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’

Unruly Politics and Rude Accountability

Rude Accountability, or why shoutiness makes for good-enough governance

This is a paper about informal modes of accountability – about why relatively powerless people with little money or social standing can sometimes hold powerful public authorities to account using no more than the sharp edge of their tongue. It is about Bangladesh, because for reasons of political history and social structure, ‘rude accountability’ works particularly well there. This is just as well, as formal accountability – good governance – is in short supply. An earlier version of this was published as an IDS working paper.

Read more…Rude Accountability


The Significance of Unruly Politics in Bangladesh

With the gaze of political economy and institutional analyses fixed firmly on the politics of the patron, far less attention has been paid to the politics of those whose position is mainly that of client. In fact, we know less about the contemporary ‘politics of the governed’ than of the immediate post-Independence period, because the village study tradition of class and power analysis that enriched 1970s and 1980s political sociology appears to have now more or less disappeared; the few and limited analyses of popular politics available suggest, however, that clients are not total prisoners. This paper looks at both elite and mass modes of politics. Unruliness – framed variously as informality, fragility etc – is the substantive governance issue in Bangladesh, and political unruliness is at its nucleus.

Read more…Unruly Politics in Bangladesh


Them Belly Full (But We Hungry): Food Rights Struggles in Bangladesh, India, Kenya

This report synthesises the findings from the four country case studies produced for the project. It is intended as a summary introduction to the main findings of the research, and a preliminary comparative analysis across the four cases. The green revolution and the global integration of food markets were supposed to relegate scarcity to the annals of history. So why did thousands of people in dozens of countries take to the streets when world food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011? Are food riots the surest route to securing the right to food in the 21st century? The research synthesised here interrogates this moment of historical rupture in the global food system through comparative analysis of Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique in the period 2007-12. The core insight of the research is summarised in the title: Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) refers to the moral fury aroused by the knowledge that some people are thriving while – or because – others are going hungry. This anger rejects gross inequalities of power and resources as intolerable; it signals that food inequalities have a particularly embodied power – that food is special. Food unites and mobilises people to resist.

Read more…Them Belly Full

Food Riots and Food Rights

Food Riots research project

The period of food price volatility between 2007 and 2012 sparked what observers have called ‘food riots’, which have historically marked moments of fundamental economic change, when states have lost their ability to preserve the welfare of citizens. Food riots, however, also usher in change, often heralding new forms of public accountability for hunger. This research project explores what recent events say about this historic moment, and about the possibility of protecting food rights, by looking at the causes and consequences of food-related riots and right-to-food movements in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique.

Go here for more information on this research project.

Squeezed: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility

Half a decade after the price spike of 2007-2008, food price volatility has become the new norm: people have come to expect food prices to rise and fall rapidly, though nobody knows by how much or when. So what does the accumulation of food price rises mean for well-being and development in developing countries? And what can be done to improve life in a time of food price volatility? Squeezed provides some preliminary answers to these big development questions, based on the first year results of a four-year project conducted across 10 countries with different levels of exposure to price rises. While high and rising food prices no longer come as a surprise, rapid price changes and the cumulative effects of five years’ worth of price rises are still squeezing those on low incomes.

Read more…Squeezed

Help Yourself!

I loved this title but I think I was alone on this one. This was the second year report from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility and it was about accountability for hunger. We found that most people felt that they were pretty much left on their own when it came to protection against food insecurity – you have to help yourself or you will go hungry.

Read more…Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility

Delicious, Disgusting, Dangerous: Eating in a Time of Food Price Volatility

The third year results of the study Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility uncover the realities of what people on low and precarious incomes are eating. For the consumer, there are undeniable benefits from the integration of world food trade: more stable supply, wider choice. Changes in food habits mean people are finding new ways to enjoy food and new foods to enjoy, often with greater convenience and ease. There is much to savour in the eating landscape as new markets for purchased and prepared foods open up. But the loss of control this brings has detrimental impacts on wellbeing. Most people feel they understand little about how new foods affect their health and nutrition; knowledge that they had accrued over generations and longer with respect to their customary cuisines. People have real worries about a new culture of fast food and fake food; they worry about additives, nourishment and food hygiene, and they feel that governments do too little to protect them from the risks.

