I came across this blog post while (re)rewriting one of the essays for my dissertation. I was intrigued because it was written by a master’s student working for SPARC, an organization in Mumbai that I have been a fan of for a while now. The topic of the blog is co-production in slum upgrading, focusing on evidence from Nairobi, Kenya (I’ll be examining co-production-ish activities in slums in Guatemala City). The author highlights the real possibility of co-production schemes solidifying informal (and second class) service-provision arrangements, but notes that “But when done well, [co-production] can address gaps in services and policy that government or private firms alone can’t solve.” However, if one posits that governments (or private firms) “can’t solve” a challenge like urban service provision to slum communities, the caveat must be added “under the dominant paradigm of neo-liberal urban governance”. I’ll again refer back (this is becoming a habit) to Raj Desai’s piece I reviewed a few weeks ago. The issue for governments isn’t so much “can’t” as “isn’t induced to”, because the urban poor do not (generally) constitute a cohesive political block that can effectively wield political agency. City budgets respond, to a greater or lesser extent, to those with political clout (which can also take the form of financial clout). Case in point: on the outskirts of Guatemala City the government constructed a new $3 million overpass to facilitate the entrance and exit to a gated community for wealthy families. Three million dollars were invested to shave a few minutes off the daily commute of (at the most) a couple hundred people. How many families living in Guatemala City’s many slums could have been provided with basic water and sewer service for $3 million?
So my intention in starting a blog was to write in it at least once a week (I know all my readers await my posts with bated breath). However, I’ve been going back and forth a bit with USAID because there is a possibility that the powers that be need to approve my blog posts. But I figured I might as well forge ahead, while the situation gets resolved.
Last week I posted an editorial written by friend of mine that I found quite provocative (Spanish readers can find the article here) in Facebook. I would like to consider that piece in more detail here. Essentially, the author goes through a list of the shortcomings of Guatemala’s democracy, including:
- Unaccountable congress in which legislators change parties frequently and where private interests are at the heart of the legislative agenda
- The new head of the congress, who has clear ties to the country’s economic elite
- The new human rights ombudsman, who negotiated his election with political parties and surely has favors to pay back, and has taken no action in the wake of the massacre of campesinos by the military during a protest in Totonicapan in October
This is clearly just a sample of Guatemala’s democratic deficits and dysfunctional public institutions. The author could have gone into the corruption of public servants, the ineffectiveness of the justice system, or the complicity of elements of the security sector in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings. Yet the few examples provided are enough to remind any reader familiar with the Guatemalan context of the superficiality of country’s democracy. Retail democracy, according to the author, is not the selling of democracy so much as it is the treating of the state as a business that exists for the private benefit of those elected or appointed to be its custodians.
The author laments that Guatemalans complain of the situation in which their country languishes, but do not set foot out the door and become part of the change. He cites movements against austerity in Spain and of students demanding public education in Chile, and correctly points out that citizens must safeguard democracy, rather than leaving that most important of tasks up to the government (particularly governments enmeshed in the very democratic shortcomings elaborated earlier).
The solution to democracy’s problems, it has often been said, is more democracy, and often more participatory democracy. That is what the author is arguing. Citizens must participate in order for democracy to function. Fair enough. But how?
Lets look at some recent examples of citizen participation in Guatemala over the past couple of years and see if they represent a nascent movement that might address the country’s flawed democracy.
- Totonicapan campasino movement. The protests during which 7 campesinos were murdered were rejecting constitutional reforms proposed by President Otto Perez Molina. One of the reforms would change the way electricity is billed. The protesters claimed it would raise electricity prices. It seems that there exists a potent and capable organization of communities in Totonicapan, with the capacity to turn out thousands of members, as was well demonstrated by the protests of the constitutional reforms and the subsequent protest of the killings, in which thousands descended on the capital. Yet there are also accusations that the movement was manipulated by opponents of the government, seeking to scuttle the reform proposal and thus weaken the president politically.
- Broader campesino movement. The National Coordinator of Campesino Organizations (CNOC) has organized several marches on the capital to highlight the desperate plight of the country’s rural indigenous poor. They have succeeded in maintaining dialogue with the current administration and keeping important items, such as a rural development law proposal, in the spotlight. Concrete results have not been as forthcoming, but CNOC seems to realize gains will only be realized if they continue to press their case (though without blocking highways, as other movements, including the Totonicapan protests, have done).
- Cristina Siekavizza movement. Cristina, from a well-off family in Guatemala City, disappeared from her house in 2011. Her husband, who also disappeared along with the couple’s 2 young children, is widely assumed to have murdered her. After Cristina’s disappearance, a movement formed to pressure the government to solve the case and bring her husband to justice. The core of this movement is made up of Cristina’s family and friends, from Guatemala’s middle and upper classes, who have maintained the visibility of Christina’s case and continued to demand justice.
