Browsing articles in "Institutions"
Nov 23, 2014
Erika Hernandez

A Once-Upon-A-Time, Now A Reality? Uruguay

Uruguay's President Jose Mujica arrives at a polling station in his Volkswagen beetle, to cast his vote in the general elections, in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica arrives at a polling station in his Volkswagen beetle, to cast his vote in the general elections, in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Once upon a time, a geographically forgotten, often belittled by its neighbors, a country called “Uruguay” became one of the most progressive countries in the world, raising the envy of many. It has a small population, 3.3 million people and is today one of the most effective democracies in the world. It holds economic stability, broadly respects human rights and has a seemingly functional political system, where consensus is possible between political parties. In short, Uruguay is a thriving democracy unlike other countries in Latin America, who are still facing innovative forms of authoritarianism like Venezuela. Citizens like me simply ponder whether political consensus across parties only belongs to fairy tales. In an ideal world, or Uruguay so to speak, politicians come to agreements after grueling negotiations lasting over 10 hours. Perhaps not all of the legislators attend to the sessions, but most of them do. Tough law initiatives like allowing abortion and gay marriage actually get discussed and stamped by most parties in, both, the lower and higher chambers of representatives. During the last 10 years, Uruguay’s income distribution policies have had a positive effect managing to reduce poverty from a 39% to an incredible 11%. Moreover, it has an exemplary President, Jose Alberto Mujica, who is really driven by public service rather than by power or money, like most politicians. He is often referred to as the “World’s Poorest President.” But why can Uruguay relish such an outstanding democratic system? Is it because it requires less effort to govern a small population? Or is it because, through having observed the income disparities of Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, it has learned that a set of political reforms can ensure a healthy economic progress? Or is it just that we need to make a wish and tap together our heals, like Dorothy, and expect it to come true?

Uruguay does have a President worth of endorsement. As a former guerilla fighter, he spent 14 years imprisoned, and was finally released in 1985. In 2009, he won a landslide vote for the Presidential seat with a 53.33%. He currently donates 90% of his salary to a charity organization that builds public housing and his motto is “To do politics we must live like the poor,” which he has put to action by living very modestly. Under his tenure, he has pushed highly controversial law initiatives that would hardly pass in other countries. The first one was legalizing abortion for women within the first trimester of pregnancy. The initiative seldom passed in the lower chamber with 50 votes in favor against 49. Another initiative consisted in legalizing gay marriage in 2012, which had a strong support by the Frente Amplio (a coalition of left-wing parties, under which President Mujica got elected). Since the Senate believed that the text needed further editions, the text was sent back to the lower house. The initiative underwent a total of 4 in-house voting rounds. And just last year, the country passed a law regulating the production and consumption of marihuana, for non-medical purposes. The law obtained 16 votes favoring it versus 13 against it. One way to justify these positive outcomes is alluding them to the fact that “Frente Amplio” held the majority in both chambers and that the President remained loyal to its ideals. In 2009, Frente won 50 of the 99 representative seats and 15 of 30 of the senatorial ones. What this means is that, in order to pass controversial laws like these, we can ascertain that there must be an agreement between the President and the Legislative branch.

Oftentimes, we citizens feel rather unlucky with the type of governments we have. Democrats fight Republicans in both US chambers; Democrats then having differences with the President Obama; Mexicans feeling cheated by having elected a President with presumable links with the organized crime; etc. But I believe that Uruguay’s status quo is not a question of luck. It is merely the natural result of programmatic parties that have become more professional, and that, at least, there is some level of institutional learning from the previous dictatorship. Such learning and reconciliation is palpable when one sees a former guerrilla member becoming a President. Indeed, holding majority seats in both houses might appear as an autocratic. But such assessment does not hold when other political parties are allowed to participate and when elections are free and fair.  Tensions arise in democracies when a broad consensus is required to implement policies tackling income inequality and addressing drug-related issues. It is then when parties are unable to arrive towards agreements with “rivals”. Regardless of rivalries and wanting to look better than the other party, one of the most efficient ways to ensure votes is delivering promises. Clearly, this is the case for Uruguay. President Mujica is now preparing to step down as his term is just about to end this month. He is unable to run for re-election, per the Constitution. As the second Presidential round approaches (November 30), the votes will reflect whether Uruguayans would like to continue vouching for Frente Nacional, as the first round demonstrates this. Its presidential candidate is Tabare Vazquez, who was president from 2005-2010. Meanwhile, Mujica declined the US$1 million offer to buy his old, rundown 1987 beetle and also plans to join Uruguay’s upper house in the coming elections. Hopefully, he continues to live happily ever after in his chrysanthemum farm.

