On Participatory Democracy

Participatory Democracy“We need to sharpen our participatory democracy so as to make Public-Public Human Rights-Based partnerships the norm.” (Geoffrey Cannon)

Food for a sharper thought
Human Rights Reader 384

Democracy is in recession (Thomas Friedman)

-Our current ‘democracies’ are nothing more than the government of a minority throwing overboard the human rights of a majority. (adapted from Thomas Jefferson)
-Have you ever stopped to think why so many of those struggling merely to survive still do vote against their own interests?

1. In the last 20 years, representative democracy has been losing its appeal. Shortsighted pragmatism has led to a loss of long-term vision and politics has become merely administrative, i.e., a democracy where only a few bureaucrats take decisions.  Political leaders work increasingly to solve local administrative and economic difficulties and, less and less, to solve global problems. All this indicates that politics at a national level is no longer able to carry out its fundamental role of regulating society for the greater good of its citizens, for a harmonious, just and fair society. We are before a fundamental problem of increasingly diminishing democracy as it was understood up till now. (Roberto Bissio)

2. Some of us live in a ‘formal democracy’, others not. In either situation, more and more citizens want changes. In that pursuit, human rights (HR) are tacitly or explicitly the desired aim, the aspiration to pursue, the ambition to conquer. (L. Fries) But truly expliciting the aim of such a pursuit in deeds is where the current challenge lies. Take, for example, the fact that democracy continues to deprive women of gender equality and, as a consequence, in practice, renders them second-class citizens. (M. Matamala) It is not a matter of evolving here, but a matter of re-directing. Evolution maintains the ambiguity of where the process is going; only re-directing democracy will contribute to a fresh reflection on what the entire enterprise is about. (George Kent, David Parker)

And then come the paradoxes

3. Rich countries tell developing countries about the importance of democracy, but when it comes to the issues they are most concerned with (issues that affect their livelihoods), i.e., the economy, poor countries are told: “The iron laws of economics give you little or no choice so you must cede key economic decisions to an independent central bank”. But, almost always, these banks are dominated by representatives of the financial establishment. Then, to ensure these banks act in the interests of the financial community, developing countries are told to focus exclusively on inflation –never mind jobs or growth…..or HR. As neocolonialism seemingly ‘empowers’ people in the former colonies with ‘democracy’ with one hand, it takes it away with the other. (Joseph Stiglitz)

4. Bottom line here: A nation that surrenders to moral conformism and to a way-too-outdated political system is, in fact, selling its sovereignty for a mere plate of lentils. (Maria Duenias)

We live in a non-democratic world that will veto our attempts to change anything of substance.

-Democracy is far more than just putting a cross on a piece of paper once every four or five years.
-Are cultures that are Western Educated, Industrialized and Rich really Democratic? (i.e., WEIRD?) (J. Henrich)

5. Democracy means we all take responsibility and do not leave it to others, not to parliamentarians or parties, not to self-seeking politicians –whose first priority is to vote themselves next year’s pay increase. There is thus no quick fix through electoral reform. As HR activists, we aim to change people’s minds, to change the ideology of the working class and to recruit more workers to the unions and citizens to social movements. (Will Podmore)

6. We are talking here about a participatory democracy in which citizens have power in meeting life’s essentials, a democracy lived as an ongoing process of realizing human dignity, justice (more so social justice*) and HR. Reasonably so, these values are to be understood as intrinsic to democracy but, as we all know, many consider ‘democracy’ as merely a means for domination. Democracy today is reduced to anti-democratic forms of privately held government that hides or represses today’s courageous uprisings worldwide. It is money that heavily drives political decision-making. This is why participatory democracy needs to be recognized and fostered; an apt shorthand for its aim is ‘dignity for all’. New protocols are needed for bringing the people affected by public top-down choices into direct participation wherever and whenever public policies are decided. (Frances Moore Lappe)
*: The key question of whether the redistribution of resources beyond the poverty line is or is not an issue of justice is not a scientific question. One single true answer cannot be found. It is an ideological and political question that has to be discussed and agreed upon in a democracy. (posthumously, Urban Jonsson)

7. What about direct democracy then?: Would we have to have the people vote on every question? Does not that empower everyone equally? The answer is: No –it can actually disempower people, because simple voting isolates individuals**, treating them as consumers-of-political-advertising or as followers-of-elite-backed-political-candidates and their electoral machines***, rather than empowering groups of people to develop viewpoints and solutions and to select candidates collectively. (D. Rogers)
**: Our societies are only allegedly permeated by a ‘what-can-I-do?’ attitude. For example, people passively and permissively accept corruption and do nothing to stop it. (Z. Bauman)
***: When you look at the cost of the presidential campaign of the United States, which will be close to four billion dollars, and you learn that a small pool of rich donors dominates election giving (130 families and their businesses have provided more than half of the money raised through June 2015 by Republican candidates) you would rightfully think that legitimacy is questionable.  In the United States, the majority does not rule. (Roberto Bissio)

