δημοκρατία: Democracy remains a Greek word

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Are referenda back in fashion?

The quip or blunder about whether or not the French know the meaning of the word “entrepreneur” is often attributed to George W. Bush (like so much else). By comparison, there can be less ambiguity about whether “democracy” is still a Greek word – especially after the result of last Sunday’s referendum.  European heads of state will meet tomorrow (12 July) in Brussels to negotiate over whether Greece remains in the Eurozone. Last Sunday’s referendum gave the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, the political capital he needed to gain the backing of the Greek parliament last night – having delivered a decisive “No” (60%) to the previous terms from Eurozone. 12 hours ago, the Athens Parliament gave Tsipras the authority to negotiate a new bailout by 250 votes to 32. Such a mandate would have been inconceivable only a week ago.

It is still anyones guess whether tomorrow will see the emergence of any new bailout offer between the Eurozone and Greece, or even whether it is in either’s interests to do so. But the referendum has unquestionably given Tsipras much greater authority – strengthening his social contract with the Greek people. The referendum was a gamble, but clearly one worth taking whatever the outcome of the bailout negotiations and Greece’s future in the Eurozone or even European Union. A deal that Tsipras could never have sold back at home would have been in no one’s interests, so the referendum is actually in the interests of his country’s creditors too – even if they did not express this sentiment at the time.

There have been plenty of other referenda in Europe over recent years, one of the most recent, before the Greek vote, being Scotland’s 2014 vote on whether it remained part of the United Kingdom (the Catalonian unofficial referendum a few months later was not recognised by the Madrid government). Recently the UK Government has confirmed that another referendum will be held in the next two years, this time about the UK’s ongoing membership of the European Union. Previously, Scandinavian countries have had referenda about whether or not to join the European Union (EU), and Ireland, France and the Netherlands have also held referenda on specific EU treaty requirements. Sometimes referenda have led to de facto changes in international boundaries – such as those in Kosovo in 1991 or Crimea in 2014 – or to legitimise existing territorial claims – such as in the Falkland Islands in 2013. In countries where referenda are a regular occurrence, such as Switzerland, they seem to be becoming more frequent with up to 10 a year now; likewise in many US states such as California and Arizona.

There are two schools of thought. Those following the social contract theories of Locke or Rousseau tend to see them as a valuable extension of democracy – in fact Rousseau’s ideal “Republic” would have a referendum on every issue (each of us would be so well informed that we could vote before coffee each morning). Others despise them, such as the former British politician and European Commissioner, Chris Patten, who stated in an interview:

“I think referendums are awful. The late and great Julian Critchley used to say that, not very surprisingly, they were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster. What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is if you have a referendum on an issue politicians during an election campaign say oh we’re not going to talk about that, we don’t need to talk about that, that’s all for the referendum. So during the last election campaign the Euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. On the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak.”

It should be noted that Chris Patten was also Britain’s last Governor to Hong Kong which was returned to China in 1997 – without a referendum. One can expect him to have strong feelings on the subject, as do many residents in Hong Kong to this day as it happens (as demonstrated during the 2014 protests). It is true that referenda have been the ally of despots to legitimise their annexation of territory but perhaps there is now more evidence, over recent years, that referenda are becoming part of the social licence of democratically elected and accountable governments – winning an election every four or five years is essential but not always sufficient when it comes to major issues of identity or self-determination. The important caveat, and it is an important one, is that law matters and when referenda run against the fundamental values of a nation, then constitutional courts can override such popular expression – as we have seen in the USA on the issue of gay marriage.

So, referenda are no silver bullet, but perhaps they are making a come back as an essential addition to the legitimacy of governments. Perhaps Rousseau was right all along.

“Beyond Governments” – Do transparency initiatives work?

