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Participatory democracy in emerging contexts: Fiji and Nepal

“They used to insist that they were sufficiently conversant with the issues. How would they know unless they discuss with us, or at least ask us?”

lead The Inaugural Pacific Feminist Forum, held in Suva, Fiji in 2016. Citizens often find informal political spaces more effective than formal. Formal spaces have their own obligations which limit the possibility of genuinely engaging citizens in the decision-making process. Their mechanisms are often rigid in terms of structure and procedures which hinder the engagement of ordinary people in decision-making. Formal spaces equipped with so-called technocratic expertise may not understand the language ordinary people use. Hence citizens tend to also assemble in informal spaces to discuss their most pressing social problems.

Finally, each and every individual in informal space is regarded as equal, as opposed to in formal spaces where individuals are hierarchically placed in different rankings. These logics have been well studied in the literature of participatory governance, and have been supported by prominent thinkers of participatory and deliberative democracy. But what happens to citizen participation in a context of emerging democracy? Which informal participatory routines manage to cut through when formal spaces are difficult? How can citizen participation in informal spaces enrich the practice of participatory democracy?

Although this discussion has been proliferating across many emerging and advanced democracies alike, we identify significant gaps that can be traced through the literatures of political science and democracy studies alike, and in praxis across many political contexts. 

So here we aim to present two different cases of participation in informal spaces at the local level in two emerging democracies: Fiji and Nepal. We have chosen these two countries because the state of local democracy has been frail for over a decade in both. Fiji spent 8 years under military rule after a coup removed an elected government and the reinstatement of general elections is only one step back to reviving Fiji’s democracy. In Nepal, local governments have been abandoned unelected since 2002 until May 2017.

First case: Fiji

The Pacific region is not universally known for its gender equality. It has the lowest representation of women in parliament in any region in the world. In Tonga, no women were elected in the 2014 general election, despite a record number of women standing as candidates. In Vanuatu, no women running in the 2016 national election were elected to Parliament.  

Practical initiatives aim to change this position.  The Inaugural Pacific Feminist Forum has brought together over 100 feminists from 13 countries. Its stated aim was to share stories, map journeys and build the feminist movement in the Pacific. Its outcome was a Charter to increase action and advocacy.  The Forum was designed as a civil society space of collaboration, respect, diversity, intersectionality, intergenerational leadership and activism. The Forum was designed as a civil society space of collaboration, respect, diversity, intersectionality, intergenerational leadership and activism.  

The Inaugural Pacific Feminist Forum, held in Suva, Fiji in 2016 serves as an illustration of civil society taking action when governments have not been making headway in gender equality. The Fijian Citizens Constitutional Forum is another example of a mobilisation in informal space and citizen participation. They have called for the reinstatement of municipal elections as crucial for democracy and given citizens a place for their voice and exchange of ideas.

Second case: Nepal

Soon after the end of their tenure in 2002, local governments in Nepal were handed over to appointed officials. The appointed officials remained in political power until May 2017. Despite their own chain of command, unity of control and accountability mechanisms, appointed bureaucrats continued to offer spaces for citizens to engage in local decision-making. Many of such spaces were sponsored by formal mechanisms such as the municipality, while several other spaces were offered as informal spaces across neighbourhoods, and sponsored or funded by INGOs and NGOs. 

One example of an informal space at the municipal level was the formation of Tole Lane Organisations (TLOs), a civil society organisation that invites one member from each of the households in every street of the suburb. In other words, TLOs were revitalised as intermediary spaces for citizens to join in municipal decision-making as many municipalities in Nepal introduced TLOs as participative channels. In Butwal municipality alone where this research was carried out, there were 293 TLOs in 2015. 

The municipalities utilise TLOs in two different aspects of municipal governance (a formal space): first, the executive committee members of TLOs participate in implementing small-scale developmental programs, and second, enabling TLOs to organise informal participatory forums in their relevant neighbourhood to deliberate over their most pressing problems. The municipality regularly gives training programs to executive committee members of TLOs so that they can effectively organise participatory forums in their neighbourhoods. Every two years, the executive members of TLOs must be re-elected. 

