Democratic State Building Participatory Institutions Important : Mukti Rijal

An international conference on participatory democracy was held in Kathmandu the other day, in which participants drawn from different areas, including academics, civil society, government ministries, Constituent Assembly,  development partners and grassroots organizations, both from within and outside Nepal, articulated their views on different dimensions and aspects of democracy.

Jointly organised by Action Aid Nepal and Institute for Governance and Development (IGD), the conference was designed to conduct a focused discussion on different facets of local democracy and governance that act as  a pivot in deepening and widening the democratic ethos, institutions, mechanisms and processes.

Participatory development

At a time when Nepal is undergoing the process of creating new democratic institutions being designed through the auspices of the Constituent Assembly elected by the people, the discussion and deliberations held during the conference were very substantive and consequential. As focus was laid on participatory development, democracy and governance at the grassroots, the interaction among the participants was able to muster and bring to the fore  both intellectual and practitioners’ perspectives, bearing upon the various dimensions of participatory democratic development of society.

The practices and perspectives on local democracy from South Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe were presented and shared at the different sessions of the conference, which offered the participants an opportunity not only to share their views but also to acquaint themselves with the state and context in different countries of the world. It is interesting to note that contemporary initiatives pertaining to participatory democracy have emerged in the Global South, in Latin America, in particular, and South Asia and Africa in general.

Prof Gordon Crawford from the University of Leeds, UK, who had delivered the keynote deliberation at the conference, had rightly mentioned that  Europe had many established liberal democracies, but participatory democracy in itself was somewhat in a crisis, as indicated by the low voter turnout and growing disaffection with the mainstream political parties. For most citizens, especially the younger people, democracy should be more meaningful than a vote every four or five years for the parties that offer little policy choice and are increasingly under the sway of big business and pro-market neo-liberal ideology.

The presentations made by a renowned scholar, Hussaini Abdu, and Prof. Pam on African countries, especially Nigeria, were very frank, critical, thought provoking, and struck the chord of the discussants. As Nepal is grappling with the issue of ethno-cultural federalism, the Nigerian case is of particular interest and the focus of Nepalese academics, CA members, politicians and participatory democracy practitioners.

Needless to say Hussaini Abdi is the author of a book titled ‘Clash of Identities’ that dwells at length analytically on the ethno-religious conflicts in northern Nigeria. In his presentation, Hussaini Abdi drew profusely from his book and contended that the ethno-religious conflicts may have historical roots, but the character of the state, its responses to different socio-economic challenges and the policy framework serve to exacerbate the conflicts. Ethno-religious mobilisation and conflicts are strongly associated with increasing poverty, unemployment and social dislocation occasioned by economic crisis and the policy response to the crisis.

The government’s flagrant imposition of the neoliberal structural adjustment programme in Nigeria has increased both urban and rural poverty, providing the ground for renewed competition and conflicts. The deepening poverty has contributed in pushing people out of the rural areas to the cities, resulting in the expansion of urban slums and shanties with serious implication for security and inter-communal harmony.

oreover, differences over politics, citizenship, market, cultural practices and other related issues have created a community of deep seated ethnic-religious distrusts, which occasionally escalate into violence. Hussaini Abdi did marshal a clear case for the need to build national citizenship against local indigeneship. Referring to the case of Nigeria, he maintained that there seems to be more emphasis on indigeneship, which is based on ethnic autochthony rather than civic itizenship.

he conference featured critical deliberation on the notion of democracy with particular focus on participation and development . Needless to repeat, the notion of democracy has been laced with different superlatives and adjectives . One only needs to recall that most of the 20th century saw a struggle between capitalism and communism, in which both used the term ‘democracy’ to define (and legitimise) themselves.

Western countries generally consolidated a system of liberal or representative democracy, while communist countries of the erstwhile Soviet bloc and elsewhere called themselves ‘people’s or socialist democracies’. Yet , according to Gordon Crawford, who not only delivered the keynote statement but also participated in the panel discussions at the conference, even within the more ‘established’ democracies of the West, one cannot speak of simply one form of democracy.

Rather, a degree of tension between particularly liberal democracy and social democracy has been present for much of the post-1945 period. While the U.S. political system has been the emblematic liberal form of democracy with emphasis on individual liberties, the model of social democracy, as exemplified in the Scandinavian countries in the latter quarter of the 20th century, has placed strong emphasis on the state provision of public services and the welfare state.

Citizenship-based state

In Nepal’s case, as we mull over the choices of the different forms of democratic institutions to be embodied in our new constitution, we need to opt for a citizenship-based state that treats cultures, traditions and values of the different communities on an equitable basis. The state should be secular and neutral as we have learnt from the Nigerian experience. A state based on ethno-cultural basis is prone to destructive conflicts and competition on a minor pretext or slight provocation.

Moreover, as a purely liberal form of democracy characterised by representation and formal instruments cannot meet the needs and aspirations of the people, we need to give place to participatory institutions so that people will not merely be service recipients and beneficiaries but also a shaper and maker of public goods, values and services.

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