Elections in tight civic space

The elections in Pakistan, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe remind me of the treadmill option at my gym that offers a digital hike through stunning New Zealand or Hawaii woodland. The imagery is so good it brings to mind other national parks; you climb and get the right rush. Even though you cannot deviate, improvise or run any risk, this feels almost like a country walk.

Election simulation?

The elections in Pakistan, Cambodia, and possibly Zimbabwe, feel like elections. At the point-of-delivery, they have the basic elements: there has been political campaigning and some different views aired; many people have been permitted to vote, as the long lines testify; their votes have been counted in some fashion. Each election is imperfect in its own way, because – why leave important matters to chance? Losers complain, that is how it is done. Nonetheless, so far at least, each election has had a reasonable chance of passing as ‘good enough elections’, not fake enough to rock the whole treadmill.

The digital woodland setting at my local gym

Yet, like my digital forest hike, the facts tell us the path of these elections was always, to some degree, pre-programmed. In each of Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, civic and political space has shrunk significantly and recently. Each of the three elections was staged within a year of political leaders being removed from competition. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was finally toppled in an intra-elite ‘coup’ last November. In Cambodia, opposition leader Kem Sokha was imprisoned on treason charges in September, and his party banned in November. Last July, the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convicted of corruption and disqualified from office, then jailed a month before the polls on corruption charges. The political pathways were thus sharply delimited in each country.

As in my risk-free, climate-controlled virtual forest, these elections blocked out the real features of a democratic political landscape. They went ahead with limited space for reasoned and informed debate, and without the freedoms of the media, of speech, and of association necessary to mobilize public opinion or build representative parties with a chance of competing. Media outlets had been silenced or threatened. Groups making demands of liberal democracy or human rights – NGOs, social movements, or civil society organizations – had been attacked, stigmatized and denounced. Laws and regulations were in place to restrict organizations with foreign funding, and to control digital communications (see here, here, and here).

Closures of civic space of the kinds seen in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan are now widespread. They don’t affect all groups equally: liberal democratic and human rights groups, as well as indigenous and land and resource rights defenders, are on the frontline of most attacks. But there is more space for neo-traditionalist groups, particularly those opposed to human rights or positioned on the right; others advocating violent, extremist, or disruptive measures have forcibly occupied more of the civic space. So civic space is changing, as much as it is shrinking – for some.

Crossroads for development

Elections are always a crossroad, a moment when political pathways are dug into, abandoned, or diverted. But because how political power is won shapes how it is exercised and for whom, elections also foreshadow the nature and pace of development progress. To try to understand the politics of development in closing civic space, a group of researchers has been reading widely and thinking comparatively about what has been happening in Cambodia, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, among other countries, in the past decade. In this working paper we share our thoughts about how we can understand what changes in civic space mean for development in different countries. We look at how political settlements and state-civil society relations differ across settings to identify the mechanisms at work, and assess the unique development challenges and opportunities of each.

‘Fake development’ in closed civic space?

If our conceptual framework offers any guide, we can hope for higher growth rates in a political settlement forged in tight civic space, particularly with IMF structural adjustment programmes in sight in Pakistan and Zimbabwe. That might look good on spreadsheets, but we know beyond doubt that growth does not reach everyone equally and that inequality has political and economic costs. Where civil society is constrained we may expect more disruptive street protests against price rises or austerity measures: a wave of ‘fuel riots’ in fragile and conflict-affected settings in the past decade shows what happens when more civic modes of engagement fail.

Macroeconomic instability and corruption have been a drag on development progress, and we know that robust civil society and free media scrutiny and evidence can help keep finance ministries honest and stable. But in their often valid efforts to gain control over the national development process, governments have often squeezed the abilities of NGOs to do valuable work protecting the vulnerable, empowering and giving voice to the marginalized, and monitoring government and business to help avoid development disasters, boost inclusion, and improve policies and programmes. If academia and thinktanks cannot independently scrutinize or debate governmental performance, they cannot hold it to account; faith in official data may be thin, weakening generalized political trust.

A critical, independent civil society may give the political opposition an edge at times, but it is also functional for many of the needs of those in power: it improves both the quality of governance and of the wider development process. A robust civil society is good for government – inconvenient in the run-up to elections, but on balance, an essential part of the apparatus of democratic rule. A robust civil society is similarly good for development – again, inconveniently critical at times, but necessary to manage the development process inclusively, equitably, and sustainably enough – to register the kind of fair performance on which political elite legitimacy rests.

