Complexities of democracy

2013-07-05 00:00

WHAT happens when citizens fail to recognise the paradox of democracy? Democracy is the main vehicle for improving the lives of people. But democracy has internal contradictions that in many cases risk derailing the development it is supposed to support.

The liberties of a constitutional democracy can only be realised through development and continuous improvement to quality of life. However, power relationships tend to compromise the very liberties promised by democracy. This could mean many things, but let us explore these internal contradictions that compromise the institutions of development.

A democratic state elects its leaders. Member-based development organisations do the same. Democratic constitutions assign governance responsibilities to the leadership and corresponding expectations to its membership. In simple terms, the principle of a democratic system allows members to give up some of their decision-making powers to the elected leadership so that the ideals of common good can be realised. But many of the expectations are badly communicated and remain hidden in other development forces. In the main, the foundations of any democratic system are trust and ethical considerations for all decisions taken.

This has always had serious ethical contradictions. First, the democratic system establishes a powerful governing minority. Second, the members fail to communicate their expectations so they can be included in development plans. When these unpronounced expectations are not realised, in many instances the leadership is criticised for making decisions contradictory to the wishes of the people. This is the main limitation of many organisations that are established to provide public services.

However, the reality is that we establish these organisations with illusions that the leadership is immune from pressures of their own personal development.

We expected the leaders to achieve miracles for the public benefit, while they themselves are thirsty for their own personal development.

We expect poor people to make sound governance and financial decisions in many of their community projects. Is it realistic to expect them to elevate other people while they themselves are experiencing pressure to improve their incomes and their quality of life? This is one limitation that we need to address before using labels such as greed and corruption, which are associated with anger and poor service delivery. First, we need to show evidence that we have prepared the development organisations well so that they can deal with these contradictions when they emerge.

Second, development practitioners should start communicating the realistic expectations that can be met easily by the majority, even under extraordinary circumstances.

These expectations must be free from illusion and unrealistic outcomes. Throwing away the whole bag of potatoes because of the rotten few in the bag has failed to replace unpopular leadership with good leaders. We may be replacing an unpopular leadership with a different breed that may do worse. Our institutional and organisational experts need to find solutions to this fundamental contradiction to make these institutions responsive to development realities.

Let us contextualise this argument further. We have to acknowledge that the development environment is controlled by political, social and economic realities, which shape the behaviour of individuals.

We have observed that hidden development forces are even more powerful than explicit policies and strategies contained in the blueprints. A community-based development organisation and its community is a replica of the broader environment. It cannot then guarantee the liberties that state institutions struggle to provide, especially for the marginalised groups.

The many unheard voices continue to be the victims of failing development models and approaches that ignore the hidden development forces. These hidden development forces are so powerful that they dominate all public and private spaces, and, as a result, compromise the objective and constructive development debates. What can we do to correct this?

What we need to address urgently is the tension and paradox between the planned development and the many hidden forces that shape the behaviour and common views of the public.

Our Constitution protects the rights of everyone.

The hidden forces may have made provisions that protect the minorities who benefit from many ill decisions made during the course of development.

For instance, the very same human-rights tradition also enables the dominant minority groups to influence the hidden development forces, thereby reinforcing the status quo.

This is the sad self-destructive phenomenon that may eventually consume us all.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant.

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