Behaving like a politician

Having let my blog lie dormant for a while, I feel the urge to start sharing my ideas about development on the blogosphere again. I’ve just started a new job as a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) which is inspiring me a lot! This blog is of course my own thoughts and not a reflection of ODI’s work.

So, this post has come from reports I’ve been reading about how aid can work politically. It’s a well-discussed topic at the moment, following lots of excitement about ideas from people like Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock, and the Africa Power and Politics Programme on the importance of politics to development. However, it’s one thing to talk about how politics affect the quality of public services, and another to find a way for large aid donors to support a change in politics in another country. Working politically is inevitably a sensitive and difficult task for international donors as they face scrutiny and criticism for failing to respect a country’s sovereignty or creating harmful political unrest. But, case studies are emerging of how donors have managed to engage with the politics of a country to bring about really significant improvements.

One much celebrated example is a case in the Philippines in which a team of activists, assembled and guided by Jaime Faustino of The Asia Foundation, managed to get a law on Residential Free Patents pushed through government. This legal reform directly and quickly led to a 1400% improvement in residential land titling which had really important development implications for the Philippines. But, rather than discussing the law itself, I’m going to talk about how aid money was used to support this huge legislative change.

To bring about the reform, Jaime and his team effectively worked like politicians; drawing on their connections in business and politics to form alliances, negotiating details of the reform, and finding ways around the opposition. The funding the team received was (relatively) free from the usual strict donor demands and so the team had the freedom to be inventive, changing their strategy as different opportunities arose. The team were also a mixed bunch; coming from different sectors and backgrounds, each with their own networks, and all personally driven to see the policy changed (at times even working unpaid).

The Philippines case brings up all sorts of really interesting questions but here is just one: how does a large, publically accountable, aid donor go about recruiting people to work as development activists in the murky world of politics? The team in the case study were not motivated by money (there was no ‘per diem culture’) but instead were personally motivated to see the reform passed and enjoyed having autonomy over their work. They worked nimbly, rather than following a standard workplan and, crucially, they were problem-solvers, not just problem-analysers. Recruiting the right people seems to have been a large part of the success story.

Working in a politically cunning way does not necessarily come naturally to the average development officer who is used to plans, reporting, accountability, and transparency. All those things demanded by the (now criticised) good governance agenda. Finding people who are ‘intrinsically motivated’ (essentially ‘do-gooders’) but who are also comfortable making friends with unlikely people; police chiefs, senior staff in multinationals etc. (more on this in my next post) is a challenge. For donors to recruit and fund people to work in this way, they may need to relax the way they hire, sub-contract, and manage their programmes. Donors need to trust small teams to work creatively, at a distance (and somewhat sneakily) so that they can work politically. This is because, ultimately, working politically may mean working like a politician.

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Politics and politicians

In the last couple of weeks I have been focusing more on the politics and politicians involved in slum resettlement.  Slum resettlement itself is not a very political issue.  The programmes for resettlement mainly come from the central government and are unaffected when the parties in power at the state or central level change.  The resettlement trend which emerged about 20 years ago is part of a more general vision to bring economic growth to Indian cities and to ‘beautify’ them so that they have the appearance of world class cities.  This involves building new infrastructure in cities, in particular expanding public transport and so, in order to make space for new bridges, roads and train tracks and to ‘clean-up’ the city, the slums are demolished and the people resettled to the suburbs.  The government claims its increasingly high value, city centre land back from the squatters to use for city development projects and the slums are no longer an eyesore in the city.  Killing two birds with one stone so to speak.

However, the reality of the resettlement process is that once the people have been relocated, they are no longer of much concern to the government.  The living conditions is Kannagi Nagar are far from adequate and so I have been investigating the role of politicians in bringing improvements to the area.  On the local level, I think that the political leaders have very little power.  Most have hardly had an education, some are even illiterate and many appear to be part of the ‘rowdies’ or yobs in the area.  I spoke to one lady who will stand for councillor in the upcoming local elections and asked her why she wanted to stand.  She said that the MLA (member of legislative assembly) from her party, for the constituency covering Kannagi Nagar, had chosen her to stand because she is a woman and from one of the lowest castes and so she fits the quota.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the MLA that she is illiterate and doesn’t appear to know anything about the problems or issues in Kannagi Nagar.  It just so happens however that her husband is also political representative for the area from the same party…  It is not uncommon apparently for the wives of (sometimes imprisoned) politicians to stand and win positions in local and even state governments acting as puppets for their husbands.