If you don’t listen to polite civil society, things start to get rude.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their agendas of inclusion, equity, and ‘leaving no one behind’ are an unlikely pathway from elections fought in such tight civic space. Whether the elections in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Cambodia are a simulation of democracy or accepted as the real thing, their new political leaders face the challenge of delivering development in tight civic space. The roles of civil society in development need urgently to be debated, transparently and in a spirit of accountability. Our research group will watch civic space in these countries for whether they open up new paths we anticipate to be necessary for a model of development that has any chance of being sustainable, equitable, inclusive, or of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Download the new paper: What does closing civic space mean for development? A literature review and proposed conceptual framework


Key sources on the closing civic space debate:


All views expressed here are the responsibility of the author, and not of the IDS or of the funders of the research.

The IDS working paper no. 515 What does closing civic space mean for development? was made possible through funding from Act Alliance and UK Aid, who both financed a literature review on closing civic space and the implications for development. The UK Aid financed Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme is supporting the production of the series of working papers so check here for more information.


How the international media framed ‘food riots’

(This paper is a pre-final version of a paper forthcoming in Food Security.)


This paper explores the framing of ‘food riots’ in the international media during the global food crisis period of 2007-12. This is an important issue because the international media’s overly simplistic treatment of food-related protests as caused by hunger leading to anger and violence, dominates public discourse, informing both global policy discourse and quantitative policy research into food riots. This paper draws on some basic analysis of a large news database to explore the effects of how food riots were framed in the international media. It confirms the overly simplistic ‘hungry man is an angry man’ thesis held across international media discourse as a whole. But it also notes differences within the media, and argues that those differences produce different effects depending on whether articles are intended to inform, analyse or advocate. Certain voices are silenced or subdued by the international media, but food rioters in the developing world appear to be treated with more sympathy than rioters in the North might expect, or than they receive in their own national media. Overall, the effect of international media coverage of the wave of food riots during the food crisis, particularly in 2008, was to indicate a global policy problem requiring global policy action. It therefore marked a political intervention on a global scale.

How the international media framed ‘food riots’

Cyclone politics in a warming world

Cyclone Mora: an untold good news story

Bangladesh momentarily made world news last week when force 1 hurricane Cyclone Mora peaked at 75 mph on May 31st, making landfall around the port city of Chittagong. Seven people died and 50 or more were injured, mostly by falling trees; dozens of fishermen are still missing. But these tragic casualties were far off the ‘1 million in nature’s crosshairs’ predicted in CNN headlines. In a matter of days 300,000 people had been evacuated from the area, many to some of the almost 500 public cyclone shelters. Without enough disaster-porn to attract interest, international news coverage soon dried up; after all, ‘Bangladesh Government does a creditable job of disaster prevention’ is hardly clickbait.


Tropical storms as political ‘tipping points’

Behind this non-story lies a dramatic tale of violence, betrayal, sacrifice, and heroism half a century old. Nestled in the low-lying Bengal Delta, Bangladesh was always exposed to tropical storms – 42% of all deaths from tropical storms in the last two centuries were in the Bay of Bengal – but the death toll from cyclones has declined rapidly since, and, I have argued recently, because, the country gained sovereignty in 1971. Nearly 50 years ago now, the Bhola cyclone, one of the most destructive tropical storms ever recorded, killed up to half a million people. The world was aghast and came out in full-force to help, but the government of then-united Pakistan was slow and lazy to respond, viewing such disasters as unavoidable and not their problem. The military regime’s indifference to the plight of their citizens in Pakistan’s far-flung eastern wing became such a hot political issue in the run-up to the first democratic elections that Bengali nationalists won what was ‘possibly the greatest victory of any party in a free and contested election anywhere’ in its impoverished eastern province. This triggered a genocidal attack and a bloody, but ultimately successful war, liberating Bangladesh from Pakistani rule in 1971.

The Bhola cyclone was a ‘critical juncture’ that changed South Asian history. Yet the intimate interrelation between ecology and politics in this context meant it crafted a social contract between citizens and ruling elites to defend against the disasters to which the geography of the delta leaves it uniquely prone. Since 1970, Bangladeshi governments have made it a political priority to prevent and manage disasters. How well a Bangladeshi government tackles a disaster is a litmus test of its legitimacy.

