Embracing citizenship: The challenge of governance

Editorial | by Stefano Prato and Arthur Muliro

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Lord Boateng quoted these powerful words by Frederik Douglass when roaring his comments at the closing session of the Pan-African Conference on Inequalities.3 He might well be right to recall these words of wisdom in order to inspire the participants’ active engagement in a renewed agenda for inclusion and equity.

However, this quote may be equally relevant to readers as they engage in the debates raised in this Journal issue on ‘The Future of Global Governance’. Governance is an area of development policy and action characterized by vibrant debates with multiple entry points. Without pretending to capture the richness of the current discussions, the articles in this Journal reflect on some of the more inspirational points of view.

The challenge of governance is one of citizenship

First of all, the challenge of governance is one of citizenship. Institutions embody the social contract among citizens but they soon develop their own life form. They become ‘living organisms’ too often delinked from the people who established them. The more institutions develop, the wider the democratic deficit and the decrease of their legitimacy. They operate as ‘closed systems’, rarely in close interaction with the citizens on whose behalf they exist.

However, it is also true that behavioural patterns between institutions and their people are co-created. In modern democratic states, citizens get the leaders and the institutions they ‘deserve’ (although this might also work the other way round). Nevertheless, in many new and emerging democracies, citizens’ agency remains limited as many economic and social rights remain unfulfilled. The concept of political participation has been reduced to its electoral dimension in conjunction with pervasive lack of social inclusion and economic empowerment. In South Africa, it is estimated that about only one-third of the ‘born-free’ generation (those who were born into a post-Apartheid South Africa) have registered to cast their ballots at the forthcoming 2014 General Election (IPS News). It is almost certain that come voting day, even fewer than those registered will make the journey to the polling booth to cast their vote. On the other hand, even many ‘mature’ democracies face significant apathy of their citizens. This decline in citizen participation in elections has been the subject of much recent research and hand-wringing. A recent report by the European Parliamentary Research Service (2014) states:

‘… voter turnout has been on a consistently downward path at elections, both within the European Union and in the United States. Indeed, these trends are consisent with a general decline in turnout at elections in most G20 democracies since 1945 – from around 80% in the immediate post-war period to just over 60% today’.

Politics has increasingly acquired negative connotations and many citizens treat it as little more than a soap opera: they watch the news, discuss political events over coffees and a few may even read the newspapers. Politics rarely seems to enter their daily lives.
Whether because of unfulfilled rights or political apathy, there is a significant extent of disengagement and feeling of powerlessness in most citizens. The growing public protests at all levels can be seen as indicators of the dissatisfaction brewing beneath the surface. The report on ‘World Protests 2006–2013’4 analyzes 843 protests that occurred between January 2006 and July 2013 in 87 countries covering over 90 percent of world population and highlights the steady increase in the overall number of protests every year.

There seems to be a significant disconnect between the growth of resistance and protests as well as the corresponding increased agency of citizens in engaging within their community, localities or issues of key concern, and their broader activity in the public political space.

The key questions to confront among others include: How can these forms of agency be directed towards the redesign and continued management of democratic institutions? What would renewed democratic institutions look like? How can the asymmetries and failings in distribution of power and in particular, with respect to gender imbalances, the representation of marginalized and oppressed segments of the community be redressed? Addressing these questions lies at the very heart of the reconnection of governance and citizenship and failing to do so will probably further widen the gap between the two.

The Crisis of representativeness and the need for real participation

The ‘World Protests’ report also remarked on the overwhelming demand ‘not for economic justice per se, but for what prevents economic issues from being addressed: a lack of “real democracy”, which is a result of people’s growing awareness that policy-making has not prioritized them – even when it has claimed to – and frustration with politics as usual and a lack of trust in the existing political actors, left and right. This demand and the crisis of political representation it expresses is coming from every kind of political system, not only authoritarian governments but also representative democracies which are failing to listen to the needs and views of ordinary people’.

Poor electoral turn-outs, crises of political parties in the absence of defining ideologies, lack of proper mechanisms for ongoing relations between elected representatives and their electoral base, lack of asynchrony between citizens and residents and a therefore significant share of voiceless population with limited rights, widespread protests on the privileges of the ruling politicians, emerging vetocracy (Hui, 2014) with small social groups dictating the terms of national politics, pervasive collusion and corruption in economic and political affairs with significant implication of the ruling class: these are all signs of the fundamental inadequacies of current institutional settings.

Rather than simply reforming representation, the critical challenge is one of redesigning truly participatory institutions that are defined by continued communication and engagement with citizens rather than a discontinued, indirect and mediated process of accountability.

