Dialogue on Democracy
Report - conclusion
The Dialogue on Democracy continued on day 3 with a look at the role of the media in strengthening democracy. Journalist and editor Bhanu Kale made the point that 'if you want to make democracy real, the language issue should not be forgotten'. In a country like India, where there are over 100 different languages spoken, if serious political debate is limited to the minority who can read the English language newspapers and journals then a large majority are excluded from an essential part of the political process. Kale, with his wife, had started Antarnaad, a Marathi-language journal to address some of these issues.
Marites Dañguilan Vitug is a fearless journalist and editor from Philippines who has faced death threats and libel suits for her investigative reporting. The key to building an inclusive democracy, she said, was the creation of broad-based coalitions for change. An independent media was also important in spreading information about economic and political abuses by those in power. She outlined six core principles for ethical journalism (which could equally be applied to any profession):
- 1. First loyalty is to the citizens, not to the vested interests of the owners or others
- 2. Primary obligation is to tell the truth
- 3. Maintain independence. 'Friendship is the worst form of vested interests for journalists'
- 4. Monitor power, making public officials transparent and accountable
- 5. Practise the highest standards of journalism, including disciplined research and verification
- 6. Behave ethically - no bribes or favours.
Mike Lowe from Australia pointed out that ‘rule by the people’ requires people to be informed in order to make good choices. But ‘whose responsibility is it to be informed?’ he asked. He pointed to several recent high-profile cases of ethical lapses in journalism which had happened despite codes of conduct being in place and, in one case, the journalists involved had even gone through ethics training. The lesson he drew was that purpose was the most important factor. If your purpose was to make money, then there would always be pressure to bend or break the rules. This was equally true for media owners, journalists and readers. As print media moved online, he said, data was becoming available on which articles were bringing most revenue. This was putting even more pressure on editors to focus more on celebrity gossip and sex-scandals as these stories were generating more advertising revenues – even in the ‘serious’ newspapers.
Another issue that affected our ability to stay informed was social media. Lowe quoted a study which found that when people used social media as their main news source, they tended to move towards the extremes in their world-views. In contrast, he gave the example of his uncle who chose to read a newspaper with a different political leaning to his own so that his thinking would always be challenged and expand.
Playing my part – paying the price
A plenary on ‘Playing my part – paying the price’ heard from Bo Bo Oo, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. As a student leader in the 1989 protests against the military dictatorship in Myanmar/Burma he was arrested and spent the next 20 years in prison. ‘Burma has not had democracy for 60 years,’ he said. ‘We have had to learn the value of patience ‘. Asked how he had survived prison, he replied ‘through prayer and meditation and the belief that one day we might win’. Mahatma Gandhi’s example had inspired their non-violent struggle.
Graeme Cordiner from Sydney, Australia, spoke about Australia’s unfinished business with its Aboriginal people. He had become involved with the Myall Creek Memorial committee, set up as a memorial to the group of 28 unarmed Aboriginal people killed by a gang of stockmen on June 10th 1838. The seven men involved were then sentenced to hang. It was the first time that white people had been hung for murdering Aboriginal people. Although this, and many other massacres had happened long ago, healing was needed for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. ‘What was in them is in me… what is in my nation’s history is in me,’ said Cordiner.
Myrna Lewis, who with her late husband founded the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy, spoke about the method’s origins in post-apartheid South Africa where there was racism, division and where many were not used to having their voices heard through democratic means. The method was developed to engage people in decision-making in a large public utility company. It was not enough to have a simple vote. Those who lost the vote would likely not be engaged in implementing the decisions and could even actively resist it. Deep democracy worked by actively seeking and encouraging the dissenting voices so that their wisdom could be incorporated into the final decision. It was not necessarily about achieving consensus or being ‘blackmailed’ by the minority, but instead acknowledging the pain of losing a vote and asking the minority what they needed so that they could ‘come along’.
Inclusive Governance – Reaching the unreached
A plenary on ‘Inclusive Governance – Reaching the unreached’ heard from BK Taimni, an eminent senior civil servant and author of Food security in the 21st Century – Perspective and vision. Inclusive Governance meant including all people – including the poor, women, ethnic and religious minorities, indigenous, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged. He linked ‘inclusive governance’ to issues of development and poverty reduction, quoting a World Bank report which said, ‘India’s poor suffer not only from lower incomes but also from lower access to and quality of public services, such as basic health, education and infrastructure. The poor often lack the leverage to ensure that State institutions serve them fairly, and thus lack access to public-facilities or receive goods and services of inferior quality. They often must pay for education and health services, which others receive for free. For example, studies by India’s Public Affairs Centre indicate that the wealthy and middle classes are often more likely to resolve their complaints at lower cost. Corruption is often a highly regressive tax and the poor pay more of their incomes proportionately than do the wealthy and the middle class’.