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My review of “Beyond Governments: Making Collective Governance Work” by Eddie Rich and Jonas Moberg (2015)

“Beyond Governments” is a rare thing – a book written on collective governance by practitioners who are still in the midst of practicing the art. In some ways, it is an autobiography of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) by two of its leading protagonists, and given the endorsements at the start of the book, it is very much an authorized one. The fact that the EITI’s final chapters have yet to be written makes the book more compelling and timely – there is a lot to learn for anyone engaged in collective governance initiatives. This is very timely as we approach the launch of the 2015-30 UN Sustainable Development Goals with governments, business and civil society far from agreeing how they should cooperate in their governance.

As a reader, I found myself banging the table in violent agreement on some of the early key points: that collective governance is irresistible and that accountability has to be a three-way process between governments, business and civil society. There is some openness on the real motivations behind why some governments, businesses and civil society join such initiatives – the fear of ‘resource nationalism’ being high amongst these. My favorite is Chapter 4: “Build Trust through Building Momentum: Just Get on with It” should be on T-shirts and handed out to all collective governance entrepreneurs. There are some real gems here that often never see the light of day in more politically correct writing: voting represents weakness not strength, the voluntary/mandatory divide is a major distraction and that power imbalances need to be accepted. Essentially forward momentum is gold dust for collective governance work, endless years of discussing governance whilst not rolling up collective sleeves to work together on the ground (which has blighted some other multi-stakeholder initiatives) results in few benefits for rights-holders and communities.

Another stand out for me is Chapter 8 on Sunset Clauses – there should be no in-built assumption that new models of collective governance should be permanent. Rich and Moberg are very open about the degree of experimentation that is going on and some of the dangers of co-option or decline, as well as the vigor of having time-bound objectives. “Initiatives need to dismantle themselves or reinvent themselves” – a key point that so many other others have overlooked. Planning for redundancy used to be the mantra of the voluntary sector, before NGOs became part of the status quo, and it is a good default for collective governance initiatives. They might become the “new norm” but we, and especially they, must not assume that they will.

The book raises many questions but cannot fully answer all (because each would need a book in their own right). Firstly, I wonder how much collective governance is an art and how much it is a science. The book gives ample bullet points for those hungry to learn. These are good. But some of the dark arts of collective governance, and the authors are clearly practitioners, are harder to describe in text boxes. John Ruggie, another who practices and analyses in real time (although in his case he is a thinker turned practitioner – the reverse direction), often quotes Bismarck when asked how he achieved what he did with the MDGs, UN Global Compact or the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: “If you like the sausage don’t ask how it is made”. There must be a lot the authors had to leave out.

I also wonder if the “Beyond Governments” title is the right one. The content of the book does not suggest this: rather it is more “Helping National Governments and Other Actors to Do Their Jobs Better in a Complex Globalizing World” – but this is a less catchy title. Any sense of moving beyond governments will raise the hackles of many said governments, as well as many in civil society (who are oxymoronic on this point – governments are the main abusers of human rights yet UN Conventions further legitimize them); some of whom are also closing down space for civil society and in particular those that might receive international funding – an important component of how EITI works. Similarly, I wonder if EITI is really an alternative to regulation (as suggested in Recommendation 9). The Dodd Frank Act in the USA would not suggest that initiatives such as EITI delay binding laws, but rather they might make such legislation effective when it comes.

A final thought would be my predicable point on human rights. I guess I see the interrelationship between transparency and human rights to be much closer than the book suggests, or than that Clare Short inferred when Ethiopia joined EITI. The downgrade of Azerbaijan (on Page 60) was a brave move by EITI but the section really still fudges the relationship between freedom of expression, the right to privacy and the right to information (i.e. transparency). This alignment remains a central challenge for EITI moving forward, and is not one that has hindered transparency NGOs such as Global Witness and their recent work with the global Chinese mining sector.

I would like to congratulate Eddie and Jonas on the book and for taking the time to write it. It is a unique book in many ways and there is a reason that EITI is amongst the most successful of all multi-stakeholder initiatives. So read it.

The book is available from   www.greenleaf-publishing.com

* John Morrison is the Executive Director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business and author of “The Social License” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). The views expressed here are his own.