Good governance, grassroots democracy and the new era of independent politics

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I have been always fascinated with politics and the way it affects the lives of the ordinary citizens. I come from Italy, a developed, though like many other members of EU, now declining country.

Yet, despite many people there complain, it is still a pretty good place to have a decent living: it is safe, you have very good health care standards and there is a mix of private and public education that surely could be better but it is not after all that bad either.

I was also lucky enough to visit fairly organized and prosperous nations. Think of Luxemburg, Switzerland, Finland, New Zeeland or Singapore or Canada for example.

I also had the chance to see fairly messy places and I always wanted to think about ways to turn poorly organized nations in developed and prosperous one.  

How for example can we replicate the success of Switzerland or Luxemburg in developing countries?

I bet like many others that aid cannot do the job and political stability is a sine qua non but what to do when the political landscape is still evolving and volatile?

As westerner I should refrain from any attempt of top down nation building approach, thinking that we know better though we all know that it took centuries and two world wars to achieve a liberal democratic space that posed the foundation for development and prosperity that we have enjoyed in the last five decades and now is threatened by populism.  

Certainly there is no magic wand and being in the so called development sector since almost fifteen years, I am convinced the so called “good governance” is one of its most challenging domains.

It is certainly positive that in the last few years the focus is on livelihoods and wealth creation with a lot attention on new and innovative approaches that use social innovation to bring changes at local level.

Yet governance or better the way citizens are governed  is and will remain the key to create prosperous societies around the world.

The big challenge is how to ensure an effective way of governing amid political instability like for example Nepal, a country that fought hard for democracy but still pays the consequences of a political system were citizens are only formally in charge and game is entirely in the hands of discredited political parties,

At same time I believe that it would be too easy to look at east, at the way places like Singapore or China have been developing thanks to authoritarian regimes.

It is not that the authoritarian way is not working if you think on how democratic South Korea and Taiwan have become after decades of top down illiberal state interventions that while stifling democracy, ensured development.

This means that Singapore will become a full-fledged democracy within the next fifteen years and while the graduation threshold for China will be longer, I believe that it will be inevitable.

Yet between the western promoted liberal democracy and the eastern authoritarian approach, is a third way possible?

In short, is it another way possible, a way that respect democracy and differences of opinions while ensuring effective governance and rule of law?

An option should go back to the roots of democracy, giving citizens real power and getting rid of professional politicians who become ossified with too much power.

The monopoly of political parties over the state power, a cornerstone of the liberal democracy, should be broken up and a political liberalization should start where real power is devolved to the individuals who, stepping up, can take charge of more responsibilities.

More space to the individuals won’t necessarily bring an end to the traditional political parties that we know until now but their transformation is inevitable.

Parties should act more as loose movements, platform for debating new ideas, catalysts to channel new proposals.

They should allow individuals to retain some forms of autonomy instead of having them getting trapped within the cages of rigid and dogmatic containers that steal their rights to have an exclusive prerogative on governing.

This could be called the era of civic engagement and grassroots democracy. I know it sounds a bit libertarian or anarchic depending on your political lining. Maybe we can settle with the era of “independent and community” politics.

First of all the way elected politics works should be reformed: let’s make it simple for citizens to run independently and let’s make sure that everybody and not only the rich or powerful can run.

But the real point here is that participation at local level should not be just prerogative of those elected but of the entire community, ensuring instead spread and pervasive involvement of the common people.

I know it sounds very utopian and not really pragmatic but forms of local self government are in place in many developing countries.

In a country of Nepal there are several examples of communities with a tradition of managing their own affairs without relying too much on the State.

Think for a moment also to special treaties existing between the Federal Government of Canada and the so called First Nations, the native populations who, while surrendering many of their rights and accepting the power of a new government in Ottawa, managed to retain high degree of control over their lands.

Through long waited court battles, the natives in Canada have now power over many areas of governance, ensuring a localized form of self sovereignty like if they were, as their name suggests, fully in charge of their own “nations” who were established long before the white settlers had stepped in what is now Canada.

Bilateral and multilateral development partners have invested massively in nurturing localized forms of good governance with the creation of citizens’ committees in different areas of the country.

While the idea is brilliant, I am not sure about its long term sustainability.

I have the fear that the inevitable top down approach that necessarily must be used to set up these bodies through aid for development might not work in the long run.

Yet a new conversation about democracy and civic engagement should start in the developed liberal democracy as well as in the developing ones.

Local communities are full of citizens that if entrusted with more responsibilities, are able to bring sustainable change locally.

Relying on the ballot box and delegating the job to professional politicians is no more the only recipe to shape and implement effective public policies in the north and in the south o the world as well.

We will see if aid for development can help fragile democracy in developing countries experiment and then scale up new innovative practices that often are actually already available locally.






Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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