Read more…Delicious, Disgusting, Dangerous

Them Belly Full (But We Hungry): Food Rights Struggles in Bangladesh, India, Kenya

This report synthesises the findings from the four country case studies produced for the project. It is intended as a summary introduction to the main findings of the research, and a preliminary comparative analysis across the four cases. The green revolution and the global integration of food markets were supposed to relegate scarcity to the annals of history. So why did thousands of people in dozens of countries take to the streets when world food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011? Are food riots the surest route to securing the right to food in the 21st century? The research synthesised here interrogates this moment of historical rupture in the global food system through comparative analysis of Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique in the period 2007-12. The core insight of the research is summarised in the title: Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) refers to the moral fury aroused by the knowledge that some people are thriving while – or because – others are going hungry. This anger rejects gross inequalities of power and resources as intolerable; it signals that food inequalities have a particularly embodied power – that food is special. Food unites and mobilises people to resist.

Read more…Them Belly Full

A Common Sense Approach to the Right to Food

Despite the growing activism and debate around the right to food in the past decade, there has been little exploration of what the right means in everyday life and in the routine encounters between states and citizens. This paper draws together original qualitative research in nine African, Asian and Latin American countries on how people talk about the right to food. It does so on the assumption that accountability for hunger depends on people being aware of that right. The paper explores what people at risk of hunger have to say about what the right to food means in their location; its source and origins; and responsibilities for upholding it. It concludes that while ideas of the right to food do not generally use international human rights language, an understanding of innate or natural rights to food is ‘common sense’: shared across contexts and groups, and part of how people negotiate their right to food in everyday life. Among other findings, the paper concludes that in a period of rapid economic and social development, the right to food of older people looks particularly fragile, and merits special attention.

Read more…The Right to Food

Who Wants to Farm? Youth Aspirations, Opportunities and Rising Food Prices

Based on analysis of interviews, focus group discussion and household case studies with almost 1500 people in 23 rural, urban and peri-urban communities in low and middle income Asian, African and Latin American countries in 2012, this research digs deeper into some of the established explanations as to why youth in developing countries appear reluctant to enter farming, and identifies conditions under which capable and enterprising youth are being attracted to farming, and entry-points for youth participation in policymaking around agriculture and food security.

Read more…Who wants to farm?


Poor Man’s Patriarchy

Alex Kelbert and I wrote this for a great symposium called Undressing Patriarchy back in 2013, but it is also based on the Life in a Time of FPV projectI realise now other people had already made these points and more elegantly and cleverly. But I think its a good paper because it connects food insecurity to masculinity. It is always women being referred to when experts talk about ‘gender and food security’, but global patriarchy means there are few societies in which men are not seen as ‘the breadwinner’, no matter how families are configured. So food crises are always crises of masculinity.

Read more…Poor Man’s Patriarchy

Women’s Empowerment Revisited: From Individual to Collective Power among the Export Sector Workers of Bangladesh

Bangladesh has become known as something of a success in advancing gender equality since the 1990s. There have been rapid gains in a number of social and economic domains, yet by most objective standards the current condition and status of women and girls within Bangladeshi society remain low. Rapid progress has come about under conditions of mass poverty and interlocking forms of social disadvantage, political instability and under-development, overlain with persistent ‘classic’ forms of patriarchy. Mass employment of women and girls in the country’s flagship export sector – the readymade garments (RMG) sector – has been one of the more visible and prominent changes in women’s lives since its late 1970s’ introduction.

Read more…Women’s Empowerment Revisited

National discourses on women’s empowerment in Bangladesh

This paper explores how perceptions and narratives around women’s empowerment have evolved in Bangladesh from 2000 to date. It studies the concepts of women’s empowerment in public discourse and reviews the meanings and uses of the term by selected women’s organizations, donor agencies, political parties and development NGOs. By reviewing the publicly available documents of these organizations, the paper analyses the multiple discourses on women’s empowerment, showing the different concepts associated with it and how notions such as power, domains and processes of empowerment are understood by these actors. It also highlights how these different discourses have influenced each other and where they have diverged, with an emphasis on what these divergences mean in terms of advancing women’s interests in Bangladesh.

Read more…National Discourses on Women’s Empowerment

Security and the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment

This paper reports on an effort to derive lessons about how security and insecurity shape processes of women’s empowerment in developing countries through a thematic synthesis of a collection of research outputs from a five-year programme of research on the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment. The programme covered four broad thematic areas: voice (political mobilisation), paid work, body (or changing narratives of sexuality) and concepts of empowerment. Some 115 outputs, including both conceptual and empirical work, were included in the review. The synthesis is not a systematic review (it did not review work outside the Pathways collection nor select papers according to quality or other criteria) but drew on thematic synthesis methodologies as used in the systematic reviews of qualitative data.

