August 31, 2017

Other Democracies: Slum Dwellers International

There are many organizations that practice decentralized, horizontal forms of democracy. These democratic practices differ significantly from the democracies that often serve as the norm for all democracy: electoral constitutional governments. Unlike elected representative governments,  these organizations reject rule by college-educated, specialized experts to find ways to keep governance accountable to those who have little power in social relations, economic life, and
Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and their offshoot organization, Know Your City, are organizations that have worked intentionally to decentralize their practices and resources, their knowledge base and their governance. Since 1996, this network has helped to create a global voice of the urban poor, engaging international agencies and operating on the international stage in order to support and advance local struggles. Nevertheless, the principal theatre of practice for SDI’s constituent organisations is the local level: the informal settlements where the urban poor struggle to build more inclusive cities, economies, and politics. By bringing together the urban poor in 32 countries and hundreds of cities and towns across Africa, Asia and Latin America, the Slum Dwellers, SDI has expanded to many countries:  Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, among others.
            Organizationally SDI consists of a Secretariat, a coordinating team, a Board and a Council of Federations. The Secretariat has an administrative and management function. It is accountable to a Board and a Council of Federations made up of nominated grassroots leaders from affiliated Federations. The Board also nominates a Coordinating team that serves as an executive, responsible for overseeing the implementation of SDI programs.
SDI is committed to supporting a process that is driven from below. The Secretariat facilitates, and sometimes resources, horizontal exchange and information sharing programs among member Federations. These exchanges also produce a strong sense that expertise is found locally among the urban slum residents, and not just among professional policy and “development” experts.
Sheila Patel writes in her document, “Understanding the Governance Structures of SDI,” how accountability by and for the informal urban poor works in SDI. It began in India where the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan established national networks and federated slum dwellers throughout the country, and then expanded to work with South African slum dwellers in 1991. From 1992-1996 the two federations worked together to establish developed a set of methodologies that provided realistic alternatives to evictions and, by extension, practical and sustainable ways of mobilizing and organizing the urban poor. This period they also worked with urban poor from other countries to establish similar organizations, as in Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Starting in 1996, the emerging federations began to select coordinators and to expand to Latin America.
In 2002 they selected their first international Board for the transnational organization, and began to develop an emerging management committee. By 2006 pressures had intensified from external funders and other organizations to centralize. Patel writes that “As SDI grew at settlement level, at national level and globally, the financial requirements increased and external agencies needed to feel reassured that the organization could fulfill its expectations and commitments. This called for greater centralization but principles of decentralization and subsidiarity are fundamental to SDI's bottom-up structure. Decentralization demanded a much wider base of leaders to assist federations with increasing demands and expectations. Subsidiarity posed special challenges to a Secretariat that was becoming increasingly professionalized and accountable to external agencies - especially foundations, bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies.” The SDI response was to establish a Council with three representatives from each fully-active federation in different countries, and to draw on this Council for Board members going forward. Then in 2008 SDI launched a funding organization of its own with a Board of Governors to administer the funds, with members of the Board of Governors including National Housing and Urban Development ministers from representative countries.
At the same time that this centralization took place, SDI also established five regional hub organizations to strengthen local leadership and regional ties. To practice its principle of abdication from professional to local federation management, they also worked from 2013-16 to establish a Management Committee to retain accountability to the national federations. These efforts have taken time, yet they work against the centralized structures demanded by outside funders and other civil society organizations to retain a decentralized structure with local accountability.
There are several other ways in which SDI governs their own affairs without following the centralized practice of their home governments, including those national governments where they are based that claim to be democratic. First, a careful adherence to peer-to-peer exchanges between urban poor community members in different locales and even different nations prevents “experts” from effectively becoming a governing elite. This practice blocks the emergence of entrenched policy specialists who often pursue their own narrow interests rather than the interests of marginalized and impoverished community members.
Local funding of initiatives through savings plans prevents s the centralized distribution of tax monies and other resources from being monopolized by elected leaders distant from the urban slum communities and their interests. SDI’s goals are to serve the poorest of the poor, which centralized national governments have often not been able to serve effectively. Even areas that practice democracy through elected governments have found that wealth and power inequalities remain, and democracy does not mean a reduction in inequality. So if informally organized urban slum communities wish to take their lives into their own hands, SDI provides one means to do so. 

Note: Thank you to Jamie Helberg for research assistance on this post.

