Elections in tight civic space

The elections in Pakistan, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe remind me of the treadmill option at my gym that offers a digital hike through stunning New Zealand or Hawaii woodland. The imagery is so good it brings to mind other national parks; you climb and get the right rush. Even though you cannot deviate, improvise or run any risk, this feels almost like a country walk.

Election simulation?

The elections in Pakistan, Cambodia, and possibly Zimbabwe, feel like elections. At the point-of-delivery, they have the basic elements: there has been political campaigning and some different views aired; many people have been permitted to vote, as the long lines testify; their votes have been counted in some fashion. Each election is imperfect in its own way, because – why leave important matters to chance? Losers complain, that is how it is done. Nonetheless, so far at least, each election has had a reasonable chance of passing as ‘good enough elections’, not fake enough to rock the whole treadmill.

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The digital woodland setting at my local gym

Yet, like my digital forest hike, the facts tell us the path of these elections was always, to some degree, pre-programmed. In each of Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, civic and political space has shrunk significantly and recently. Each of the three elections was staged within a year of political leaders being removed from competition. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was finally toppled in an intra-elite ‘coup’ last November. In Cambodia, opposition leader Kem Sokha was imprisoned on treason charges in September, and his party banned in November. Last July, the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convicted of corruption and disqualified from office, then jailed a month before the polls on corruption charges. The political pathways were thus sharply delimited in each country.

As in my risk-free, climate-controlled virtual forest, these elections blocked out the real features of a democratic political landscape. They went ahead with limited space for reasoned and informed debate, and without the freedoms of the media, of speech, and of association necessary to mobilize public opinion or build representative parties with a chance of competing. Media outlets had been silenced or threatened. Groups making demands of liberal democracy or human rights – NGOs, social movements, or civil society organizations – had been attacked, stigmatized and denounced. Laws and regulations were in place to restrict organizations with foreign funding, and to control digital communications (see here, here, and here).

Closures of civic space of the kinds seen in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan are now widespread. They don’t affect all groups equally: liberal democratic and human rights groups, as well as indigenous and land and resource rights defenders, are on the frontline of most attacks. But there is more space for neo-traditionalist groups, particularly those opposed to human rights or positioned on the right; others advocating violent, extremist, or disruptive measures have forcibly occupied more of the civic space. So civic space is changing, as much as it is shrinking – for some.

Crossroads for development

Elections are always a crossroad, a moment when political pathways are dug into, abandoned, or diverted. But because how political power is won shapes how it is exercised and for whom, elections also foreshadow the nature and pace of development progress. To try to understand the politics of development in closing civic space, a group of researchers has been reading widely and thinking comparatively about what has been happening in Cambodia, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, among other countries, in the past decade. In this working paper we share our thoughts about how we can understand what changes in civic space mean for development in different countries. We look at how political settlements and state-civil society relations differ across settings to identify the mechanisms at work, and assess the unique development challenges and opportunities of each.

‘Fake development’ in closed civic space?

If our conceptual framework offers any guide, we can hope for higher growth rates in a political settlement forged in tight civic space, particularly with IMF structural adjustment programmes in sight in Pakistan and Zimbabwe. That might look good on spreadsheets, but we know beyond doubt that growth does not reach everyone equally and that inequality has political and economic costs. Where civil society is constrained we may expect more disruptive street protests against price rises or austerity measures: a wave of ‘fuel riots’ in fragile and conflict-affected settings in the past decade shows what happens when more civic modes of engagement fail.

Macroeconomic instability and corruption have been a drag on development progress, and we know that robust civil society and free media scrutiny and evidence can help keep finance ministries honest and stable. But in their often valid efforts to gain control over the national development process, governments have often squeezed the abilities of NGOs to do valuable work protecting the vulnerable, empowering and giving voice to the marginalized, and monitoring government and business to help avoid development disasters, boost inclusion, and improve policies and programmes. If academia and thinktanks cannot independently scrutinize or debate governmental performance, they cannot hold it to account; faith in official data may be thin, weakening generalized political trust.

A critical, independent civil society may give the political opposition an edge at times, but it is also functional for many of the needs of those in power: it improves both the quality of governance and of the wider development process. A robust civil society is good for government – inconvenient in the run-up to elections, but on balance, an essential part of the apparatus of democratic rule. A robust civil society is similarly good for development – again, inconveniently critical at times, but necessary to manage the development process inclusively, equitably, and sustainably enough – to register the kind of fair performance on which political elite legitimacy rests.