- Rosenburg Murder protests. Thousands of young people took to the streets of Guatemala City in 2009 to demand the resignation of then-president Alvaro Colom in the wake of the death of a prominent lawyer, who left a video message days before his death claiming that the president was responsible. This bizarre case (Rosenburg actual hired hitmen to kill himself; an excellent article about the story can be found here) involved elements of Guatemala’s far right, intent on removing the only “leftist” leader the country has seen in the past half century. The protesters, the vast majority of whom represented the country’s middle and upper classes, were clearly duped and politically manipulated. Yet there antipathy for the then-government was real and seemingly primarily based on the then-presidents stated agenda to focus on the country’s rural and indigenous poor, thus making him a leftist (apparently owning a number of low-wage maquila garment-assembly factories does not bar one from being considered a leftist).
- Mining rejection referendums. Over the past half decade or more, dozens of communities in Guatemala have held community referendums, sanctioned in the municipal code, to reject mining (and also large-scale hydroelectric) activities in their areas. In almost all cases, 90% or more of those who participate in such plebiscites vote against mineral extraction. Communities have cited concerns about groundwater contamination and not receiving any benefits from the millions of dollars such mines produce every year (Guatemala collects one of the lowest rates of tax on mineral extraction in the region, possibly in the world). The central government has ignored these referendums. In some cases this has led to protests and blockages of the mining sites. Local residents have blocked the entrance to one gold mine near Guatemala City for months, claiming that the benefits promised by the mining company were siphoned off by corrupt community and political leaders.
What, if anything, can we learn from these different citizens movements that have arisen in Guatemala in recent years? The first is that there do exist circumstances under which Guatemalans will take to the street and raise their voices. In most of the cases above, the issue at hand relates directly to the quality of life of those involved in the movement or protest. In the other cases it was the death of a loved one, and subsequent impunity, or latent anti-Colom sentiment that found an outlet in the accusations against the then-president.
The second lesson is that middle and upper class individuals are more likely to form spontaneous movements, whereas the poor often need some kind of organizational base to generate and maintain citizen involvement. This lesson is neither surprising nor new. Yet it does focus attention on the need to strengthen organizations working to mobilize those with legitimate grievances, but less capacity to participate.
Third: movements are prone to political manipulation. The Rosenburg death was orchestrated by anti-government elements and the subsequent protest utilized by the opposition, both with the intent to weaken, if not overthrow Alvaro Colom. In the Totonicapan protest, it seems that a legitimate movement was somewhat manipulated by opponents of the government, again with the objective of weakening the president. In this case, it is unclear what, if any, complicity community/organizational leaders had in this manipulation, but in any case it leads to another point.
Fourth. Movements need to be accountable to their base. Historically, organizations in Latin America have been hierarchical and leaders have been authoritarian. Unfortunately, this legacy persists, and even organizations espousing egalitarian ideals and authentic democracy fall into this trap. When transparency and accountability mechanisms within a movement or organization are weak or nonexistent, the possibility of manipulation or corruption increases substantially, benefiting a few leaders at the expense of other members. (This point applies universally in Guatemala, as many community organizations face the same challenges)
Fifth, and finally, Guatemalan governments are not particularly responsive to citizen’s movements. If we leave aside the Rosenberg protests, which unraveled as facts about the case emerged, the remaining 4 movements have little to show for their efforts. The constitutional reforms are moving ahead (if haltingly), the rural development law and other proposals have yet to materialize, Christina’s killer remains at large, and mining operations have expanded at an ever-quickening pace.
Why have these organizations and movements struggled to achieve their explicit goals? Does this imply that such efforts are in vain? To address the second issue first: no, clearly not. The pressure generated by these movements has resulted in some gains. The Justice for Cristina movement led to the arrest and charges of obstruction of justice of Christina’s husband’s mother, a former head of one of Guatemala’s high courts. This was no mean feat. Some of the mining protests have kept mines shut down, keeping money out of the pockets of owners and politicians alike and (hopefully) making a negotiated arrangement more likely (especially in the wake of the Totonicapan massacre, which led to a ban on military involvement in protest activities).
Yet, there is an important caveat. Only the anti-mining referendums have used a legal mechanism to channel their demands (however ineffective this has been). The other movements have indeed taken to the streets, but have not generated the number to paralyze a country, such as recently demonstrated in Spain and Argentina, or even give vote-conscious politicians pause for thought. One key difference, between the aforementioned countries and Guatemala, in the former, powerful unions were involved in the protests. Guatemala lacks such unions (the most visible is the teachers union, which is a textbook, pardon the pun, case of the capture of an organization by corrupt and unaccountable leaders). The CNOC is not a union per se, but rather a federation of organizations, which can mobilize thousands, but not hundreds of thousands.
