My new column on politics and international development

For most of my post-graduate time at Virginia Tech, I have been affiliated with the Institute for Policy and Governance, run by Dr. Max Stephenson (who also chairs my dissertation committee).   The Institute recently began a weekly column for graduate students.  Please have a look at my post entitled Politics, Political Change and International Development.  

As always, comments are very welcome.



My new article on USAID and democratic local governance

Have a look at my new article published in Public Knowledge Journal entitled “AIDing Democratic Governance? Examining USAID Efforts to Strengthen Participatory Governance in Guatemala and Bolivia”.

You can find it here.

Check out the other articles in the current issue on Interventions here.

Feel free to comment on the issues raised.

And, as always, the views expressed in the article are my own and not those of USAID.

Vote Buying in Urban Guatemala: Some Evidence

Vote buying is a phenomenon found all over the world.  Vote buying differs slightly from clientelism in that the latter often entails more durable relationships based on repeated interactions, relationships and symbolism.  The buying of votes, on the other hand, can be viewed as a more episodic and transactional event.  As a political strategy, clientelism is infinitely preferable, as it is associated with much high predictability of outcomes.  A Mexican PRIista or Argentinian Peronista has likely been supporting the same party for years and is well enmeshed in a system of favors, relationships, symbolic exchanges and functions to demonstrate expressions of party loyalty (see studies by Javier Auyero for the case of Peronist clientelism).

In Guatemala, however, political parties do not have nearly the resources, organization, or ideology to establish such structures and relationships.  Guatemalan political parties are incredibly ephemeral, often functioning for only 2 or 3 elections before fading into irrelevance and being disbanded.  Thus, parties often rely on more abstract promises and proposals to influence voter preference.  But parties have also had a long history of offering more tangible inducements, such as food, fertilizer, building materials, etc.  A recent (2012) study the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Accion Ciudadana and the University of Notre Dame examined the phenomenon of vote buying in Guatemala and provides some concrete evidence on the prevalence of this activity.

The investigation found that 37% of respondents reported being aware of vote buying in their locality.  Only 4.4% of respondents reported that their vote was influenced by vote buying activities however.  Due to the likelihood of under reporting  the study utilized a methodology to establish a more accurate estimate of actual participation in vote buying, arriving at a figure of 17%.  Given Guatemala’s poverty and lack of established political parties, one might view this figure as rather low.  It would seem logical that the cost of a vote for Guatemala’s poor majority would be rather economical for political parties versus the rather high cost of advertising, especially buying television air time.  Yet vote buying is unpredictable.  Individuals may accept material inducements from many parties and vote for none of them on election day.  Improvements in electoral practices, particularly disallowing individuals to enter with cell phones, and thus photograph their ballot to confirm their loyalty, have reduced the efficiency of one-off vote buying transactions.

Yet in certain localities, vote buying is prevalent.  The following table presents the results of a survey in 7 neighborhoods of a low income urban area on the periphery of Guatemala City.  Survey respondents were asked to identify any of the following 4 activities undertaken by political candidates and parties in their neighborhood during the most recent elections in 2011: General promises and commitments; Promised personal benefits; Campaign paraphernalia, food and trinkets; and materials or a community project.

Neighborhood General
promises/   Commitments
Materials/ Project
A 49% 82% 49% 55%
B 43% 52% 29% 10%
C 95% 75% 55% 80%
D 95% 66% 66% 14%
E 73% 41% 45% 23%
F 83% 83% 83% 17%
G 10% 90% 25% 10%
AVERAGE 64% 70% 50% 30%

The evidence from the survey shows that political candidates and party operators are much more prone to promises, of a general or personal nature, than to opening the coffers to provide tangible benefits.  And when they do opt to make use of campaign funds for material inducements, they are more likely to be of an insignificant nature (party shirts and hats, food, etc) than a contribution of materials to a community project, or carrying out a project on their own.

Is this good news for political consolidation in Guatemala?  Its hard to say.  If it is a demonstration that political parties are shifting away from vote buying to more ideological and policy based platforms, this would be a positive step.  However, if it is simply a political calculation that investing in material vote buying is less cost effective than broader advertising campaigns, then it may not signify any improvement in Guatemala’s weak political party system.  In either case, in the absence of more stable political parties that represent the interests of the majority of Guatemalans, the country’s democracy will remain fragile and even superficial.

polis: Governance is Key in Addressing Urban Poverty

polis: Governance is Key in Addressing Urban Poverty.

Check out my post on the blog Polis related to urban governance.  It draws a few quick and basic lessons from my dissertation research on low-income urban areas in Guatemala.  The basic idea is that a lack of transparency and accountability mechanisms at the municipal level, combined with little organization and political agency by the urban poor, leads to a situation where such communities are not well served by local infrastructure and services and subject to political manipulation by local political actors.

polis: Can ‘Co-Production’ Bring Infrastructure to Informal Settlements?

polis: Can ‘Co-Production’ Bring Infrastructure to Informal Settlements?.

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?

Retail Democracy in Guatemala

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.

Dissertation Progress: A light at the end of the tunnel

“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:

  1. An ethnographic exploration of spaces for citizen participation
  2. An analysis of community development, focusing on actors and approaches
  3. An investigation of citizen participation and empowerment
  4. 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.