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Democracy and development

July 13, 2010

A key challenge confronting the world (perhaps it always has been) is how we control our lives; how we collectively set about influencing the conditions under which we live. Call it governance or democracy or whatever, it’s about setting up institutions which are most suitable for running our lives. I suspect that ‘the state’ as normally defined is too broad and insensitive to local peculiarities. Soviet-style Communism didn’t work for exactly this reason, and liberal democracy has massive shortcomings, not least of which is that it paradoxically seems to need a powerful state. Mainstream neoliberal economics is idealistic. The co-operative movement died. Since the Great Recession we are all Keynesians, but Keynesianism is a blunt tool.

Development agencies try as hard as they can to avoid strengthening the state. The one thing that they all seem to be pushing for is less governance, not more (despite the rhetoric). We need better mechanisms to organise ourselves, not to try and break down institutions of governance, leaving more to the market. I don’t think that the only alternative is to build up the state (although a strong state in some areas is part of the solution). We need new ways of providing for each other; new modes of social organisation which deliver useful outcomes to the man on the spot, which are devolved and less susceptible to takeover by vested interests. Some well-directed social movements can be such a force for good; devolution can work. I realise that there’s a risk of idealism, though, and that social movements can be powerless in the face of international economic forces.

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