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Something To Build On


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Face to face – a Kenyan youth states his position at a community meeting. Photo by Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos Pictures

Jonathan Barker discovers the roots
of a popular democracy in the markets
and refugee camps of the South.

At first glance there seems to be little room left for the expression of any democratic impulse among people located on the margins of the global system. The decision-making in the boardrooms of mega-corporations; the closed councils of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization; the executive offices of powerful governments; all of these crowd the available political space and set the course for whole economies. This concern over the lack of democratic space for ordinary people brought together a group of us at the University of Toronto. We set out to discover what goes on far from global and national power centres.

Our investigations carried us from the fishing villages of South India to the struggles for the empowerment of women in Central America. We started with a simple question of fact: what are concrete instances of political space (these 'political settings' could be anything from a neighbourhood meeting to a riot) that local people create through their action, and how do they operate? We were amazed and heartened to discover the great energy and real skill local people used to create surprisingly democratic local political settings.

...we were astonished to find a plethora of meetings, associations, tribunals, clubs and activities...

Owino market in Kampala, Uganda is just one example. Ugandans and foreigners alike enter Owino market with some trepidation. It covers a whole city block, with 5,000 vendors and 30,000 employees. The place has a reputation for thievery. The congested, often muddy, narrow passages and the unpleasant smell from the inadequate drainage channels add to the unease. Yet the constant movement of customers and transporters, the amazing variety of carefully arranged goods (from bananas and grains to automotive parts and used clothing) and the engaging conversation of the vendors awaken an excitement and curiosity that soon displace anxiety.

A market where everyone is focused on how to come out ahead in the next transaction may seem like a strange place to look for the elements of democracy. But we were astonished to find a plethora of meetings, associations, tribunals, clubs and activities that fit our definition of political settings: spaces and occasions where people get together to discuss and decide action on matters of common public concern. Many of these spaces operated according to democratic principles.

Our interest centred on the Market Vendors Association (MVA), an independent organization with a central office and executive, and a pyramid of committees in each division of the market. After one meeting in the much-used MVA office we witnessed a five-minute gathering of all the vendors in a nearby division. They stood together listening to a man, talked some more and then dispersed. This was a meeting to explain what had transpired in the central meeting; it all happened faster than e-mail.

The MVA had an extensive system of dispute settlement. In the rapid transactions among vendors with very precarious livelihoods friction is inevitable. For example, two women had long collaborated in selling fruit in the market. One fell ill and missed a week of the joint work, but her partner carried on alone and pocketed all the earnings for the week. When the partner who had been absent complained to the division head, the head immediately called a meeting of the nearby vendors. They heard from both sides: one claimed she had done all the work that week and deserved the earnings; the other said that as a partner who still desperately needed her income she deserved to get her usual share. After vigorous discussion the group decided the absent vendor deserved one-fourth of the earnings. Both the disputants agreed to abide by the decision.

The Kakuma refugee camp nestles in the dry and sparsely populated hills of northwestern Kenya. Here more than 20,000 refugees from the war in southern Sudan live in clusters of huts built of poles, mud and blue tarpaulins. Kakuma became for me an unlikely metaphor for the capacities for action of very marginalized people, especially those subjected to the ministrations of helpful guardians. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) governed the camp as a benign autocrat and contracted with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide medical and social services.

The administrators and service providers lived in a fenced compound with controlled access at one end of the camp. Supplies of food and materials were also kept in the guarded compound. When you entered or left through the controlled gate it was hard not to see the divide as that between the North and the South writ small.

Merchants of self-government - members of the Owino Market Vendors Association make it work.

Refugees are almost as remote from free citizenship as prison inmates, having abandoned their belongings, their land and their claim to citizen rights when they fled their country. They are left with only the most rudimentary possessions. The camp economy is a gift economy with the UNHCR doing all the giving (of food, clothing, construction materials for houses, and medical and educational services) and the refugees doing all the receiving. The feeling of dependency takes a toll.

