Friday, April 16, 2010

Making Democracy Work

A few years ago, I read a book called Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy by Robert Putnam (also author of the famed Bowling Alone). The book is more or less a compendium of an in-depth research on the performance of regional governments in Italy (after devolution reforms in 1968) undertaken over a period of 20 years.

With sweeping effort, patience, exercise in cultural immersion, and some useful data, Putnam undertook to study why regional governments of similar structure and resources performed much better in northern Italy (a much developed part of Italy - "a real Europe") than in Southern Italy (less developed part of Italy - "almost like Africa").

While I disagree with some of the conclusions, I have come to appreciate the findings of the research in recent years as I reflect more and more about society and our [individual and collective] roles in advancing it.

Putnam and his partners conclude that [government] institutions, however perfectly designed, cannot work if people are disengaged from the society. There has to be civil society first (in a real, not "HakiElimu" or "TAMWA", sense) before there can be effective government (as opposed to the current fashion/thinking advanced by donors of "creating a civil society" out of some bright and smooth-talking people to "contend with" governments particularly in developing countries). Civil society has to emerge organically from voluntary social interactions and networks in the society. Social capital need to exist before people can place trust and cooperate with Leviathan.

The bottom line is that norms, trust and networks engender a society which eventually lead to an effective government. Socio-economic development or transformation cannot take place if the level of "civicness" in the society is low. At one point in the book, Putnam argues that "economics does not predict civics, but civics does predict economics, better than economics itself."

I revisit the book in the context of another survey in Tanzania, the 2007 Poverty and Human Development Report, conducted by as part of MKUKUTA progress monitoring process, which found that 78 percent of Tanzanians do not trust each other. Yes, 78 percent. If, as it is, trust is central to the functioning of market economy, how do we move forward with these numbers? If Big Bang democratisation - demonstrated partly by donors' obsession with creating "a contentious" political environment by, for instance, paying to advance strong labour unions, vocal media, and so on, a civil society by checkbook, if you will - does not consider the nourishment of a sense of civic community which ought to be a centerpiece of progress.

Perhaps we must not accept Putnam's ideas at face value. May be his ideas on democracy and progress are too Tocquevillean, that civic virtues are preeminent in our countries, and that the under-perfomance of government is simply a managerial issue.


Anonymous said...

Kaka can you explain why such feelings on Hakielimu & TAMWA? To my understand, these are the most serious, proactive and vibrant nationalwide civil society organistions in the country. The work of civil society can not be only cheerleading to the governemnt in power. Developing and conducting Constructive criticism and alternative view is a basic function of any civil society to ensure responsive governance on the side of state actors and institutions.

It is true sometimes these organisations tend to be elitist and doner dependent. However, isn't that a problem on the other side too?

Also while we have these Hakielimu and Tamwas on national level, we also have many and active grass root civic organisations articulating the grass root interests and perspectives.


January Makamba said...

Actually nothing against HakiElimu or TAMWA in particular. I gave those two names as examples of the kind of civil society organisations that emerged and continue to thrive because "the lords of poverty" in London and Washington are sustaining their feeding tube. Show me the breakdown of sources of income for these organisations and I will scream "independence!". Of course, that does not mean they do not do a good job (heck, A1 Outdoor is still in business!).

Anyways, the government is also dependent on donor money - so that makes two. In fact it makes it possible for WB to give money to government for SEDP and then give money to "you know who" to say SEDP is such a terrible idea.

I am in favour of civil society organisations that do not do press conferences.