8. And what about the role of street protests in system change?: Did not the Occupy Movement kick the discussion of inequality and HR into high gear in the US, just as the earlier anti-WTO/IMF protests put the critique of globalization on the map? Yes, there is no question that loud and media-genic protests can bring issues to the forefront. But in order to have lasting impact, street protests do need to be coupled with democratic political leadership that can clearly articulate the central arguments and can come up with compelling alternatives capable of bringing an inclusive group of interests together into an effective power base. Beyond all the shouting of slogans, what ultimately counts is real accomplishments that make a difference to people on the ground. Only then will we see system change. Nothing short of building up a people’s movement for systemic change and HR, i.e., reclaiming the decision-making process, replacing the system, and overturning the operating worldview will rid us of the grip of plutocracies in so many countries. (D. Rogers) The smiles of victory have to change sides!

A specter is haunting Europe: the specter of democracy –we are told****
_______________
****: I would paraphrase: A specter is haunting the world –the specter of HR.

9. As we have seen, democracy can be crushed, not using tanks, but using banks. Banks are not really interested in getting their money back; they could not care less. They instead insist on democracy’s and sovereignty’s surrender. As they did in Greece, they purport that elections cannot be allowed to change anything; that democracy ends where debt insolvency begins. They try to do something that cannot be done, namely to de-politicize money. But when politics and money are de-politicised, democracy dies. And when democracy dies, prosperity is confined to the very few. The current dominant global political and economic dogma, in which money is used and abused as a commodity, is, in short, a catastrophe. To counter this dystopia the people must believe again that democracy and HR are not a luxury afforded to creditors and declined to debtors. (Yannis Varoufakis)

10. Democracy is way too often perceived as synonymous with economic and social growth. But is it? And if yes, for whom? In fact, there is now a growing school of thought about the shortcomings and inefficiency of such a democracy. Is it also a fact that the legitimacy of the political system behind growth is more and more under question? (Roberto Bissio)

11. What is indeed new is that in the last years, very conservative institutions, like the International Monetary Fund have been warning that the growth of a social gap actually constitutes a brake on economic growth. This is accompanied by a polarization in politics, and the constant growth of extremist and xenophobe parties, which now gather votes from workers and the less fortunate who once voted to the left. And this is completely changing the political landscape. The democratic system took its legitimacy from its ability to support values like justice, solidarity, HR and the general development of society. There are no historical precedents to tell us what will happen when citizens go into a social and economic decline over decades, and when youth do not see a clear future. But there are historical precedents to tell us that a society in crisis easily slips into populist and authoritarian regimes, especially if the rich elites support that road. It should by now be clear to all of us that the system is broken, and clearly needs fixing. But will this declining democracy, with so few true statesmen and so many ambitious politicians, be able to provide the fix? This the question that we need to address…
(Roberto Bissio)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
schuftan <at> gmail.com

Postscript/Marginalia
-Democracy starts with dialoguing with those who think differently. (Jose Domingo Peron)
-How difficult it is for us is to bring together theory with practice, criticism and self criticism with protagonism, endless talking with attentive listening, separation with integration of what is happening around us. (Julio Monsalvo)
-The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant; it is just that they know so much that is not so. (Ronald Reagan)
-As a true affirmation of independence, a wo/man must be free not only to think, but also to act –not letting the-desire-to-engage prevail over de-facto-engaging, now, to make meaningful changes. We cannot live in an eternal present, accepting things as they appear (i.e., unmovable) and not as they really are (changeable). (Pablo Simonetti)

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Image: Participatory Democracy /HRR 384

In Memory of Dr. Halfdan Mahler

Dr. Chan and Dr. MahlerDr. Halfdan Mahler passed away in Geneva on 14th December at the age of 93.  Dr Mahler’s vision inspired the Alma Ata Declaration on Primary Health Care in 1978, and the  related call for ‘Health for All by the Year 2000’  Dr.Mahler squarely placed health in the domain of the ‘public’. Dr.Mahler was a Danish physician who joined WHO in 1951 and went on to be elected thrice as the Director General of the organisation, between 1973 and 1988. Before moving to the organisation’s headquarters in Geneva he worked for a decade in India in the National Tuberculosis programme in a mutually respectful relationship with national counterparts.

When Dr.Mahler moved to Geneva in 1962 WHO was very different from its current state. It was still recognized as the leader in international health. Dr.Mahler’s later dissatisfaction with the demise of  WHO’s leading role (and the usurpation of this role by agencies such as the World Bank and private foundations such as the Gates Foundation) was clear in his address to the 61st World Health Assembly in 2008 when he said: “Most importantly, the very first constitutional function of WHO reads: ’To act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.’ Please do note that the Constitution says ’the” and not ’a’ directing and coordinating authority”. The 1960s and 70s were the ‘cold war’ period with the then Soviet Union and the United States vying with each other to assume leadership. It was also the era of ‘disease control’ when health systems were primarily designed to control infectious diseases through what were known as ‘vertical programs’.

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