Governance from Below

Dear friends,

I want to focus on just one point: Give the reins of governance to the hands of people. And give it effectively.

People themselves are the reason, the legitimating source and the ultimate stakeholders in governance.

When I say people, I don’t mean just the more vocal, the more powerful, the upper middle class and the like, but also, and especially, the poor, the disadvantaged, the powerless, the people at the base. Mahatma Gandhi would say the well being of the least is the ultimate test of every thing. Ultimate test then even of good governance.

We have systems of governance today, where one needs to be powerful if one’s grievances are to be addressed.

Ensure that people at the base remain powerful. People will ensure that governance remains good.

If people are powerful they won’t need that much of awareness seminars to get sensitized and make an adequate response. It is in everybody not to tolerate being taken for a ride, and to ensure one’s place, dignity and future.

But if people feel helpless and powerless, no other measure would ensure adequately good governance on a sustained basis. The powerlessness of the people is the ground on which a lot of unfairness or corruption breeds.

Power is the ability to have an effective say. To have an effective say is really to rule. And people are to rule.

But people cannot have their say unless they have effective and viable ‘talking forums.’ Talking forums, when translated according to Latin root, parlare, means “Parliaments”

Until “parliaments” come to where people are, until they are accessible to people and viable to be handled by them, people cannot have power, people cannot really rule.

Democracy” is not rule by people enough if it keeps the talking-forums away from people; if it does not provide scope to have their say, control, or monitoring.

Democracy now does not allow people to have their say. All it allows is a ‘token’ voice that does not give much of content to their choice.

Empowering people is not just giving people a little more education, a little more skills, a little more awareness etc. Powerlessness is more of a structural problem, a systemic problem of even”democratic” nations.

People must have their say effectively and that not once in five years or so, but on an ongoing basis.

Building structures or mechanisms for people’s ongoing and effective voice in governance is not difficult.

We can start organizing neighbourhood parliaments or neighbourhood level forums for people’s participation in governance. These forums could be federated at various levels, even up to the world level.

When federating and organizing this way we have to keep in mind certain principles:

  • Principle of smallness of size: When any forum gets bigger, the small voices get drowned, and it all ends up as the game of the big, and the alienation and exploitation of the small.
  • Principle of numerical uniformity: To ensure that everyone gets an equal sense of belonging and nobody feels disadvantaged as regards distance to decision-making centres.
  • Subsidiarity: Whatever can be handled at a subsidiary or decentralized level should not be taken to any higher or centralized level.
  • Recall scope: Since participating forums are small, face-to-face communities at every level, any level can call back its disappointing representatives to the level immediately above that the whole system remains answerable ultimately to the person at the base.
  • Convergence: To strengthen the sense of identity of the neighbourhood units and their representative structures, ensure that everything that could be done through these units are done through them One of the things we could do to speed up the realization of such governance-participation mechanisms for people is to ensure that the present self groups for savings and credit and the like, in hundreds of thousands all over the world, are integrated as neighborhood groups of governance participation. Another: to get children themselves organized into these neighborhood parliaments that they too help to usher in a new culture of accountable and effective and participatory governance. Where there is a will and vision, every thing is possible.
Edwin M. John, Neighbourhood Network at the meeting of FFD Civil Society Forum on 15th April, 2007 at Church Centre, UN Plaza, New York.

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