Nov 11, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Ayotzinapa, Mexico. The Era of State Decay

Citizens of Mexico protest outside national palace, after being informed that the 43 students were massacred by a criminal gang, after following up the order of Iguala's Major. The sign says "It was the State." Source: Genaro Lozono/CNN
Citizens protest outside Mexico’s national palace, after being informed that the 43 students were massacred by a criminal gang, who followed up the order of Iguala’s Mayor. The sign says “It was the State.” Source: Genaro Lozono/CNN

 “Esta lloviendo tupido,” my grandmother would say in Spanish. It does not literally mean that there is heavy rain. It is actually an allegory for those times that are extremely challenging. This is what I think about the state of affairs in my home country, Mexico. In 2001, free and fair elections paved the way towards political change. What we citizens never envisioned is that the power held by the authoritarian regime sustained agreements with criminal networks, maintaining both corruption and criminal activities operating peacefully. When the National Action Party (PAN) was elected for the presidency, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) was still elected for state governments, causing that the hold of power, by the capital, to decompose. A good risk analyst, conscious of the deals with drug-cartels, could have been able to foretell that the arrival of democracy would not necessarily strengthen the state capacity but that it would wither down. Today, Mexico’s state capacity appears to be in a state of decay. This can be best evinced by the disappearance of the 43 students in the city of Iguala. Unlike the years where the PRI captured civil society organizations to the point that it made them subservient – like present Russia, local states are captured by non-state actors (drug gangs and cartels). The all-encompassing, authoritarian regime that lasted for 72 years has finally dismembered at the cost of having state units being seized by criminal groups.

Although the quest for the 43 disappeared students in the state of Guerrero has come to an end, there is a general feeling among Mexicans that the state must do something. Just this Friday (November 7), the government admitted that the students have been massacred by the drug gang “Guerreros Unidos.” Iguala’s mayor, Jose Luis Barca, ordered the local police to take care of the potential troublemakers. In turn, the police handed the youngsters to this drug gang. Federal authorities found out that the students had been incinerated and that their ashes were thrown away in a nearby town, Cocula. The General Attorney’s office indicated that the mayor was associated with the organization, and pointed out that the mayor’s wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, was its head. Accordingly, the organization received between 2 and 3 million pesos weekly, bimonthly or monthly from the mayor. Along with Guerrero, other states like Tamaulipas and Michoacan have also been identified failed local states, with Oaxaca pointing towards that direction. An example of a successful strategy –albeit belated– was the federal intervention in the state of Michoacan. Mexico’s President, Enrique Pena Nieto, appointed a federal commissioner with broad powers that, in practice, replaced the state Governor’s mandate. If the strategy was so successful, then why not employ it in other states? Many say that it would cause dependence on the federal state. This is true. Without local capacity building, a long-term recovery is inconceivable.

Despite the success that intervention may grant, there exist several aspects that might complicate a victorious ending. First, local capacity building implies recruiting new police forces, administration and even judicial authorities. What complicates this strategy is that identifying individuals that are clean (with no links to drug-trafficking) puts investigators at risk. Second, negotiating with criminal organizations à la Colombia would probably cause uproar among the Mexicans. Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel de Santos, is currently conducting negotiations with members of the FARC guerrilla (also a criminal organization) under the auspice of Cuba and Norway. Despite the high stakes and high probabilities for peace, many in Colombia, like former president Alvaro Uribe, are using moralistic arguments to counter the practical solution. If broad sectors in Colombia have vouched for coming to an arrangement with the FARC, this is because the country has already undergone 50 years of war.  In contrast, Mexico has undergone a shorter yet heightened period of violent drug war where the population’s predominant sense is that of being betrayed by government authorities and reprisal to some extent, tainted with a craving for justice. Anger is mounting in Mexico today. The anger is geared towards the weak institutional response. The government will hardly echo a matching response. With the state being captured by criminal organizations in the identified – and unidentified – territories, the only rejoinder that the government likely to provide is sending more federal policies agents. Also perhaps issuing a communiqué by the president, so as to placate protests. A joint communiqué is probably already in the works. A few days ago the journalist, Carmen Aristegui, published findings from her recent inquiries: that president Enrique Pena Nieto received a luxurious house of white marble in the State of Mexico –worth 7 million dollars– from a real estate company in exchange of government contracts. As a result of recent media leaks, one of the contracts was recently cancelled. The Mexican Presidency is now compelled to give a forcible explanation of these facts, which is the most that it can do. Unlike the U.S., Mexico’s Constitution does not allow a President to be impeached. In case the citizenry requires the government to take further action, it may do so at the cost of going beyond institutional mandates –may this be a democratic or undemocratic exercise. Indeed, Mexican democracy is in peril as its future appears to lay at the whims of organized crime. Whether the government chooses to creatively respond to such demands, the policies may help strengthen democratic institutions or may undermine them, further reversing democratic progress. For many of us who worked towards democratic change in 2000 and even met former President Fox during our activities, our efforts now feel a distant memory.

