Are the democracy and governance (democratic governance) policies of the international development community heading towards their Structural Adjustment moment?



Many of you will recall the Structural Adjustment policies, predominantly driven by the economically wealthier countries of Western Europe and North America through World Bank and IMF mechanisms. The poverty salvation for the world's economically poorer countries was to be found in balanced national budgets, reduced government expenditure, less government, more private sector, decreasing national ownership of resources, services and producers, fewer regulations, the opening of local markets to international competition, etc. Even though hotly debated and witheringly critiqued - for example UNICEF's "Adjustment with a Human Face" - the structural adjustment package of policies took extraordinary hold within international development in the 1990s and early parts of this century.



Of course, just like this set of economic policies got thrown out by western governments quicker than an English bobby (policeman) can say "hello what is going on here then" during the present economic crisis, they were never going to work in the world's economically poorer countries either. But they had a very strong policy foundation that took some shaking.



There were a number of problems with the structural adjustment policy package and they were not all to do with the strategic content of the policies themselves, which, as it turned out, were based on some faulty economic thinking - see my "People, Ideas and Things" blog. The other major issues were that the policies were formulated external to the countries regarded as "the problem'; were most often driven by key decision makers from external agencies; and were conditional - do this or this will happen (and it will not be an ice cream!)



But perhaps the most important overlooked flaw and policy lesson from the structural adjustment days, and the best lesson for democratic governance development, was that it became increasingly apparent to the so-called developing countries that the policy prescriptions they were being asked to follow had very strong "do as we say; not as we do" components. North American and European countries are part of trading blocks (EU and NAFTA) that by definition restrict global trade if you are outside that block. All so-called developed country governments protected commercial or lifestyle issues they regarded as essential - steel in the USA; farming patterns in France; quotas for Canadian content on radio and TV; and a whole bunch more! There were also major developed country government "investment/subsidies" in shaping and supporting elements considered vital to the country's future - agriculture almost everywhere (thus creating a non-competitive situation with developing country farmers), defence spending in the USA, and the public investment in the BBC in the UK when developing country governments were being encouraged (if that is how, conditionality, it can be described) to go private with their media. This is just a brief sprinkling of the inconsistencies and contradictions. We could take a book to explain them all. Canada even has internal equalisation payments from rich to poor provinces, for goodness sake - maybe the ultimate anti-free-market process?



The "what we really do" part of this equation - as opposed to the "what we say" bit - was fully exposed by three events and processes:
- The WTO negotiations - where the refusal of economically rich developed countries to open all of their markets in the true spirit of globalisation, revealed in sharp relief the double standards being applied.
- The Asian financial crisis beginning in 1997 - where the countries that rejected the structural adjustment policy prescriptions of the IMF are generally agreed to have done best in handling the crisis and recovering from it.
- The growing awareness that countries not following the Structural Adjustment formula were experiencing the highest and perhaps most sustainable economic growth - China, India, South Korea, the Scandinavian countries.



There has always been nagging suspicion (and maybe concern) in the minds of many observing or involved in promoting and working for improved democracy and governance (democratic governance) in the developing world that the policies and strategies driving this change could (do?) smack of the "north" teaching the "south" how to do democracy and governance. The focus on the functional elements of election monitoring, judicial reform and training, constitution [re]writing, civil service training, anti-corruption campaigns, the proper conduct of elections, etc. are selected and most often driven by the rich northern country policies and understanding of what democracy means to them, and implemented by their technical experts. At minimum, perhaps, the standards established are western democratic thought and practice derived. If this is the case then is it part of the slippery slope on which structural adjustment found itself?



Perhaps more importantly, will the "do as we say, not as we do" dictum need to be applied to democracy and governance also?



Last week (May 11 to 15) in just three economically rich countries that play major roles in setting the tone for international development priorities we had these headline dominating stories all week: an ex-Canadian Prime Minister trying to explain under oath why he accepted, on three occasions, envelopes filled with (approx.) 75,000 dollars in cash for possible post office services that lack clarity; a US President reversing the previous Administration's policy of torture; and a UK parliament and public consumed by stories of what many of their Members of Parliament have been claiming by way of expenses, including, for one of them, UKP 200,000 in non-existent home mortgage payments and, for another, cleaning his moat! (There's a throwback feudal moment!)



It is not only the daily or weekly headlines. These and other countries have some democracy and governance systems that would be lucky, if at all, to pass an international development democracy and governance policy smell test. Two of the countries mentioned - the UK and Canada - have non-elected legislative bodies whose members serve based on Prime Ministerial patronage - the House of Lords and the Canadian senate - non-elected bodies that play massive governing roles in those countries. New Zealand reserves a number of seats in Parliament for one ethnic group. Does the USA system of two senators from each state undermine the principle of each person's vote counting the same as every other person - California with a population of 37 million has two senators and Vermont has the same number of senators with a population of 650,000?



There will be many other daily stories and many other constitutional arrangements from many other so-called developed countries. And I did not even mention Supreme Courts deciding election results or Presidents being elected by Electoral Colleges rather than popular vote!



I am not suggesting some type of relativism here - that there are no universal principles in play - that each context drives what is possible and why certain elements or shades of democracy are applied and others are not, in particular times and given circumstances. Some of the items above are wrong and should change. Others might be justifiable.



On the contrary, there are some clear, universal principles including: the free will of the people to decide who governs; governments are accountable to their electors/citizens, no abuse of power for personal gain; transparent policy and decision making; and legal and social norm support and encouragement for the freedom of citizens to actively participate in both political processes and the debate and dialogue on all issues and themes.



Perhaps, though, as we all seek to see these important principles much more commonly in place in ALL countries of the world, there are two elements of the present democracy and development strategy that require review and adjustment (if you will excuse the phrase).



First, a much better balance is required between the ideas, experience, insights, and technical expertise of the North with the ideas, experience, insights and technical expertise of the country being "helped". Let's take a specific example here - one that is generally agreed to be a success and that many other countries are using as models for their own democratic development. It is highly unlikely that an outside technical expert, following the policy directives of his/her own country would have conceived and implemented the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the post-Apartheid era. This impressive democratic development evolved specific to South Africa conditions and context, driven and negotiated by South Africans, but rooted in some clear, important, and universal democratic principles.



Second, a move to balance the international development community's primarily instrumental approach to democracy and governance - as outlined above - election monitoring, judicial reform and training, constitution [re]writing, civil service training, anti-corruption campaigns, the proper conduct of elections, etc. - to balance those factors with a much higher priority and emphasis on the people side of democracy. Greater support for people to organise themselves, develop their own policies and programmes, engage in the broader political process, initiate and participate in local and national (and international) debate and dialogue. These are equally important processes relative to the universal democracy and governance principles we should all hold dear. They are the basis not only for deeper and more sustainable democracy but also set in train the processes that lead to the Truth and Reconciliation equivalent responses in each country.



It is for these reasons that communication and media processes on democracy and governance themes require a much higher policy priority and significantly more resources. You can see some of the very exciting communication and media developments on The CI's Democracy and Governance theme site - but these are just a beginning - we need many more initiatives and much more support.



Failure to take these two important factors into account could very well result in a Structural Adjustment moment for Democracy and Governance - a moment that would be to the detriment of all of us!