99 Percent Democracy: Inspiration from the Developing World

It has been roughly a year since a new catchphrase flooded the front pages of mainstream, social and activist media: “We are the 99 percent.” It came from a wider recognition of the long-established truth that a small percentage of the population in most societies hangs on to an overwhelming majority of wealth and power. It is also a recognition that it is the 99 percent that are asked to pay a disproportionate part of the price for the effects of our collective actions: to bail out the banks and not the failing health services; to pick up the environmental tab and pay through the nose for an increasingly worthless education; to waste their lives sitting on the unemployment list, instead of contributing to society. “We are the 99 percent” is the slogan of a new generation of the disgruntled, jobless youth in the West. “We are the 99 percent” is the demonstration chant of occupiers from Wall Street to St Paul’s, from Cairo to Cape Town. “We are the 99 percent” is  still on everybody’s lips. At the heart of the matter? Democracy.

There are now over 160 nations in the world practicing some kind of an electoral democracy, doubling since the 1970s. Democracy is the rallying cry of the War on Terror, ‘our way of life’ being at stake. And among many other injustices, the Arab Spring is driven by the desire to be released from autocratic shackles and to move towards more democratic forms of government. Yet, more and more, people are realising that democracy, as it is currently practiced in many nations, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Casting a vote once every four or five years does little to appease the vexed political consciousness, awakened by the global crises. Especially not in bi, or even, tri-partisan states where the selection of primary parties and their leaders is extremely limited. “Choosing the lesser of the evils” becomes the widespread sentiment as indiscernible left and right factions tend to, at best, coalesce right off centre. A vote having even less of a say when there is no ‘none of the above’ option on the polling card: “Voting only encourages them! Reject the lot of ‘em. Spoil your ballot!”, was the humorous, yet poignant message of the Space Hijackers campaign group during the British 2010 election.

They make a good point, but perhaps they should count themselves lucky. Some get no choice at all. Several states still practice rigged elections, where tyrannical incumbents miraculously return to power with 98 percent of the vote, whilst the ballot papers burn in the moonlit election night fire.

The world over, non-proportionate voting systems and unfair budget allocation fail to equitably address regional and local community needs. Meanwhile, national elections driven by private donations do little to inspire policies with the people in mind. After all, those donations come with powerful strings attached and those strings are rarely connected to the candidates’ campaign frenzy promises. “Los políticos son una mierda. Ya estamos hartos!”, read hundreds of billboards put up this year by the Guatemalan Movement for Integration all around the Central American country leading up to its September 2011 general elections. Literal translation: “The Politicians are Shit. We’ve had Enough!”

Sewing the Seeds of Participatory Democracy

None of this is new of course, just currently much more acutely felt. The pain is very real, yet, is it all entirely a bad thing? Or could this large-scale disenchantment in fact be a harbinger of difficult but auspicious times ahead? Since necessity breeds innovation, the current widespread feelings of disenfranchisement are fertile grounds for experimenting with new forms of democracy; sewing the seeds for participatory political decision-making practices that better represent the 99 percent. In the more advanced countries (a term in need of serious revision), Iceland led by example.

In 2004, this nation of barely 310,000 people and no army was one of the richest in Europe. By the end of 2008 it fell to its knees as it could no longer sustain the burden of debt that its privatised, deregulated, ‘free’ financial institutions had riddled it with. By June 2011 it had rewritten its constitution. For this, it did not turn to IMF technocrats, World Bank lawyers or domestic politicians. Instead, it invited ordinary citizens via crowdsourcing, through social media and other channels, to generate ideas and give the populous a voice. Twenty-five elected Icelanders then proceeded to verbally immortalise the people’s wishes into soon to be legally embedded constitution.  How this script plays out on the stage of history is yet to be determined, but it is surely a promising new start.

Attempts at participatory democracy are, of course, not an Icelandic invention. Venezuela (1999)Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009) have all gone through the painstaking process of updating their constitutional laws through popular referendum to try and reflect current societal needs and wants. Bolivia, for example, has updated itself as a secular rather than previously Catholic country. Venezuela added additional electoral and citizen/public powers to the usual three legislative, executive, and judiciary authorities. Whilst Ecuador is the first nation in the world to formally recognise ecosystem rights, what they call the Rights of Nature. The latter two developments constitute progressive moves by anybody’s standards.