Nov 4, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Beauty of Hybrid Regimes – Burkina Faso

Opposition supporters as they protest at the Place de la Nation in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou calling for the departure of the military. Source: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

October 29 marked the demise of Burkina Faso’s competitive authoritarian regime, a subtype of hybrid regime. In a failed attempt to extend his term limits, President Blaise Campaore saw himself forced to leave the country and seek refuge in Cote d’Ivoire. Thousands of people poured to the streets to protest his desperate tactic to hold on to power. As a result, the military seized power albeit “temporarily.” After the African Union threatened with sanctions, the military declared that it will allow a civilian-led government to take place. But the fact that the military has close ties with the former power structure does not necessarily imply a democratic transition. Instead, this signals a necessary power shift at the upper echelons as its internal political structure was no longer able to confront the emerging opposition and civil society organizations. Neither was it able to deliver democratic expectations from the international community.

Burkina Faso’s state of affairs is as follows. President Campaore was able to rule through coercion and a series of political compromises to appease the opposition. When coercion became futile and power transfer was due, the President attempted to amend article 37 of the Constitution that limited his term until 2015. This amendment could have effortlessly passed at the National Assembly given that his party dominated this body over other political parties (48% of the seats). After assuming power, General Honore Nabere Traore, Chief of Staff of the armed forces, announced that the military would allow the establishment of a civilian-led transitional government. Meanwhile, opposition parties and civil society complained about the takeover as they do not envision that the military can help broker an agreement leading to democratic elections. As of 2012, the assembly was mostly composed by the ruling party and by a few, uncoalesced rival parties. Out of the 127 seats, Campaore’s party (Congress for Democracy and Progress) secured 70 seats, its allies 28, while leaving 27 seats for the opposition parties to share. If the successful protests cannot be explained by an uncoordinated and fragmented political opposition, then what can explain them? Burkina Faso has become increasingly urbanized to the extent that political parties have been unable to change their platform to attract their vote. In this regard, Huntington’s modernization theory on the “green uprising” clearly predicts instability in this country. This theory hypothesizes that increased opportunities in urban areas cause rural people to seek work in large cities and that, in view of economic crisis, this produces political instability. Thus, political instability in Burkina Faso may be more related to rapid economic growth than to a genuine change towards democracy.

As a subcategory of hybrid regimes, Burkina Faso managed to intelligently maintain power through competitive authoritarianism as of last October. It respected basic democratic institutions such as allowing free and fair elections, the presence of political parties, the establishment of civil society organizations as well as an independent press. Campoare’s regime even issued reforms that signalized the possible liberalization of the presidency, allowing him to maintain legitimacy. For instance, the municipal elections of September 2000 granted opposition parties to win municipalities for the first time (6 out of 49). Even the government had agreed to share power in the parliament in 2002. Thus, it was constituted by 54 members coming from the rival parties and 57 from Campaore’s party. The authoritarian attributes can be traced back to the death of the journalist, Norbert Zongo, who strongly criticized Campoare’s politics while denouncing crimes and arrests to opposition leaders by the government. It is now clear that the regime’s cooptation tactics had a determined lifespan and charm. Perhaps, the economic crisis prompted a budgetary cutback that sustained patronage networks. This, in turn, probably affected political stability to the extent that former allies are now joining or heading protests.