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If you don’t listen to polite civil society, things start to get rude.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their agendas of inclusion, equity, and ‘leaving no one behind’ are an unlikely pathway from elections fought in such tight civic space. Whether the elections in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Cambodia are a simulation of democracy or accepted as the real thing, their new political leaders face the challenge of delivering development in tight civic space. The roles of civil society in development need urgently to be debated, transparently and in a spirit of accountability. Our research group will watch civic space in these countries for whether they open up new paths we anticipate to be necessary for a model of development that has any chance of being sustainable, equitable, inclusive, or of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Download the new paper: What does closing civic space mean for development? A literature review and proposed conceptual framework

 

Key sources on the closing civic space debate:

 

All views expressed here are the responsibility of the author, and not of the IDS or of the funders of the research.

The IDS working paper no. 515 What does closing civic space mean for development? was made possible through funding from Act Alliance and UK Aid, who both financed a literature review on closing civic space and the implications for development. The UK Aid financed Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme is supporting the production of the series of working papers so check here for more information.

 

Unruly Politics and Rude Accountability

Rude Accountability, or why shoutiness makes for good-enough governance

This is a paper about informal modes of accountability – about why relatively powerless people with little money or social standing can sometimes hold powerful public authorities to account using no more than the sharp edge of their tongue. It is about Bangladesh, because for reasons of political history and social structure, ‘rude accountability’ works particularly well there. This is just as well, as formal accountability – good governance – is in short supply. An earlier version of this was published as an IDS working paper.

Read more…Rude Accountability

 

The Significance of Unruly Politics in Bangladesh

With the gaze of political economy and institutional analyses fixed firmly on the politics of the patron, far less attention has been paid to the politics of those whose position is mainly that of client. In fact, we know less about the contemporary ‘politics of the governed’ than of the immediate post-Independence period, because the village study tradition of class and power analysis that enriched 1970s and 1980s political sociology appears to have now more or less disappeared; the few and limited analyses of popular politics available suggest, however, that clients are not total prisoners. This paper looks at both elite and mass modes of politics. Unruliness – framed variously as informality, fragility etc – is the substantive governance issue in Bangladesh, and political unruliness is at its nucleus.

Read more…Unruly Politics in Bangladesh

 

Them Belly Full (But We Hungry): Food Rights Struggles in Bangladesh, India, Kenya

This report synthesises the findings from the four country case studies produced for the project. It is intended as a summary introduction to the main findings of the research, and a preliminary comparative analysis across the four cases. The green revolution and the global integration of food markets were supposed to relegate scarcity to the annals of history. So why did thousands of people in dozens of countries take to the streets when world food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011? Are food riots the surest route to securing the right to food in the 21st century? The research synthesised here interrogates this moment of historical rupture in the global food system through comparative analysis of Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique in the period 2007-12. The core insight of the research is summarised in the title: Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) refers to the moral fury aroused by the knowledge that some people are thriving while – or because – others are going hungry. This anger rejects gross inequalities of power and resources as intolerable; it signals that food inequalities have a particularly embodied power – that food is special. Food unites and mobilises people to resist.

Read more…Them Belly Full

Food Riots and Food Rights

Food Riots research project

The period of food price volatility between 2007 and 2012 sparked what observers have called ‘food riots’, which have historically marked moments of fundamental economic change, when states have lost their ability to preserve the welfare of citizens. Food riots, however, also usher in change, often heralding new forms of public accountability for hunger. This research project explores what recent events say about this historic moment, and about the possibility of protecting food rights, by looking at the causes and consequences of food-related riots and right-to-food movements in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique.

Go here for more information on this research project.

Squeezed: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility

Half a decade after the price spike of 2007-2008, food price volatility has become the new norm: people have come to expect food prices to rise and fall rapidly, though nobody knows by how much or when. So what does the accumulation of food price rises mean for well-being and development in developing countries? And what can be done to improve life in a time of food price volatility? Squeezed provides some preliminary answers to these big development questions, based on the first year results of a four-year project conducted across 10 countries with different levels of exposure to price rises. While high and rising food prices no longer come as a surprise, rapid price changes and the cumulative effects of five years’ worth of price rises are still squeezing those on low incomes.

Read more…Squeezed

Help Yourself!

I loved this title but I think I was alone on this one. This was the second year report from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility and it was about accountability for hunger. We found that most people felt that they were pretty much left on their own when it came to protection against food insecurity – you have to help yourself or you will go hungry.

