhortation but in hope’s softer, quieter intonations that we will find our inspiration – and our staying power.

14 responses

  1. Brian,

    Where does the individual who is frustrated by their inability to affect change at a macro-level or even to assert their views publicly fit in your schema? Should she be told to wait until the time is ripe for her to speak out and to focus for now on solving the small problems in her country, while we encourage closing her eyes (and ours) to the gross injustices that she (and we) see before her. And, who defines what constitutes an injustice that warrants public censure – those directly affected or the outsider who can take a seemingly more utilitarian view? And what do we say to those who advocate for elections in their country, even where the academic and development consensus is that the country is simply not ready institutionally or economically to organize credible elections? The empirical evidence may teach us that good governance is more likely to emerge after economic development (as David Booth is arguing), the reality is that we should not ignore the voices of those who want to organize on their own terms, and not based on a “development model.”


    • Hi Larry,
      Thanks for these excellent comments. A few thoughts in the spirit of dialogue.
      1. The “vision, strategy, process” post focused explicitly on countries that already have made an initial democratic transition. The challenge it seeks to address is how to consolidate a (formal, but very, very messy….) democracy…
      2. Political parties are, of course, absolutely central to the workings of a democracy — and are a natural platform for addressing “big” problems. The issue I have been puzzling on, and which the post addresses, is how to sustain day-to-day engagement and momentum within messy democracies in activities that are not directly part of the political-party-linked process.
      3. Though the post is explicitly NOT about the challenges of active engagement/democracy promotion in non-democracies, I personally have huge admiration for citizens in such countries who advocate for elections — the “dignity” of which the post speaks is affirmed both by the act of struggle, and by the act of voting.
      4. The harder problem is for outsiders — specifically in non-democracies that are growing in a rapid and inclusive, poverty-reducing way. Knowing what we now know about the likely difficult dynamics that follow once the first flush of enthusiasm of the democratic moment has passed, how do we advocate? What makes me deeply uncomfortable is the denial of this complexity. A space where I certainly would feel comfortable is with external support for the ‘small-g’ participatory and transparency of the kind which I highlight in the post (and in Working with the Grain). There is, of course, a difficult grey area. My inclination is to start with support for the ‘low-hanging-fruit’ (though often in themselves very difficult to win space for….) of the ‘small-g’ options. In “Contesting Development” (Yale, 2011) Barron, Diprose and Woolcock make a strong case that Indonesia’s participatory Kecamatan Development Programme not only addressed micro-development issues very effectively, but also provided an important space for learning about being ‘active citizens’ in a democracy-friendly way. Recognizing that the world is full of ‘both-ands’ — and that ‘either/or’ is precisely the rhetorical trap Hirschman warns us of — perhaps we might invest more in learning about ‘cultivating citizenship from the bottom-up’ opportunities……

  2. Brian, my question is about islands of effectiveness and the knock-on effect. I am struggling with the concept that good examples will bring along others in their wake. If each success is an island, it is by definition it’s own complex system and not likely replicable. Is it imitation or inspiration which rows the boats between islands?

  3. Brian, thank you for this thought full piece. My question is about the islands of effectiveness and knock-on effect. I’m struggling with the concept of good examples bringing along others in its wake. If each is an island, then it is also a complex system. Replication would therefore seem difficult. What is that rows us across to success – imitation or inspiration?

    • Hello Eric,
      Here are a few thoughts on how islands can be cumulative:
      – individual islands can grow very rapidly and be quite transformative in their own right (e.g. the Bangladesh garment sector);
      – loose networks can form among champions, deepening a momentum of ‘island proliferation’ (something like this was central to the changes that unfolded cumulatively in the 1880s-1920s Progressive Era in the United States…);
      – the sum of individually effective islands can build an increasingly strong middle class, with the potential to become transformative both as an indirect channel for ‘island proliferation’, and via the democratic political process….

  4. Hi Brian,
    Thanks for a thoughtful piece. I agree with much of what you are saying here and have seen “islands of effectiveness” work when the people involved were engaged in achieving certain goals which amounted to what you have called “small-g governance”. The goals were often to do with internal reforms which provided better service to the public and better performance for the government department – but even though they were being more responsive to the publics’ nneds, I am pretty sure that what they didn’t think they were pursuing was “Bid-D Democracy”. I think sometimes biting off smaller chunks of achievements like this can help better governance spread by example – doesn’t work everywhere every time, but often the achievements are “owned more closely by those involved and can become examples to be emulated.

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