July 31, 2017

Defend Democracy: Tactics to Trump Tyranny, Part 2: Concrete Actions

                Some democracies lose their ability to give all citizens equal power over their lives. If you feel you live in such a society, there are many concrete things that allow you to reclaim your democracy. These concrete actions may differ some, depending on the type of society in which you find yourself. Yet there is also significant overlap across different settings when acting to revive democracy.
                Those who live under dictatorships have been successful in strengthening democratic social structures as a step towards overthrow of autocratic rule. The recent success of Tunisia in such a transformation is only one of a long history of countries that have reclaimed their governance practices from centralized authoritarianism. These successes have been analyzed by Gene Sharp and other commentators and organizers.
Success at decentralizing power often seem to come from a careful, strategic effort to revitalize local organizations and dislodge centralized power. These efforts can come from coordinated work to strengthen social institutions while gradually beginning to challenge the authority of centralized power structures. This work may take the simple form of religious organizations, cultural associations, sports clubs, trade unions, student associations, village councils, neighborhood associations, gardening clubs, human rights organizations, musical groups and literary societies, and other bodies. (Sharp, 4th ed.,  22)
So reclaiming decentralized power can start with the widespread revitalization of community bodies that provide a structural base for governing community affairs. Some of these organizations may attract the attention of authoritarian elites, such as trade unions or human rights organizations, but many others may operate freely for a long time without such attention.
In nations where electoral democracy is seemingly alive and well, even if power inequalities remain widespread, many concrete actions will contribute to increased control over social relations. In the United States after President Trump was elected, for example, many feared that their status as a democracy might be at risk. As is the case when normalized ideas of what keeps a democracy alive are threatened in other electoral nation-states, there may be a temporary rush to strengthen important institutional supports for electoral democracy.
One group of organizations that often receives support in times when electoral democracy seems threatened are press and media organizations. Organizations like investigative journalism sites and the Committee to Protect Journalists or the Alexia Foundation and PEN or sites that leak government secrets often receive support when governments attempt to limit information and the available range of viewpoints. If human rights still seem like they might strengthen democracy, then civil liberties or constitutional rights or women’s rights organizations may appear to be an effective approach. For those who believe in equality, questions about wealth inequality or racism or xenophobia motivate some to turn to identity-based organizations to fight inequality. For those who trust elected officials and expert policy makers, they may turn to these leaders to strengthen democracy. For those who believe that election funding has made accountability to all impossible for elected leaders, they may attempt to reclaim government from corporations and lobbyists. Others may attempt to hold elected leaders accountable to voters by investigating their voting records and writing letters and emails or calling elected representatives, or even attending town hall meetings.  
If you have grown to distrust electoral democracies as a way to achieve equality, then you may put your efforts into reviving democratic practices that redistribute power more equally. There are two key ways to decentralize power for those interested in democracy beyond elections and other practices that produce inequality. First are those structures that protect the general interest. Common examples of these structures are mass assemblies, village or town meetings, and other occasions where all community members are present. These structures confront those who pursue their own narrow interests with the assembled multitudes who may pursue policies and practices that serve the general interest.
Second are practices that produce consensus. Rather than marginalizing a minority, they bring all parties together to encourage them to find solutions that satisfy all. By taking consensus at their center, rather than elections, these practices teach participants how to work across disagreement and difference constructively.
There are many approaches to building consensus and many aspects to transforming habits and expectations needed to make consensus possible. Many have accepted as normal those competitive efforts that defeat opponents rather than build constructive group relations. So consensus depends on changing goals and general objectives. Consensus also depends on all present clearing room in discussions so that all may speak, rather than assuming that only the highly educated or the wealthy or men will dominate discussion. Many organizations have produced helpful guides to practicing consensus in meetings as well, from small meetings to large gatherings, such as the mass meetings in large urban plazas in Spain or in other settings.
For some, democracy is only possible when elections have been left behind and other forms of democratic practices take center stage. For others, electoral democracy as found in the European-style modern nation-state is the only possible form of democracy. But all have work to do if they wish to strengthen democracy in practice, whether in Tunisia or the United States or in social spaces where a lack of democracy produces political urgency.

July 4, 2017

Other Democracies: Democracy Beyond the Nation State

Democracy promises rule by all rather than the few. Yet national electoral democracies limit decision-making to small groups of representatives and policy experts, and have always had a weakness for inequality. Those who believe in equality may ask how the poor and the Indigenous, migrants and minorities, women and the underemployed, the rural and the subaltern can all come to take charge of their lives through democratic governance. Where does democracy serve all of society rather than only the few?
Equality in practice is limited in electoral democracies to formal political equality, such as equal rights, like the right to vote, and other general principles. The failure to produce equality outcomes in other parts of life, such as economic equality and social or cultural equality, has often been hidden in the past half century by this emphasis on formal political equality.
By forcing voters to limit their participation to leverage over delegated representation, the modern electoral state weakens their ability to produce equality in their economic, social, cultural, and even political lives. By reducing their equal democratic practice to participation through abstract political rights and principles, modern electoral states prevent direct participation for those who wish to produce economic, social, and cultural equality. Equal outcomes may be electoral democracy’s weakest point.
These days, most national democracy tells us not about equality but about how we must accept inequality: how we must vote for those who can only talk inequality, must live in places where inequality seems normal and natural, must complain about inequality but not practice equality. Electoral democracies often reinforce or deepen the inequalities between political elites and ordinary citizens, rich and poor, urban and rural, men and women, colonizers and the colonized, workers and employers, educated and uneducated, and other social divisions. 
Yet many communities and organizations from all over the world practice forms of democracy that give equal power to all members in sites beyond the modern nation. A recent book has described many examples of these communities and social movements, Democracy Beyond the State: Practicing Equality. Many have built egalitarian democratic structures to claim their power as equals to govern their own lives. Many of them use councils and assemblies as broad-based decision-making bodies, structures used widely in history and in the present. Multiple communities use consensus or other practices instead of voting for representatives. Both these practices reduce the centralization of power in the hands of the few.
They may do so as part of state governments, or as parallel to or even in competition with the state in small communities or in large territories and transnational networks. They do so not only in the past but also in the present. They do so in rural settings and the largest urban areas of the world, in families and towns, in farms and in everyday affairs. They often do so in difficult and even impossible conditions, yet they have succeeded for decades or centuries. Above all, they do so in order to govern their own affairs in ways that actively and carefully avoid reinforcing established inequalities in politics, economics, and other parts of daily life. These communities and organizations show that there are many avenues to democratic equality, that difference is central to democracy.
            Over the next months and years more posts will introduce multiple sites for democratic practice beyond national electoral systems that are not found in the book, Democracy Beyond the State: Practicing Equality. These sites ask us to reconsider the meaning of democracy. Democratic practices are commonplace in ordinary society, and the more they spread through social relations the weaker national monopoly claims on democracy will become.