Read more…Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility

Delicious, Disgusting, Dangerous: Eating in a Time of Food Price Volatility

The third year results of the study Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility uncover the realities of what people on low and precarious incomes are eating. For the consumer, there are undeniable benefits from the integration of world food trade: more stable supply, wider choice. Changes in food habits mean people are finding new ways to enjoy food and new foods to enjoy, often with greater convenience and ease. There is much to savour in the eating landscape as new markets for purchased and prepared foods open up. But the loss of control this brings has detrimental impacts on wellbeing. Most people feel they understand little about how new foods affect their health and nutrition; knowledge that they had accrued over generations and longer with respect to their customary cuisines. People have real worries about a new culture of fast food and fake food; they worry about additives, nourishment and food hygiene, and they feel that governments do too little to protect them from the risks.

Read more…Delicious, Disgusting, Dangerous

Them Belly Full (But We Hungry): Food Rights Struggles in Bangladesh, India, Kenya

This report synthesises the findings from the four country case studies produced for the project. It is intended as a summary introduction to the main findings of the research, and a preliminary comparative analysis across the four cases. The green revolution and the global integration of food markets were supposed to relegate scarcity to the annals of history. So why did thousands of people in dozens of countries take to the streets when world food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011? Are food riots the surest route to securing the right to food in the 21st century? The research synthesised here interrogates this moment of historical rupture in the global food system through comparative analysis of Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique in the period 2007-12. The core insight of the research is summarised in the title: Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) refers to the moral fury aroused by the knowledge that some people are thriving while – or because – others are going hungry. This anger rejects gross inequalities of power and resources as intolerable; it signals that food inequalities have a particularly embodied power – that food is special. Food unites and mobilises people to resist.

Read more…Them Belly Full

A Common Sense Approach to the Right to Food

Despite the growing activism and debate around the right to food in the past decade, there has been little exploration of what the right means in everyday life and in the routine encounters between states and citizens. This paper draws together original qualitative research in nine African, Asian and Latin American countries on how people talk about the right to food. It does so on the assumption that accountability for hunger depends on people being aware of that right. The paper explores what people at risk of hunger have to say about what the right to food means in their location; its source and origins; and responsibilities for upholding it. It concludes that while ideas of the right to food do not generally use international human rights language, an understanding of innate or natural rights to food is ‘common sense’: shared across contexts and groups, and part of how people negotiate their right to food in everyday life. Among other findings, the paper concludes that in a period of rapid economic and social development, the right to food of older people looks particularly fragile, and merits special attention.

Read more…The Right to Food

Who Wants to Farm? Youth Aspirations, Opportunities and Rising Food Prices

Based on analysis of interviews, focus group discussion and household case studies with almost 1500 people in 23 rural, urban and peri-urban communities in low and middle income Asian, African and Latin American countries in 2012, this research digs deeper into some of the established explanations as to why youth in developing countries appear reluctant to enter farming, and identifies conditions under which capable and enterprising youth are being attracted to farming, and entry-points for youth participation in policymaking around agriculture and food security.

Read more…Who wants to farm?

Bangladesh: Rana Plaza is a parable of globalisation

Participation, Power and Social Change Research at IDS

Naomi Hossain photo miniNaomi Hossain

The garment factory collapse in Savar in Bangladesh is a parable of globalisation. The visceral images needed to make world headlines are there, as dead and broken bodies are pulled from the rubble for a fourth and fifth day. If there are any more survivors, as the tapping sounds of life fade out, they will have endured 100 hours trapped under the concrete and steel of the profit machine of a political youth leader – which description, by the way, translates in Bangladesh as ‘thug’.

Stories of heroism and agony and the criminal apathy of officials stirred up yet another round of mass violence in Dhaka. Factories were attacked and inevitably, someone died. This is with the secular-Islamic clash surrounding the Shahbag movement for justice for war crimes still bubbling in the background. There is a domestic politics angle to Rana Plaza, including the political lessons of the…

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Bangladesh is revolting, again

Participation, Power and Social Change Research at IDS

Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain photo mini

Anyone with a Bangladesh connection remains fixated on the two week occupation of Shahbag junction and the wider movement it has spawned. Shahbag, in case you missed it, is a mass movement protesting that Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah got off too lightly with a life sentence on February 5th for convictions that link him to mass murders and child rape during the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan; justice has long been delayed, and now most people think, it has been denied, too (as novelist Tahmima Anam explained last week . Even Mollah reckons he got off lightly: his infamous two-fingered gesture when leaving the courtroom will go down in history as the first hand gesture to launch a mass movement.

The need for justice for the genocide of 1971 is so glaring that most Bangladeshis choose to overlook the problems in the misleadingly-named International Crimes Tribunal…

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