Misdirected effectiveness

It is therefore concerning that such calls for citizens’ agency and the need for new participatory institutions are met with significant shirking of the civic space in both mature and emerging democracies. Restriction of civil liberties and unlawful infringements of privacy in the name of security, harassment if not prosecution of independent media, restrictions on the operations of civil society organizations and shutting down of social media are all symptoms of a larger offensive. Many of these attacks on the democratic space are taking place with the complacency of several key players: the middle class (whatever this means today), often agnostic about politics and primarily concerned with protecting its shrinking privileges; the private sector often in thrall of the unspoken belief that some democracy might need to be traded for the State to be more effective and development to be achieved; and, the development partners that, despite their rhetoric on citizenship and participation, are confronted with stringent domestic accountability requirements on their decreasing allocations and are therefore inclined to be blind to the democratic dysfunctionalities of the governments they fund as long as they can claim success on their agreed objectives.

Unfortunately, all these claims for effectiveness are fundamentally misdirected. They focus on short-term delivery but fail to address the real transformative agenda required in order to change our societies and economies. First of all, governance is increasingly going local, with many nation-states actively engaged in processes of decentralization and devolution, while many key problems our societies are struggling with increasingly manifest their global roots. Second, the political horizon remains largely defined by electoral cycles and therefore dramatically short if compared with the long-term nature of the necessary solutions. This situation is compounded by the absence of courageous and visionary leadership – which has yielded to largely tactical and managerial leadership styles that eschew bold visions and tend to focus on tinkering around those activities that are guaranteed to ensure electoral victory. Last, the challenges of inclusion and equity require profound re-architecture of power relations within societies and across them. Current power holders are often neither dissatisfied with the current political order nor attracted by its alternatives and hence fundamentally uninterested if not opposed to real political transformation. This is why they strike back – in the name of national interest, security and development – to limit the emergence of transformative forces.

The quest for ownership and sovereignty

The preceding considerations could therefore shed new light on the recent reaffirmation of the nation-state, one that is driven by claims of sovereignty and ownership of development pathways. Such reaffirmation seems to take place in the absence of the necessary legitimacy and capacity and might therefore translate in the further ossification of undemocratic and dysfunctional institutions.

Interestingly, the claim for sovereignty seems to be more concerned with protecting domestic affairs from international influence and jurisdiction rather than challenging the progressive shrinking of the national policy space as a result of rampant trade and financial liberalization. It rejects the international community when it focuses its attention on domestic repressions and supports human rights groups but happily looks the other way as foreign economic interests grab land, extract national resources for measly royalties or facilitate the illicit flows of the revenues of these operations.

Similarly, the claim for ownership does not appear to translate into real inclusiveness of the larger population. A perfect example of this is the current phase of the discussion on the post-2015 development agenda where ownership seems to have been equated with that of the government bureaucrats sitting at a New York-based assembly (and oftentimes even disconnected from the very same governmental apparatus they claim to represent). It therefore embodies multiple democratic deficits and provides for little openness for the engagement of other forms of social agency other than the State.

Ownership and sovereignty therefore seem to have been twisted to become instrumental to the defence of the current ruling elites and contribute to the consolidation of systems of governance that are hindering rather than facilitating transformation.

The appropriation of language and new data discourse

Nonetheless and in spite of everything else, high-sounding rhetoric on inclusion, equity and sustainability never seems to be in short supply. There was a time when the choice of language used would differentiate mainstream and alternative views. Words used to count. Today, language is appropriated as quickly as it is forged. This is where many believe that a new evidence-based approach to politics and policymaking could help re-differentiate positions in spite of language appropriation. But new data is necessary for this purpose. First of all, traditional aggregated data has hidden marginalization and uneven development outcomes within the improving figures that depicted non-existent average citizens. Second, there is a need for new systems of measurement that are increasingly able to capture the broader dimensions of well-being that traditional data did not measure. Last, power had a strong grip on data and has greatly limited its access by concerned citizens and groups. New independent and accountable statistical capacities are therefore required to ensure that quality disaggregated data is available to all policy actors and new indicators of well-being are developed to complement GDP and other traditional measures.

As fascinating as the data revolution may be, it does not seem to be immune from misleading interpretations. Current policymakers seem to have decided that it is better to ride this horse, than being ridden by it. Any attempt at discussing the independence of statistical commissions is therefore quickly dismissed and we are likely to see far too much data rather than the few we really need. While the issue is fundamentally political in nature, it is being reduced to a technical one. As a result, inaction would be justified by the lack of proper data and significant resources will likely be allocated to demonstrate that ‘water is actually wet’ and to develop metrics that are not consistent with the scope of the challenge they are meant to measure. If one wants to reach the moon, counting metres is probably not useful. Equally, the extent of many development challenges is so large that the extreme accuracy is probably of little additional value. The quest for improved data quality should therefore not become another excuse for the delay in long overdue development policies and interventions. We are far too aware of the roots of many of the injustices that our societies confront. A dashboard of rough indicators will certainly help in unfolding the truth behind politically correct language and support well-meaning policymaking as long as it does not become another development conundrum.

