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November 19, 2008

Democracy needs hard work

Since community development professionals in the UK more or less work for the state – calls for the renewal of local democracy tend to come from overseas. Excellent article in New Start magazine about the work of Benjamin Barber from the USA – ‘Good democracy is demanding – hard work for both leaders and citizens.’

Clare Goff, new start

The Democratic Candidate

Ask Benjamin Barber what the key to good democracy is and his answer is clear and simple: ‘hard work’. ‘Undemocratic towns are often just lazy towns: he says. ‘They are places where people don’t want to try, they just let the bureaucrats run things and don’t worry about it, just go shopping.

Good democracy, however, is demanding, requiring hard work from both leaders and citizens. It requires councils that establish strong democratic processes, have ongoing conversations with communities, with business, and with voluntary organisations, and citizens who demand and use those processes.

‘It’s like Oscar Wilde said: “The problem with socialism is it takes up too many evenings.” Well, one might say the problem with democracy is that it takes up too many afternoons and mornings as well,’ he jokes. ‘It’s much easier for the leader of the council to stay in her little place and wave people away and for citizens to just complain and be cynical. This is a hard and demanding process.

From Clinton to Gaddafi

No one could accuse Benjamin Barber of laziness. In a career spanning four decades he has advised Bill Clinton on civic engagement and written 17 books, including a classic of participation, Strong democracy, as well as authoring numerous academic papers and articles.

He lectured for many years and calls himself a ‘public intellectual’, but he is engaged in the practical aspects of democracy as well as its theory. He spoke to New Start during a brief stop in Peterborough before flying off to Libya, where he has been advising Colonel Gaddafi, before returning to his home town, New York. Mr Barber’s career has taken him from the lecture hall to the White House, but his abiding interest throughout has remained the same: democracy and citizenship -how to create it and how to make it stronger.

Which is why he finds himself in Peterborough, an unlikely candidate for world leadership in the democracy stakes, But this mid-sized, well-connected city with one foot in the past and one in the future, is perfectly poised to lead the global agenda for mid- sized cities around the world, according to Mr Barber, Heading up an international delegation invited to help Peterborough reshape its future, he chaired a series of workshops as part of an exercise called Perception Peterborough.

Bringing together local people and businesses, city council leaders and regeneration agencies, the workshops helped them ‘develop a vision of themselves and the communities in which they live’, It broke down the silos that usually prevent people from different sectors talking to one another, and generated ideas for the city’s future, in particular its bid to be environment capital of the UK.

Whatever the outcome of the workshops, the process itself has created connections between citizens living in the same city connections which will strengthen Peterborough for a long time to come. ‘No new assets were discovered. It’s not like they discovered gold or oil- but what happened is that the assets that were available to the town all got interconnected: says Mr Barber.

‘It’s a terrific process that allowed the town to become aware that it had an extraordinary network of people and to produce a community of people willing to work together in a way they haven’t done before.’ Not every city can develop a process like Perception Peterborough -some may be too small or too large to make it work -but all towns and cities can, with a little hard work, improve the strength of their local democracies.

Bottom-up versus top-down

As a strong advocate of bottom-up participatory approaches, Mr Barber is not keen on the British style of democracy, which, he says, has always been top- down. But even in the most centralised of systems, hard work can make local democracy work harder.

‘It doesn’t just depend on what central government says but on whether the local population is passive and acts like spectators or whether they engage,’ he says.

British town is in a position to make a greater demand on resources by displaying its capacity for democratic organisations, for engaged participation. The ways in which one operates at the local level has a lot to do with how much power has been passed down through the central system to it.’ The UK government has recently reclaimed the word ’empowerment’ and in the empowerment white paper and sub-national review of regeneration and economic development laid out its plans for a revival of local democracy.

But many of the initiatives it heralds are examples of what Mr Barber calls a ‘vertical’ style of democracy. ‘A lot of what happens in Britain is outreach, it’s hierarchical. Democracy is not about people being allowed to ask questions to the mayor at the town hall,’ he says. ‘It’s about people being given the capacity to make decisions and make things happen.

Empowerment happens, he says, when citizens develop relations with one another, when they feel connected into their communities and informed enough to make demands and create change. Building strong local democracies involves creating ‘horizontal’ links between people. One of the best examples of democracy in action, he says, is a project in Washington DC.

The city has one of the best healthcare systems in the US, with preventative health clinics in every ward and free health insurance for everyone. It also has a large poor population. But 40% of people in the city never go to the clinics, instead using emergency services, which are not only costly but also not the best way to improve your health. Local community engagement groups wanted to find out why facilities weren’t being used. A project was set up to constitute small groups of around 20 people from different parts of the population. Thus, men with custody of children were put into one group and working women with kids into another. The groups met regularly in workshops, not initially around health, but to build trust with one another and gain awareness of the commonalities they shared and the strength they had as a group. After a while, people began to feel more empowered and started using the public services available to them. ‘It’s all to do with confidence,’ says Mr Barber. ‘Strength lies in solidarity with one another.’

Crisis of capital

Social capital- a recognition of the common ground on which we stand as citizens -waned in recent decades as rampant market capitalism took over. Capitalism is not a problem when it is in balance with democracy, says Mr Barber, but the trend to privatise and deregulate has undermined democracy. ‘Unbridled capitalism has weakened democracy, because that form of neo-liberal capitalism says that the market can do everything and the state can do nothing. The state is the problem and the market is the solution.

That’s just as bad as the opposite, which says the state can do everything.’ The financial turmoil of recent weeks has shone light on the damage committed by systems too reliant on market forces, and the urgent need to rebuild trust, social capital and democracy. As we enter a global recession, cities like Peterborough, which has invested in rebuilding its communities and trust between its citizens, will be better placed to cope, he argues.

But how can young people in particular learn to become active and engaged citizens? Speaking to people is the first step. ‘If there’s a gang of kids hanging around the pubs scaring off the older people, getting the police to go and scare them off won’t solve the problem. You need to talk to them, find out what they would like to see in their town. It’s about pulling people into the process, not pushing them out.’

Voluntarism isn’t enough

Here in Britain, he says, there is a lively voluntary sector and many other examples of civic strength, but they aren’t seen as part of the governing structure. Healthy democracies come from a healthy civic sector, which, in turn, makes it easier for the government to do its job. To Benjamin Barber, democracy can be compared to marriage, requiring hard work and effort and the relinquishing of some individual freedom, but from which great rewards flow.

‘When you have a spouse and three kids you’re not as free as you used to be but that little community you’ve formed brings all sorts of good,’ he says. ‘It’s the same with your neighbourhood. If you’re concerned with what your neighbours and your community need and want it’s much harder than just thinking about what you need and want.

But the happiness that comes from being a member of a healthy democratic community that you have influence in is worth the sacrifice of individual freedom.’ Thus a city like Peterborough, which only a few years ago was quite individualistic, ‘suddenly finds that there’s a lot of common ground, it finds ways of working together’. Now, with some hard work, its leaders and citizens are re-learning the strength of democracy.