Clear seeing

L_ Superior SunriseHow  can we contribute to a renewal of political discourse? A large hazard for 2016 is that we end up countering  anger, false certainty and hatred with their mirror image, and in so doing fuel a downward spiral. Clear seeing as to the way things actually are offers an antidote to these Gramscian ‘morbid symptoms.

Late last year, spurred on by the truly appalling tone of discourse in the Republican Party’s nomination contest, I wrote three United States-centric blog posts on the ways in which we talk about government. Each of the posts explored one aspect of the theme:

The first post explored the Great-Gatsby-like carelessness of the discourse: “….careless people….. who smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

The second post used the example of the Washington DC Metro to show how carelessness can undermine the performance of public agencies. It described the ways in which  a combination of hubris and inattention resulted in a downward spiral of dysfunction – and offered some thoughts as to how this might be turned around.

The third post used the example of Obamacare to expose the “good governance high standards shuffle” – in which superficially appealing benchmarks of perfection are used cynically to undermine any sense that government can contribute to the public good, even when real gains have been achieved.

(In case you’re interested in a parallel exploration in a different context, in a set of posts earlier in 2015 I detailed how South Africa’s sour, conflict-prone discourse seemingly is destroying Nelson Mandela’s remarkable example of reconciliation and leadership.)

Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote from his Prison Notebooks, written in the 1930s when he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime, captures perfectly what seems to be happening in so many parts of our contemporary world:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this inter-regnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

In 2016, may the wisdom that comes from the effort to see clearly help us to turn away from anger and polarization, and thereby renew the possibility of looking to the future with hope, rather than recrimination and despair.

Advertisements

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.