Monday, November 17, 2008

Helping voters change their world

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.


Blake said...

I'm at work, so I don't have time for a fully fleshed-out comment, but one question I would have is it feels like you're presuming a lot about freedom of speech and expression in the public sphere...which is unfortunately not always something you can count on in nascent or unstable democracies. You see a lot of watchdog organizations fall into two camps: 1) critical of government or regime, "honest," and subsequently marginalized/suppressed by the state; or 2) gradually more and more complicit with government, less and less direct with critique. You can probably have at least some positive outcomes from either of these two options, but overall, they're both extremely limited in terms of promoting real transparency. So the question is, how do you carve out a robust and honest 4th estate in a nation that's hostile to free speech? I'm sure there are examples of watchdog/media organizations out there who are doing this well...can you point me to one so I can learn more?

ac said...

I'm also a bit busy, but just two cents on top of what blake noted above -- my intention is not to be cynical but to raise questions -- but even if the poor have access to information, say via cell phones (SMS, texts) and other new technologies that don't necessarily require literacy in the short-term, there's always the problem of misinformation presented as fact. Even if populations attained literacy, with internet and other perhaps "more digestible" sources available for relatively little cost, there's always the problem of false-truths in politics.

Here is where blake's question becomes important -- not only would democracies need watchdog groups monitoring the accuracy of information presented and related to elections, but watchdogs able to function properly in democracies where rationality does not always exist (at least not how we expect it).

So, jumping on blake's bandwagon, can you think of any examples of such watchdog groups functioning properly in "less rational" but functioning democracies. I'll keep an eye out for ones here in India.

Adam said...


As always, I admire your ambition. Your caveat about cynicism is revealing: to most, your ideas are mere pipe dreams.

My take is that while strong in theory, your plan is impractical. Carles Boix was one of the first to apply basic economic theories of incentives to governments and their decisions to alter electoral rules. Simply put, the selection of different electoral rules are based on strategic decisions of ruling parties to maximize their ongoing representative power.

There are two broad possible environments in which a new election can take place: 1. The electoral arena does not change substantially and the current rules serve the ruling party/parties well; or 2. The electoral arena changes. In the former, the ruling party has no incentive to alter the electoral rules. In the latter situation, the ruling party will only change the rules if the present rules, in conjunction with the new electoral arena, will erode its power. In this situation, the ruling party will probably lower entry barriers.

To simplify: for anything to change in terms of electoral rules in these developing democracies, the ruling party will have to have an incentive. Now that incentive will either have to come in the form of what Boix is getting at (fear that they will lose the election because of the new electoral arena) or in some more creative form that you'd have to work out. Perhaps a golden parachute, but who will be the provider, and how do we eliminate the risk of entanglement between the informative aspect of your plan and provider's interests?

Now crucially, Boix does identify "introduction of competitive elections" as a possible substantial change in the electoral arena. So if you could find some way to guarantee free and fair elections, electoral rules could be beneficially altered. But it seems to me that this is a Catch 22 in Boix's argument. How do the two differ, exactly? And more importantly, how do we guarantee free and fair elections if the ruling party is only willing to change as incentives are introduced?

Last in what is beginning to become a rather incoherent and rambling reply, I would ask who is responsible for promoting these ideals in developing democracies? Is this your conception of a moral Bush doctrine, and therefore, the US? Or is this the job of an unbiased NGO? How do we work with existing institutions if those institutions are inherently unfair?

Ramble ramble.

Nathaniel said...

I think what you really want is federalism.

Dave said...

Honestly, this is what I love about posting, the power of the dialectic to hone and challenge.. To respond to a few of your points:

Yes, public dialogue and freedom of speech is a huge assumption here. I am also sure, as you are Blake, that there are organizations that are able to navigate this difficult tension. I will let you know of some good models as I find them.

AC, absolutely more informationd doesn't lead to good information and irrational policy choices. We would have to be extremely rigorous and careful about our claims and also help people re-imagine their voting criteria. Lofty, I know-

Adam, that is a very pointed argument and I thank you for that. I think the fundamental question you ask, "how do we incentivize the ruling party to promote free and fair elections?" is not an easy one to get at. Ensuring the freeness and the fairness of elections is probably what I have thought about the least, but I am sure there are models and examples of how to change the rules of the game even when it goes against the basic interests of the ruling party. I will get back to you on that point as I continue to learn more about this sector.

As for your second point, I think the organization to promote these ideals would have to be an independent NGO. The way I see it, information assymetry is a breakdown in political markets. As an analogy, economic markets fail and governments are often required to intervene. Likewise, when political markets fail, civil society must correct for that failure. So, I see this as an effort taken on by an NGO. If the US was trying to promote this sort of solution, the effort would lose its legitimacy.

Again, thank you guys for your comments. I am not sure whether this is a realistic venture for me or not. There are elections in Ethiopia in 2010 that I would love to be in the mix of and learn from. I will keep you posted as this idea becomes more solidified and refined with the help of good friends like you.