Engendering citizenship and governance

Not too long ago, in the pages of this Journal (Vol. 50, 2007), Viviene Taylor wrote about the challenges that experiences of governing and being governed pose for democratic movements and for those previously excluded from government. On the basis of research she carried out, she pointed out a number of factors that have implications for democratic governance. Two elements in particular stood out: How women with critical feminist consciousness enter political spaces in ways that change political institutions in order to bring government closer to people; and the questions surrounding the resources and effort required to change formal and informal rules and structural relationships of power.

It is necessary to acknowledge, for example, that concepts of citizenship and governance are gendered. The way men and women learn what is valued in terms of active citizenship and participation in decision-making determines their identity as citizens, their perceived entitlements as members of a given society and their perceived role within society.

From a gender perspective, the issue of who governs citizens and what mechanisms of governance are in place, directly impacts on women in terms of representation, voice and methodology, and what kinds of space women are given in which to act as individual or collective citizens. As such, it becomes necessary to revisit the informal ways in which gendered notions of citizenship are absorbed in everyday life and their relationship to modern, active citizenship and the concept of governance.

The modern notion of governance includes accountability and responsibility through a range of institutions and relationships involved in the process of governing. The identification of those institutions and relationships is crucial to how much access women and minority groups have to the status of governing. So, for example, groups associated with single issues such as disability rights or ecological concerns may have more or less influence in terms of governance, depending on their political status. The role women or other individuals play in those organizations depends on the values attached to their ability to act and make decisions according to their social circumstances and beliefs.

Governance versus transformation

The contributors to this Journal issue tackle many of the questions to which governance has to respond if it is to truly lead the transformation of our societies for the better in the coming decades. In his article, the former German President Horst Köhler reflects on how politics will need to be rethought in order for it to be in a position to meet the challenges of this century. One of the core concepts that he highlights – that of common values – is fundamental to ensuring a basis for global cooperation that it can be said, is needed more than ever before given the interconnectedness of the challenges that he face. He suggests that Europe – and the European project by extension – require significant political courage and political capital in order to deliver the results that Europe’s citizens expect. This argument is just as valid for anywhere else on this planet. Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o in his article, reflects on Africa’s bitter experience with governance, from the dizzy optimism that accompanied the transition from colonial rule to independence and the subsequent betrayal of the ideals of the independence struggle by elite interests. He tells us that we need to make democracy and social justice something real that people experience in their daily lives and not just abstract concepts that entertain intellectuals. Roberto Savio’s piece on why Italy finds itself in the mess it is in today concludes that declining public participation in the political process has allowed the political class to essentially transform institutional paralysis into an art form from which the beneficiaries are selected elites. Lyndsay Stecher takes us on a tour of efforts to embed participation into the post-2015 development goals negotiation process but concludes that unless there is a genuine commitment to rethink and transform the decision-making process, everything else will be about lip service. Can the commitment to a participatory process in the post-2015 goals negotiation really be genuine without deeper structural changes in how decisions are made? Irungu Houghton and Stephanie Muchai narrate the attempts by government, in the shadow of a new, progressive constitutional dispensation, to whittle down spaces for civic engagement and effectively shut down civil society and the response from within the sector to defend these spaces as well as efforts engage the government in an ongoing dialogue. Christa Wichterich argues for transformation strategies that are democratic, inclusive and gender-just. She also challenges feminists to re-politicize development issues as citizens, and stress the emancipatory potential of a caring economy, of commons and sufficiency.

These and many other rich contributions give us an insight into the many facets that governance has on the lives of people around the world. What emerges is a rich mosaic of actions, of challenges and points to reflect upon. In titling this Journal issue ‘The Future of Global Governance’, the idea was not so much to put the argument to rest by providing a prescription that would resolve all the ills and shortcomings in this field, but to open the Pandora’s Box that would showcase the multiplicity of practices and variability of outcomes around the world. That said, there is one strong thread that runs through virtually all the contributions: the current system does not work. It is therefore incumbent upon us to begin to think of how to recreate systems of governance that are representative of their citizens.

Ultimately, the very term ‘governance’ might not give the proper sense of today’s challenge. It fundamentally evokes images of managing a stasis – a space that hardly changes and when changes do occur, they can be dealt with through a combination of tactical and managerial tricks. The harsh reality is that our societies and economies are today faced with a need for a deep and profound transformation. As has been intimated earlier, this requires a combination of imagination, courage, leadership and agency – none of which seems to be part of our contemporary governance discourse. The search for stasis under the current circumstances is more likely than not to be a chimera. As someone once said, ‘We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds’. Still, and in spite of all the turbulence, we must not stop our search for better ways to manage our affairs as a collective.


* Editorial of Development  Vol. 56.3 'The Future of Global Governance'. The full version including footnotes is available on the Palgrave site.

Photo: Michael Daines/Flickr