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Week 10: Thinking Politically, Working Politically, Learning Politically

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The Primacy of Politics

This was the last presentation of the course and it definitely felt as though it was a nice summary of what I felt to be one of the most useful courses I have so far taken.  Although half the class involved group discussions surrounding Brexit, its impact on students in the UK, and thinking politically about how to address concerns, the first half involved a presentation by David Hudson on learning to think and work politically.  I found this to be extremely useful because it outlines a more constructive way of working in international development.  Decisions need to take politics into account, as stakeholders, interest groups, and individuals all hold biases, interests, and views at heart.  In essence, the presentation strongly linked politics to getting things done.

David Hudson, having written a DLP paper with Adrian Leftwich, whose works I have read quite frequently, was obviously well-versed in TWP (Thinking and Working Politically).  They co-authored From Political Economy to Political Analysis (2014), a very useful paper on understanding how “politics shapes and frames developmental processes.” The key takeaway here is that politics absolutely matters in the field of international development.  In order to get things done, one needs to analyze the stakeholders and the interests and intentions of all involved and be able to work with that in mind.  One of the first books I briefly read authored by Adrian Leftwich was States of Development: On the Primacy of Politics in Development (2000). Although its main intention was to present the importance of the primacy of politics in development, the book also countered the insistence that democracy is an absolutely necessary precondition of development.  The book argues that politics plays a larger role in development than the technocratic notion of democracy as a necessary prerequisite for development.  Adrian Leftwich is able to counter the nation that international development is an ideological, technical, and simplistic orthodoxy and is instead a developing field that should recognize that practitioners needs to be politically aware in their work.

One of the main questions brought up during the presentation was about learning politics: can thinking politically be taught to an individual or organisation, or does one have to have an innate ability to do so.  The key is to present the concept of working politically as a necessary skill and to persuade professional to use it in their day-to-day dealings and experiences.  It might be true that not everyone can be political in their thought processes, but I believe that it can be introduced on an organizational level.

From Politial Economy to Political Analysis

Week 6/8: Political Settlements: Weak states, fractured nations

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This week’s presentation and discussion was on political settlements and involved another useful DLP paper on the politics of inclusion by Alina Rocha Menocal titled Political settlements and the politics of inclusion (2015).  Another paper I had already read was Statebuilding without Nation-building? Legitimacy, State Failure and the Limits of the Institutionalist Approach (2009) by Nicolas Lemay-Hebert.  I had read it before for my Governance and Statebuilding course in the previous term.  The key discussion that I found most interesting, in both the presentation and the literature was on how to prevent nations from failing.  As my last blog post mentions, South Sudan is an interesting example of a nation that had high hopes falling into chaos due to failed political settlements. Interest from donors exists due to their role in developing nations and their interest in seeing stability in chaos-prone states.  A failed state, as in Somalia’s case, can affect surrounding nations and nations further abroad, directly and indirectly.  For example, Somalia’s Al-Shabaab has operating within Kenya’s borders, destabilizing majority Somali areas of Kenya.  Its radical members have also attacked Kampala in Uganda due to its contributions to the AU stability force in Mogadishu.

Going back to Menocal’s paper, I noticed similarities between it and Lemay-Hebert’s paper on state failure and nation-building vs statebuilding.  An important concept that I learned previously was the nationbuilding approach as a necessary precursor to successful statebuilding.  A common identity, ethnicity, or tradition falls under nationbuilding.  Nations do not necessarily automatically lead to states, as in the case of some ethnic minorities in nations they do not feel that they belong in.  State fragility often exists because of alienation or the lack of common identity, ethnicity, etc.  That means, in my view, that a state is not always recognized as such by its own people because there was no common approach to nationbuilding.  These two papers brought together governance and statebuilding and political settlements (politics) into an interesting hybrid concept.  Both rely on one another.  Take a look at South Sudan again and it’ll make more sense.  Ultimately, I believe that a successful state is one where inclusion is priority.  That takes a massive effort on the part of a state’s subgroups, be they ethnic, social, cultural, or simply rent-seeking stakeholders.  This inclusion really depends on the nature of a state, as every state differs in many respects.  There is no broad methodology behind political settlements that can apply to every state.  As Lemay-Hebert mentions, there is no proper state, or state legitimacy, without functioning state-social relations, and Menocal only reinforces that with the inclusion of political settlements into the debate.  Exclusionary politics only leads to internal fractures in the state.

