Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Local is Not Always More Democratic

If my parents were to read this, they would be upset: The local is not always more democratic. This is an extension of my earlier argument about the failure of democratic development to take into account the needs and demands of those who are not represented in the political process.

By making development local, the goal is to create policies that are more responsive to local needs. The challenge faced by these processes is that they are closely controlled by the local political establishment. One international example is the failure of development efforts in Botswana to reach the minority tribes who are considered to be inferior by the majority's traditional feudal system. I discuss this in detail in my thesis "Ethnicity and Inequality in the Age of Globalization: Implications for Development." In an example more close to home (but also more circumstantial), the Voting Rights Act requires communities with past histories of voter discrimination to receive permission from the Federal Government before changing their voting regulations and practices. This Law exists out of recognition that local politics can be the least democratic with minorities dominated without recourse by local politicians, other groups, law enforcement, etc.

This said, it is often not the answer to go with national programs over local ones. Even with the increased ability of people to act at different scales (by this I mean, for example, a village with environmental concerns taking their problems to international environmental groups) from globalization, people are still unable to empathize with leaders operating at scales higher (or lower). This helps to explain why congressmen are more radical than senators and why the IMF could not understand that Indonesia needed to keep subsidizing food for the poor during the Asian Financial Crisis (incidentally, when they stopped, thousands of people were killed in anti-Chinese violence. Recently the IMF encouraged countries to not cut social spending to deal with budget problems. Coincidence?).

In sum, when approaching an issue of development, the ideal is to mix local priorities with state and national oversight in order to prevent the pitfalls caused by a lack of local democracy.

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