In each of these cases (again, leaving out the Rosenberg protests), the government has made symbolic (and perhaps even authentic) efforts to listen to protesters’ demands, but ultimately, has not felt compelled to take significant actions. Why? It is the difference between the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the United States. The former took to the streets, and stayed there, the latter took to the polls and elected dozens of law makers. In Guatemala, diverse protests and movements have not made meaningful political alliances that would allow their demands to be more meaningfully considered within the states decision-making apparatus (in either the legislative or executive branches). Opposition leaders have been glad to utilize movements and then discard them, but have made little effort to bring protesters into the party as constituents. This is due to the weak and fragmented nature of the political party system in Guatemala, in which parties are built around money and personality, rather than any policy platform, much less explicit ideology (though the overwhelming majority of Guatemala’s 2 dozen or so parties are clearly to the right of the political spectrum, representing the interests of their financial backers). Thus, citizen’s organizations and movements have few possibilities of channeling their participants’ votes in way that would generate the changes they are seeking.
Political parties and elections are the primary means of translating popular demands into policy and holding governments accountable in most democracies. In Guatemala’s case, both components of this mechanism are dysfunctional and must be strengthened. Citizen’s movements and organizations would be wise to press for the passage and implementation of the current reform proposal for the country’s Political Parties and Elections law, which could be an important, although likely modest, step forward. Citizens must also take advantages of organizations like Accion Ciudadana, which trains volunteers to monitor congresspersons’ votes so that they can be held accountable. Other transparency efforts might diminish the public money channeled into vote buying schemes, thus forcing political candidates to address meaningful issues in order to win political support. Increasing use of social media, while not making a (second) Guatemalan Spring likely, does present an opportunity to build awareness and strengthen participation of young people (with the Rosenberg case again serving as an important warning of potential manipulation). Finally, strong citizens movements must be internally democratic, instituting mechanisms of accountability and inclusive decision-making, if they are to remain credible and effective.
To conclude, I will mention that is is the urban popular classes that perhaps lack a clear movement or organization that might serve to channel their interests. And it was likely to this population that my friend was speaking in his editorial when he urged greater participation. This points back to Raj Desia’s work on the political agency of the urban poor, which I reviewed last month.
Citizen’s efforts must take place both within and outside of the democratic system, and must use varied strategies, both protest and collaboration, in order for meaningful change to result. Movements should also look at avenues for action at the local level as well, particularly on issues such as mining or development. In sum, more Guatemalans do need to step out into the street if their country is to become more democratic, but the capacity of democracy-seeking organizations and movements must be built and strengthened as well, if citizens are to have a mechanism to channel such participation that is (reasonably) free of manipulation and can enhance the agency of individuals to be instruments of change in the public arena.
“So how’s that dissertation coming along?” The question most dreaded by those making their way through the long and tortuous PhD process. Seeing as how I am nearing (fingers crossed) the end of my own journey in this regard, I thought it would be and appropriate time for a short status update and reflection.
First, the background. I finished all my PhD requirements except the dissertation in May of 2011 and started my research in June. I have been studying the socio-political dynamics of community development in a diverse, but predominantly low-income, urban area on the outskirts of Guatemala City. From July through December I did a lot of interviews with key actors, and some with randomly selected residents, surveys of those who participate in community organizations and those who do not, and participant observation of community group meetings. My research design evolved considerably during the first couple of months as I was learning more about the community and what would be the most productive avenues of investigation. Oh, if I had only known what I know now when I began my research! But I adapted as new opportunities and challenges presented themselves.
I analyzed my data as I went (using Nvivo software to organize my qualitative data) and starting with the new year in 2012, I began to put pen to paper. So I have been in the writing phase for 10 months (and counting). Of course this did not mean that I was done analyzing my data, or even collecting data for that matter. I continued as a participant observer and also carrying out interviews when I came across a new actor who might be able to provide some additional insights. Thus, these past months have been a back-and-forth process of writing some, looking back at the data to see if they support my hunches, writing some more, rewriting, looking at the data one more time, and rewriting again. I have framed my writing in 4 essays (plus an essay bringing together conclusions, policy recommendations and suggestions for further research). Each essay stands on its own, but together they present a more integrated analysis of the community dynamics that I have been studying. The essay themes are the following:
- An ethnographic exploration of spaces for citizen participation
- An analysis of community development, focusing on actors and approaches
- An investigation of citizen participation and empowerment
- A study of politics at the community level and its interaction with community organization and community development
Some clear lessons learned have come out of this research, which have direct policy implications. I’ll discuss these in a future post, because they directly pertain to a new NGO I’m helping to found that will hopefully be able to take some action on the key issues I have identified using the strategies that have emerged as most successful in this context. I am also integrating the ideas and lessons from my research in my work at USAID, bringing a critical perspective on community dynamics to our projects here in Guatemala (well, at least those that I have a chance to work on).