Read more…Security and Pathways of Women’s Empowerment

Exports, equity and empowerment: the effects of readymade garments manufacturing employment on gender equality in Bangladesh

Drawing mainly on the rich literature available on women’s RMG employment, this paper explores the wider and less well-documented effects of such employment on public policy relating to gender equity in these areas. It concludes that the overall direction of change in the industry points plainly to the need for investments in worker productivity, with a host of implications for women’s work and gender equality more broadly. Factory owners have to date shown few signs of recognising that is in their own interests to support better state education for girls, better public safety for women, and to change their own management practices to better retain and raise productivity of skilled women workers. Yet with downward pressure on wages increasingly effectively resisted by workers at a time of global economic recovery with rising living costs, the tide may now be turning for the RMG workers of Bangladesh.

Read more…Exports, Equity and Employment

The Aid Lab

Elite commitment matters

If we really want to understand why Bangladesh sets the global standard for poverty reduction we need to properly understand the role of politics — not only as a fig leaf for when times are hard, but also to explain what has worked. More specifically, we need to make sense of the political settlement, or effective agreements between the elites as to how to share the spoils of power, and what those mean for poverty and inclusive development. As Mushtaq Khan has convincingly argued, Bangladesh’s development success owes much to how the elites managed to coordinate enough to permit broad-based economic growth.

But Bangladesh’s pattern of development has been poverty-reducing, partly because of its strong emphasis on human development, particularly for women. And to explain that, we have to understand why Bangladesh’s elites agreed that it was so vital to tackle poverty head-on, and to ensure that the poor rural masses got at least some modicum of protection against the elements and the vicissitudes of life on the Bengal Delta. I tell the story of this elite settlement in my book The Aid Lab: Understanding Bangladesh’s Unexpected Success, available from Oxford University Press.

The emergence of the aid lab

My own analysis of the politics of Bangladesh’s unexpected development success is less congratulatory of the aid industry and its clever prescriptions. It is also an altogether uglier story of how the international community applied “lifeboat ethics” to justify their neglect of the 1.5 million victims of the 1974 famine in Bangladesh, and of the violent aftermath of that particularly tragic period in Bangladesh’s history.

My reconstruction of the political history of that time concludes that an elite consensus emerged that committed the Bangladeshi ruling class to protecting the rural masses against the crises of subsistence and survival that so frequently swept their way. This elite consensus included accepting the painful conditions that came with foreign aid, because without external support, the short-term survival of the country, let alone of the political elite, looked bleak.

And it meant letting aid experts treat Bangladesh as a kind of laboratory for aid, in which they often treated as the targets and objects of development, instead of as people with rights, agency, and autonomy. It may have got the Bangladeshi people into the global market, but it has done so on terms that are precarious, at best.

And so the World Bank, and the aid community in general, has little to congratulate itself for treating Bangladesh as the world’s aid lab. It should instead look again at the politics that underpin successful transitions. And it should take more seriously not only where development is taking us, but the ethics of how we are to get there. If Bangladesh was really the test case for development, what does that say about development?

What citizens expect

This is a recurring theme in my work and it links to points I’ve made elsewhere about rights – that people have to be willing & able to claim them or they remain a pretty fiction. And this means people have to expect something of their state. In my work, often with others (like the lovely Tariq Omar Ali, now an economic historian, but once upon a time a development researcher too) it seems that what people expect from their state partly depends on political culture – the political ideas and practices that resonate with the powerful. It depends very much on how governments have responded in the past and on how people expect they will in the future. This describes a dance of citizens with their state, an elaborate, longstanding and sometimes unruly or even violent courtship.

These papers are from decade-old work done in the early stages of the Chronic Poverty Research CentreTheir messages – that the average Bangladeshi actually trusted their state a fair bit to provide some basic protections was not very popular nor very credible at the time – with good reason. But the more I research and think about this, the truer I think it probably is that the average Bangladeshi citizen expects their government to at least protect them from the crises of barest subsistence. They do so because this is what successive governments have tended to do, for a population that faces such frequent catastrophes from its ecology, unruly politics, and its prone position in the global political economy.

Popular expectations of Government

Who Trusts Government?

Reading riots

Participation, Power and Social Change Research at IDS

Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain
For researchers of popular politics, at least, it is no curse to live in interesting times. The past weeks have seen:

  • The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) recognition that popular discontent derailed Greek austerity;
  • The mishandling of protests in Turkey;
  • The shaming of Rousseff in Brazil; and
  • The ouster of Morsi in Egypt.

These events are dense with meaning and hard to read (see Mariz Tadros on Egypt). How are they read? And whose readings count? A group of us have been thinking about this as we get into fieldwork for the DFID-ESRC Food Riots and Food Rights project. Some stylized reflections:

  1. Clever politicians read riots closely

A politician worth her salt has an ear to the ground and an eye on the limits to popular tolerance. Governments know that energy subsidy cuts can provoke riots, and that food price spikes mean disaffected slum-dwellers or farmers. States…

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