Despite all this, people in Kannagi Nagar still express a lot of faith in the local politicians and will ask them to take their problems to the slum board on their behalf.  Many admit that the politicians don’t provide immediate solutions but they prefer to do this than organise their own campaign.  The opposition leaders do sometimes organise a protest to demand improvements, such as a better water supply to the area.  This usually brings some temporary improvements since the protests attract media attention but the politicians’ ulterior motive is to damage the image of the ruling party.  While local leaders are not very influential, they are the community’s leaders and so they influence the way in which people living in Kannagi Nagar engage with the government.

On the higher level, the MLA responsible for Kannagi Nagar has more power.  He has government funds which he can allot to development projects for his constituency.  However, Kannagi Nagar is only a small part of the constituency and the MLA only shows interest in the area around election time. An even greater problem is that if an MLA is from the ruling party in the state, they do not confront their own party on issues in their constituency.  Both local and higher politicians are very loyal to their parties and generally do not seem to work to represent the people but to keep their party in power.  For this reason, one of the NGOs which does lobbying work in Kannagi Nagar approaches opposition politicians instead.  The opposition leaders are far more willing to confront the government since it causes problems for the ruling party.  Unfortunately, democracy in India is such that opposition leaders have very little power to influence the ruling party or government departments.  As a politics professor explained to me, if a road passes through two constituencies, the road will be very well maintained in the area where the MLA is from the ruling party but where the MLA is from an opposing party, the road will be left pot-holed and broken instead.

Sadly, for the people in Kannagi Nagar, unless they manage to organise themselves and campaign with determination for better public services, they will be left with only the politicians to make their voices heard.

“The Indian mind believes in karma…”

It’s been a busy week back in Chennai and the cool mountain drizzle of Kodaikanal is a distant memory.  My hardworking interpreter has helped me to complete 76 household surveys in Kannagi Nagar.  I haven’t analysed the data yet but from listening to people’s answers, it was clear that many of the resettled people have had no education at all.  These people struggled to formulate an opinion about their situation and knew very little about how was responsible for which public services or who the influential people in the area might be.  People often complained about the lack of public services but said that they were afraid to protest in case they got into problems with the police or the slum clearance board.  Those who do approach the slum board to complain about problems in the area say that the slum board just tells them to wait.  There’s a strong sense that protesting or complaining is simply pointless.

In terms of the politics of the resettlement site, this proved to be a very sensitive issue and people were very reluctant to reveal which party they support.  Local politicians were generally said to be powerful and to have a high social status.  Although some people were sceptical, saying politicians only work around election time, the majority of people still felt that politicians were the people who could solve the problems in Kannagi Nagar.  In fact, in Tamil Nadu the state political leaders are revered as icons.  There is a tradition of film stars becoming political leaders and their faces are painted on walls all over the city.  So while in Kannagi Nagar people consider the local politicians to be powerful, they also often said that the Chief Minister, the leader of the party in power in the state, would be the one who could fix all their problems.  Aside from believing that the political leaders will bring improvements to Kannagi Nagar, I have found that in general people are too busy looking for work to campaign for basic public services.  People often don’t know what they are entitled to nor how to form a campaign and many people are afraid to speak out.  The community is also divided politically and anti-social problems make people suspicious of each another which prevents them from uniting to demand solutions to their problems.

Last week I also has an interview with a politics professor and one of the interesting things which he told me was that it is not in Indian culture to demand anything from the government.  In his opinion, this is a very Western concept which simply does not enter the mind of many Indians.  Instead, he told me, the Indian mind believes in karma and so people accept their situation and do not demand that others change it.  The Indian mind is taught to be content and so this is why poor people in India do not fight the government for better living conditions.  This is also why the government does not make more effort to improve the lives of the poor.  It’s an interesting explanation but I don’t think that belief in karma is the only reason for the lack of mobilisation among the poor.  It does seem true, however, that many people in Kannagi Nagar do not aspire to have a much higher standard of living and many are fairly satisfied once they have found work and have basic facilities.

As well as working on my survey, I’ve had a cultural week in India too.  Thursday was the start of a Hindu festival for Ganesh, a Hindu elephant-like god so on Thursday morning I was invited to join the pooja (worship) ceremony for Ganesh which my hostel had organised.  I was really pleased to be invited and it was intriguing to watch the priest offer bananas, coconuts, curd, chickpeas and sweets to the statue of Ganesh.  I am often surprised by the mixture of formality and informality in India.  This seemed to be a particularly special and holy ceremony and yet people would answer their mobiles in the middle of a chant and no-one seemed to mind.  The festival will end in about week when the statue of Ganesh will be carried to the beach and given to the sea.  I’m imagining the coast of Chennai to be lined with Ganesh statues.  I will take some photos…