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The Power of Dissent

More responsible governance in the age of social media.


Power of Dissent

How can we govern responsibly in an age of interconnected media? James Ian McKay is the pseudonym of a senior development economist within a large international organisation. In the first of a series of exclusive, in-depth reports, he explores whether the Arab Spring was just the beginning of a wave of global dissent, spurred on by the power of social media.

World AffairsThe so-called ‘Arab Spring’, which began in 2010 but was spurred on in February 2011 by the fall of Egypt’s President Mubarak, revealed a deep-seated paradox. In development terms, several of the countries that became paralysed by unrest had in fact done relatively well in terms of improving the living conditions of their citizens – their education and healthcare, for example – and, in the case of Egypt in particular, had attracted significant business investment from the West.

But there were two crucial flaws in those countries’ development models: a dearth of job opportunities (especially for the young, who were often-well trained) and a lack of political freedoms and civil rights. Uprisings spread quickly to other parts of the Arabic-speaking world – to Bahrain, for example, and most notably to Syria, where rebellion developed into full-scale civil war.

Mubarak graffiti

Mubarak graffiti during recent unrest in Egypt

If you’d asked most political commentators in 2009 about the chances of regime change in North Africa, few would have predicted that the days of Colonel Gaddafi (Libyan leader since 1969), Ben Ali (who took power in Tunisia in a 1986 coup) or Hosni Mubarak (Egyptian President since 1991) were numbered. Yet all fell within a few months of each other, with further political upheavals following in their wake.

In 2014, these events no longer feel much like a Spring, more a protracted and bloody Winter, and at the heart of it is something new to this complex region: popular dissent. The scale of the change brought about by the Arab Spring presents strategic challenges to Western politicians, development organisations, aid organisations and businesses.

But there are signs that discontent is spreading elsewhere – to Turkey, Thailand and Brazil, for example, and most recently to Ukraine in the wake of creeping Russian incursions into the Crimean peninsula. Meanwhile, the renewed conflict in Gaza has been fought in the full gaze of the world’s social media, polarising the international community.

So what is the likelihood of political instability in other parts of the world that the West has, until now, seen as following a positive development path? And what might the impact be on their relations with the Western world?

Two key issues lie at the hub of these questions: governance and technology. Governance has become more complex for every nation state, partly as a result of globalisation and the spread of digital communications. Political power is becoming more diffuse within most national borders, with international and supranational organisations – multinationals, international banks, the United Nations, and more – all vying for greater influence. This trend threatens authoritarian regimes whose primary focus may be the acquisition of power and the suppression of dissent.

The internet and mobile communications have both played a role in the spread of dissent in some parts of the world, but as we will explore later, they are not the trigger. Such advances allow movements to become global and enable the sharing of knowledge and research, but in the extreme can also result in ‘cyber-balkanisation’ and reduced social cohesion, as people define themselves in terms of new virtual communities.

Some members of global hacking collectives, for example, may expose wrongdoing and strongly support democratic principles, data-sharing and openness, while at the same time being anonymous, untraceable and without any democratic mandate themselves. Others would argue that hackers are more engaged in society than most.

National and international politics stand at the confluence of all these trends. While some citizens are able to participate in society in new ways, others – such as some ethnic groups and the long-term unemployed – are being marginalised within their local communities.

Youth Unemployment

Strategist: youth unemployment in Europe

In some developed and undeveloped countries alike – including the UK – youth unemployment percentages are much higher than among older, more experienced people. At the same time, domestic job markets are being impacted by global employment trends and the availability of skilled, low-cost workers from overseas.

These broad trends can lay the ground for violence and protest, and in some ways amplify local disputes. Upheavals may be inspired by serious local issues – territorial and religious disputes, income disparity, inequality and political repression – but may no longer be confined within national boundaries, as the conflict between Israel and Palestine amply demonstrates.

What new spaces open up for greater civic participation, how states choose to manage local democratic processes, and the quality of the institutions that they have at their disposal all influence the degree to which people are empowered – and, just as importantly, feel empowered.

A democratic fog

Over the past 30 years, the parliamentary democratic model has spread, but there is a temptation in Western nations to see this development solely through the lens of their own cultures.

The truth is that political participation has a meaning that runs wider and deeper than the institutions of any democratic regime. That wider meaning is rooted in the qualitative aspects of democracy and governance: in equality and in civil, political and social participation. This is a lesson that many aspiring democracies are learning the hard way.