One woman from a farming village spoke for many when she poured out her bitter frustration at being helpless, with hungry children but without land and tools to use her farming skills. Young men who spent years growing up as fighters and potential fighters are now sidelined from the war, without families in a difficult transition to manhood. Men who once had a voice in local affairs are reduced to gift-takers and subjected to the rules of a remote authority. Yet, even under such unfavourable conditions, the refugees have created a parallel government and a shadow economy.

The moving and mixing of people, the close proximity of dwellings and the boredom of camp life all put great strain on family and neighbourly relations. A Sudanese refugees' association set up several different courts for resolving civil disputes and trying minor crimes according to several different bodies of customary law represented among the refugees. They also staffed a small police force and built a tiny two-room jail for keeping law and order. The governing council collected a tax in the form of a small percentage of the food distributed to the refugees, which they then sold to raise money for such things as school fees for older children to attend local Kenyan schools.

Refugees also created a small market place in an open area of the camp. There was a bit of money around: some refugees worked as teachers or as NGO-helpers, some sold food or building material or clothing in order to gain access to other goods, including familiar foods imported from southern Sudan. People with special skills like carpentry sold their services. Women defied camp rules to plant small gardens in the area where water overflowed from the standpipes. There were even a couple of cinemas where people paid to see a video. Thus, even among the wards of the UN, the drive for a measure of self-reliance had created a basic economic and political system.

It was striking that leaders and activists in all the places we did research affirmed democratic principles. Everywhere the prayer with which most meetings opened called for respect and consideration among those assembled. And to an impressive extent those principles guided action.

The people of Machina in Yobe State in northern Nigeria successfully used their experience with the Arid Zone Development Project to empower themselves in local affairs. The associations, unions and base communities in the fishing villages in the south of Tamil Nadu State in India achieved remarkably democratic and effective opposition to the depredation of their fishing grounds by factory ships. The women of Nicaragua, under three regimes - the Somoza dictatorship, the Sandinista revolutionaries and the Chamorro neo-liberals - constructed an effective network founded on democratic local meetings that raised grassroots issues and representative national conferences to plot strategy. In Pakistan urban and rural mosques became political settings capable of expressing and amplifying popular concerns around the Friday sermons.

While these achievements are real enough, inequalities and selective silencing based on gender, ethnicity or conflicting interest remained obstacles to democratic effectiveness. Our research has convinced us that the democratic achievements by people at the margins of global power are very impressive and carry the seed of an even greater potential.

 Refugees are almost as remote from free citizenship as prison inmates

So why, then, do political parties and social movements fail to connect with this democratic impulse? I think one of the biggest obstacles is a fear of real popular power.

There are several paths that advocates of radical democracy may use to ground their beliefs and convince well-meaning doubters. We can rework the theory of radical democracy for our time and place. We can try to understand how democratic experiments have failed or succeeded in the past. But another route, the one we chose, is to examine the most basic political actions of people in search of the seeds of a larger democratic practice.

The most striking implication of our findings is also the most obvious: people at the margins of power are already creating relatively democratic political spaces and using them in pursuit of public objectives. This fact is clearly subversive to those at the centre of global corporate and state power who discount the capacities of ordinary people in order to ignore them, oppress them or render them dependent. It also challenges activists who want to deliver benefits to people but recoil from according them autonomous power.

There are many ways to work with these local democratic settings. You can seek alliances with wider activist networks and add to local knowledge of the schemes of global and national power centres as they affect the quality of life of local communities. Basic civil rights allow some scope - as Nigeria, Uganda and the UNHCR are starting to do - for local democratic action. But the next step is the hardest - accepting that people in poor villages and neighbourhoods are capable of effective and open action that is responsive to the welfare of the local population.

Once this is accepted you can begin to imagine a different kind of relationship between activists, sympathetic officials and empowered citizens - one based on more respect for local, self-reliant, democratic deliberation than present forms of 'representative democracy' ever allow.

Jonathan Barker is the lead author of Street-Level Democracy, recently published by Between The Lines in Toronto. Here he draws on research with Christie Gombay in Uganda, Khamisa Baya in Kenya, Kole Shettima in Nigeria and Aparna Sundar in India, and on work by Katerine Isbester in Nicaragua and Anne-Marie Cwikowski in Pakistan.

E-mail: [email protected]

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