Excerpts of a conversation with Colin Ball on the issue of governance, recorded during the 20th Anniversary Programme of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) held at New Delhi on 5-6 February 2002.
What are the major challenges in ensuring effective participation of citizens in the process of governance? And what efforts are being made to overcome them?
I think the problem with government as we know it, and I define government as an exclusive institutional process that doesn’t have anything to do with the very people who elect that government, is that the government is much too divorced from the people.
What tends to happen is that people go and cast their votes every few years. And that happens even at the local level. No matter how it affects their lives, they have no say in what happens afterwards. But, governance is about the involvement of different sections of society, most importantly the people themselves, in what goes on in the democratic process between the ballot boxes.
Second, it is about lessening the distance between the processes involving people and their lives and the processes which go on in government. It is also about having a sense of ownership over the identification of what the needs are, what the problems are, what the issues are, and getting that ownership. So unless you get that ownership, you are reduced to the status of a beneficiary, a client or whatever. You never feel that development is a process which is about you, your decisions and your understanding of the problem. Further, it is about fellow members of the community.
So, there is a need to remove the void that exists between people and government, and enable the people to have power and the opportunity to be part of the processes which affect their lives. After all, people know best. They are closest to the issues, the needs and the problems. Their wisdom is greater than those of us who sit at a great distance.
You mentioned participatory research. Do you think it has really been successful in bringing in the hitherto excluded and marginalised groups into the decision-making process? Can you give us some illustrations of how that has happened?
Well, I think it has begun to do that. It has begun to include the poor and excluded people. My understanding is that it is really here in South Asia, in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh where you’ve got the NGOs who are committed to that kind of an approach. It has definitely made some progress. But I think that participatory research still has some battles to fight. It is more accepted as a way to approach people’s needs and problems at the local level, but is still scoffed at in certain academic and government circles. The myth still persists that research is only accurate if it is objective, i.e. if it does not involve a third party or outsider.
There is a felt need for establishing a mutually supporting relationship, an organic link, between global institutions of governance and local institutions of governance. What kind of efforts, in your view, should be made to strengthen this link?
Well, the idea of governance and participation has to date, in my view, principally found expression at the local level. Classically, it is the development since the 73rd and 74th Amendment to the Constitution in India. I see the panchayat revolution as a similar process from the village to the block to the district, and each connects up. We’ve gone far in that direction, but there’s still a long way to go, even at the local level of connecting people to the process of decision-making and governance.
I think many links of the chain still need to be made to further the connection between the local and the far end of the chain, the global. What are the links in that chain? Well, we’ve got many intermediary levels of governments – the state, the regional governments in many large countries of the world, India being a true example. This is also the case in other large countries like Australia and Canada. We are at a level of government that is a little more distant from the people and therefore a little less amenable to participation and involvement. Above them you’ve got the level of national self-sovereign government and all the added layers and of course at a greater distance from the people.
At the national level for example, there is more of a distance that occurs between the common people and their elected representatives in the House of Representatives. In actual fact, their ability to represent the needs and the issues of citizens of their constituencies has become limited by party politics. Typically, a Member of Parliament will hold much more allegiance to the party ideology than to his constituents. That’s a very damning indictment. Because it’s actually saying that the entire parliamentary system of democracy, the so called Westminster model, largely inherited from Britain at the time of the transition from empire to independence, cast aside models of governance which had existed in many countries for centuries.
I think the great challenge we face in connecting people at national levels of governance is not about making sure that democracy is both participatory and representative at that level, but looking at the Westminster model and asking: does it work? As I know, even in the country of its origin, Great Britain, it doesn’t work. I don’t feel any connection with the processes of government. And I think that’s the challenge for all of us – how we can rebuild it from traditional, historical models used centuries ago.
How can we create this at the national level, and if it is global, the challenge is even greater. In recent years, we’ve seen the growth of global institutions, many of which, unlike the lower level institutions, are not democratic in nature, but are basically clubs or associations of their particular countries representing sectional and business interests. There is a rise in aggressive participation. There have been angry demonstrations, even riots and violence. People feel the doors are closed and their voice is not being heard. I think what we are seeing more recently is that those doors are slowly opening a crack – doors which are labelled ‘participation’. Certainly when the doors are open, they will initially be accessible not to the people themselves but to the people who represent them through the civil society and the non-governmental sector. But at least that would be a beginning.