The qualitative side of democracy and governance is crucial. No country can afford to rest on its laurels when it comes to improving its democratic system and its political accountability.

In countries where there is low or zero progress in terms of economic, social or cultural empowerment, civil and political rights lose significance for the poorest sectors of society. Support for the political system can become dangerously shallow and fragile, leading to apathy or outbreaks of violence.

Giving space to dissenting voices is fundamental to the creation of a sustainable, socially cohesive society, and civic participation is essential for positive development outcomes. This message has been driven home by the Arab Spring, but one of the ironies is that a number of countries affected by it had previously earned Western praise for their development achievements.

Take Tunisia, for example.

Misleading impressions

By most measures, Tunisia was considered a success story prior to the civil unrest that broke out in December 2010. In numerous aspects of human development, it was seen to outperform many other, faster-growing countries, and its peers across Africa saw Tunisia as an example of a well-run, pro-development government.

Tunisia Unrest

Tunisia was largely deemed a success in development terms, prior to the outbreak of unrest.

Over the previous three decades, the country had expanded its infrastructure, boasted good governance indicators, and claimed a strong record in improving educational opportunities and health provision. In gender equality, too, it had performed well, ranking 25th out of the 102 countries in the oecd’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI).

Yet the model had an Achilles’ heel. The positive developments in Tunisia’s economy and governance were eventually overshadowed by the high number of unemployed people (many of them young) living in an unequal society with little space for political participation.

In short, the model lacked real political legitimacy, and high unemployment, social exclusion and pervasive corruption are a combustible combination. The lesson for aid agencies and for supporters of international development is that looking beyond traditional – and usually Western – measures of progress and development is essential.

Economist Albert Hirschman’s typology of ‘voice, exit and loyalty’ helps illustrate the mechanisms at the heart of social inclusion. Hirschman believed that whereas economic transactions in the marketplace are characterised by a simple ‘entry and exit’ mechanism, human progress over history has been much more influenced by loyalty and ‘voice’.

To take a rudimentary example, while parents can remove their child from an under-performing school (a simple ‘market exit’ response), the alternative ‘voice’ strategy would be to become actively involved in the school’s governance and so improve its performance. This, in turn, would stimulate parents’ loyalty to that school and also their personal investment – their time and skill – in its improvement.

People are not markets


People are not markets, says McKay. Introducing simplistic market forces into complex systems is not easy.

Problems arise in society when governments apply simple market mechanisms to social institutions and expect them to flourish, especially when they replace existing elements of ‘voice’ and loyalty within those institutions with a simplistic ‘entry/exit’ market approach. Some would argue that this is happening within parts of the state that are being broken up to attract private sector investment in the UK, for example.

Social progress and development rely on more than market transactions; they are rooted in citizens’ loyalty and on them being given a full expression of ‘voice’ within their communities. Although highly subjective, Voice and Accountability are two key measures in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. These reveal the ways in which people’s participation in, and loyalty to, institutions are being suppressed in many parts of the world.

It is known that gains from globalisation are unequally shared: benefits are often reaped along ethnic lines, with certain groups in society gaining from new opportunities and others being increasingly marginalised. In many parts of the world over the years, the result has been resentment, damaged social cohesion, and violence aimed at certain groups – such as the ethnic Indian populations in East Africa in the 1970s, or the Chinese in Indonesia in the 1990s.

The risks of endemic exclusion are pronounced, especially when it is based on ethnic or religious grounds.

While there is a large body of research that emphasises the role that socio-economic and political inequalities can play in conflicts, far less research has been done on the part played by forms of cultural exclusion. These are issues that can lead to civil unrest and protest and may also be triggers of violent conflict. Examples cited in the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report (2004) include:

• Rioting against the Chinese in Malaysia in the late 1960s. This was attributed largely to the animosity felt by the politically dominant but economically sidelined Bumiputera majority towards the economically dominant Chinese minority.

• The 1983-2009 civil war in Sri Lanka was linked to tensions resulting from inequalities between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority. Colonial administrators had favoured the Tamils economically, but this advantage was sharply reversed once the Sinhalese gained power and sidelined the Tamils in areas such as educational opportunity, civil service recruitment, and language policy.

• In Uganda, the Bantu-speaking people in the centre and south of the country have been economically dominant but are politically sidelined by the non-Bantu-speaking people in the north. These inequities played a role in the violence initiated by Idi Amin in the 1970s and in the second Obote regime in 1983-85. They are also a factor in the ongoing conflict between government forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

• Increasing tensions between Muslims and Christians in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, began surfacing in the mid-1990s as the Muslim community increasingly gained more than indigenous Christians did from new economic policies.

