We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Sunday, June 8, 2008

NIGERIA: Participatory Democracy Part of Sustainable Development

The people must have a say in how their country creates the necessary infrastructure to ensure that all citizens have the opportunity to be successful and healthy. Leaders have historically manipulated the hopes of the population in order to gain political support, power, and money. But when the people have the opportunity to take part it structures of governance, suggestions regarding development are much more specific to the locality and the region instead of being imposed from above. Not only does this eliminate corruption, it ensures that the development will be sustainable and upheld by the people whom it directly effects. Nigeria is a popular topic because there have been many efforts at improving governance in that country, especially evidenced in this speech by Governor Aliyu. -Editor

Participatory democracy as an ingredient for sustainable development (1)

By Muazu Babangida Aliyu

Dr. Muazu Babangida Aliyu,
Niger State governor
Distinguished scholars, today’s event is indeed a historic opportunity for me to share my views and experience with you with a view to stimulating our collective thinking on how we can evolve and sustain a credible development process in Nigeria through participatory democracy. I believe for us to achieve that, we should look at such variables as transparency, accountability, leadership and good governance. This may require us to enlighten, educate and mobilize the common people, for everybody to understand their role and place in the community, and to understand what to expect and what is expected of them.

Let me emphase how strongly I share the view that unless we in the developing democracies are able to systematically evolve a political system that takes account of our socio-cultural peculiarities and characteristics, we run the risk of thinking that the wholesale robust economic and democratic ideas and precepts of the developed world would have the magic wand to solve our developmental problems

We thus may be under a dangerous illusion that we are making progress while in the actual sense, we may indeed be engaging the reverse gear and be going in the reverse direction, because of wrong applications to different settings and environments. In other words, we must domesticate democratic principles to take cognizance of excellent values and institutions.

We need to understand that although there are general elements and principles of democracy - participation and inclusiveness, responsiveness, free and fair multi-party elections, freedom of speech and association, respect for human rights, observance of rule of law, etc., there is no universal blueprint for development. Development, in my view, must be home grown, home-made and targeted at improving the lives of the people. Indeed, development must be people-conscious and people-centred. And this precisely underscores the critical role of participatory democracy in sustainable development.

But first, we should be clear about what participatory democracy implies. In my view, the term ‘participatory democracy’ is tautology as the two words describe the same thing - depicting a process that emphasises the broad participation (decision-making) of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems. Whereas, in the actual sense, any democracy would rely on the participation of its citizens, which is the etymological root of the term ‘democracy’, derived from the Greek ‘demos’ and ‘krotos’ – combined to suggest that “the people rule”. This provides the general basis for the simple and widely held definition of democracy as ‘a government of the people, for the people and by the people’.

As earlier pointed out, we must appreciate that there is no universal blueprint of development or democracy. What matters most is which works well in bringing about good democratic practices that promote good governance to facilitate sustainable development in different settings. What do I mean here? Some forms of democracy tend to limit citizens’ participation to voting, thereby leaving actual governance to politicians, who often do not know any better than the electorate; especially if we consider the general psyche of Nigerians in 1999 when politics was left in major parts to charlatans and the unemployed. Many politicians see victory at the polls as an opportunity to make money, to plunder the state and corruptly mismanage the resources. No, it is not so and should not be so. Politics is too important to be left to the Nigerian politicians alone.

My strong view in this regard is that the Gown must make conscious efforts to meet the Town. Intellectuals and academics must participate in politics if we really desire sustainable development. We need to refocus attention on community-based activity which strives to create the opportunity for all members of the society, and not just the politicians, to make meaningful contributions to decision-making in the overall interest of the society. There is no such term as ‘professional politician’ who most often give the impression that they have the monopoly of wisdom in providing leadership. We – academics, public servants, farmers, artisans, etc - must all stand up to challenge this misleading assertion, and exercise our obligation to participate in governance at our individual levels. We can do this effectively by paying close attention to the programmes and manifestos of the political parties, by monitoring and asking questions about the implementation of the campaign pledges, by sending written contributions on ways to improve governance and indeed by having sympathy for or being bonafide members of a political party of our choice.

In order for participatory democracy to attain legitimacy and reinvigorate democratic politics as a whole, the institutional frameworks have to be established and certain conditions need to be in place.

• Participatory arrangements need to be open at their foundation to everyone affected by such decisions and people made aware of how such decisions affect their lives.

• There is need for mutually-agreed and openly-negotiated rules to be upheld by everybody, and mechanisms for sanctioning deviants.

• There should be an enabling environment for participatory institutions and groups to monitor implementation of government’s decisions. We should create both formal and informal institutions that should monitor, checkmate public servants with the objective to enhance their performance.

• There should be general sharing of knowledge; where users and service workers, for instance, can share their ‘inside knowledge’ to improving services, thus making the public service reform process democratic. People must be carried along in the entire decision-making process – from the inception through the implementation and review

For this concept to take firm roots and to produce desired effects, every social unit of the society needs to imbibe democratic ideals. This should in effect start at the family level, with parents being open and involving all family members, particularly the children, in decisions that affect the entire household. It should then go on to the school system, where democratic principles should be applied in the entire running of the schools, particularly on matters that people are likely to have differing positions and interests.

The same should take place in our faith-based groups and associations as well as in the large civil society, so that democratic values become fully established and entrenched in the society, rather than limiting such to party politics. In that process, people develop confidence in themselves, in their institutions and in the leadership

I had an opportunity to travel to Brazil on study tours, first, on federation and federalism, and second, on public services. I noted that when participatory democracy was introduced in municipal administration of Brazil’s Porto Alegre, it enhanced transparency, reduced corruption, assisted in the redistribution of public resources from the high income areas of the city to the poor areas and improved the efficiency of the social services. Indeed, people were/are willing to blow the whistle on corrupt public officials and began/begin to see public property as the peoples’ property, with a sense of ownership being translated into positive protection and increased value

It is significant to stress that popular participation in politics not only enhances good governance – exposing corruption, challenging bureaucratic systems, keeping close to the real needs of the people – it also raises ‘political consciousness about economic power at every level’. What I observe in Niger State is that many people, many villages and indeed many communities know and understand their problems; they understand their needs and the solutions to their problems. However, many do not appreciate the concept of economic power – that every kobo allocated to their local government or state is actually their money; that they need to ask questions and to hold whoever is in charge of the resources responsible – be it the President, the governor, the local government chairman or even the councillor – for every expenditure or the lack of it

They should therefore demand not only for quality services to be delivered transparently but also respectfully, because government is about people and for the people and not about some esoteric ideas that have no bearing with peoples’ lives

We demonstrated this concept of people-centred and people-conscious politics during our recent local government elections which our party, PDP won in all 25 local government councils, for the first time in the political history of Niger State. How did we achieve that feat? Simply, we insisted on non-interference with the political process leading to the nomination of candidates; that is, non-imposition, and therefore discouraged ‘godfatherism’. But above all, we were sensitive to the expressed needs of our people and earned their confidence through demonstrated commitment to the improvement of the quality of their lives

The point to note in this is that when you demand, as an individual, to know the state of public expenditure simply for your selfish reasons, so that you can be ‘settled’ as a way of sharing with the corrupt ones, then you become compromised as one of them and you remain a beggar, - an apologist

Dr. Aliyu, the Niger State governor, delivered this paper at the Foundation Day lecture of the Igbinedion University, Okada, Edo State on Saturday, May 10, 2008

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