Democracy in activism

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.

–          Jean-Jacques Rousseau

For any organization struggling for social justice, the aim of promoting democracy should be of prime concern. Not only for society should democracy be promoted, but it should also be promoted within the organization’s ranks.

To begin with, let’s take a look at what we mean by democracy. The use of the word is not meant to refer to its contemporary popular definition: a form of government in which power is held by elected representatives. The use of the word here is meant to denote its traditional and literal meaning: rule of the people. Rule of the people, as in all of the people, as opposed to “majority rule” (which is another popular definition of the word).

To say that a society or organization should strive towards greater democratization likely appears a readily agreeable position. Regardless, let’s go over why we would hold such a position.

Any struggle for social justice has at its core the aim of increasing individual human liberty. This can be measured based on the amount of compulsion experienced by an individual. If a person is completely free she will not be compelled from outside her own self to do anything. She will come to settle on the decisions she takes through her own free will. The ideal state of society would allow all individuals to engage their free will except where doing so would encroach on anyone else’s liberty.

We concern ourselves with development because poverty impinges upon human liberty. It compels people to resign their aspirations, such as the wish to obtain a proper amount of nutrition, follow a particular career path, travel to see the pyramids, etc.

Coming back to the issue of democracy, individual liberty needs to be championed to as great a degree as possible where collective decision-making takes place. If decisions which impact the lives of multiple people are to be made in as fair (i.e. just) as possible a way and with due respect for individual liberty, all relevant information, an equal voice and an equal share of decision-making power should be available to all stakeholders.

It’s for the sake of expediency that we may want to delegate responsibility for making decisions to smaller groups (e.g. elected representatives) within the larger group. Delegating authority to smaller groups, however, is anti-democratic and, as such, an injustice.

Hence, decision-making power should remain decentralized to as large a degree as possible; where a reasonable level of expediency has been achieved power no longer need be centralized. Secondly, where power is centralized, checks should be placed in order to ensure that it is not misused or mishandled.

Again, a balance needs to be found between the effectiveness of the checks and the level of expediency they allow. An example of a check that is generally easy to implement in a way that would serve this balance is the requirement that all proceedings and decision-making conducted by managers or elected representatives be open to review by any and all members of an organization.

Without checks that enforce democracy, a smaller group tasked with managing the affairs on behalf of all the people in a group may fall into managing the people as well. A temperament of hierarchy may develop within the group which encourages the idea that the managers know better. Whether this may or may not be true, it could lead to the managers seeking to shape the perceptions of the people through the control of information.

During my time with Engineers Without Borders as a Junior Fellow (JF) in Ghana I have come under criticism for my supposed “negative influence” on the other JFs. My ideas and the manner in which I relate them are said to result in others becoming demotivated. The JFs themselves have neglected to bring this charge against me. In fact, as far as I have been able to gather their opinions, my contribution to their experience here is anything but negative.

This charge comes from high up, from a class which has become entrenched in its own way of thinking; which thinks that it knows best when it comes to the kinds of ideas (and manners of expressing them) the JFs should be exposed to. This, first and foremost, is an insult to the JFs’ intelligence along with being an exercise in censorship; an attempt to form particular kinds of perceptions through the control of information.

EWB does seek to champion democratic ideals, including promoting transparency, as well as the idea that JFs should “take ownership over their learning”, think critically and ask tough questions. In practice, however, the championing of these ideals can amount to not much more than giving them lip-service.

In the case of taking ownership over one’s learning, for example, I have experienced instances when my way of approaching problems or decision-making was cautiously manipulated and put into a framework which forwarded the agenda of the managers at the expense of my own interests. Another instance saw the managers discreetly discussing on their own a matter which was of great concern to me, and would have been much more fairly discussed with my involvement. I was made aware of the discussion, and the decisions reached through it, only after it had taken place.

Without formal democratic checks, a distinct hierarchy has come into shape which limits the scope that can be achieved even by the organization’s own metrics.

Though, more than formal checks, what’s needed is the growth of a culture which upholds democracy. Without such a culture any existing formal checks could be implemented in a way which results in them being nothing more than slight irritants in the way of the normal arrangement. A commitment to the simple ideas of straightforward truth-telling (as opposed to coy manipulation), transparency (as opposed to discretion), and fraternity (as opposed hierarchy) needs to be adopted. Through this an environment can come into place where individual liberty is prized, allowing for the free exchange of diverse ideas for the benefit of the organization and its work.


6 responses to “Democracy in activism

  • Stacey

    Agreed, this organization could do a lot more to be live out the principles and values it espouses/advocates for ie. transparency. I believe the way an organization conducts its internal operations says a lot about its work in general, including its international operations. Interpares which operates on a consensus-based & non-hierarchical model stands out to me for this reason. While small, they are efficient and have a great reputation within the development sector.

    Are the issues you point to related to specific people, or more deeply engrained issues? I wonder. Also, what framework does EWB operate from & do our “core values” suffice?


    • Umair

      I think it would be remiss of us to take the position that these problems are simply the result of specific people’s actions and not the result of a structural flaw.

      In a crowd of people there will always be a diversity of character traits. The structure that exists within an organization should seek to make sure that those who posses anti-democratic attitudes aren’t able to set the agenda.

      Your second question… that one is a big question.

  • Leah

    x2. Thanks for your honesty.

  • Sylvie Spraakman

    Thanks Umair. I think you bring up really great points, as well as really great (but tough) solutions. I’m sorry that there have been some negative experiences for you in dealing with EWB. From what I’ve seen on your involvement with – well pretty much anyone – you’re a positive influence.

  • robsparrowRob

    Thanks for the post Umair. Definitely forced me to reflect on my own involvement with EWB, and I can think of a lot of times I’ve run into conflict where I kept it private rather than upholding that ideal of transparency.

    Way to keep pushing issues, even if they might seem demotivating to some at first glance. I think it’s far too common to disregard these topics, either on our own or in groups, just to avoid discomfort.

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