Hurricane political economy

That cyclones are properly political matters is not news in a week when the US withdrew from the Paris Accord on climate change. To the extent that such projections are possible, global warming is likely to increase the intensity, if not definitely the frequency, of such storms. This makes it worth thinking about what hurricane political economy might mean in the future. Some cyclone politics are obvious: who gets protected and who gets the resources needed to recover are clearly about political power, not rights nor needs. Hurricane Katrina brought the gross racial politics of the US into unforgettably sharp relief. Similarly, in 1970, the West Pakistani rulers knew little and cared less about the plight of the peasants and fisherfolk on the far side of the subcontinent. Apparently it never occurred to the ruling elites that their own legitimacy (and therefore their power base) depended on at least making an effort. It took mass mobilization into full-scale guerrilla warfare to persuade the Pakistanis that weak defence against disasters was a political deal-breaker for a population on the permanent frontline of the hurricane. National sovereignty, and later, democratic pressure, cemented the social contract that emerged with the Bhola cyclone, empowering citizens to hold governments to account when disasters struck.

‘Unwanted people’

How people come to be in the path of the storm in the first place involves a less obvious political economy, the result of longer processes through which economy, polity and ecology mutually shape each other. In 1970, the Bengalis subsisting on the fringes out in the delta had been pushing the agrarian frontier deeper into the Sundarbans forest over the past hundred years or more, growing jute and paddy for colonial and export markets. They were there largely because the British Empire needed them to be, and arranged its policies accordingly.


Fast forward to 2017, and a depressing political parallel soon becomes evident as news interest in the impact of Cyclone Mora shifts to the devastation of the Rohingya refugee camps. These people have been fleeing the genocide-tolerating regime of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. They have been reluctantly located by the Bangladeshi government in this beautiful harsh part of the world. These are people with nothing, not even citizenship, and their flimsy thatched roofs have now also been swept away. Hamida Begum, a 27 year old refugee from Burma told Al Jazeera:


We heard that a cyclone was coming. But there’s no place we can go … I hate being a Rohingya. We are being tortured in Myanmar. Now in Bangladesh we have no rights. Nothing. After this cyclone, we don’t have a roof. We are living under the sky. We have no future.


It is not hard to believe that these people facing the storm, close to the site of the Bhola cyclone of 1970, and in a country so renowned for its disaster management, are the ‘most unwanted people in the world’.

It is no accident that these ‘unwanted people’ were in the path of the hurricane. Again, in 2017, the after-effects of imperial policies of centuries past mix with the political economy of the present to transform some groups into cyclone victims. In the case of the Rohingya, these descendants, probably, of labourers and traders despatched from the Chittagong area to enrich the Empire are the despised minority around which warring ethnic groups find it convenient to unite. That they are Muslims that nobody, not even their Muslim neighbours, see it as in their interests to protect, makes it easy to push them off the land to make space for lucrative mineral and other extractive industries. That is how they end up in refugee camps facing down the cyclone. It is not just that they are poor and powerless that they come off worst. It is that their poverty and powerlessness has been the construction of decades, regimes, centuries, and it has always served the interests of economic power.


Powering the Capitalocene

These are the cyclone politics of what Jason Moore has renamed the Capitalocene – a geological era in which the imperatives of capital, stretching back hundreds of years, and not the current behaviour of people in general, shape the ecological crisis of our time. We must make sense of these politics to explain the irony of the Government of Bangladesh, a country founded in order to protect its people from the effects of disasters, building a 1320 megawatt power plant only 14 km from the very Sundarbans forest that might defend against such disasters. It does so with the impeccable logic that development requires power, and Bangladesh must develop. It builds its fossil fuel burning machines even while leading the affected world in climate change negotiations, a paradox from which it cannot escape.

The Aid Lab at the University of Dhaka

Embed from Getty Images

In a couple of weeks, my book The Aid Lab will be published by Oxford University Press, and I am very pleased to have engineered an invitation from the University of Dhaka to talk there about it at a joint seminar of the Departments of Public Administration and Development Studies. This is on February 22nd, the day before publication. I plan to use a slideshow to talk through the book – in which I failed to include any pictures, baffled by the challenged of selecting suitable ones.

But this picture by Munir uz Zaman of AFP of women Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officers seems to me to summarize the paradox of Bangladesh’s progress on human development with bad governance very handily. Bangladesh has made great strides in human health, wellbeing and gender equity. It has done so mainly in periods of multiparty rule, but the country’s governance falls short of what the international community would consider ‘good’. I feel this image of RAB women reflects on that story in a single frame.