How Will People Hold Governments to Account?
By Bobby Ramakant *
One of the major failures of current times is how democratic systems are being made ineffective so that people with a 'power of one vote' are not able to hold elected representatives to account. How else can governments get away with making promises and not delivering? Rather often governments instead of delivering on pro-people promises, have harmed people's interests even more, thereby allowing corporations to siphon away profits and resources. With democracy failing the people to hold governments to account, it is no surprise that non-performing governments often get re-elected!
Like a silver-lining on the dark cloud, there are well-intentioned parliamentarians too who are trying hard to deliver on the promises they make to their peoples. On the sidelines of Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD), few women parliamentarians who have championed pro-people causes over years were on a panel organized by Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD). The panel was moderated by senior journalist of IPS Asia Pacific, Johanna Son.
People's movements important to hold govts to account
Dame Carol Kidu, has been a woman Member of Parliament (MP) for over a decade in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and also is widely recognized for her leadership on women and girls' rights. She said: "Can we integrate reporting mechanisms [by which countries report to global processes on what progress they have made on delivering the promises]? For a country with lot of bureaucracy and limited resources, we have to deal with several reporting mechanisms for 'Rio', MDGs, etc - so we are left with less option and often resort to getting a consultant from overseas. We need to do the integration and alignment of these reporting processes. It is also very important to build the capacity of civil society which is very difficult to do in PNG. We do not have an effective movement but we do have civil society organizations (CSOs) - but not a movement that can hold governments to account in PNG."
If people cannot hold governments to account, then who will?
Kate Lappin, who leads APWLD rightly said: "We see accountability as integral to any kind of development agenda. Real democracy has not flourished particularly in this region and we have generations of papers of commitments but we have not seen those commitments delivered. Accountability to peoples is clearly missing. The UN Charter clearly calls for a people-driven intergovernmental process. We need to rethink what participatory democracy means – we need to ensure that people get to make decisions affecting their lives, and also the decisions made globally (by their elected governments) which have impact on local level. Accountability means whether the most marginalized and least powerful woman can hold the powerful to account - a woman who is being displaced finds a way to hold those responsible to displace her to account - someone who is suffering form climate change can hold the perpetrators to account."
Kate's comments remind us of Mahatma Gandhi's talisman for the powerful: "I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny?"
Although civil society engagement is there around post-2015 development agenda, unlike MDGs (where there was no civil society engagement), still there is a long way to go. Asia Pacific region is the only region in the world where organized and coordinated regional civil society engagement mechanism (RCEM) is functional.
"MDGs were written without engaging people by a small number of people! This was the first failure as people were supposed to be part of something later which they were not involved in developing at all! This process of APFSD has changed that. There is no accountability in relation to the systems that underpin the cause of development – MDGs were imposed over developing countries to try and give the minimum amount they could give to the people. There was no accountability for the causes of marginalisation, inequality, etc. That was the biggest systemic failure in nature of MDGs and process of developing them" said Kate to Citizen News Service (CNS).
Selina Napa, a MP from Cook Islands who got elected in 2012, said: "Parliamentarians are accountable to the people and communities they represent. I have taken hard decisions which goes against interests of corporations but were in interest of protecting environment and people’s interests. If it is going to effect the environment and well being of people then we need to take hard decisions."
Albina Freitas, a MP from Timor Leste, and Vice President of Timor Leste Women Parliamentary Caucus is widely recognized as a women's rights activists as well as a parliamentarian. After many years of political upheaval in Timor Leste, it became an independent nation in 2002. But it has left the world behind in ensuring high level of female parliamentarians getting elected (29%)! Albina got involved with women's rights movement as a youth. Later her husband who was a commander in troubled Timor Leste got killed and she was arrested, beaten up and put in jail. Her difficult journey of courage over the years as an activist to leading Timor Leste as a parliamentarian is indeed inspiring. "All women parliamentarians unite when it comes to women's issues. That is why we have formed a Women Parliamentary Caucus. However on other issues we have our ideologies and party positions" said Albina.
Making democracy functional!
Just with a power to vote every five years, governments are not being held to account for promises they do not deliver upon. Few reasons in some countries such as India are clear: role of money and muscle power has become central in elections. Delivering upon pro-people promises is not enough to get elected to the parliament due to the changing nature of politics with increased role of those with money. So one positive change could be to make money irrelevant in elections so that any common citizen can contest on equal footing - and people can judge before casting their votes who has delivered on promises!
"Parliamentarians should be accountable to people who put them there as they are people’s representatives. But the truth is often different: they are not being put up by people but by corporations because money usually buys positions. Corporatisation of parliamentary democracy is a major issue because of which real decisions are getting excluded from the parliament. Trade and investment decisions are done behind closed doors secretly with corporations. For example, countries that are pushing for Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) have not shared full information with their own parliament. So all of their own parliamentarians do not know what is in them! How can parliamentarians be truly accountable when they themselves do not have full information" said Kate Lappin.
Accountability is indeed critically important for making any development agenda work! Let's hope it becomes central to post-2015 sustainable development agenda.
* Bobby Ramakant serves as the Health Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS), is a WHO Director-General's WNTD Awardee and Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT) leader from India. Follow him on Twitter: @bobbyramakant