• The Maoist insurgency in Nepal in 1996 may be attributed to deep grievances stemming from the systematic marginalisation of certain ethnic groups, castes and women.

These and other examples (such as Apartheid-era South Africa) have led some politicians and economists to espouse the idea that in poor, fractious societies the developmental state must enjoy a strong degree of autonomy from popular opinion. According to the proponents of this view, a degree of authoritarianism is a necessary evil in development.

Paul Kagame

Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda.

Indeed, a number of African leaders have recently used this argument to defend the lack of plurality in their own political systems. These include: Meles Zenawi, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister, who was in power from 1991 until his death in August 2012; Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (in power since 1986); and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, (formally in power since the elections in 2000, but factually in control since the genocide of 1994). Kagame has often alluded to the Singaporean model of development, meaning a highly autocratic state in the context of a stage-managed democracy.

Economist Mushtaq Kahn from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) goes so far as to say that arguments about the benefits derived from Western-style democratic governance are misplaced, and that truly democratic systems have never been able to exist below a certain threshold of development.

Many studies have tried to assess the link between poverty reduction and democracy, but nearly all have concluded that there is no consistent connection – depressing for advocates of greater political freedoms. While the worst performers in terms of poverty reduction tend not to be democracies, there are non-democracies among the best performers too.

Essential checks and balances

Yet there are serious problems with any implicit view that democracy is a luxury that developing countries can’t afford. Without adequate feedback mechanisms, checks and balances, and in the absence of a vibrant civil society, the political stability of any such regimes is poised on a knife-edge. A degree of ‘contestability’ in a political system is fundamental to the viability of its long-term development, so striking the right balance between participation and decisiveness is key.

Joseph Stiglitz

Economist Joseph Stiglitz

Keynesian economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz put it in these terms: “A government that is too powerful might violate citizens’ rights, but a government that is too weak would be unable to undertake the collective action needed to create a prosperous and inclusive society – or to prevent powerful private ‘actors’ [our inverted commas] from preying on the weak and defenceless.”

The importance of democracy, civic participation and governance is now widely acknowledged in developing countries, as reflected by the adoption in 2007 of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, for example. This compels African Union member states to respond to unconstitutional actions by other member states and secure the gains made in democracy and governance. By the end of 2010, 36 countries had signed the Charter and eight had ratified it.

However, an important distinction needs to be drawn between liberal democracies – which make extensive provision for political and civic pluralism. as well as individual and group freedoms – and mere electoral democracies (hybrid states).

Hybrid states boast many of democracy’s electoral trappings, but lack internal checks and balances, transparency and accountability in budgetary processes, reliable enforcement of legally stated rights and privileges, and effective control by elected officials. They do not prize civil freedoms highly, nor do they secure minority rights. It is worrying that among the newer democracies in Africa there are signs of democratic erosion, where regimes assume the form, but not the substance, of electoral democracy.

Some governments in Africa seek to control the desire for democracy by dampening expectations. But in an era of social media and mobile communications, it is increasingly difficult for governments anywhere to do so. A more legitimate policy would be to enhance citizens’ democratic ‘voice’ by improving governance and enabling greater civic participation.

Where there is less engagement with social accountability there is less impetus for reform, and so the delivery of public services often remains poor. India is a good example. It is the largest democracy in the world, but the large proportion of poor people in an assertive electorate have not succeeded in focusing politicians on programmes to alleviate mass poverty, or to deliver mass education and healthcare.

A notable exception within India has long been the southern state of Kerala, which has some of the best human development indicators in the country – despite having a low per-capita income. It is probably no coincidence that Kerala is a state with fewer excluded social groups than states such as Bihar and Orissa, which perform far worse in terms of human development outcomes.

China’s challenges

Another huge and fast-developing economy that has widespread rural poverty is China. One of the major challenges there has been to develop feedback mechanisms within a state that has no tradition of political pluralism. Although no open elections are held at national level, there is much discussion in academic circles about the possibility of ‘democratisation from below’; China has over one million village councils for which elections are held, for example.

Rural poverty

Rural poverty in China is a growing problem as cities expand fast.