Some might think that this signalizes democratic transition. Indeed, hundreds of protestors were capable of ousting President Campoare. However, the fact that great numbers engaged in protest may simply be an indication of a political and economic discontent, which does not automatically translate into an articulated political opposition composed by different organizations. What this event may truly signify is, most likely, that the current hybrid regime will transition into another hybrid regime, perhaps of a different subtype. Without an organized opposition, capable of connecting citizens’ interests via a political party or through a civil society organization, the prospects of democratization are doomed to failure – or at least to the continuation of different authoritarian features through a different leadership. Theory tells us that two basic democratic foundations – a competitive and inclusive political system – must be present for democracy to unravel, as per Robert Dahl. Burkina Faso’s Constitution assimilates both of these elements. The question lies on whether the future government will fully make them operational.

Oct 24, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Institutionalizing Ebola

Health workers in Kenema screen people for the Ebola virus on August 9 before entering a hospital in Sierra Leone.

Nearly 4,877 people have been killed by Ebola; 9,936 are thought to have been probably infected; a total of 443 health workers carry the disease; all while the international community has been unable to harness an emergency fund (UN Ebola Fund), having only gathered 10% of the money immediately needed. Is the health development sector broken? Yes and no. While there have been impressive achievements in dealing with the spread of HIV/AIDS in light of the Millennium Development Goals, health programs have been organized so as to directly deal with specific diseases. However, the health sector has developed straightforward albeit rigid mechanisms that has prevented it focus on the big picture: creating long-term institutions encompassed by a system of governance, able to respond vertically to epidemiological emergencies like Ebola.

First, the governance system of health is the by-product of a patchwork of many working non-profits, foreign governments and multilateral organizations. So far, the white man’s burden has not led us to succeeding in Africa. The Ebola crisis reveals that the variegated array of organizations that remain uncoordinated and overwhelmed by bureaucratic procedures. One example is the delayed support for the UN Ebola Fund. While UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon asked its members to contribute financially to a $1 billion fund, only $365 million have been committed, with Colombia being the only member that has paid $100,000. Second, there also exists competition between organizations in the delivery of services. Most of them – particularly government agencies – have the incentive of disbursing large amounts of money for specific causes, with some efforts to evaluate its effectiveness but without requiring them to be creative in case of contingencies. However, squandering money implies losing opportunities to invest in long-term solutions. The governments of these countries should be responsible for coordinating health efforts. Yet, governments are so weak that they unable to do so. Agencies have worked to implement the Millenium Development Goals towards reducing HIV, infant mortality, maternal health and malaria. Despite these achievements, long-term solutions must take place too. This implies thinking out of the box and calling democracy and governance (DG) practitioners to jump in the boat – this is what we do best: give advice to create institutions with a strong civil society component.

DG specialists can make substantial contributions by creating a health coalition in order to deal with health emergencies, which can be done so in numerous ways. First, DG practitioners can provide support in establishing a coordination unit to head all health efforts – from USAID and WHO to Médecins Sans Frontiers. This coordination unit would need to be based in the health ministries of Ebola-affected countries – mainly Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Doing this would help develop ministries’ capacities in the long run. It would also involve getting to agree on who provides what and when. Certainly, arriving to such agreement may sound unrealistic, but without admitting that efforts and money have been squandered this situation will continue to ensue. This would further prevent future media. Second, our civil society outreach programs can ensure that the participation of local governments and civil society in detecting Ebola cases is permanent. Given that state strengthening is a task that will require time, civil society and local governments should be the first in leading emergency efforts, after having acquired solid response training. There are many other areas where DG specialists can help, such as coordination with local businesses and strengthening budgetary capacity so as to have a financial cushion.

Today, we are facing a world where our interconnectedness has eased the travel of epidemics. Certainly, a global response is necessary. However, if an affected country lacks the local mechanisms that can ensure an organized response between ministries and organizations, and at least some facilities able to be adapted for health purposes, then health efforts will have a limited impact. The solution to this dilemma is firm political will. Although it is true many organizations pursue recognition simply because this keeps them operating, it is also true that many have invested themselves in truly assisting Ebola victims like Médecins Sans Frontiers. According to a World Bank study, the cost of Ebola could reach US $33 billion over a two-year period, which is equivalent to coffee sales by Starbucks for the last two years. Perhaps we could contribute to the cause if we give up our cups of coffee and instead donate that money to these efforts.