The answer, said Taimni, was ‘participative development – i.e. grassroots development through grassroots democracy’. A 1992 amendment to India’s Constitution had sought to do this by empowering local bodies in both rural and urban areas. But it was not working as it should because funding and control of programmes were still managed at central and state levels. Another problem was that policy makers at the macro level continued to see development solely in terms of increasing GDP/GNP, while believing that benefits would ‘trickle down’ to the poor. But in reality the economic growth in India and other countries had been ‘extremely asymmetric’.
From Nagaland, north-east India, Niketu Iralu gave an example of grassroots transformation. Deforestation had been a major problem in his village of Khonoma, with young villagers selling timber against the wishes of the village elders. The roots of the problem lay in the breakdown of authority resulting from 22 historical killings between different tribes and different factions within the Naga independence struggle. ‘Hurts not transformed are always transferred’, said Iralu. His second conclusion was that, ‘The environment cannot be protected unless the wrongs in people are put right.’ Starting with an acknowledgement and apology for his own family’s role in the killings, Iralu had started an honest conversation between the factions leading to a day when the whole village agreed to spend some time in silence listening to the ‘inner voice’ and reflecting on their own responsibility. From that day, the atmosphere in the village changed. As well as ending the deforestation, the villagers agreed to stop killing some of the protected birds, and a wildlife sanctuary was established. This led to Khonoma’s recognition by the Indian government as the country’s first ‘Green Village’.
Dr Jared Buono who works with Grampari, the IofC rural development centre based at Panchgani, gave further evidence of the importance of participative development. ‘My goal in life is to eradicate extreme poverty in my lifetime,’ he said. This involved a lot of time ‘doing grassroots democracy, building civil society within ecological restoration and sustainable development programmes’. It was well known that ‘nothing is possible without people’ – especially when watershed management programmes or ecological restoration meant asking people to change the way they graze their animals or collect their firewood. ‘And yet we still get this wrong,’ he said, quoting a statistic that 50% of all water projects fail within the first few years. Participatory development meant giving people the opportunity to identify their own problems and find their own solutions. ‘It involves a lot of meetings under trees,’ he said – typically 60-70 meetings over 2 years and a lot of ‘constructive hanging out’.
Pressure came to short-circuit this process from all sides. ‘But it cannot be short-circuited,’ he said. ‘You have to have trust and faith in the process.’ Empowering women was fundamental, as it was the women who often did much of the manual work. In one village it took almost 18 months of trustbuilding before they could have their first ladies-only meeting – a Mahila Gram Sahba (the very basic level of grassroots democracy). The women asked Jared to facilitate the meeting, but ‘one of the first things we did was hand the microphone back to them saying, “this is your meeting, let’s talk about your issues.” Almost no one in that room had held the microphone before. This represents a cultural shift,’ he said. But the fruits of this work would be a project that would last for generations. When problems arise, the villagers would fix it themselves because it was their own project.
In the afternoon, the conference participants were welcomed to a tour of Grampari and heard from some of the villagers whose lives had been impacted.
The role of civil society
Sagala Rathnayaka, who is International Affairs Secretary of the opposition United National Party in Sri Lanka, spoke about the role of civil society in protecting and strengthening democracy. While Sri Lanka had once been a vibrant democracy, it was now an ailing one. One of the pillars of democracy – the judiciary – had been ‘blatantly and shamelessly’ violated by the government in the last weeks of 2012. When the Supreme Court refused to ratify a bill taking powers away from the Provinces, saying that it was ‘unconstitutional’, the Chief Justice was impeached and hurriedly removed from office, violating the procedures laid down by the constitution and Commonwealth agreements. While the opposition and the lawyers had opposed this action, civil society had ‘failed in this all important struggle’. The media, too, had been silenced. Over the last five years, around 150 journalists and editors had disappeared, been beaten up or shown up murdered. Others had been bribed with computers and housing loans. Other civic groups had suffered the same fate, leading to an attitude in civil society of ‘serious defeat – political apathy’. Yet civil society, when strong, had been able to achieve freedom for countries. Mahatma Gandhi’s successful struggle for Indian independence illustrated this. Rathnayaka ended by quoting from the last editorial of the fearless journalist and editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge who was assassinated in 2009: ‘If we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted.’
From Mumbai, Nitai Mehta, founder and managing trustee of the Praja Foundation, spoke about this innovative initiative to strengthen democracy by making elected officials more accountable and developing new tools for governance. At its core, Praja aimed to help the voters make more informed choices by providing better information about the performance of government and elected representatives. This was done through things like a Citizens Charter document, outlining the work of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation and how to contact various departments. This was followed by performance surveys to find out what the citizens thought about the various public service providers, which led to the development of an online complaints and complaint management system. To find out whether complaints were being dealt with effectively, Praja then audited the complaints – finding a large discrepancy between the Corporation and the public’s own perception of whether the issues had been resolved.