That said, ordinary Chinese citizens often have little recourse to address grievances. In the petition system, which enables people to seek the help of higher officials, only two out of every 1,000 petitions leads to some kind of resolution. Chinese courts hear 90,000 lawsuits a year against local authorities, but rule against the government in less than 25 per cent of cases. That said, an increasing number of labour disputes find in favour of workers.

Decentralisation is an important mechanism through which the governments of developing countries can enhance political accountability. There are inherent problems, however. Among these are: parochialism; the temptation by central government to shed functions without providing any money to carry them out locally; the capture of political office by local elites or business interests; and the continued exclusion of the poor and disadvantaged from influencing any decisions that affect their welfare.

Decentralisation is no magic bullet for poverty reduction and the gains are far from automatic – issues that are just as relevant today in many developed countries and mature democracies. In China, decentralised governance has been key to rural industrialisation, but has also limited the power of central government to rein in local officials. The result has been environmental damage, land seizures, violations of safety standards, and the acceleration of economic inequality.

Many decentralisation programmes in Africa have retained top-down control. “Tanzania’s local government system is seen by many citizens as a means of securing compliance to the wishes of the ruling party. In Nigeria, local government has been used by military rule to install political bosses and agencies for the distribution of patronage.” (The Crise Report, 2009.)

Recent research in India suggests that granting power to local tiers of government does not always increase the civic participation of marginalised groups, particularly women. Indeed, it is often the case that traditional power structures are replicated and become entrenched at both local and national levels.

In Uganda, judicial reform has favoured local councils that often discriminate against women. To succeed, decentralisation should be accompanied by complementary measures, such as investment in education, the promotion of land reform, and the strengthening of legal frameworks.

Rwanda is an example of a country that has used decentralisation as a means to underpin social protection programmes. Rwanda has universal health insurance (covering 91 per cent of the population), free education, a pension scheme, the Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (vup), which supports survivors of the genocide, and the ‘one cow per family’ programme.

Central to Rwanda’s extensive social provision is administrative decentralisation. As part of it, the Ubudehe programme enables local people to identify essential, area-specific projects, and also vulnerable people within their communities who need government assistance.

The role of technology

One of the most controversial aspects of the civil disturbances in the Middle East and North Africa has been the role of the Internet, especially social platforms. In reality, however, a sea change in the way that social networks evolve has been visible for decades, as communication costs have fallen.

The idea that technologies themselves drive revolution is too simplistic, but they are certainly a catalyst and examples are not restricted to internet-based tools.

For example, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 illustrated the shift in importance from broadcast media to peer-distributed content – in that case, to cassette tapes of speeches made against the Shah by Ayatollah Khomeini, who was then based in Paris. These were widely shared across Iran and helped mobilise millions of Iranians against the Shah’s rule.

Mobile phone Egypt

Mobile phones are an increasingly powerful weapon in popular unrest.

Mobile phones have been another catalyst. During the 2001 impeachment trial of Philippines President Joseph Estrada, thousands of angry Filipinos demonstrated in the centre of Manila against a judicial decision to ignore evidence linking him with corruption. The protest was partly arranged by text – close to seven million messages were sent that week (at a time of far less mobile coverage). The country’s legislators backed down and Estrada was forced to resign.

Technologies may help the erosion of authoritarian power over time, but for the moment their impact is not so easy to predict. Governments – particularly undemocratic ones – are nervous about the evolution of networks over which they have little influence and which cross previously impermeable boundaries. Some, like Ethiopia and Iran, have sought to restrict access.

But the issue affects developed democracies too – as the WikiLeaks cases, the US PRISM surveillance programme, and attempts by the British government to monitor citizens’ communications all reveal. In March 2014, Turkey’s scandal-hit prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to cut off access to social platforms, including YouTube and Twitter.

In developing countries, the internet boom is being built via mobile communications, making its emergence unlike that in the West. In the world’s two most populous and fastest-growing countries, India and China, mobile technology provides phone services to over 90 per cent of villages.

The world now spends around 110 billion minutes a month on social networking and blog sites – nearly one-quarter of all the time spent online. The internet is designed for many-to-many communication, a form of networked interaction that is significantly different from the one-to-many model used by centralised hierarchies. The explosion of social networking has led to the proliferation of ‘imagined communities’ that are centred on a more globalised, collective identity.

In response, political leaders need to avoid draconian measures and instead develop a mindset that encourages participation. Digital technologies have the capacity to foster social coh-esion by building networks of opportunity for diverse groups. By following models of openness, transparency and interconnectivity, governments could pave the way for more participative, innovative democracies.

