21 January 2013

Re-examining ANSA EAP's assumptions on cultural appropriateness as a pillar of an enabling environment for SAc

by Randee Cabaces

Reading Larry Diamond's "The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World" made me reflect on ANSA-EAP's fourth pillar of social accountability (SAc), an enabling environment for SAc - "cultural appropriateness".

ANSA-EAP's framing of this pillar has always moved along two (2) tracks - not necessarily related:
  1. SAc tools or citizen monitoring instruments are often developed with specific governance issues or problems in mind. Thus, the need to customize whenever we apply them to another context. Example, a citizen report card (CRC) or community Score Card (CSC) conducted in a city context (like Bangalore, India) to get citizen feedback on public services (like electricity, transportation, sewerage, etc.) would need some tweaking when used to monitor the health center services in a rural community which were provided as part of a mining company's local development commitments in Benguet, Philippines

  2. SAc approaches have to take into account Asians' different value system when it comes to public leadership, democratic practice and good governance. Some explanations or elaborations on this that I've encountered in ANSA-EAP's discourse during the past three years: the concept of "headship" as our particular brand of Asian leadership, our inclination to communal rather than individual conception of rights, conflict avoidance and face-saving as common attitudes in public engagements, the tendency to look at the polity as a "bigger family" with public officials as heads of that family whose will can not be easily challenged, our penchant to maintain social order rather than promote divisive public debates, etc.
Number 1 is quite easy to grasp - like finding the right size of wrench for a given nut/bolt. Or perhaps finding totally different uses for a hammer, apart from pounding on a nail's head. It involves technical and design concerns. Number 2 has always been a challenge as it involves cultural and sociological concepts/questions/implications. I think it has some similarities to the thesis that while all people are created equal, they do not share the same values or expectations of democratic governance. Interestingly, the same explanation is used by people and groups who argue that individual human rights and democracy are primarily Western concepts that have limited application in the Asian context.

Some interesting information from Larry Diamond's book:
  • As early as 1994, in response to Lee Kuan Yew's assertions that Western-style democracy is quite incompatible with Asian values of order, family, and community, Kim Dae Jung (a dissident then in South Korea; would later be elected president) already pointed to Asia's 'rich heritage of democracy-oriented philosophies and traditions'. Examples:
    • the Chinese philosopher Meng-tzu who asserted the rights of people to overthrow kings who did not provide good government; 
    • ideas of Korean religious leader Tonghak who inspired a peasant revolt against bad governance by feudal lords. I was reminded here of Amartya Sen's book "The Argumentative Indian" which provided other examples along these lines, especially if we take the development of public reasoning and discussions as a very important element in the evolution of democratic thought and practice: e.g., the early Indian Buddhists had a deep commitment to open discussions as a strategy for social progress (they invented so-called 'Buddhist Councils' as a way of publicly settling disputes among different political and religious views); 
    • Ashoka who codified/propagated what could be considered as earliest rules for public discussions (centuries before Robert's Rules of Order); 
    • Moghal emperor Akbar who championed reasoned dialogues rather than reliance to traditions in addressing social problems; and the more modern Rabindranath Tagore (Asia's first Nobel prize winner) who emphasized deliberation and reasoning as foundations of a good society.

  • Interesting results from public opinion polls by World Values Survey:

    On the statement "Democracy may have its problems, but it's better than any other form of government": 85% of respondents from Asia agreed (compared to 81% from the former Soviet Union).

    On statement "A strong leader does not have to bother with parliament and elections" - 39% of respondents from Asia endorsed such kind of leaders, versus 45% in Latin America and 48% in the former Soviet Union. Survey covered the period 1999-2001, and 11 Asian countries including India, Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, and Mongolia. On the statement "Greater respect for authority would be a good thing": 52% of respondents from Asia agreed - BUT, compare this with 54% from the respondents in developed Western countries (which included the United States, Canada, and Australia). Diamond's conclusion: "Asians do not seek 'greater respect for authority' any more frequently than do Western citizens". Another cited study (Dalton and Nhu-Ngoc T. Ong), which looked at authority orientation in the family and in the other social realms, found that people in Canada, US, and Australia generally tend to rank higher (65% on average) than people in East Asia (49% on average, across 8 countries).

REALLY INTERESTING: on the statement "Government leaders are like the head of a family; we should all follow their decisions": World Values Survey found that 53% of respondents from Asia rejected the principle (in Taiwan, there was a dramatic increase in this percentage between 2001-2005, from 63% to 71%). In China, it was slightly over a third of the respondents, but in Hong Kong, it was a clear two-thirds of respondents.

Indonesians were interviewed for the first time in 2006: 64% of respondents said that democracy was always preferable, 80% (equal to that in Taiwan) disagreed that political leaders should ignore established procedures if necessary to achieve their goals.

Diamond's conclusion: "All of this (sic) suggests that Asian values are eroding with economic development and the practice of democracy itself. Rather than representing a barrier to democracy, these traditional values, to the extent that they are suspicious of freedom and democratic pluralism, tend to give way as people become wealthier, more educated, and more experienced with democracy."

So what does this mean with regard to ANSA-EAP's guideline on cultural appropriateness? One can of course argue that there could be a gulf between what people articulates during surveys, and how they actually practice democratic governance and relate with their public officials. In which case, we can probably take these figures with a grain of salt. But if these figures point to real changes in Asian people's political values and beliefs during the past decades, then I think we may need to review our assumptions. Perhaps a more historical perspective (development of democracies in more developed countries, experiences with violent transitions in countries like Cambodia or Vietnam, decades of authoritarian rule in countries like Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, dominant conflict-confrontative strategies of CSOs and political parties in community and political organizing) would provide a better basis/rationale for the current strategy of constructive engagement. Rather than the elusive formulation of "Asian values".

And, we may want to ground SAc theory more in Asian democratic thought and practice which are being highlighted "re-discovered" recently.

The author is the research coordinator of ansa-eap.

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