Experiments in democracy
‘ We dance and sing because we are joyful, this shows the whole community that we have peace in the Reflect circle... there has been division and conflict that spread among us like a sickness. We can’t go back to the way things were before. Our dances are a kind of preventative measure.’ *Marthe Bihari, a widow with eight children.*
Creating peaceful realities
Since 1997 ActionAid-Burundi has used a participatory adult-education approach called Reflect in the province of Ruyigi as a way of building trust between 3,000 Hutus and Tutsis (see photo, above). Reflect techniques, now used in 65 countries, start from the principle that literacy techniques alone don’t empower people. A parallel process, based on people-centred grassroots development, is as important as learning numbers and words. Based on the work of Paulo Freire (see article), Reflect sees ‘conscientization’ – in which learners build their own picture of the world – as key. The learners need to gain distance from their everyday lives so that they can see their situation in a new way, identify underlying causes of oppression and conflict in their environments; and, with a new self-constructed view of their reality, take action to change it. This is what has been happening in Ruyigi, where communities have become linked in solidarity as ‘poor people’ opposed to the political instability in the region, rather than divided as Hutu or Tutsi.
Reflect encourages participants to produce their own materials. In Ruyigi they use discussion and graphics to identify obstacles to peace, including petty conflict and mistrust, and they openly discuss the 1994 massacres in Rwanda. Through participatory methods that ensure people get their voices heard, these communities have begun to share and understand experiences from both a Hutu and a Tutsi perspective. ‘It is important that we have learned to read and write,’ says Juvenal Ndikumagerge, a member of one of the 84 Reflect groups in a province still marked by ‘rumours’ against different ethnic communities which helped spread the violence in the past. ‘We have written letters to some of our community who are still in Tanzania encouraging them to come back home.’
Ejo, a community peace-building newsletter, emerged from the Reflect circles in Burundi. Participants write articles for the paper – read by 40,000 people – giving personal accounts of their efforts to rebuild life after conflict and the challenges they are now facing. Education, as seen by Reflect, involves a number of dialectical processes. Action is followed by reflection and the latter by a new action; previous knowledge is woven into new communication practices; past experiences are not diminished but give form to new ways of understanding the world. Ejo in the Kirundi language means both ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’.
The International Reflect Circle (CIRAC) that this project is a part of is the recipient of the UNESCO International Literacy Prize 2003.
In the mid-1990s people from Bristol in England carried out a three-year participatory democratic project called ‘Choices for Bristol’. The Choices method is a way of releasing the combined knowledge and initiative of the community to describe and collectively implement an improved future.
‘A discussion guide to provoke ideas was published in the local evening paper,’ says Candida Weston, a project initiator. ‘Citizens took this guide and talked with their families and neighbours about how we could make the city better.’ Each of those ideas was presented to vision workshops led by facilitators and consolidated into goals by interested groups. The goals were clustered under six vision statements and action groups formed to realize them.
‘Choices for Bristol’ was inspired by the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where 37 of the 40 goals set during the original exercise had been achieved or seen substantial progress 10 years on. The Russian cities of Gatchina and Luga near St Petersburg have also successfully used the method. In Bristol, some local councillors looked at the newly participatory activity as a threat. Weston explains: ‘We became a thorn in the side because we were asking questions in a way that had never been asked.’ Finally the authorities addressed the demand for more accountability by launching Bristol’s first ‘Democracy Plan’. This was largely a cosmetic answer to the questions flourishing in the neighbourhoods – and some Choices organizers were told they would never get jobs in the council should they apply!
But, despite these problems, there is now more participation in the city. Bristolians have had the chance to vote on citywide education in the first local referendum held in Britain – while the Citizens’ Panel, a network of 2,000 residents, gathers every three months and answers a long questionnaire about current issues. ‘This is not participation but consultation,’ warns Weston. ‘Nevertheless, it is the local authority asking for feedback, which is a great step forward.’
The co-op that became a giant
‘Those who choose to make history and change the course of events themselves have an advantage over those who decide to wait passively for change.’ These are the words of priest José María Arizmendiarrieta, founder of what is today the Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa (MCC), a large network of co-ops which was born in the rubble of post-Civil War Spain.