P.S. There should be no assumption that this is solely a symptom or issue that exists in developing states.  One only has to look so far as the Paris riots and at US race relations to see such relevant issues in Western ‘Weberian’ states.

Below is an excellent article on the European Union and how Europe might need to change the concept of nations vs states in order to succeed. I believe that the EU has been an exercise in separating the nation from the state and we have yet to see if it will continue to bear fruit.

The modern nation-state is and will likely remain the political space in which citizens recognize each other as equals – Carnegie Europe

Week 9: Post-Conflict Governance and Gender

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Although this class in Development Politics involved a documentary on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, it brought up some important questions, not least did gender play a role in Liberia’s transition from civil war to democratic governance?  From background knowledge, I knew that women played a large part in ending Liberia’s civil war. They used various tactics, from protesting to gathering in markets to discuss events and ways to end the war. I do feel that these women’s groups played a large role in ending the war and did play a role in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s popularity and election, and it should not be forgotten. With her being the first female head of state in Africa, that alone shows how important gender actually is in this case.

What was even more interesting to me was the way in which the documentary was filmed.  For the first time I saw governance on a day-to-day level in a post-conflict developing nation, not from afar. The cameras followed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf around while she conducted her presidential duties.  What was also interesting is how her administration coped with few resources and a destroyed nation. She met one-on-one with important figures in society, including ex-militants. She also conveyed a kind of motherly nature in her dealings with people; she was able to maintain a clear but firm aura wherever she went. Ultimately the film showed me how difficult it is to meet broad expectations; although not too surprising, it was important to see how people expected so much within such little time. Uniquely, I cannot come up with a comparison to Liberia and its experiences. Previous blog posts have usually included some sort of comparison, but Liberia is unique in its experiences and current trajectory. Decades of civil war and instability eventually led to the empowerment of women, not only through their critical role in ending violence, but also in post-conflict reconciliation and governance.

Democratising Democracy: Feminist Perspectives (2005) by Cornwall and Goetz is useful in that it outlines the increasingly important role women play in politics. They not only play a larger role in electoral politics and government but also in broader civil society.  This relates to Liberia and its experiences in civil society development and post-conflict governance and the timing is interesting too; this paper was released in 2005, right during Liberia’s transition government; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would win the upcoming presidential election in a landslide.  The paper also goes on to say that democracy needs to be further democratized by opening up pathways for the inclusion of feminist politics.  We only have to wait and see if Liberia can continue its successful trajectory in gender-relations and politics, and civil society growth, especially considering that elections occur later this year and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is constitutionally barred from running for presidential office again.

Although I had not seen Iron Ladies of Liberia before, I had seen another documentary on Liberia’s civil war and the important role women played called Pray the Devil Back to Hell which can be seen here: Pray the Devil Back to Hell on Vimeo

Week 7: Reform Coalitions: Transition Governments

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In this presentation, a general introduction to reform coalitions, rent-seeking, and politics of reform was introduced.  Transitional governments are often beholden to previous figures of power and can often be thrown off track by vested interests seeking rents. As such, processes for reform and transition are political in nature.  Different groups with differing vested interests and desires vie for influence in the processes of transition.  Understanding the key stakeholders in Myanmar’s transition is key to understanding the risks lying behind the process.  Having been a military regime since the coopted 1988 election, and having endured decades of one-party rule under a socialist (in name only) regime, Myanmar had not experienced democratic governance since decolonization.  With the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi and the gradual liberalization of the military regime, Myanmar faces an uncertain future.  If a successful transition is to happen, all need a say, including minorities who often face the military’s wrath.

An article that was read for introductory purposes prior to the presentation titled The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition was useful in that it laid out all important stakeholders in Myanmar’s transition to democratic rule.  The key to a successful transition is navigating the politics of it.  Alienating large segments of society is risky in that is can spark further instability. Empowering one group over the rest is risky in that their rent-seeking ability might monopolize their own greed and power.  Ultimately, reform coalitions need to compromise when it comes to reform processes and all sides should see some sort of benefit.  Although this presentation was a good introduction to reform processes, it has certainly piqued my interest.  Being in the Governance and Statebuilding pathway, I feel that it an important concept to research further, and admittedly I had little background knowledge on reform coalitions and transitional governance.