From 2008, Praja started a new project – the Praja Dialogue – bringing together the three elements of governance: citizens, the executive arm of government and the elected representatives. Many of the elected representatives were disengaged from the issues and concerns of the electorate and instead spent large amounts of time debating things like changes to street names. Using information made available under India’s Right to Information Act, Praja produced a ‘report card’ for each elected representative, rating them on attendance in the local government assembly, the number and quality of issues that they had raised and debated, and their use of discretionary funds for their constituency. When the ratings were published, Mehta received an angry visit from the politician who had received the lowest rating, demanding an apology. After two hours explaining to him how the system worked, the politician left and said to Mehta ‘you are doing a good job’. It turned out that some elected representatives lacked training and awareness of how to be effective, and Praja’s work was raising awareness and expectations for both voters and politicians.
Christoph Spreng spoke about the work of the Conference of International Non Governmental Organizations (INGOs) at the Council of Europe (COE), one of the eight institutions of the COE. Europe had a history of colonialism and racism which impacted its attempts to live with new immigrant populations. In 2011 it seemed to many that multiculturalism was dead. The response of the Conference of INGOs was to look for ways to build a culture of participation and shared ownership of the public space. But could Europe go beyond its legacy of domination, divide and rule, violence and polarization? The Conference had developed a ‘Dialogue Toolkit’ for conducting intercultural dialogue, drawing on the experience of the INGOs, including IofC. The aim was to build social cohesion and a human rights based approach to diversity issues. Facilitators had been trained and the Toolkit was now being implemented – including responding to a request from Paris.
Hearing the voices of those who suffer
The last morning of the conference was a chance to hear from parts of the world which are going through considerable pain. Two young Syrians spoke about the tragedy unfolding of Syrians killing Syrians. One was a human rights worker in another Arab country and because of this she was unable to return to her family in Syria. Speaking from the heart she honoured the 113 journalists who had been killed in Syria in 2012 and the tens of thousands of Syrians who had died over the last two years – many of them with the understanding that ‘giving their souls is the price of freedom’. Nevertheless, she said, ‘I’m proud to be a Syrian and hope to see you all in Syria when we have succeeded in making democracy real there.’
Young Egyptians spoke about their concerns over the precarious state of their country. Quoting the Qur'an, one said ‘God will not change the condition of the people unless they change what is in themselves’. Getting rid of Mubarak did not solve Egypt’s problems because the people themselves were part of the problem. She was grateful for the insight she had learned at the conference that ‘the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line’.
Tibetans living in India spoke of their experience of India’s democracy as a ‘luxury’ that they could experience even though they were not Indian citizens. One spoke of his experience of leaving his homeland as an eight year old, spending one and a half months walking to reach India. Like many others he had then grown up without his family living in a different country and culture. His mother and younger brother remained inside Tibet, but he couldn’t communicate with them because of fear of the consequences for his family.
A Nigerian lamented the divisions that made it such a challenge to make democracy real. ‘People have lost confidence in government and are taking their security into their own hands…. This self-help leads to more individualism…. There is serious institutional decay at all levels of civil society.’ The answer, he said, was reconciliation. ‘We must make diversity our strongest weapon for uniting the nation’.
A woman from Cameroon talked about the ‘cancer of corruption’ in her country. Conditions on the large plantations were little changed from the slavery of the colonial period. Women were often abused, she said. Her country had experienced war in the past and she was afraid that divisions could lead to war again.
Edward Peters, Executive Vice President of Initiatives of Change International, spoke about the challenges and opportunities emerging in South Sudan – Africa’s newest nation. The previous year, the Vice President of South Sudan had attended the Dialogue on Democracy with a large delegation. Now IofC and the IC Centre for Governance were responding to an invitation to partner with the Government of South Sudan on an initiative for national reconciliation.
Several spoke of their personal readiness to sacrifice their lives in the service of making democracy real, and one person voiced the sentiment of many when they said that they had drawn inspiration from the struggle for democracy in many other parts of the world.
Rather than aiming for a written resolution or statement, the conference concluded with an open space when people were invited to share their own personal resolutions and conclusions. Here are a few quotes:
- ‘We are prophets of love for a future that is not ours’
- ‘I have attended many discussions, but never did I get so moved as I did here. I have been challenged by many people in a worse situation than my own.’
- ‘All my life I have been going to conferences, thanking the hosts, doing my duty. But there has been an inner void. Until I came here there was a certain poverty inside me. This has enriched me a lot.’
- ‘We should not ignore the unreached in our own countries. Let the head be the engine and the steering wheel be the heart.’
- ‘Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Do the right thing, not just the popular thing.’