In the midst of broken promises and ever increasing political rhetoric more than 1.3 billion people continue to live on less than a dollar a day.
Increasing numbers of poor and excluded people are at the receiving end of human rights violations, market invasion, and unilateral militarization. Poverty is deepening; inequality and injustice are expanding at an unprecedented pace, resulting in exclusion, conflicts and the erosion of rights. Women and excluded people bear this burden most, and are at greatest risk of loss of security and rights.
Poverty is the denial of the right to live with dignity, and a result of unequal and unjust power relationships within and between families, communities and countries. Poverty is driven by the engine of neo-liberal economic globalization, perpetuated by powerful countries, multilateral institutions, corporations and organizations that vie to accumulate wealth and power at the cost of others. It is driven by failures of governance in states, where public resources are squandered without accountability on military and on satisfying the ever increasing needs of the elite and middle classes. Governments across the world have pursued power in order to maintain themselves in office, leading to wealth accumulation, systematic corruption and sabotage of institutions. Corruption reproduces the impoverishment process and weakens the very core of democratization.
These failures of governance are related to the inability of governments to address issues of unequal power distribution, impeding the opportunities people have, and the ways in which they can participate in shaping the priorities of their governments.
Far from defending rights and advancing freedoms, at their worst, states are at war with their most vulnerable citizens. At best, they adopt residual approaches, making few significant advances structural change or redistribution. The task of poverty eradication and development is too often left to the markets, which, without active regulation from the state, simply amplify existing inequity and exploitation.
These trends raise many questions. What forms of governance can best protect and promote rights, deliver justice and build equity? How will these forms of governance provide integral spaces for participation?
Forms of democratic governance, designed to respond to these issues, are in themselves displaying deficits while addressing these fundamental questions. In so doing they too run the risk of loosing their integral value and legitimacy. In many countries, democracy means political arenas are plagued by dysfunctional parliaments and governments. Often in democracies there is a dualism of power – the formal power vested within the structures, and the informal power obtained from the political culture and operating on the preexisting legitimization of class, caste, religion and history. In numerous countries, corporations control political and democratic processes, and even the media (which remains only notionally free). Corporate control has serious implications on the legitimacy and freedom of democracy.
Arenas of deficit, including participation, identity, power and accountability, have not been addressed. The value of democracy must be seen in what States hold out to their weakest citizens which goes beyond putting “representative governments” in place.
Despite the pessimistic outlook, there are some windows of hope. These are emerging in the struggles of social movements and civil society, in the walks of the anti-war protestors, in the court orders limiting Coca-Cola operations, in the Cancun protests, the G8 rallies in Gleneagles, in WSF spaces in Bamako, Mumbai and Porte Alegre where chants that another world is possible reverberate amidst optimism. The foundations of hope are evident in Mukhtar Mai’s courage, among the Zapatistas of Chiapas Mountains, and in the efforts of anti-privatization campaigners around the world.
The agenda and actions of social movements, civil society and emerging platforms of people and media assure an emergent force to build citizenship and rebalance power. These are spaces of freedom and democracy that can begin to counter the trend towards the centralization of wealth, knowledge and power. Citizen’s initiatives at the local and global level have an increasing potential to channel peoples’ aspirations and in the longer run, to radicalize democracy and build just governance.