So what is the plan? Well, I expect to have a completed first draft of my dissertation by the end of this year. Actually, as noted above, it will already have gone through a couple rounds of revisions. My advisor has provided helpful feedback on the first 2 essays and has the 3rd on his desk for his review. I’m putting the last touches on the final essay (which has been the most complicated and lead to the most head scratching on my part). Once I have a working draft, I will circulate it to my entire committee and hope for feedback during the Christmas break. Then I will go into another intensive round of revisions to come up with a final, defensible product. Logistics will be the primary determinant of when I defend my dissertation, but ideally sometime in the late spring.
Finally, as with most freshly-minted PhDs, I will be seeking publication venues for my work. That will likely be another long and tortuous process (one I’ve already been through a couple times, with mixed results), which I’m not particularly looking forward to. But I do think that I have generated some valuable new(ish) knowledge and I’d like to get it “out there”. Ideally I would publish in academic journals geared towards development practitioners (such as Development in Practice or Environment and Urbanization). I’ll be on the lookout for other venues as well. And no doubt some tidbits will make their way into this blog as well. I’m sure you are all waiting with bated breath!
That that is my dissertation process in a nutshell. Wish me luck as I continue in the final stages, believe me that my level of emotional (and probably intellectual) energy dedicated to my dissertation have been steadily eroding over time, but I think I have one last push left in me. We shall see.
So I thought I would get the ball rolling with some brief observations and thoughts on a study that I came across a while back, but one which I continue to refer back to in both my academic writing and in my professional work. The report, by Raj Desai, is entitled The Political Economy of Urban Poverty in Developing Countries: Theories, Issues, and an Agenda for Research (and can be found here) and was published by the Brookings Institute Wolfensohn Center for Development in 2010. The reason I find myself referring so often to this report is that the author highlights the need to focus on relationship between the urban poor and governing institutions and elites. This isn’t a groundbreaking insight in itself, but Desai very cogently frames the problem as one of political agency. In short, the urban poor generally lack political agency and are thus unable to exert influence on policies, resulting in political-economy obstacles to urban poverty reduction. Desai defines political agency as “the capacity of the poor to select, reward and sanction the leaders, institutions, policies, formal rules and informal norms that directly affect their lives (p. 2)”.
According to the author, “the urban poor in developing countries – with few exceptions – vote in order to secure public goods and services that they otherwise lack, rather than to express policy preferences (p. 9)”. Further, the urban poor are unlikely to engage in political action beyond voting, within a clientelist framework, due to obstacles to collective action stemming from “social and political fractionalization in poor communities”. This does not mean that the urban poor are completely passive. In some cases the urban poor, and the organizations that (claim to) represent them, engage in multiple, often simultaneous, strategies of collaboration, contestation and patronage seeking, in order to try to meet their needs. Yet this is not the norm, for in general, this population is reluctant to join groups or engage in political action. Additionally, due to the informality of the labor market in which the majority of the urban poor are entrenched, they lack unions and the threat of a strike to advance their policy preferences (in stark contrast to the history of the US and Western Europe). The informality, and illegality, of the land tenure situation of much of the urban poor adds an additional layer of vulnerability.
On the institutional side, weak, personalistic, clientelistic and fragmented parties/political machines prevalent in cities of global south and undermine formal democracy and the improved services to the poor that democracy generally entails.
Desai points to decentralization, membership organizations of the urban poor, and urban microfinance as areas of potential, but ones requiring further research to demonstrate their impacts across a range of contexts. Finally, he emphasizes the fact that proposing new urban anti-poverty projects without addressing power relations may simply reinforce status quo inequalities and structures.
So I started a blog. Why, you ask? Well, I decided it was time to organize my thoughts on topics that interest me in a way that would facilitate both future reference (what did I think about that article by so and so…..?) and to, hopefully, participate in dialogue and discussion.
So what can you expect to find, gracing these pages? It will be dominated by my thoughts, observations and hypotheses on topics such as the following:
- Urban development in global south
- Citizenship and citizen participation
- Urban governance and politics
- International aid and democracy strengthening
- Other topics as they come up
I currently live and work in Guatemala City, so much of my focus will be on issues pertaining to that city. However, I’m interested in these topics writ large, so I will try to make my contributions broadly relevant.
You can also expect to find my thoughts on studies, academic and journalistic articles, reports, cases, etc related to the above themes, again, for my own future reference as well as to contribute to dialogues and debates.
Finally, I’m tantalizingly close to finishing my PhD dissertation, so I’ll pull concise and relevant threads from that tapestry to discuss as well. Related to this, I am currently involved with the creation of a new NGO here in Guatemala City, which will, among other things, focus on citizen participation, community organization and urban development in the community where I carried out my dissertation research here in Guatemala, so expect some discussion of that as well.
So welcome and please, please comment on anything that piques your interest so that we can start a conversation.