Tag Archives Democracy

Myanmar’s Resilient Revolution: How non-state welfare is sustaining democratic struggle

Myanmar’s Spring Revolution is now in its third year since the February 2021 military coup. Despite facing brutal repression including arson attacks and aerial bombardment by Myanmar’s state security personnel, ordinary people across the country are continuing to resist the return to dictatorship. What explains the extraordinary resilience of their civil disobedience and armed resistance efforts?

Photo: Visual Rebellion SSR 104.

Roots of resilience

Many in Myanmar are furious about the return to tyranny and the bleak implications for them, their children and their country. These grievances have been channelled into revolutionary struggle over the past two years which has been sustained by a deeply-ingrained culture of reciprocity, charity and philanthropy that has developed over decades. Indeed, many of the ideas and practices of self-reliance, reciprocity and moral citizenship now at the core of the Spring Revolution have roots in the fitful post-socialist market reforms of the 1990s and 2000s.

In my book, ‘Outsourcing the Polity: Non-State Welfare, Inequality and Resistance in Myanmar’, I draw on extensive fieldwork to explore the origins of Myanmar’s vibrant non-state welfare sector. Examining the political economy of provincial economic liberalisation after the collapse of the Burma Socialist Programme Party in 1988, I uncover how state officials encouraged provision of social aid and public goods by non-state actors. Sub-national military commanders suppressed anti-junta and democratic party activity but permitted ostensibly ‘apolitical’ welfare-oriented village and neighborhood groups to flourish. Meanwhile, regional junta officials issued commercial licenses and tax exemptions to businesspeople who assumed roles as informal civilian administrators and often became patrons of both government-sponsored and grassroots welfare groups.

Outsourcing enabled dire state social austerity; the 1990s junta slashed social expenditure and used the funds to instead double the size of the armed forces. Alongside often fragile commercial ceasefires reached with ethnic armed elites, transferring social responsibility to the non-state sector allowed Myanmar’s military to focus instead on forcefully expanding the central state into restive borderland regions.


Democratic outsourcing

The legacies of post-1988 social outsourcing continued to shape the character of politics after the military initiated partial civilian rule in 2011. Both the Thein Sein (2011-2016) and Aung San Suu Kyi (2016-2021) administrations continued to encourage charities, philanthropists, the private sector and religious communities to perform social welfare and development roles, often in exchange for tax deductions. Rather than turn to the state to deliver social development, communities were told by their elected representatives to rely on each other and the ‘free-market’ to solve social problems. Community groups even ran quarantine facilities and fundraised for the government’s vaccination procurement programme amid the COVID-19 pandemic, at the encouragement of Suu Kyi herself. Meanwhile, after 2010 tycoons sought to remake their public reputations and protect their questionably accrued assets from taxation or redistribution by helping to fill the gaps in social provisioning left by decades of austerity.


Post-coup resistance

The military’s February 2021 ousting of elected civilian leaders has spawned thousands of new groups in neighbourhoods and villages across the country. These networks are helping to support the needy, resource pro-democracy militias, provide education to children fleeing violence and deliver social governance in large areas of the country that are no longer military controlled. They are also at the vanguard of imagining and enacting alternative social ideals and models to dictatorship which reject the militarisation and economic exploitation of the so-called ‘democratic decade’ (2011-2021).

Yet few of these groups receive any funds from the international community – even though they are playing crucial humanitarian and social roles. In one township in Sagaing Region, for instance, an alliance of local social actors including welfare groups, militias, traders and striking teachers are helping to resource and run a network of more than a dozen schools educating thousands of young people. Initiatives like theirs currently receive almost no foreign aid but are delivering essential social governance functions in the wake of what even the junta acknowledges is its administrative collapse in most rural and borderland areas of the country. Foreign governments and humanitarian actors must ensure local networks are far better resourced as the dictatorship continues to cling to power.

The remarkable role of non-state welfare actors and ideals in sustaining Myanmar’s democratic struggle has implications for understanding distributive politics, autocratic legacies and civil resistance elsewhere. For now though it is clear that a new wave of social outsourcing is underway in Myanmar – one that is simultaneously deepening communal self-reliance while also sustaining the fight for a more inclusive and democratic future.

*Featured image: A group of teachers stage a sit-in protest against military dictatorship in Shwedaung township in Sagaing Region, Myanmar (Photo: Visual Rebellion SSR 104).

Video interview courtesy of International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague and photos courtesy of Visual Rebellion (https://visualrebellion.org/).

Tax deductible donations to non-state welfare organisations can be made via Mutual Aid Myanmar: https://www.mutualaidmyanmar.org// Burmese-subtitled version of the attached video available here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Soz46aqzKuI&t=1s

This article has been originally published by the Centre for International Studies at Cornell University and The Diplomat.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:


Dr Gerard McCarthy is Assistant Professor of Social Policy and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (part of Erasmus University of Rotterdam). He specializes in the politics of inequality and development in Southeast Asia, especially Myanmar where he has researched democracy, welfare and authoritarian legacies since 2013.

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Is the legacy of the Arab Spring greater oppression? Twelve years after the Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s civil society has been all but nationalized

The popular uprising that swept across Egypt exactly twelve years ago was supposed to herald a new era marked by greater political freedom and the end of state oppression. But optimism that things would change for the better quickly evaporated after the resurgence of authoritarian practices. In this blog article, we argue that ever since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the Egyptian government has taken steps to nationalize civil society, turning it into yet another administrative machinery under its direct control.


From hope to horror

This week marks the 12th anniversary of 2011 Egyptian Revolution, or the 25 January Revolution – the popular uprising that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and ended his 30-year period of rule. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring that took place in the 2010s in the wider MENA region, hopes were high that civil society would be able to play a stronger role in the socio-political realm; the same was hoped for Egypt’s civil society.

And for a moment it did seem that this could be happening: the number of NGOs in Egypt increased from 42,000 in 2013 to 52,000 in 2022. But this optimism quickly evaporated with the resurgence of authoritarianism in the country and continued efforts by successive governments to control and stifle activities in the civic space. Notable measures the Egyptian government has taken are:

Such measures have led to the prohibition of all efforts of civil society actors independent of the state to mobilize collectively. Thus, since the 2011 uprising, the Egyptian government has actually successfully consolidated its authoritarian control over the operation of the civil society sector, making it hard to identify any independent NGO activity.

In the past decade, as development practitioners and scholars[1], we have been closely monitoring the status of state-civil society relations in Egypt. The revolution was supposed to change state-civil society relations for the better, but during this period, we have witnessed increasing state control of the independence of NGOs through its bureaucratic apparatus and attempts to nationalize the efforts of civil society and place it under strict oversight by the government. We argue that the Egyptian government has been able to do this by:

  1. blurring the state-civil society divide
  2. controlling foreign and domestic funds, and
  3. demonizing independent civil society organizations.


Blurring the state-civil society divide

On 9 January, just two weeks ago, current Egyptian President El Sisi launched the first conference of the so-called National Alliance for Civil Development Work (NACDW) after his announcement in September 2021 that 2022 would be “the year of civil society”. The alliance was founded in March 2022, comprising 30 local NGOs – mostly relief organizations – that are closely linked to the state. Since its establishment, the NACDW has been mostly working under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MoSS) to support the implementation of two flagship social protection programs, the ‘Takaful’ and ‘Karama’ (‘Solidarity’ and ‘Dignity’) Cash Transfer Programs, as well as the presidential initiative ‘Haya Karima’ (‘Dignified Life’).

Over the years, it has become near impossible to distinguish between the efforts of the MoSS and NGOs cooperating with the state in implementing such programs. Overall, the MoSS has succeeded in co-opting the sector by engaging certain organizations in their programs that have the state blessing and operate as the ministry implementation machinery. Since 2011, the ministry also has the upper hand in deciding how national or foreign aid should be spent and which priorities they see as more viable. Mostly, it has been able to expand its territory of controlling funds allocated for NGO activities and has the ultimate say on what NGOs can do or not, leaving most of the sector paralyzed if they don’t agree to collaborate with the state or abide by its narratives. This control has had negative implications for the freedom of association for the broader sector, especially organizations whose activities are oriented towards policy, advocacy, and human rights.


Closing the money tap: foreign and domestic funding struggles

In an attempt to hijack funding traditionally earmarked for NGOs, on 1 May last year, the Egyptian Cabinet on its official Facebook page published an announcement forbidding the collection of donations on social media without a permit. The post stated the need to apply for a license three days before the collection of donations, whether financial or material. It also threatened legal consequences for anyone who collected such donations without a license.

Similarly, as part of the increasingly restrictive environment and state control over NGO activities, the MoSS recently launched a new campaign that limits any collective donation through social media channels or any other online platform unless approved by the ministry. The campaign emphasized that in case of breaking the law, organizations or individuals would be legally investigated for violating article 26 of the civil society law no. 149 of 2019.

The government’s ongoing efforts to control the funding of NGOs can be traced back to 2011, when previous Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abu El Naga emphasized the need for the government to be the gatekeeper of foreign funding; she argued that the state should allocate this funding according to its vision and national interest.

While these narratives primarily targeted foreign funding at the time, the current decisions of MoSS to control domestic sources of funding and how it should be spent forms part of the state’s strategy to control both domestic and foreign sources of funding for NGOs and other civil society groups. This increasing control of MoSS on both the domestic and foreign sources of funding has placed civil society groups under ongoing pressure by the ministry to continuously align civil society efforts to the interests of the ministry and the current political regime.


Demonizing independent civil society organizations

In our previous book chapter titled ‘Reinvention of nationalism and the moral panic against foreign aid in Egypt’ in the book Barriers to Effective Civil Society Organizations, we argue that the Egyptian state and its successive military regimes have tried over time to act as moral entrepreneur in society in an attempt to control narratives of patriotism, which in turn have shaped state discourses and policies towards civil society and foreign aid. Since the birth of the post-colonial Egyptian state, the reception of foreign funds, in particular by civil society organizations in Egypt, has always been presented as an act akin to treason, demonstrating a lack of patriotism and a threat to national unity.


New tactics, same objectives

The state’s recent focus on controlling how civil society groups organize themselves and domestically try to collect money for collective action is worrying. In light of the criticism of foreign aid in supporting local NGOs, domestic fundraising for civil society efforts provides a viable alternative to fill the gap produced by the government’s failure to provide quality public services for its citizens. The government’s determination to continue stifling any innovative ways of financing civil society initiatives poses a great risk to the existence of independent civil society organizations.

To conclude, the state in Egypt is dominating civil society by means of its direct control and is co-opting it while controlling money flows to NGOs and vilifying whoever seeks independence. This control will have a lasting effect on the structure of civil society in Egypt and will greatly reduce citizen participation in public affairs. Thus, 12 years after the revolution, we are witnessing a civil society sector that is under siege and has been nationalized by the government. The case of Egypt presents a vivid example of how authoritarian regimes evolve their tactics to clamp down on civil society spaces through various formal and informal practices.

[1] Over the past decade, we have been working with number of local and international development and human rights organizations in Egypt and across the MENA region. We have reflected on this experience in various publications on how CSOs navigate the restrictive environment in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Ahmed El Assal is a PhD Candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies. His current research focuses on governance, political economy of aid assistance, and accountability of public service provision.






Amr Marzouk is a PhD Candidate at the Erasmus School of Law.

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Brazilian democracy – an aberration or a challenge?

The invasion of government offices in Brasília on 8 January by mobs of protestors and vandals forces us to revisit a fundamental question: is Brazil’s relatively recent move to democracy too fragile, or is this just part of its evolution? The protestors’ support for a far-right politician who would prefer to see the demise of the country’s indigenous peoples (and others marginalized groups) points to their lack of understanding of democratic processes. The country’s hierarchical and exclusionary social structures and political processes also play a significant role in how and why things played out as they did. Can these change?

Brazil’s transition in the mid-1980s from an authoritarian regime to an aspiring democracy was a slow process marked by lumps and bumps, for instance the death of a leader and installation of caretaker ex-military regime supporters. The year 1988 saw the presentation of a new Brazilian Constitution, one marked by significant civil society participation and a swathe of proposed clauses and provisions that were quite progressive and socially inclusive. The early 1990s, on the other hand, saw a national referendum on the desired form of state (including a monarchy option!) and the effective impeachment of Brazil’s most recent democratically elected president, Fernando Collor de Mello.

All in all, this suggests that the road to democracy has been one of turmoil and questioning. When I interviewed workers in the 1990s, they even questioned what democracy meant. Would it bring better times for them and their families compared to the earlier period of military rule? The answer wasn’t so obvious to them.

The most recent rise and level of popularity of former president Jair Bolsonaro suggests that many are still not so sure what value there is to a social democratic model. Are people blinded or ignorant to the benefits of a thriving social democracy, or is a view that democracy represents the undeniable centre ground upon which society must be based in fact misfounded? Both presidents of the post-Labour Party era (Temer and Bolsonaro) consistently questioned the appropriateness of the 1988 Constitution given “Brazilian realities”. Certainly, if income distribution figures, the level of genocides/ imprisonment of blacks and domestic violence are noted, Brazil is still not doing so well in the racial/ social equity and social ‘voice’ departments. What this may underline is why the Bolsonaro movement has managed to sway a large number of people to support its idea of a ‘democracy’.

What, then, do we make of Bolsonaro’s continued popularity and the latest attacks on the country’s democratic institutions? This does not seem to be a call for democracy – it seems to be more like a call for “the way things were” before the (still very moderate) social welfare/social justice advances of the Labour Party (PT) presidencies of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. The question is whether there is enough groundswell out there to say, “No, this is not the way. Let’s move forward in a different way!” Much will be seen in coming weeks pro-democracy protests (already starting) and from (anticipated) further local or national-level protests/espionage by the so-called ‘Bolsominions’.

It was always risky putting Lula (PT) up for another try at president – Brazil is very divided. Yet it probably had to be done as a high-level sign of resistance, as both he and Dilma had been slandered and dismissed (effectively removed from public affairs) by a network of conservative forces. While strong grassroots and broad-based factions and members of the population no doubt exist who are strongly committed to democracy and social justice reform, it takes massive force to fight against such embedded hierarchies and authoritarian, elitist views. Even if the Brazilian state apparatus, e.g. Itarmarty (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) or the Supreme Federal Court (SFT) has sometimes shown its fighting spirit, it is not just the ‘foot soldiers’, but also important elements of the state and military who have offered support to the right, for example by stopping voters or letting protesters get past security barriers.

Arguments emerging are that key promoters of the riots should be identified and charged, but also that Bolsonaro should be deported from the USA, charged with inciting violence in Brazil, and then sent to The Hague to face charges for crimes against humanity for his response to the COVID pandemic.

Yet we will have to see how the many wheels of protest and politics turn, as has been the case many times before. Moving towards greater social healing and a more solidified democratic outcome may require considerable compromise and will only be brought about by those with great political skills.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:


Lee Pegler currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS. He spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers.

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Return of Military coups in Africa threatens Democratic gains achieved in past decades

The recent coups d’état in Africa threaten the political stability and democratization trends achieved in the past decade in the post-independence era. History has shown that military coups directly impact the human development and economic growth of a country. This article analyses the root causes of these coup, often masterminded by the military regimes.  Whereas the continent has achieved tremendous progress in building democratic institutions, in this blog I argue that the conditions for recurring coups have largely remained since the adoption of continental binding principles (Lome declarations, ACDEG). The African Union (AU) and regional economic communities (RECS) ought to be more pragmatic, bold and decisive in its approaches in promoting good governance agenda in Africa.

Guinea Military juntas led by Col.Mamady Doumbouya shortly overthrowing President Alpha Conde in Guinea. Source. Internet

Historically, the army has been a part and parcel in masterminding coup d’états in many African countries.  Over the years, the continent through its governing body (AU) has worked towards strengthening capacity to discourage unconstitutional change of governments. However, these trends are seen to be making a comeback. In Sudan, in October 2021, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan announced the dissolution of the civilian arm of a transitional government, set up just 2 years after we witnessed the coup d’état that overthrew the reign of long-serving leader Omar Al Bashir. Worrisome, that we witnessed similar events unfold on 5th September 2021 in Guinea, where Guinean special forces army officers led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya overthrew the government of Alpha Conde, 83, who had secured the third term in office after successfully extending the presidential term limits while in office. In the neighboring country Mali, the military in 2021 dissolved the government twice within the space of one year. In Niger, an attempted coup was staged in March 2021, just days before the presidential inauguration ceremony. Likewise, in Chad, the Military Council, headed by former President Idriss Deby’s son, took over power and installed a new government after the assassination of the then President in office. Furthermore, we have witnessed several failed coups attempts in Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Burkina Faso. Much as these coups are inspired by several different contextual factors, one similarity that spans across the countries is that the military juntas often ride on the popular support from the frustrated and unemployed civilian population against the long-serving authoritarian leaders, who are deemed responsible for bad governance and lack of opportunities.

The African continent has experienced several coups d’états during the post-independence struggles. According to a report published by Cambridge University in 2003, Sub-Saharan Africa experienced 80 successfully staged coups, and 108 failed coup attempts between 1951 and mid-2020. During that time, only 30 incumbents were able to relinquish power peacefully after losing an election to opposing politicians, while 28 heads of state voluntarily left office after serving the legally allowed number of terms as President. In the past years, the leaders of coup d’état often credit their actions for toppling governments to reasons such as corruption, mismanagement/failure of governance, and poverty.

The plotters of recent coups have also echoed similar claims. In an interview by Reuters, Col. Mamadou Doubouya of Guinea cited “poverty and endemic corruption” as the reasons for removing President Alpha Conde from office. Likewise, in previous coups in Sudan and Zimbabwe, the Generals who removed Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and Robert Mugabe in 2017 respectively, made similar claims.


The coups are a reflection of deeper governance issues in the continent

The justifications made by coup plotters resonate with the current realities in many African countries. There is increasing frustration among the unemployed and uneducated young population that is yearning for participation in the governance process and access to economic opportunities. A report released by Afrobarometer in 2021 found that several citizens in sub-Saharan Africa acknowledged that governments are not matching the promises on service delivery, job creation for the youth, and the fight against corruption. Instead, there has been a considerable shrinking of civic space to demand these rights. We have witnessed an outrageous crackdown on freedom of expression, killings, arrest, and forced disappearance of dissenting views. These have instilled fear and mistrust between the government and the civilian population. As a result, young Africans are falling onto the promises of “coupes” army generals, who are forcefully assuming power with false hope for radical change, economic progress, and freedom —  promises that often turn out to be short-lived.

Civilians took to the streets of Guinea capital Conakry after the overthrow of Alpha Conde. Source: BBC News

Even if assumed that there is a positive side to these coups, the important question is, whether popular support is enough to justify these coups? This has been a subject of contentious debate over the years, raising the uncomfortable dilemma of whether citizens can pursue undemocratic means to remove political leaders who entrench themselves in power through irregular methods and subversive use of the military. History shows that these military rulers govern no better than democratically elected leaders in Africa, and such interventions often come with great risks.  The world has not forgotten the iron fist rule of army generals like Idi Amin, Babangida, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and Sani Abacha who brought hope and excitement initially when they overthrew regimes, but with time, turned out to be monsters against their people. (McGowan: 2003:340).

Therefore, by condoning such an approach, Africa risks falling back to its darkest times in the post-colonial era characterized by lawlessness, instabilities, dictatorships, and relentless coups. Much as most of these coups have been met with popular jubilations on the streets by the disenchanted youth celebrating the fall of leaders who use unconstitutional methods to cling to power, this unconstitutional approach for transfer of power does not provide a better antidote.

Col.Mamody Doumbouya addressing the media after the Juntas took charge. Source; Aljazeera news

What can the African Union and RECs do?

The biggest continental body (The African Union) has been subject to criticism by its lack of teeth to bite when it comes to the enforcement of continental agreements. The existing framework drawback from 2000 when the propensity for staging coups had drastically increased, then, the Organization for African Unity (OAU), which was not known for getting involved in “internal affairs” of member states made an exception to toughen its measures to discourage unconstitutional change of government. The Union adopted a decree (Lome Declaration of 2000), which stipulates the suspension of any member states involved in unconstitutional change in government. This was followed by the adoption of The African Charter on Democracy, Election and Governance (ACDEG) framework to guide member states, regional economic communities (RECs) in building stable democratic institutions, rule of law, promoting good governance, and ensuring peace and security. To oversee the implementation of these ambitions, a secretariate was created, called The African Governance Architecture secretariate within the department of political affairs, to promote engagement and dialogue of member states on the adoption of better approaches to promote rule of law, consolidation of democratic institutions, ensuring good governance, and addressing the aspects of unconstitutional change of government in the continent.

However, for such a continent framework to achieve results, members states must work towards the commitments. Up to now, about 35 member states out of 55 have ratified the agreement. About 15 have shown interest through signing but have yet to ratify according to the primer published by the ECDPM think tank  in 2022. Similarly, the greater task has been on enforcement by the governing body. Over the year, the African Union has been criticized for its inconsistency in responding to these coups. For example, David Zounmenou, the researcher at Institute for Security Studies (ISS) pointed out how the Union suspended Mali from AU and ECOWAS after the 2020 and 2021 coups, while Chad was allowed to remain in the AU, pending transition to civilian rule in the election. He argued that such inconsistency appears biased and perpetuates deliberate regime changes on the continent.

Another critique posited by Atta-Asamoah at a recent seminar on peace and security in Africa stated that the framework is only reactive, not preventative. Therefore, there is a need to uncover the root causes of these coups by asking questions as to why they happen and dismantling the breeding factors that encourage them.

African Union must strengthen its response mechanism to predict these coups. It must show that it can bite by punishing bad governance on the continent by toughening and applying sanctions indiscriminately on presidents who manipulate and extend constitutional term limits against the will of the people and calling out flawed elections which often leave citizens yearning for regime changes. These approaches will not only deter leaders from clinging to power, but will also reignite citizens’ trust towards using democratic means for seeking regime changes. Democracy can work for Africa, but its leaders ought to prioritise and practice good governance, adopt democratic principles, and hold free and fair elections to affirm and renew the faith of its citizens towards democratic transfer of power.


McGowan, Patrick J. “African Military Coups d’état, 1956-2001: Frequency, Trends, and Distribution.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 339–70, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3876235.

Downing, J. (2008) “Social Movement Theories and Alternative Media: An Evaluation and Critique,” Communication, Culture & Critique, 1(1), pp. 40–50. DOI: 10.1111/j.1753-9137.2007.00005.x.


Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Robert Okello is an ISS alumnus who attended the Human rights, Gender, and Conflict class of 2020-2021. He currently works as Policy Researcher with European Centre for Development Policy Management under the governance and accountability, working to build inclusive and sustainable development policy and cooperation between Europe and Africa.


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The War in Ukraine: Is this the End of the Liberal International Order?

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought war back to Europe. The international ramifications of the war are clear, for instance now that President Putin talks about nuclear deterrence and the United Nations has condemned the invasion. This blog argues that a proper assessment of the war in Ukraine should take into consideration the dimensions of international order and the European security order.

The world woke up to hear the news of the Russian invasion into Ukraine in the early morning of 24 February 2022. The invasion followed on weeks of military build-up of Russian troops on the eastern, northern, and southern borders of Ukraine. Many commentators doubted the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, and had hoped for a peaceful ending to the confrontation. Putin’s televised speeches on 21 and 24 February attempted to justify the Russian attack of Ukraine on the basis of alleged activities of western countries to expand their grip on the Eastern European country, and ultimately include it in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military alliance, as well as the domination of the Ukrainian government by hostile (‘Nazi’) rulers.

Around the world, people are currently following the horrors of the war in Ukraine with growing anxiety. Putin’s announcement that Russian nuclear ‘deterrence’ forces would be put on special alert, allegedly in response to statements by the UK’s Foreign Secretary about a possible clash between NATO and Russia, seem to forebode a return to the days of the Cold War. A resolution in the United Nations General Assembly, demanding the unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, was adopted on 2 March 2022 by a 141 to 5 majority, with only Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea voting against it. A proper understanding of the international ramifications of the war in Ukraine needs a focus on deeper-lying processes related to the international order and the European security system.

The post-World War II period has been characterised by what many call a liberal international order. This order applied mainly to the US and its allies during the period of the Cold War, as the Soviet Union managed to build a parallel order. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its military alliance created a so-called unipolar moment, with the US as the only remaining great power. During the unipolar moment, which is usually dated between 1990 and 2005, the Western alliance assumed growing pretensions regarding the spread of liberal political and economic principles. It is now well recognised that the liberal international order is under attack, and may be giving way for a more pluralistic order, where different principles are embraced by rising powers such as China. The statement issued by China and Russia on the opening day of the 2022 Winter Olympics referred to ‘international relations entering a new era’. The statement provided a clear vision for a new ‘polycentric world order’, where China and Russia would challenge the ‘attempts at hegemony’ of ‘certain states’, which try ‘to impose their own “democratic standards” on other countries, to monopolise the right to assess the level of compliance with democratic criteria, to draw dividing lines based on the grounds of ideology, including by establishing exclusive blocs and alliances of convenience’. Russia, however, may have overestimated the pledge, contained in the Chinese-Russian statement, that there would be ‘no limits’ regarding their friendship and cooperation, as China did not support Russia in vetoing the UN Security Council’s resolution on Ukraine, while it also abstained from voting in the subsequent General Assembly session.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine signals an attempt at overturning the European security order. The order of the past 30 years followed on the Cold War, during which an ‘iron curtain’ separated the Western and Eastern parts of Europe, and the Soviet Union’s military intervened in several member states of the Warsaw Pact. In the post-Cold War period, various countries in Central Europe as well as the Baltic states became members of NATO, a move that was seen as an expansion of democracy in the West. In 2014, the so-called Maidan revolution in Ukraine, which led to the eventual departure of the Russia-backed President, was embraced by a range of West European politicians – something that was questioned by some so-called realist scholars of international relations. Over the years, the legitimacy of the European security order was attacked by a variety of Russian commentators. For instance, the honorary chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, Sergey Karagavov, referred to the ‘Putin doctrine’ that is aimed at ‘constructive destruction’ of the relations between Russia and the West. This doctrine aims at a ‘pivot to the East’, and the prioritisation of Eurasian relations over those with the West, alongside ‘a new kind of relations between Russia and the West, different from what we settled on in the 1990s’. As a clear reflection of Russia’s revisionism, the latter position includes a repudiation of the agreements that were signed by Soviet Union and Russia’s Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin, including the Charter of Paris (1990) and the Budapest Memorandum (1994), which provided clauses on freedom of association for previous member states of the Warsaw Pact and security guarantees for Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The proposed security treaty that President Putin presented to the US and NATO in December 2021 similarly put in question the post-1990 security order in Europe, as it specified that Ukraine would not be offered NATO membership, and that NATO forces should be withdrawn from Central and Eastern Europe.

As the war in Ukraine is now in its third week, and the devastation of the country is increasing, the full implications of Russia’s military action are still unclear. What is clear, however, is that the war will seriously impact the international order of the years and decades ahead. At a minimum, one could expect a new Cold War to characterise political and military relations in Europe, certainly now that the war in Ukraine has led to the resolve of the German government to increase its military spending, and the indications by Finland and Sweden that they may consider NATO membership. Next to this, the call for revision of the principles of the post-World War II global order will continue, with clear support by China, but one can only hope that this will take a less violent turn, unlike the tragic events over the past weeks.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Wil Hout is Professor of Governance and International Political Economy at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam. He teaches on issues of international order in the Erasmus Minor Evolution of International Order and in the Masters course Politics of Global Development: Debating Liberal Internationalism. Together with Michal Onderco, he is currently co-editing a special issue of the journal Politics and Governance, vol. 10, no. 2 (2022), on ‘Developing Countries and the Crisis of the Multilateral Order’.

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COVID-19 | Another top priority in times of crisis: keep democratic life up and running by Isabelle Desportes

The coronavirus crisis seems to have reduced societal functioning to the bare minimum as an increasing number of governments have limited freedom of movement in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus. The introduction of several such authoritative measures needs to be counterbalanced by active citizens who continue to uphold democratic life and question these measures themselves, argues Isabelle Desportes, who studies how humanitarian emergencies are handled in settings where this is not the case. ‘Authoritarian dangers’ are not only a concern for far-away countries long labelled as ‘hopeless pariah states’, as European attempts are showing us these very days.

It is inherent to times of crises: many decisions and emergency legislative mechanisms will be enforced in countries all over the world these coming days and weeks. While such centralistic measures are often necessary, they also bear the risk of infringing on an effective and socially just handling of the pandemic now, and will shape our societies on the long term.

My research on disaster responses in Myanmar, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe showed that while responses to the disasters (a flood in 2015 in Myanmar and crippling drought in 2016 in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe) were mostly coordinated and efficient, the political contexts in which the disaster occurred meant that discussions on disaster preparedness and the modalities of relief were ignored. Important dynamics were observed for the three contexts: as the disasters destroyed homes, disrupted livelihoods and uprooted communities, their intense impacts had to be handled in the midst of ongoing marginalization of certain population groups at the hands of other groups and/or the state. Disaster responders were highly mobilized, but with little space to openly debate the modalities of relief, to have full insight into the extent of needs, and to raise concerns.

Following the disasters, a number of longer-term changes could be observed, according to the 271 disasters responders that I interviewed and who were active in organizations ranging from community groups to United Nations bodies:

  1. The already marginalized were impacted most strongly by the disasters, being the most vulnerable to start with (with limited coping capacities and safety nets, fewer rights, a lack of voice and bargaining power);
  2. Disaster responses were not always carried out in the common interest of societies at large and in accordance with humanitarian principles, but could serve as a conduit for violence, and to further enforce the interests of a few[i];
  3. This was mostly achieved not via bold announcements and clear restrictions, but through everyday acts. This includes how data is collected, analysed and shared as part of disaster needs assessments, or which seemingly bureaucratic conditions are tied to response mechanisms. The manner in which certain topics are routinely framed in public discourse also bears importance. When certain issues are not discussed transparently or not discussed at all, they cannot be taken care of[ii].

Myanmar seems to have embarked on a dubious handling of the coronavirus crisis already, denying cases of COVID-19 infections so far. But, crucially, the above described is not only a matter of concern for faraway countries long labelled as ‘hopeless pariah states’. In a 2019 article, political scientist Marlies Glasius highlights how authoritarianism applies not to entire regimes in an ‘all or nothing’ fashion, but to patterns of action that sabotage accountability between the people and their political representatives “by means of secrecy, disinformation and disabling voice”. Such practices can be applied everywhere, including in democratic settings.

The risk of this happening is especially high in situations of crisis, which, quite rightly so, call for urgent and extraordinary measures. Political leaders from France to Spain recently proclaimed that they were ‘waging wars’—rhetoric that bears the risk of stifling criticism and pluralistic views in the name of ‘national unity and security’. In academic jargon, such moves are termed ‘securitization[iii]. In Israel, the transitional government just pushed through the use of mass surveillance techniques on civilians to ‘monitor the virus’. This move is not approved nor overseen by the Knesset, to the dismay of many lawyers and human rights organizations. The Hungarian parliament might have to enter a phase of imposed hibernation, and journalists could be fined for propagating ‘fake news’. In several European countries, governments are currently negotiating with telecommunication companies to track population movements. One of the advanced arguments? ‘This was effective in China’. Yet, these privacy-invading practices can also be difficult to unwind, and can set precedents.

A key democratic concern is not only how decisions are taken, but also whether they are taken in the common interest of societies at large. Our political representatives, the media, but also every one of us have a crucial role to play in this. Social and environmental issues must be kept central, not only serve as adjustment variables to the economic or political interests of a few. To take one example even closer to home: in the Netherlands, the government is currently likely to financially support airline company KLM, which would quickly go back to launching its climate-destroying 500,000 flights a year. If such an action really is in the collective long-term interest in our times of climate breakdown deserves to be discussed.

So yes: stay home, wash your hands. But also, depending on your possibilities and preferences, and picking your fights such as to not enter into senseless clicktivism: keep our democracies alive and ensure that institutions are held accountable for the decisions they take now. This crisis can be a political turning point, and it is for all of us to make that future a desirable one.

Follow parliamentary debates and news on government decisions, interact with your political representatives, check whether political and technical institutions act in line with their mandates, keep informed about social realities different from your own, send in reader letters and challenge the media to relay these different social realities and issues, financially support independent media and civil society advocacy groups, join ‘online demonstrations’ (see for instance the alternatives proposed for the Belgian march against racism last weekend), keep mobilized within your party, union or civil society collectives, or even create your own.  And any other basic to creative means you might come up with, and would like to share in the comments?

[i] In Myanmar for instance, the government has long aimed to homogenise its multi-ethnic and religious peoples into a unified Buddhist and Bamar entity. During the response to 2015 cyclone Komen, state aid was biased against religious and ethnic minority groups, and self-help and non-state aid initiatives to help those groups were grossly hampered. Muslim communities were forcibly relocated in military vehicles following the floods, state aid was distributed from monasteries not accessible to non-Buddhist groups, and the Rohingya minority was framed in public discourse as not worthy of support.
[ii] This is linked to self-censorship practices, which I discussed with colleague Roanne van Voorst in another blog.
[iii] The term is generally associated with the Copenhagen School.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.

IsabelleAbout the author:

Isabelle Desportes is a PhD researcher involved in the research project ”When disaster meets conflict” at the ISS.



In search of a new social contract in the Middle East and North Africa – what role for social policy? by Mahmood Messkoub

Social policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is in urgent need of reform. Critiques of current social policy models point out their deficiencies in terms of coverage of population, entitlement to services, fragmentation of support for different groups and inadequacy of services provided, and above all a wasteful generalized/untargeted subsidy structure. The answer to these shortcomings not only lies in the redirection of resources from generalized subsidies towards targeted sectors and populations, but also in a broad rethinking and democratic dialogue on a new social contract and social policy models in order to improve coverage, entitlement, and the quality of services.

In 2019, mass popular protests shook several countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as protesters demanded an end to authoritarian rule and corruption and called for democracy and a decent life. The call for a decent life was not just a protest against the failure of states to alleviate poverty and improve living conditions, but was also seen as an opportunity for a change in the social contract. The protests illuminated a desire to move away from patronage and clientelism that eroded post-independence universalist ideals and social policies.

Some of these protests were triggered by a sudden jump in the price of basic goods (e.g. of bread in Sudan or petrol in Iran) that released the pent-up frustration with repression, corruption, a lack of accountability and deep-seated economic and social problems that have simply been cracked over by the ruling elite. People all over the MENA could easily identify with the Sudanese slogan of ‘freedom, peace and justice’ used in the protests, which would eventually topple the dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir. Freedom, peace and justice are not only important for their own sake, but are also needed for a national debate on social policies that could meet people’s aspirations for better education, health, social protection, etc.

In MENA, social policies have been developed mainly as an integral part of the broad social and economic development agenda in the post-colonial period. Oil income provided resources to pay for healthcare, education, and extensive subsidies for the provision of food, fuel and energy to consumers. Non-oil producers also benefited from the oil income through labour remittances, foreign aid, and investment by the oil-rich countries. But in the 1980s, a low growth rate and the decline in oil revenues put the finances of the MENA countries to test. The region was ill equipped in terms of a skilled labour force and social insurance policies to compete internationally and diversify its economy. The existing social programmes mostly covered formal sector employees including those in the civil service. Large numbers of informal sector workers, rural residents, and agricultural workers had to rely on poor publicly provided services or fall back on meager family resources and charitable handouts of non-state providers in an informal security regime. The formal and informal social provisioning were based on a male-breadwinner household with negative implications for gender equality in law and in relation to entitlement to welfare and social support that was exacerbated by the low labour force participation rate of women.

In addition, state expenditures on social policy programmes are constrained by expenditures on generalized indirect subsidies, inter alia, to fuel, public utilities, water, and staple food sources.  According to one estimate, fuel subsidies account for nearly 75% of the total subsidy spending in MENA (Silva et al 2013). The higher income groups in general benefit most from these indirect subsidies except staple food, since the latter takes a larger share of consumption expenditure of lower income groups.

The existing social policy model of generalized indirect subsidies has failed to provide a solution to increasing poverty and vulnerability in the region, especially in periods of social and economic crisis. The reform of the subsidy structure should not only take note of differential impact of the indirect subsidies, but also has to be part of a broad social policy agenda.

The current debate on social policy in the region is about the reform and reduction of the indirect subsidy structure and moving away from a universal rights-based approach to social provisioning towards targeting poverty and improving social protection. Whilst cuts in indirect subsidies and strengthening of social protection are needed, it is essential that any targeting and social protection do not undermine the broad rights-based social policy agenda of public provisioning of health and education and rules governing the labour market to support employment that will improve the economic foundation of household economy.

There is also the all-important concern with the role of households and families to support themselves. In the absence of adequate family resources, there is a need for social policy measures that would supplement family resources and support the broad developmental agenda and ensure societal and macro-level inter-generational support. In this context, the most basic objective of any state intervention is to maintain and increase the resource base of households. This is particularly important if we take into account the changing demographics of the region: the lowering of fertility and ageing of the population. The MENA societies and families are ill prepared for an ageing population.

The Arab Spring and its counterparts in Turkey and Iran have been much more than a cry for freedom and democracy. It has also been a cry for social justice and against corruption that has aggravated capitalist inequality. The use of and access to public office for private accumulation, lack of accountability, and poor governance have all contributed to a sense of desperation and alienation of the population, especially the young. The region is in need of a new social contract. Social policy should play an important role in the design and implementation of this social contract.

What MENA needs is a return to the universalist social policy ideals of a developmental state but within a democratic political environment that promotes genuine popular engagement and participation, as well as transparency and accountability, in order to arrive at an inclusive and new social contract. The details and boundaries of this new social contract would be country specific and depend on the national political and economic developments.

This blog is based on the author’s recent publications:
Messkoub, M. (2017). ‘Population ageing and inter-generational relation in the MENA: what role for social policy?’ Population Horizons, 14(2): 61-72.
Jawad, R., Jones, N. and Messkoub, M. (eds) (2019) Social policy in the Middle East and North Africa: the new social protection paradigm and universal coverage. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar publishers.
Messkoub, M. (2020) ‘Social Policy in the MENA’ in Hakimian, H. (2020) Routledge Handbook on Middle East Economy. London: Routledge.
Silva, J., Levin, V. and M. Morgandi (2013) ‘Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa’. Washington DC: World Bank.

About the author:

Mahmoud Meskoub is senior lecturer at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University of Rotterdam), teaching and researching in areas of social policy and population studies. As an economist he taught for many years in the UK (at the universities of Leeds and London). His current research interests are in the area of economics of social policy and population ageing, migration and universal approach to social provisioning. His recent publications on MENA are related to social policy, the impact of recent financial crisis on the region, poverty and employment policies. He has acted as a consultant to ESCWA, ILO, UNFPA and the World Bank.

Image Credit: AK Rockefeller on Flickr

EADI/ISS Series | Rethinking Empowerment and Accountability in ‘Difficult Settings’ by John Gaventa

Over the last two decades, development has been replete with theories and interventions focusing on ‘empowerment and accountability’, and how these could contribute to a range of outcomes, be they good governance, social inclusion, and social justice. Much of the early thinking on these approaches emerged from examples in countries which were then relatively open, enjoying perhaps an opening of democratic spaces and opportunities. But what about empowerment and accountability in more difficult spaces – characterised by shrinking civic space, strong legacies of authoritarianism, violence and repression, and fragmented forms of authority?

Over the last two decades, development has been replete with theories and interventions focusing on ‘empowerment and accountability’, and how these could contribute to a range of outcomes, be they good governance, social inclusion, and social justice.  Much of the early thinking on these approaches emerged from examples in countries which were then relative open, enjoying perhaps an opening of democratic spaces and opportunities, and a flourishing of civil society – one thinks for instance of Brazil, Philippines, Indonesia, India, South Africa and more?

But what about empowerment and accountability in more difficult spaces – characterised by shrinking civic space, strong legacies of authoritarianism, violence and repression, and fragmented forms of authority? It’s these settings in which the Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research programme (A4EA) set out to investigate over three years ago.

Difficult Settings”: From the Exception to the Norm

When we started this project, we thought of such ‘fragile, conflict, violence affected settings (FCVAS)’ as perhaps the exceptions, in which we needed to adapt our existing theories of change drawn largely from more stable and democratic settings. But in the last few years, the flourishing of civic and democratic space that we have seen in many places of the world since the 1990s has been receding. The 2019 report published by Civicus, People Power Under Attack, found that 40% of the world’s population live in repressed settings (double from the previous year), and that in fact only 3% of the world’s population live in settings which are ‘open’ – those plural and stable democracies from which so much of our development thinking seems to evolve.

So how do we achieve empowerment and accountability in these more difficult settings?  The A4EA programme recently published a synthesis of the first round of its research, which involved over 15 projects in Myanmar, Egypt, Mozambique, Pakistan and Nigeria.  A number of lessons emerge:

  • Message 1:
    In these settings, factors like closing civic space, legacies of fear, and distrust challenge fundamental assumptions about the conditions necessary for many processes of empowerment and accountability, which assume that ‘voice’ on the one hand and ‘responsiveness’ on the other will underpin the formation of a social contract between citizens and the state. So how do we work with fear and legacies of internalised powerlessness?
  • Message 2:
    Theories of change often assume the existence of ‘accountable and responsive institutions’, towards which voice may be directed, but in many less democratic and open settings, we need to re-understand the nature of authority and question our assumptions of who is to be held to account, and by whom. In the A4EA, we have used a novel governance diaries approach, to understand how authority is seen and navigated from below.
  • Message 3:
    Spaces for civic action are constantly shifting. Opportunities for empowerment and accountability may present themselves at particular moments and in particular places, even while other places remain closed or difficult.  Few societies are totally ‘closed’ or ‘open’ but may vary a great deal across subnational levels, and over time.
  • Message 4:
    Even in difficult contexts, action for empowerment and accountability may be present, but not always in ways we see or recognise, implying different entry points for thinking and working politically, beyond business as usual. In particular, we have found even in the most challenging spaces, the emergence of popular protests, the challenging of authority though musical and cultural expressions, and sophisticated ways of solidarity and voice floating ‘under the radar’.
  • Message 5:
    Though patriarchy and authoritarianism often go together, in these settings women’s collective action is an important driver of empowerment and accountability, through greater political empowerment in formal processes, as well as through more informal channels, social movements, and local actions which challenge gender norms.  In Pakistan, for instance, while formal political participation often remains low, women have been at the forefront of struggling for new rights and social justice for decades.
  • Message 6:
    Donors, policy makers and external actors can make important contributions in these settings, but more careful and grounded approaches are needed, with more appropriate expectations and measurements of outcomes.  In particular, attention must be paid to measuring the intangibles, building trust, overcoming fear, strengthening solidarity, and appreciating small scale steps towards change.  Donors themselves must also learn to work differently, to avoid the risk of discrediting or undermining local efforts.
  • Message 7:
    Working in difficult settings, perhaps more than elsewhere, requires an approach that is adaptive and flexible. This means giving front line staff autonomy, recruiting entrepreneurial and politically savvy staff, and sometimes ‘going against the grain’, not only with it. While adaptive learning and management are the flavours of the month, those at the front line often need more space to be responsive and agile in seizing opportunities for change.
  • Message 8:
    Understanding complex and highly political issues of empowerment and accountability in these settings requires new tools for political economy analysis and ways of sharing research that are sensitive to local dynamics, and which themselves can contribute to building spaces for dialogue Traditional forms of institutional analysis may do little to pick up the dynamics of gender, power, fear and exclusion as seen ‘from below’.

At the EADI conference in June at ISS, we will pick up these themes further in two sessions organised by the A4EA programme, with several other sessions focusing on similar themes of building solidarity in the context of closing civic spaces. See you there!

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the author:

John_Gaventa2015John Gaventa is a Professor and Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, and director of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme.  This blog was drawn from the recent publication with Katie Oswald, Research Officer at IDS, ‘Empowerment and Accountability in Difficult Settings: What are we learning?’

Image Credit: Wole Oladapo and Abayomi Kolapo: Bring Back Our Girls protestors, still marching for protest in 2018.

Deglobalisation Series | Challenges to the liberal peace by Syed Mansoob Murshed

We may have reached a stage where economic interactions have become so internationalised that further increases in globalisation cannot deliver greater prospects of peace.[1] But the logic of the capitalist peace still holds water; the intricate nature of the economic interdependence between advanced market economies almost entirely rules out war, but other hostile attitudes can still persist, and even grow.  

Liberal peace theories posit that peace among nations is not a result of a balance of power, but rests on the pacific nature of commonly held values, economic interdependence, and mutual membership of international organisations. Ideal theories of the liberal peace can be traced back to the work of Immanuel Kant, who in his essay on the Perpetual Peace[2] argued that although war is the natural state of man, peace could be established through deliberate design. This requires the adoption of a republican constitution simultaneously by all nations, which inter alia would check the war-like tendencies of monarchs and the citizenry; the cosmopolitanism that would emerge among the comity of nations would preclude war. The European Union is the most obvious, albeit imperfect, example.

Mirroring Kant’s thoughts is the contemporary philosopher John Rawl’s [3] notion of peace between liberal societies, which he refers to as peoples and not states. He speaks of well-ordered peoples. These are mainly constitutional liberal democracies, which arrive at such a polity based on an idea of public reason. In a well-ordered society, based on public reason, human rights are respected, and the distribution of primary goods (a decent living standard, dignity, respect and the ability to participate) for each citizen’s functioning is acceptably arranged.

Another version of the liberal peace theory based on economic interdependence is the ‘capitalist’ peace notion.[4] The intensity of international trade in an economy is the least important feature in the peace engendered by capitalism. The nature of advanced capitalism makes territorial disputes, which are mainly contests over resources, less likely, as the market mechanism allows easier access to resources. The nature of production makes the output of more sophisticated goods and services increasingly reliant on “ideas” that are research and development intensive, and the various stages of production occur across national boundaries. Moreover, the disruption to integrated financial markets makes war less likely between countries caught up in that web of inter-dependence. It is also argued that common foreign policy goals reflected in the membership of international treaty organisations (such as NATO and the European Union) also produce peace.

The chances of the well-ordered, tolerant societies envisaged by Rawls living in peace within themselves and with one another have greatly diminished with the recent rise in inequality, the growing wealth and income share of the richest 1-10% of the population, and the rise in varieties of populist politics. Also, the quality of Kant’s foedus pacificum has been dealt a severe blow by nations such as the UK choosing to leave the European Union, adversely affecting the utilisation of soft power via common membership of international organisations.

We also may have come to a stage where economic interactions such as the exchange of goods, provision of services and the movement of finance have become so internationalised that further increases in globalisation cannot deliver greater prospects of peace.[5] But the logic of the capitalist peace still holds water; the intricate nature of the economic interdependence between advanced market economies almost entirely rules out war, but other hostile attitudes can still persist, and even grow, given recent developments. This includes the rise in populist politics.

The rise of populist politics

The growth in inequality, but more especially the creeping rise in the social mobility inhibiting inequality of opportunity, has spawned the illiberal backlash manifesting itself in the rise in mainly right wing populist politics. A large segment of immiserated voters vote for populists knowing that, once elected, the populist politician is unlikely to increase their economic welfare, as long as they create discomfiture for certain establishment circles, vis-à-vis whom these voters see themselves as relatively deprived. Immigrants and immigration is scapegoated and made responsible for all economic disadvantage and social evils following the simplistic and simple-minded message of right-wing demagogues. It has to be said that left-wing populism, too, has emerged in many societies, mainly among educated millenarians whose economic prospects are often bleaker than those of their parents, and in regions (such as Latin America) with a strong Peronist tradition.

By contrast, during the golden age, which lasted for a little over a quarter of a century after World War II, no particular group in society was disadvantaged by economic growth and the advance of capitalism. The elites appeared to internalise the interests of the median and below-median income groups in society. Social mobility was palpably present, and social protection cushioned households against systemic and idiosyncratic economic shocks. The growth in inequality linked to globalisation and labour-saving technological progress since the early 1980s has disadvantaged vast swathes of the population: it first pauperised the former manufacturing production worker through either job offshore relocation or stagnating real wages, and latterly it is emasculating even median service sector occupations. At the same time the income and wealth share of the top 1-10% of the population grows at an accelerating pace, faster than the rise in national income.[6]

In developing countries there has been a growth in autocratic tendencies, the liberal half of a liberal democracy, even when the other part of democracy, the electoral process, is broadly respected. The use of plebiscites by strong men to garner greater power has been a frequently used tool. There is even talk of autocratic rulers delivering development and economic growth and autocratic tendencies may be greater in nations that have achieved economic structural transformation. But the logic of the “modernisation”[7] hypothesis that argues that democracy is demanded by society as it becomes affluent may still ring true, even if the process is non-linear, and other complex factors need to be taken into account.

A hyper-globalisation trilemma?

Faced with these challenges, we need to abandon our “Panglossian” faith in the ability of markets to always do good. The rules of globalisation and capitalism only serve elites who are owners of internationally mobile skills and wealth. There may be a hyper-globalisation trilemma[8], whereby the simultaneous achievement of national sovereignty, democracy and hyper-globalisation is impossible. It is worth reiterating that hyper-globalisation refers to a situation where for the collective the pains from increased globalisation in terms of adverse distributional consequences outweigh the gains in terms of enhanced income.

Earlier advances of globalisation was made relatively more acceptable in Europe compared to the United States, given the greater prevalence of social protection in the continent. Gradually, after 1980, and especially since the dawn of the new millennium, more and more groups have been disadvantaged by globalisation, and the politics of austerity has diminished social protection, fraying pre-existing domestic social contracts. Thus, many advocate a more limited globalisation, akin to the halcyon days of the golden age, also known as the Bretton Woods era (1945-73), whose hallmark was that the demands of globalisation never exercised veto powers on the domestic social contract.

A retreat from hyper-globalisation is desirable, but not through channels that diminish international cooperation and partnership, like Brexit and President Trump’s protectionist sabre rattling that undermine agreements like NAFTA. What is needed is internationally coordinated checks on hyper-globalisation and agreements on certain wealth taxes on the richest individuals, which is needed to address the alarming rise in wealth inequality given the fact that social protection can only have a palliative, and not curative, impact on these stupendous inequalities.

[1] Rodrik, Dani (2017) Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy, Princeton: University Press.
[2] Kant, Immanuel (1795) Perpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History and Morals, reprinted 1983. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
[3] Rawls, John (1999) The Law of Peoples, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[4] Gartzke, Erik (2007) ‘The Capitalist Peace’, American Journal of Political Science 51(1): 166-191.
[5] Rodrik, Dani (2017) Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy, Princeton: University Press.
[6] Piketty, Thomas (2014) Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
[7] Lipset, Seymour (1960) Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. New York: Doubleday.
[8] Argued by Dani Rodrik; see, for example, Rodrik (2017), op. cit.

Also see: Backtracking from globalisation by Evan Hillebrand

csm_6ab8a5ef34f1a5efe8b07dff07d52162-mansoob-murshed_0833a7fcf4About the author:

Syed Mansoob Murshed is Professor of the Economics of Peace and Conflict at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. His research interests are in the economics of conflict, resource abundance, aid conditionality, political economy, macroeconomics and international economics.



The Age of Democratic Resilience by Mohamed Salih

About the author:
M_SalihMohamed Salih is PhD in Economics and Social Science, University of Manchester, UK, 1983) is Professor of Politics of Development at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague and the Department of Political Science, University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Regional research interests, fieldwork, academic and policy research interests: Africa and Middle East and shortly in the English-speaking Caribbean.

This posting is an excerpt of the valedictory lecture of Mohamed Salih at the occasion of his retirement from the Institute of Social Studies. The lecture was held on 12 October 2017

Current academic views, media reports and policy and development practitioners often claim that democracy and development are declining or even ending. Mohamed Salih maintains that democracy is not dying but expanding beyond its classic form of representative democracy. What has declined, however, is educated democracy and authentic development that sides with the poor and critically embraces solidarity against want, hunger and fear, resisting tyranny and authoritarianism or confronting discrimination in all its forms.  

It is perplexing that the phenomenal expansion of democracy during recent decades has lately been greeted by suggestions in a considerable number of publications that it is in decline or has died. This, in spite of the fact that we live in an age in which democracy has flourished like never before. Democracy, and development, are flourishing in new spaces, institutional forms and practices. These capitalize on new freedoms democracy has unleashed and new technologies that have created millions of globally networked communities of interest, with a direct bearing on politics locally, nationally, regionally and globally.

I have lived over six decades of how development policy intertwines with African politics, living half of my age in the Sudan and the other half in Europe, as well as conducting research, teaching and offering policy advice for the larger part of my life.  A pessimist may argue that over five decades, during which fundamental social, economic and environmental problems have preoccupied academia, policy and practice, these problems are not only still lingering, but some have even been exacerbated, and new social problems have been piled upon the old. Moreover, the intensification of old and new threats to human survival and wellbeing such as poverty, persistent hunger and inequality, epitomized by the juxtaposition of foods that kill and famines that kill[1], climate change and biodiversity loss, are common features that unite the first and current decade of development. Rather than considering the glass empty, in my mind there remain reasons to stay optimistic, and find the glass is more than half-full.

Despite negative reporting on Africa’s recent democratic development, led both by the media and academics, data collected from the field show contrary results. In the case of Africa, the development and democracy trends between 1999 and 2016 are moderately positive. More importantly, critics fail to ask whether what is happening is a decline of democracy or the emergence of new spaces and forms of democracy. There are three developments that characterize the past two decades of democratic resurgence. Local and grassroots democracy have expanded in what can also be termed the fourth wave of democratization,[2] cyber democracy and electronic voting.

Firstly, citizens’ withdrawal from state-created political spaces to participate in local and indigenous forms of direct deliberation instead of representation is not new to Africa, but has taken immense proportions over the past decades. Youth, women, farmers, pastoralists, traders, and non-governmental and civil society organizations deliberate on local issues from water to health and from education to forestation. They also discuss soil and water conservation on their own or supported by like-minded transnational organizations. Those who declare the decline of democracy should go beyond national statistics to engage the emergent new forms of local level, community and grassroots deliberations practiced by the majority of the world.

Second, since the late 1990s, the rapid expansion and convergence of information and communication technologies has created new spaces for political engagement, which has expanded citizens’ freedom to exchange information, organize political action and social movements, and rediscover the growth of a new vocabulary of resistance. While democracy’s essential values have persisted, the forms and spaces of democratic practices have multiplied. Consider, for example, e-government, e-political parties, e-parliaments, e-civic networks and associations which have become prominent features of citizens’ vehicle not only for accessing information but also for using information to make government more responsive.

Third, already, during the 1960s, Western democracies started experimenting with electronic voting and achieved mixed results. Despite many disadvantages, e-voting creates huge possibilities for deliberation and influencing politics across the globe.

Democracy and development are the most cherished values defining the aspirations of every human society. Almost all political elites use democracy and development to bestow legitimacy on their system of governance. However, both democratic and authoritarian regimes often use democracy and development as instruments to legitimize their retention of power, which often imposes oppressive pathways for regulating and controlling the totality of citizens’ human affairs. In some developing countries, the state has even demanded that citizens should suspend their democratic rights and freedom in the wake of development until this cherished national project is accomplished. All too often, too, democratic majorities relish what is known in democratic theory as the “tyranny of the majority.” Absolute majority rule usurps political ideologies and practices that are an affront to democracy and human flourishing.

Democracy and development are about inclusion and ensuring that the rights of the minority are not forsaken by regimes that are discriminatory or in the business of widening the wedge between citizens according to their race, religion, sex, creed or region for short-term political gain. What has declined, in my mind, is not democracy but educated democracy; not development but authentic development that sides with the poor and critically addresses the main messages and meaning of development. For, if democracy is allowed to decline and development to die, there would be nothing left for humanity to celebrate by way of embracing solidarity against want, hunger and fear, resisting tyranny and authoritarianism or confronting discrimination in all its forms. In a nutshell, humanity is not complete without the pursuit of authentic democracy and inclusive and empowering development.

[1]I contrasted foods that kill as a metaphor for the rich over consumption of food, which causes obesity vis-a-vis famine that kills as a metaphor of severe food shortages among the poor, which causes hunger and famine (Mohamed Salih 2009).

[2] This characterization follows on Huntington 1990. The Third Wave of Democratization.