But hey, give us a break. With thirty years of relative internal peace and stability, modern Europeans and Americans are a little new to having to fundamentally challenge the systems and powers at be. Citizens of many other nations, however, have been less fortunate. They have continuously grappled with war, instability, poverty and despotic leaders, who bow to the priorities of global capital and powerful nations promoting it. For a long time they have had to fight for every inch of democracy afforded to them, trying to practice their own vision of what it entails by carving out small democratic spaces within otherwise broken or inadequate systems. As the developed world begins to demand new forms of social organization and governance it can learn a thing or two from its developing country neighbours.

Rule While Obeying

Perhaps one of the most radical examples of this comes from Mexico. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation is a revolutionary leftist group based in the Chiapas state, Southernmost Mexico.  Disgruntled with state policy that has impoverished the majority and deindustrialized the country in less than a decade, the Zapatistas have organized themselves into Caracoles (snails) – autonomous units more or less independent from the Mexican government. Each Caracole has a democratic governing body called ‘the good government council’, which operates under the principle of “mandar obedeciendo”, to rule while obeying. The councils are in place for the benefit of the people and the communities, whereby the council members obey the rule of the people and not the other way around.

Twelve-Year-Old Prime Ministers

Easier said than done, right? How could we possibly get our politicians to change their ways; to recognize that they are there to serve our needs? We wouldn’t even know where to start. Perhaps the trouble is that being a responsible citizen, engaged with the political process in the West does not come easy. Not enough steps are taken through the education, media and other systems to ensure children and adults alike understand the inner workings of governments, know their rights and are aware of how to organize to affect change.  Luckily, once again, we can look to developing country initiatives for illustrations of how things could be done.

Individual examples of inspiring democratic education in schools are abundant, but none are perhaps as powerful as a particular one found in India. Bunker Roy’s Barefoot Movement children’s schools are ran in the evenings, for the convenience of the students, not the teachers. They discuss politics, human rights, civility and important practical issues of what to do if you are arrested or how to conduct peaceful conflict resolution. The children hold democratic elections every five years and choose a prime minister along with representatives for education, energy, health and the like. Last 12-year-old incumbent looked after 20 goats in the morning and was prime minister by night. In 2006 she was awarded the coveted World’s Children’s Prize.

The maturity, confidence and social commitment that this kind of education instills in these youngsters is nothing short of extraordinary. It produces truly engaged citizens of the world, true agents of change, who, ironically, reside in the most remote, arid areas of rural India and not in the developed, so called, advanced corners of our planet.

$65,000 a year Production Line Jobs

There are, of course, numerous other alternative democratic social movements and practices deserving of our attention as we search for new ways of democratic living. There is the participative budgeting started in the slums of Brazil, where communities come together to decide on how to spend the government’s and World Bank’s money. Then there is the democratic chaos of participatory informal education of Argentinian shanties, where young and old learn together and actively design their own curriculum, class by class, learning democracy by doing. And, occasionally, we do not need to look South for inspiration. We could all learn some lessons from the sustainable cooperative Alvarado Street Bakery in the United States, for example. If you worked there as a production line worker you would earn $65,000 a year, not much less than the CEO. In this business ran as a democracy, you would also have the same say as every one of its one hundred employees in all organizational systems, policies and strategies.

Living and Breathing Democracy

None of these are perfect and, on both large and small scales, these solutions may not be exactly what each individual, community or society needs. They do, however, point to some very important lessons. There is more than one way of seeing democracy. Just because what we know is all we know doesn’t mean that’s all there is. There are ways to organize power that truly serves the people and not simply those holding the financial reins. Even our constitutions are occasionally in need of revision, especially when it becomes apparent that certain groups’ grips on power and resources are strangling the rest of us. And if we want to live in a society of well informed, politically engaged and socially responsible individuals, then the journey starts from childhood and continues through lifelong civic education.

From the little known to the radical, to the purely inspirational, these examples show us that true democracy is not carried out with a tick and a cross every five years. It is lived and breathed every moment of every day, by the majority, by the rest of us, by the 99 percent.

Do you know of developing country examples that can teach advanced nations about real democracy? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Ioulia Fenton leads the food and agriculture research stream at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD. 

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  1. Allen Schlossman

    Whether it’s some form of democracy, socialism, or communism, the core problem with any form of government is the people who make the decisions. I would be fine with a dictatorship, if the dictator cared about his people more than he or she cared about lining their own pockets. That’s all most power holders care about throughout the world it seems.

    • Dear Allen, you are absolutely right and there are plenty of examples of bad governing under seeming democracies and good governing under dictatorships. Thats why communities taking charge for themselves is a better route. In local contexts, and with some right incentives, even the most corrupt of poiticians can be made accountable. The book Poor Economics has a good chapter on this that I would recommend.


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