Out loud

Good governance in developing countries can only be achieved if the voices of the poor are heard and heeded, says John Madeley.

‘Governance’. It’s a word that has gained increasing currency in the development debate over the last 20 years. And, since most countries are now democracies, people these days talk about ‘democratic governance’

But how do the poor see democratic governance? And how can donor governments best support poor, marginalised and excluded people who want a voice in the democratic process?

Well, poor people and organisations which support them spoke up loudly at a recent London seminar, The Politics of Democratic Governance: organising for social inclusion and gender equity. Pulled together by the NGO One World Action, the seminar heard activists from Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Nicaragua, Guatemala, India, Malawi and Zambia. Participants from DFID, EU institutions, academia and NGOs were also present.

The day focused on organising, engaging with and transforming political processes which are major challenges for marginalised groups. but it also debated new strategies and forms of political engagement designed to build equitable, gender-sensitive, democratic and accountable governance.

The activists who spoke are at the forefront of building democracy in their countries and while they employ a wide variety of strategies they have a common purpose: all seek to ensure that poor and marginalised people have a say in the decisions that affect them. They are all pressing for policy-makers to focus their efforts on supporting and strengthening genuine participatory democracy. “If excluded and disempowered groups of citizens are to be effective participants in politics, they will need to build their political capacities to increase their bargaining power,” said Helen O’Connell, One World Action’s Head of Policy. “They need to become an undeniable presence in public and political arenas.”

In the 2006 White Paper Making Governance Work for the Poor, Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn, states: “What makes the biggest difference to the quality of governance is active involvement by citizens – the thing we know as politics”.

Common to all groups at the seminar was the desire to enable citizens to get actively involved. Gender featured prominently. For instance, Maria Eugenia Gomez of the Nicaraguan women’s group Grupo Venancia, said they focused on advocacy strategies that strengthen women’s leadership. Grupo Venancia helped women to advocate laws and public policies that promote their rights, held workshops and debates to help in this process, and trained women to stand for local elections.

“We are engaged on the task of building a citizenship that is aware of their rights, that is aware that the power and the resources are ours,” said Ms Gomez. “The authorities are public servants and only the administrators.”

The establishment of a modern and democratic society demands that all citizens should participate in the running of their affairs in making decisions, said Tamala Kambikambi, the Chair of the Zambia National Women’s Lobby. This meant, “periodically choosing their representatives and also standing for elective office without fear of intimidation”. She argued that, “the basis of democracy is the need for respect for human rights. Women are an integral part of society and should participate in decision-making in equal numbers to men. Therefore, a government that does not include women is undemocratic”. “You cannot afford to work only at the grassroots level to promote women’s rights,” stressed Esmeralda Joj of Guatemalan NGO Tierra Viva. “You also have to work within the political structure.” Tierra Viva works with indigenous women and mestizo (people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry) to strengthen their participation in local development.

She added, “This means training and supporting women to participate in local and national politics and to represent the views of poor women, especially indigenous women, who are marginalised from the decision-making process”.

Three activists from South East Asian countries – Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines agreed that existing political parties and structures in their countries have largely excluded women, failed the poor and the marginalised, and may be incapable of reform.

The traditional political elites, they said, cannot be trusted to take into account the needs and interests of the poor. There is an urgent need to create an alternative system of politics and governance that empowers them. What is needed, they argued, are new political parties.

Maria Alicias-Garen of the Institute for Popular Democracy in the Philippines told the audience, “The prevailing political situation in our country today is patronage based. Democratic institutions are not working properly and there is crisis with representation”.

The way forward in Thailand is by building an alternative political party, according to Thai NGO, Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD). A political party is the best mechanism, it believes, to join social movement interests together and collectively bring people’s needs into the political process. “We need a new political party based on a ideology that is favourable to marginalised groups,” said Suriyasai Katasila, CPD Secretary General. “The vision we have is of a party of the social movements over which they have control.”

Perserikatan Rakyat (PPR) of Indonesia also takes the view that social movements are best served through a progressive political party of the kind that did not exist under the old politics. “We urged people to remember that politics belongs to them,” Syaiful Bahari of the PPR. “It is not something that is done to them”.

MANET+, a network of people in Malawi living with HIV/AIDS, has succeeded in getting their views taken into account in the formulation and implementation of national policy. This has been achieved by building strategic alliances with different partners.

Susan Loughhead, of DFID’s Effective States Team, told the seminar that working with civil society is a key aspect of its partnership with countries. “When civil society is at the heart of the development process, this helps to deliver better development outcomes,” she said. “Democratic politics requires citizen participation; it’s about the right to participate, to make your voice heard, to representation. It’s about inclusion for all men and women.”

Graham Bennett, director of One World Action, underlined the importance of good governance in sustainable development: “A just and equal world is only possible if the poorest people are the makers of their own development, not the takers”. A strong and active civil society base, he said, “can effectively work with government to ensure that the needs and interests of the poor and especially women are reflected in policy and practice.”