In the 1940s and 1950s a co-op culture flourished in the Basque Country. The new Working People’s Bank financed these grassroots entrepreneurs whose aim was to encourage solidarity and equality rather than to maximize profits. The growing community of co-ops – named Mondragón in the 1980s – provide services to one another. Members can train in a Mondragón college where skills of consensus and co-operation are taught and all workers learn management skills. Business plans for new co-ops are still funded by the ‘People’s Bank’: not only must they be economically viable but they must also pass an environmental-impact assessment and prove their co-op credentials.
Globalization has hit Mondragón, which struggles to preserve its original character and has made a series of compromises with the marketplace: the one-to-three pay-differential between workers and managers has been ‘updated’ to reach ‘realistic market levels’. But its accomplishments cannot be disregarded: in a region hit by high unemployment (25 per cent in 1994), Mondragón has succeeded in hiring more employees every year without setting the co-op principles aside: it has a considerably smaller gap between the wages of its managers and its workers than almost any other non-co-op corporation; 10 per cent of profits must be donated to social causes. Today, Mondragón, the co-operative of co-operatives, employs over 60,000 workers (half of them are members) and is the seventh-biggest company in Spain. With profits of roughly $425 million, it produces everything from car parts to fridges. And, in theory at least, democratic power remains in its General Assembly, where every member has one vote.
It started with the Zapatistas. In 1995 they carried out a popular referendum – or consulta – to begin a dialogue between indigenous Zapatista rebels and civil society. The seed was sown – and it spread. Many other consultas populares sprang up in almost every country in Latin America. In Brazil in 2002 more than 10 million voted across the country to oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); with a continent-wide consulta on the treaty now under way. Self-organized and decidedly nongovernmental, these consultas populares invite people to give their opinion on a particular issue. Volunteers travel round the country conducting popular awareness-raising sessions. Just as in state-run elections, people vote via ballot boxes in public places, but are asked core, not superficial questions. These referenda may not lead to new laws but they raise consciousness about problems that are normally only dealt with by a bunch of officials in closed meetings. The effects of this kind of wider participation can be profound. In mid-December 2001, more than two-and-a-half million Argentineans voted on every street corner to push a bill for unemployment benefits to alleviate poverty. More people voted in this ballot than voted for the Peronista party that had won parliamentary elections two months earlier. Three days after the referendum, empowered Argentineans spontaneously took to the streets banging pots and pans, filled the main square of Buenos Aires and overthrew the Government.
The referenda are not without their limitations. But one thing is certain: social consultas are reinventing the worn-out routine of voting, giving it new meaning by mere virtue of the fact that they don’t present false dilemmas such as: ‘Bush or Gore?’, ‘Menem or De la Rúa?’ or ‘Do you want this or that unknown MP?’. Instead they ask questions about global issues and subjects that affect everyday life.
Difficult policy decisions are usually left up to politicians and experts. But there is no reason why members of the public, given a variety of balanced briefings on complex information and time to deliberate, shouldn’t perform just as well or better – and with far more legitimacy.
For example, genetic engineering seems the ultimate realm where non-specialists, whatever their opinion, must defer to white-coated experts. This makes the verdicts now being reached in citizen juries on GM crops all the more remarkable. During the last two years there have been citizen juries held in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, two of India’s largest states, two in the states of Ceara and Pará, Brazil, and one in Zimbabwe. Although the juries were often charged with looking at wider agricultural development issues than just GM, a sophisticated critique of biotechnology emerged out of each of them.
No other institution of government rivals the jury in placing power so directly in the hands of citizens, or wagers more on the truth of democracy’s core claim that the people make their own best governors.
In citizen juries a panel made up of non-specialists meets for a total of 30 to 50 hours to examine carefully an issue of public significance – from health policy to GM foods. The jury, made up of between 12 and 20 people, serves as a microcosm of the public. Jurors hear from a variety of specialist witnesses and are usually able to discuss as broad or narrow a range of issues as they see fit. They are given time to reflect, the opportunity to interrogate expert witnesses, and are expected to develop a set of conclusions or ‘visions’ for the future – which need not be unanimous.
Because their decisions are informed and reached after extensive deliberation, their conclusions are arguably of greater validity than polls or focus groups. The whole process is overseen by an advisory group of relevant stakeholders on all sides of the debate who play a crucial role in ensuring the trial is fair. This helps to avoid the process being used as a ‘show trial’ that allows those in power to avoid truly being held accountable.
They are not a stand-alone solution but a contribution to a wider process of community self-analysis and democratic renewal.
On systems theory, networks and democracy:
General on power: