Are institutions in developing economies doomed?

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In late November 2015 academics, journalists, politicians and members of various civil society organizations from several countries that are characterized as emerging markets came together in Cape Town, South Africa to discuss the life-span of institutions, and whether they can be saved or defended under attack from authoritarian systems or otherwise changing conditions.

Participants who attended the event organized and sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) hailed from Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India and South Africa: all underdeveloped markets most of which also struggle with issues of democracy, such as populist governments and sometimes not so subtle authoritarian tendencies. Several members of parliament from South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) also participated in the discussion.

The birth, life and death of an institution

Turkey was represented by myself from P24, Berk Esen from Bilkent University’s international relations department; Zeynep Alemdar, head of Okan University’ international relations department, Economist Emre Deliveli and Aret Demirci from FNF Turkey.

The example shared by the Turkish delegates in the conference on the making of an institution was the creation of the Constitutional Court as a powerful institution, some of whose rulings have at times stopped governments from riding roughshod over constitutional provisions, but at the same time have started a tradition of shutting down Islamist, Kurdish and communist political parties.

To illustrate how an institution was destroyed, the Turkish team described the recent erosion of the influence of Turkey’s Central Bank through increasingly harsh and sometimes humiliating attacks and veiled threats aimed at undermining the credibility of its Governor, coming from Turkey’s powerful autocrat, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The example the Turkish team chose to present as an example of how the media, under relentless attack from the government, is looking to defend itself through the rise of a higher-quality digital media as a replacement institution that can be a platform for dissent and a source of good journalism, hope and encouragement as well as jobs for journalists, intentionally chosen by the delegation to end the stories of Turkey’s institutions on a positive note.

How the other half lives

Participants from other countries also discussed the successes and failures of their own institutions.

The dismantling of an elite police force, which was initially established to fight corruption in South Africa was given as an example of how an institution was destroyed; the creation of the educational system in Mexico which eventually turned into a major apparatus for imposing official ideology was put forth as an example of how an institution was created. Other examples included, among others, the recent abolishment of India’s state planning agency; the creation of a civil society organization which became an effective voting monitor in Argentina; the creation of a region-specific new development plan in South Africa;  the devising of an urban development plan in Brazil to guarantee private property rights to all, and the establishment of a sound an independent judicial system also in Brazil.

As FNF is a foundation for liberal politics, the conference was essentially a meeting of liberals, who certainly represent an incredibly wide array of diverse beliefs about political systems and life from both ends of the political spectrum, but regardless of their differences, all participants agreed on one rather unweberian point: institutions are extremely hard to build, but they are fairly easy to destroy, come the right time and circumstances. Institutions often fall victims to the destructive actions of circumstances or other institutions they have helped create. They are like the trees in the Stereophonics song, which has the lyrics, It takes one tree to make a thousand matches but only takes one match to burn a thousand trees.

Doomed to failure, or not?

But why are institutions so easy to destroy? Are they failing us are we failing our institutions? This is a hugely important question for less developed markets with fledgling democracies.

How can we ensure that our good institutions remain strong and sound that so whatever it is that we need them for — be it fighting crime or corruption; ensuring checks and balances in our political systems; making sure that nobody goes hungry or that atrocities of the past don’t repeat in the future? The same question could be reversed: how can we fortify our good institutions, but at the same time have the flexibility to improve or get rid of the bad ones? Can we have the best of the both worlds? Or is it simply preferable to have fragile institutions, if that means that those working against us can also be easily brought down?

On the other hand, these questions are undoubtedly more relevant and vital in emerging markets. Some wealthy Western democracies have been able to do a good job of maintaining their well working institutions. But even in some of those countries, today we see that some institutions are beginning to crumble in the face of nearly a decade long economic crisis followed by the one of the greatest refugee crises in recent history. Populist parties — which are notorious for undermining good institutions– are coming to power even in nations where center left or right parties have historically held majorities.

Stories of different institutions from the world’s top six emerging markets suggest that not all institutions are perhaps doomed to fail, but they are all vulnerable, precisely because their destruction serves for the erosion of collective memory about the past. Turkey, which has seen every institution including its basic understanding of rule of law, which was never too strong in the first place, eroded, undermined, attacked or turned upside down in a little over a decade is burning proof of that.

Originally appeared at http://platform24.org/en/articles/332/are-institutions-in-developing-economies-doomed

Can governments really promote the right to know?

It will be civil society that will drive any change in our approach towards freedoms, but pressure from international bodies can be helpful

Last month, more than 70 participants from civil society groups, journalists, media organizations, and independent institutions gathered in the Serbian capital of Belgrade with the mighty aim of forming guidelines for OSCE states on combating hate speech in the media and on the Internet.

The event, formally titled “Freedom of Expression, Media Freedoms and Censorship in the OSCE Area”, was organized by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia in cooperation with the Civic Solidarity Platform and the Embassy of the Netherlands in Belgrade.

One panel in the conference held on July 20 was entitled “The Right to Know as a public good,” and Punto 24, which is conducting a major project on Right to Information (RTI) legislation and how to use it more effectively in Turkey together with Article19 with the support of The Guardian Foundation, was also invited. In attending the conference, we were hoping to outline the major issues with the RTI legislation and the government’s reluctance on making it work, but also provide recommendations on  what can be done to better the situation.

Here is a gist of what we said in that panel: Turkey has had good RTI legislation in place since 2005. Thanks to its strong online infrastructure that allows filing RTI requests with efficacy on the websites of most public agencies, Turkey, where residents file about 2 million requests a year, has by far the highest number of information requests filed in Europe.

According to official statistics, most of these requests receive answers from the relevant bodies. However, that official claim does not match the realities of the outside world. Most of the time, the answers do not really contain the information the askers have intended to get. The truth is, they do not want to give out information to the public.

To bring down this resistance, Punto24 recommends, based on our own experience from ongoing project being conducted with Article19:

1) Organizing a core group of RTI experts and journalists, a group of dedicated individuals who really want to know all sorts of things about public agencies, and perhaps do that on an international level;
2) Making sure that citizens understand and know how to use the law;
3) Encouraging people to use the law whenever possible;
4) Educating both journalists, other potential users of the law (i.e. everyone) and public information officials to ensure higher quality in responses and finally;
5) Litigating when attempts to formally acquire information fail. Not only will you possibly get the information being held back, but also change the state’s information culture.

It is not magic, but this is a formula that works. It certainly is also a cause worth fighting for.

In the same panel, a representative of Team29 – a non-profit formed by a group of lawyers dedicated to offering legal assistance in freedom of expression violations in Russia, and a member of the Dutch group Free Press Unlimited also made presentations. The summary: the situation is very similar to Turkey in Russia, and many other parts of the world. Nothing we didn’t know about.

Following the panel, attending journalists shared their own experiences of feeling like “they’ve hit a wall” when pursuing official information requests. Some speakers were critical of international bodies; claiming that they had been denied critical information by the EU Commissioner Delegation in Macedonia.

The rapporteur on our panel, after summarizing the main bases touched upon by the three speakers said: “There is a huge gap in recommendations for the December declaration,” although all three speakers had shared recommendations about what civil society organizations can do to enhance our right to know. Perhaps in the rapporteur’s concluding remark, there was a hint of frustration that little was said about how public agencies could contribute to a solution of the issues discussed.

This is not a note of skepticism, but in general panelists in conferences that involve international bodies, be it the OSCE or the EU, rarely discuss the apparent paradox that states, and the governments that run them, are usually the main culprits in the crimes and illegalities that plague non-transparent societies such as corruption. The same applies to media freedoms.

When it comes to freedom of expression, and the public’s right to information – an inalienable part of that freedom — how can we get governments to act when usually it is their representatives or activities restricting freedom of speech? Where they are not actively jailing journalists, they are hurling threats and insults against them. Where they are not passing laws that openly ban free speech, they are pressuring the judiciary to interpret the laws in a restrictive light. Still, realistically, they are the ones empowered to make any real and long-lasting changes. They are also the ones that make up the international bodies that are supposed to pressure them. That is in the complicated nature of the business, and certainly the Belgrade conference bore that paradox.

The recommendations from the conference will be formally announced in December, by which time Punto24 will have opened a Turkish-language website on the Right to Information, fostering its network of information activists, journalists and others dedicated to protecting our right to know. All in all, it will be civil society that will drive any cultural change in our approach towards freedoms  – including the freedom to know — but pressure from bodies such as OSCE is always more than welcome.