In one of my first posts back in October, entitled "A Different Electoral Conversation," I outlined how I understand the basic mechanism of democracy. I argued that in democracy, politicians are supposed to respond to voters’ needs because they are held accountable through the electoral process; accountability causes responsiveness. However, in many nascent democracies, accountability breaks down because voters vote ideologically or do not have the information they need to accurately judge the performance of their government. Instead of pursuing systematic reform, governments often initiate highly visible public works projects and offer handouts just before elections to create a positive impression among poor (and uninformed) voters. This is commonly called "budget as theater."
Democracy is one of the most powerful forces at work in the 21st Century, but it is not being fully harnessed for social good. In countries where a large majority of people face deprivation in terms of basic education and public health, we would expect the government to respond to that deprivation in order to satisfy voters and maintain power. However, all but one of the studies performed since 2001 have not found a significant relationship between democracy and levels of social service provision. I would like to discuss how we can change this fact in emerging democracies through the power of information.
Without accessible, digestible, and relevant information about how politicians perform along very basic social criteria, such as basic education and public health, democracies cannot function as they were designed. This information asymmetry is exacerbated in poor countries because of low transparency, high illiteracy, and many other large scale social problems. The question then, is how can we empower voters with the information they need to accurately sanction and reward the politcians in power? It is only when voters have this information will governments have the incentive to respond to their basic social needs; if they don't perform, they will be thrown out of office.
My vision is a world in which people’s basic social needs are recognized, met, and protected by freely elected governments. What if we were to strengthen democracies in less-developed countries by empowering voters with the information by which they could hold governments more accountable for their basic social needs? How would this happen? I think three things would need to take place:
1) Make sure the electoral mechanism "works"
People need to have faith that elections will be free and fair in order for them to invest in changing their system. Thus, we would have to use innovative techniques, like text messaging to report electoral fraud, and existing institutions to ensure that the electoral mechanism works. Trust and hope in the democratic system must be (re)built for real public action to take place.
2) Equip people with basic information about how their government has performed
Information is all to often deeply buried in reports, long meetings, and government files. An independent civil society organization ought to synthesize policy outcomes into easily accessible and digestible materials that are widely distributed among voters. It would need to secure both local and international legitimacy through rigorous analysis, partnerships, and quality products.
3) Mobilize people around an alternative social vision
Socially and politically marginalized people would need to show up en masse in order to seriously alter poltical incentives for those seeking elected office. People would need to not only have faith in the electoral process and the information necessary to accurately asses the performance of their government, but they would need to vote on the basis of that information.
Essentially, I want rebuild the electoral process, equip voters with information, and change voting norms in order to incentivize social performance among politicians. Of course local institutions and networks would be depended upon and utilized, but a new civic organization would be required to orchestrate such a massive shift.
Generally speaking, this is my strategy for strengthening democracies in less developed countries around the world. I want to use existing institutions (elections/ government) to ensure that peoples most basic social needs are met.
Would this work? I have no time for cynicism, but would love some serious feedback on this idea.