Oct 14, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Education Under Siege. Dismantling Syria’s System of Governance

Source: UNICEF / UKLA 2012 - Schermbrucker

Source: UNICEF / UKLA 2012 – Schermbrucker

Education is the door to better living standards, it dignifies people and can foster understanding societies that are different. Yet, the lack of a strong education framework can have long-lasting, negative effects. Negative impacts can discourage poverty reduction efforts; prevent the generation of value-added goods, which undermines long-term economic development; can even foment intolerance within and among societies, leading to citizens’ segregation from the provision of public goods. Civil war has caused Syrians to undergo several economic, political and social setbacks. Its already weak system of governance has been almost completely shattered by war and the remaining management strength has been allocated towards war purposes. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has estimated that Syria’s life expectancy was curtailed 12.77 years by the end of 2013. As the country undergoes its third year of civil war, it is possible to observe the beginning of long-term side effects. The following figures give us a valuable insight of the situation:

– Before the war, most children were enrolled in school. Today, it is thought that 51.8% of children are not attending school any longer, with female children being the most affected. Part of this is because families have fled without official documents, preventing them to register their children in schools. In order to contribute with their family’s diminished earnings, some children have been taken out of school to work and even to get married in exchange of monetary compensation. Many students are also unable to attend school due to road blockage and increased unsafety while commuting. Furthermore, many students have also been killed as a by-product of war.

– Syria is thought to be the second worst performer in school attendance globally, with nearly 3 million children having withdrawn from school. The quality of education is also reported as having substantially decreased.

– It is estimated that the budget allocated to the military has been used at the expense of disbursements once allocated to education.

– Over 18% of school facilities have been destroyed, damaged or used for fighting purposes. While 3,465 schools have banished, 1,000 are now used as shelters for the displaced.

– Schools have suffered significant transformations. Those that are still functioning are working two shifts in order to host displaced children. Schools have created basements so as to protect children from attacks.

– Some educational institutions are considered to have influenced young students to engage in violence.

– Syria’s human development rate has regressed four decades. From being a ‘medium human developed’ country, it is now classified as ‘low human developed’ country, which is attributed to its deteriorated attainments in education.


The governorate of Aleppo, located at the north of Syria, is one of the most affected regions. In Northern Syria, the Ministry of Education has been unable to function because most areas are taken by the opposition. In this regard, Aleppo and Idlib are the two most affected places with damaged schools. Bakeries and food queues are constantly being shelled, which increases food deprivation. For Syria, losing Aleppo to violence represents having lost one of its tickets for recovery. As this city used to be Syria’s industrial capital, it was one of the few areas with a non-oil based economy that could have aided the country to stimulate development based on a more diversified economy. As of January 2013, only 6% of children were enrolled in schools there. By the end of 2013, 3 out of 4 citizens in Syria are thought to have been living in poverty. However, most of the citizens in Aleppo are expected to live in extreme poverty today.

One of Syria’s most colossal challenges concern children’s future. The presence of a barely functioning system of governance prevents any form of education management since –what is left of administrative strength– is destined to subjugating the opposition. Clearly, reconstruction efforts should not only focus in re-building infrastructure such as sanitation, electricity and roads, but they should also encompass restoring the educational system at large. Indeed, Syria’s social programs and democratization efforts are currently under siege, yet the international community needs prepare well in advance for peace’s arrival. First, education policy should correct education’s course through immediate, post-conflict measures such as: rebuilding schools; restoring enrollment levels; ensuring inclusive public education provisioning; among others. A second tier involves longer term impacts, such as providing skill training in the context of a regenerated economy; restoring social trust; teaching coexistence in order to build peace; providing human rights education; among others. These second-tier operations will require programs involving the cooperation of numerous international organizations, development agencies, private sector and civil society organizations. Most importantly, the basis of both echelons is the development of a strong system of governance. In the past, authoritarian regimes were able to remain undefeatable vis-à-vis organized civil society. Nevertheless, the exposure of corrupt and clientelistic practices enhanced by new technologies – often– renders governments incapable of controlling access to information. Therefore, to ensure long-lasting reconstruction in Syria, the government must develop inclusive policies as they can now be hardly ignored by governments. Thus, crisis recovery implies reconciliation between all parties so as to reach comprehensive public policy agreements. Without ensuring this and without providing an education that fosters tolerance, the country’s stability remains at risk.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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