Subject: Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Democracy


The former President of Haiti calls for the democratisation of democracy, that is, turning formal, theoretical democracies into living, participatory ones for the poor. He says people's organisations can help bring about this change.

By Jean-Bertrand Aristide

If someone had suggested 15 years ago that by 1996 democracy would be the rule rather than the exception in Latin America, most of us would not have believed him. But dictator after dictator fell, election after election was held, and democratic governments were installed throughout the continent. More than two-thirds of the world's population now lives in countries which officially are pluralistic democracies.
Ironically, these transitions towards democracy have coincided with the most severe economic crisis of the century in the countries of the South. In Latin America alone, 240 million people live in utter poverty; an increase of more than 120 million since 1980. 1.6 billion people live in countries with shrinking or stagnating economies, with real wages which are often lower now than they were in 1970. The gap between the world's richest and the world's poorest grows every day, with the richest 20% of the world's population now absorbing 85% of global income, while the poorest 20% receive only 1.4%.
What does the triumph of democracy mean to the poorest 20%? Today, there is a risk that democracy might remain a purely formal structure to them. Elections may be held once every four or five years, but the day-to-day participation by the population in the decision-making process necessary to focus state policies on poverty alleviation, may never materialise.
We may also ask: what does the triumph of democracy mean in an age of globalisation? International institutions play an increasingly influential role in national decision-making in the South. And neo-liberal economic policies dictate a sharply reduced role for the state. The transition towards democracy is taking place at a time when states are rapidly running out of resources, being saddled with debt, allowing market forces to determine the economic situation, and playing an ever smaller role in the provision of basic human services.
It is as if our experience in Haiti, after the restoration of democracy in October 1994, is being repeated on a global scale: after a long and difficult struggle the people arrive at the seat of power, only to find that the palace has been stripped bare. The dream of harnessing the resources of the state to serve the needs of the poor is still beyond their grasp. With states retreating from the field, it seems that the poor will enter the 21st century alone, facing a global economy in which they cannot possibly compete. But fortunately this is not the whole story.
Those of us who work alongside the poor, know that even in countries suffering the severest economic crises, like Haiti, people's organisations represent a vibrant and growing force for change. These organisations offer the seeds of hope for the 21st century. Throughout the world, local church communities, peasant organisations, women's groups, grassroots environmental organisations and NGOs are struggling for human and economic rights. Their analysis and convictions are rooted in the day-to-day reality of the poor. These actors are undertaking the task of democratising democracy: turning formal democracies into living, participatory ones. These actors are holding up alternative economic models, and offering an ethical foundation for debates on economic growth and human development.
The role of civil society has never been more critical. We must be the conscience of our age, articulating a view of development which places the human being at its centre, sees economic growth as a means to human development rather than an end in itself, and advocates development which our planet can sustain. As others have remarked, unrestrained growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
As the state grows weaker, and the price of globalisation becomes more apparent, there are growing voices from civil society which testify to these realities. They have an increasing influence on international institutions and, perhaps more importantly, they are making contacts and forming alliances across borders - knowing that in an age when capital needs no visa or passport, so too must solidarity know no borders.
One of the defining characteristics of civil society is the high percentage of women participating. Bearing witness against human rights abuses, organising cooperatives, creating community health projects - women have long filled the ranks of people's organisations. However, this degree of participation is not at all reflected in the number of women involved in decision-making at all levels. World-wide, women hold only 12% of all the seats in parliament, and 6% of those in national cabinets.
By definition, democratising democracy means both empowering the large number of women who are already participating through civil organisations, and increasing their representation at the tables of power.
We will all benefit from this. Studies have shown that when the household income is managed by women, it is more likely to be used for human development purposes: health care, education and children's nutrition. I suspect that if national budgets were in the hands of women, or if grassroots women's organisations were to participate in preparing national budgets, the results would be the same. On the economic front, civil groups are taking the lead in addressing inequitable land distribution, giving the poor accesss to credit, and building cooperative economic structures.
In Haiti, the goal of our Foundation for Democracy is to create an opportunity for dialogue and democratic participation by the population. But this initiative has to go hand-in-hand with concrete measures to alleviate misery. To offer a hungry person only words is callous; to offer him only food is hypocrisy. The cooperative we founded, which now has more than 12,000 members, makes credit available at a low interest rate to the poorest sector and enables members to buy food at about half its market price. There are many similar, small-scale cooperative initiatives around the world, offering a seed of hope for the next century.
We can become dispirited in the face of globalisation, growing economic polarisation, environmental degradation and the misery one quarter of the world's population are facing each day. In Haiti, where 85% of the population lives in misery, it is the courage and dignity of the very same 85%, who continue to struggle, to speak out, to organise and to fight for better lives for their children, that constantly inspires us.
In Port-au-Prince right now there is a small radio station broadcasting each day. Two hundred thousand children live on the streets of Port-au-Prince: Radio Timoun is their radio station. Children are the reporters, the announcers and the technicians. I listen every day to hear what they have to say. They interview children in the prisons and broadcast stories from the General Hospital, calling on the government to improve health care for kids. In a recent meeting, one of these young journalists told me they want to report in their daily news broadcast how many children are born and die in Port-au-Prince each day.
Our dream is that one day instead of holding out an empty hand for a dollar, kids on the streets of Port-au-Prince will hold out a tiny tape recorder and ask for an interview. This radio station is another seed of hope for the 21st century.
You and I, as citizens of the world committed to fighting poverty, should tend these seeds where we find them, shelter them when hostile and changing conditions threaten their very existence, and plant them in other places where they may take root and bear fruit to nourish the world. As we are nourished today by the fruits of solidarity and hope. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former President of Haiti, now works for the Foundation for Democracy. The above, which first appeared in Novib Network (Vol 2 No. 5, October 1996), is part of an address he gave at a Novib conference in Oegstgeest on 19 September 1996.

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