Interestingly, this presentation also got me thinking about other nations that are in transition.  South Sudan keeps coming to mind, with it being in the news almost daily due to its civil war, atrocities, and status as the world’s newest nation.  South Sudan looked like a bright spot in a dark Central Africa, but it has ultimately fallen prey to the typical patterns of greed and failed transitionary politics.  In 2011, when the nation gained its independence through referendum, the world was eager to present it as a model of successful governance and reform.  Setting up a state from scratch looked possible. Ultimately it was not only ethnic strife that put it on a trajectory towards civil war; it was ultimately greed behind two competing elites that causes the conflict we see today.  These elites ultimately hijacked South Sudan’s promising future and dashed hopes of successful coalition building and compromise while also stoking historic ethnic tensions that have existed for some time.

Here’s a useful article by Vox on South Sudan’s downfall: South Sudan’s Crisis Explained

Week 5: The endless debate: what defines corruption? A western-centric tale.

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Dr. Pfeiffer’s lecture on pinning down corruption was a useful insight into both the DLP’s work and into how corruption must be looked at as moving beyond greed and self-interest.  Corruption in many ways can be equated to politics and the methodologies of it.  Literature and debate surrounding corruption, in the western ethnocentric view of it, has almost always focused on reforming government in order to restrict greed and self-interest from taking place, an almost unrealistic task in that day-to-day government functioning requires politics and maneuvering for it to function in the first place.  It can also be debated that in western society, corruption has simply taken another form, one where these day-to-day dealing have been legalized or legitimized in different ways.  Take lobbying for example.  In the United States it is perfectly legal to spend millions of dollars on lobbying firms in order to get your interests across.  It is also just as legal to spend billions on an election campaign with hardly any of it being traceable, and the current administration is only rolling back anti-corruption protections further.

Here’s a video on lobbying and the blurred lines between it and bribery:

This presentation further reinforced the concept that corruption should be perceived differently in this day and age.  Corruption should be seen as a symptom of a badly functioning system, and American democracy is arguably in a struggle to save itself from dysfunction and the consequences of ‘legalized corruption.’  I personally do believe that corruption is not necessarily a universal concept; corruption is defined through a society’s norms, and our western ideals should not necessarily be forced upon other societies with their own traditions and standards.  Arguably, certain societies function better with what we see as corruption in the western world, and things arguable get done just as efficiently in some.  Moving on from corruption as a relative concept, I will in principle support the basic concept of corruption being the abuse of public office for personal gain and that bribery is a major scourge.  There is a point where abusing your post in government or your position in power will harm others and will damage the ability for a government to properly govern.   It is impossible to say that corruption in politics can be wiped out; politics in its very essence is dealing and compromising through power and personal interests.

Major impediments to societal function, though, still remain and can be called corruption.  Ultimately, one needs to be flexible in what defined corruption, and certain practices are far more harmful than others.  As Dr. Pfeiffer’s presentation mentioned, measures of corruption are very shaky, in that perceptions are usually biased based on personal definitions of corruption and that corruption is only relative.  The presentation also mentioned that there is a rather universal belief that bribery is corruption, so even though it is generally relative across most countries, there are some things people agree upon.  My personal experience while travelling abroad have showed me that corruption is relative. I have been asked to pay bribes, yet always refused.  I encountered people who were far more open to paying them or even taking them.  But on the grand scale of things, a very rigid definition of corruption basically negates politics as a concept.

Transparency International’s main page on what defines corruption: What is Corruption?

A quick introduction. Statement of purpose.

Just one big idea. One big idea, and we can change the world.

After a few failed starts in the blogosphere and after being inflicted with quite a severe case of writer’s block, I have finally decided to start a personal WordPress page with professional information and some of my thoughts and analyses about social justice and human rights, international development, travel, and general global affairs.

For some years I have wanted to begin something online, possibly a blog or a professional webpage, but struggled to come up with a valid website subject, so this time around I have decided to create an “about me” WordPress site with an integrated blog component.  Feel free to add opinions or constructive discussion through the comment sections on each post within the blog area (home page).  I welcome all walks of life, all opinions, all input, as long as things are kept constructive and polite.  It’s a darn simple concept.