Lessons from Fiji

In the Pacific there has been considerable democratic instability – see for example Solomon Islands, Bougainville and Fiji. This has led to the creation of informal political spaces and alliances in the absence of formal mechanisms through which progressive, democratically inspired voices can be heard.  The Pacific women’s movement has been active in the informal sphere claiming women’s rights against a backdrop of hostility towards claims for increased women’s representation and leadership, failure to sign the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), hostility over sexual orientation, and low levels of women’s representation in parliament. The Pacific Feminist Forum is an important case study, illustrating some of the factors that can enable and enhance the role of Pacific regional civil society in achieving gender equality. Findings from interviews conducted in the margins of the Pacific Feminist Forum suggest the importance of informal spaces when no access can be gained to formal spaces. One interviewee said that connecting the young activists amongst the different NGO's into a political space was significant.  She established an informal network of young activists allowing space for different NGOs, private sector and academics to come together and mobilise:

At the time formal spaces were being monitored, and were an intimidating space to get into. We've been able to organise sessions which we funded ourselves at the University of the South Pacific, giving us the lecture board, because one of the reasons to kind of form an informal group, having political discussions, is that we can't get a formal [permit]. [interview December 2016]

 These informal spaces can be used, however, as leverage to get to formal spaces:

We've been able to get through to some formal spaces through this informal space that we have created. Enable each other to attend spaces. I think at first our real intention was just to get out of our CSO space because we were junior staff, we were doing the run around and when it came to political spaces we were ... We couldn't engage each other…[interview December 2016]

My recent empirical research in the Pacific using a case study of an informal space suggests three key lessons:

- To open up new spaces, innovative practice is required and informal spaces can act as a supportive cohort to address the deficit in formal spaces. 

- Incorporating practical and everyday action beyond the formal space allows for the inclusion of traditionally marginalised voices and can help establish and enhance a shared vision to more effectively achieve change. 

- Pacific citizens are finding strategic ways to overcome institutional barriers to participation. New informal spaces are emerging for strategising, expanding and re-energising places to hear multiple voices in the Pacific. Pacific citizens continue to implement practical democratic innovations in informal spaces faster than is being achieved in formal spaces.

Lessons from Nepal

During the absence of electoral politics at the local level, formal spaces were not ineffective but the point is that citizens were continuously seeking to influence local decision-making. The following interview suggests that the trust of citizens in informal forums was increasing: 

In the past, elected officials would never invite us to discuss our problems and issues; instead they used to insist that they were sufficiently conversant with the issues. How would they know unless they discuss with us, or at least ask us? 

Those interviewed saw clear benefits:

We feel better now when TLOs provide us with platforms such as the Tole Bhèla during the planning process where we can unrestrictedly participate and raise our concerns (Tole Bhèla participant, February 2016).

We utilise TLOs not only to facilitate the participation of ordinary people who are least represented in the decision-making processes, but also to enable them to collaborate with us [the municipality] in implementing small-scale developmental programs. We have evidence that collaborating with civil society organisations in the implementation of developmental projects has improved our performance (Local staff, November 2015). 

The utilisation of TLOs as informal spaces for over a decade suggests three key lessons in participatory governance:

-  Informal spaces, if recognised by formal spaces, can be beneficial to both officials and ordinary citizens. Officials can utilise such spaces to make informed and participatory decisions while enhancing their own legitimacy: ordinary citizens find opportunities to influence the decisions that affect them. There is, however, an issue of the extent to which informal spaces are connected to formal spaces.

- Civil society organisations can better steer the informal spaces if they are duly recognised by the formal spaces. Recognition can vary from simply registering civil society organisations, through to utilising them in various affairs of formal space. In Nepal’s municipalities, TLOs were found to be playing key roles in (a) transmitting messages upward to the formal space and downward to communities; (b) contributing in better informing the decision-making processes; and (c) collaborating with formal spaces in implementing small-scale developmental programs. 

- Civil society organisations can be introduced, strengthened and empowered not only to host informal participatory forums in the lower echelons of the society, but to organise effective deliberations in such informal forums. However, there appears a question of the extent to which civil society organisations are empowered to conduct effective deliberation. 

Lessons in common

Taken together these two case studies underscore the benefit of creating alternative spaces of participation for citizen involvement in decision-making in emerging democracies. Our argument is that when formal mechanisms of decision-making show limited spaces for citizens, informal mechanisms emerge to offer citizens spaces for change. This is not the case only in developing countries, as we have again witnessed when the Trump administration took the US out of the Paris declaration, and cities, states, companies and communities expressed their determination to follow the Paris Accord.

In other words, citizens are increasingly seeking, creating and advancing informal mechanisms to transmit their voices into the formal decision-making apparatuses. The emergence of informal spaces, we believe, could be a contributory factor to enriching the quality of democracy.

A municipal level Tole Lane Organisation Coordination Committee meeting in December 2015. Photo, Thaneshwar Bhusal.

About the authors

Thaneshwar Bhusal is a Nepali citizen, pursuing his PhD at the University of Canberra in Australia and belonging to its Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA). He has worked as a public servant in Nepal for over a decade, and is interested in public sector reforms and management, participatory governance and citizen engagement.@tsbhusal

Jane Alver is an Australian lawyer, activist, PhD student and gender equality advocate, active in the women’s movement for more than 25 years, at the local, national and global levels. Currently with the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra, and a member of the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) there, her PhD research focus is on Pacific feminist civil society and strategic alliances. @janealver


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