But two arguments have been put forward against the idea that social media can make a real difference in enhancing civic participation. The first is that the tools are ineffective, and the second is that they do as much harm as good, because repressive governments can use them too.

Gladwell’s tidings

The ‘ineffectiveness’ argument – proposed by author Malcolm Gladwell and others – centres on ‘slacktivism’, where casual participants support social change through ‘Liking’ campaigns. According to Gladwell, these may be well-intentioned and sincere, but are little more than 21st century bumper stickers in terms of their effectiveness. This criticism may be fair in some cases, but the fact that lazy people can’t click their way to a better world doesn’t mean that more committed people can’t use social platforms effectively.

Some recent protest movements – for example, against education laws in Chile in 2006, against US beef imports in South Korea in 2008, and against violence against women in India (2009’s ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign) have deployed social media as a means to coordinate real-world action. Protests begun on Twitter and Facebook against Russia’s antigay laws have spurred real-world protests, loss of earnings and withdrawn business in the run-up to the Winter Olympics. They have also forced politicians on both sides to engage with the issue.

The second argument, that repressive governments may use technology to undermine civic participation, has greater resonance. Authoritarian states have grown more adept at shutting down communications to block the free flow of unwelcome ideas. Increasingly, governments worldwide are using the same technologies to go on the offensive, to gather information on their own citizens, or to disseminate pro-government propaganda.

Authoritarian states can now shut down mobile phone networks and/or internet access at the first hint of civil disturbance – as happened in Egypt in 2011, for example. Yet these shutdowns swiftly become economic problems.

In 2011, the OECD estimates that Egypt sustained losses equivalent to three or four per cent of annual GDP when it shut down its communication system. When protesters occupied the centre of Bangkok in the summer of 2010, their physical presence disrupted banks and the shopping district, but the government’s reaction – cutting off parts of the telecoms infrastructure – hit the whole economy much harder and affected people far from the capital.

A key question for developing nations is whether the aspirations of the Facebook generation in those countries are more influenced by their peers in affluent nations than by their fellow citizens. Any disintegration of privileged classes’ solidarity with their compatriots could lead to the emergence of a ruling elite that has little concern for a national, broadly based, pro-poor development model that offers opportunities for everyone.

Of course, the idea that elites in developing countries increasingly identify with elites abroad is far from new – Frantz Fanon made the point forcefully in the 1960s, in the early years of post-colonialism. But it is possible that new technologies may lend greater impetus to such socially disintegrative forces.

In 2011, the World Bank proposed a number of strategies for Africa in particular. These are designed to strengthen the voice of citizens through social accountability and by harnessing the potential of ict to enable more citizen-focused governance. Proposals include the External Implementation Status and Results Reports Plus Initiative (E-ISR Plus), which is designed to engage non-state ‘actors’ (civil society organisations, professional associations, the media, and so on) and maximise their feedback on projects. The Bank is also proposing to use geo-referenced data – like the Ushahidi Platform in Kenya – to amplify social accountability.

The World Bank observes: “There is immense potential to use ict to enable citizen-centred governance. The new generation of Africans has adopted mobile technology rapidly and is therefore well prepared to use this potential to engage on governance and provide feedback to government.” (World Bank Africa Strategy, 2011.) This is a good example of how international organisations are beginning to acknowledge the shifts in accountability and collective action that are necessary to effect positive change.

Regardless of the denomination of its political system, any developing nation that does not give adequate space to citizens to exercise their voice or strengthen their loyalty is unsustainable. Governments must adopt a more permissive attitude towards plurality, and particularly towards minorities and women. Responsible governments need to nurture dissenting voices and opposition. icts can be an important facilitator of both social cohesion and improved governance.

Finally, the events in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as elsewhere, may require the donor community to reconsider the ways in which it interacts with governments in the developing world, and to look again at the ways in which it supports civic participation and democratisation. TS

The Strategist says

• The creation of identities that transcend national boundaries helps people to share ideas, but may challenge some citizens’ engagement within their own societies. • More work needs to be done on the part played by cultural exclusion in civil unrest. • Western development organisations should consider whether they may be looking at some countries through the lens of their domestic political systems. • Decentralisation can enhance accountability, but often at the cost of increased parochialism and corruption.
James Ian McKay is the pseudonym of one of the world’s leading international development economists. His anonymity for the Strategist allows him to comment on politically contentious issues.



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