|Martin Pettitt. Creative Commons|
Anyone who has been involved with and understands community development will tell you that empowerment has been one of the most enduring and potent themes in the history and practice of community development. Indeed, aside from the phrase community development itself, empowerment has been perhaps the most often defined term in the community development lexicon. I’m not going to add another, just quote a couple so that we know what we’re talking about.
The World Bank defines empowerment as
“… the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold accountable institutions that affect their lives.”Notwithstanding that you may wonder that the World Bank has not lived up to its own definition or that it has not been held accountable by the majority of the World’s poor, the definition is useful.
The next definition comes from the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). IAP2 has championed a spectrum of public engagement that passes from the least engaged stage of Inform, through Consult, Involve, Collaborate to Empower as the highest level of engagement. The definition of Empower that IAP2 gives is:
“To place final decision-making in the hands of the public.”So what have empowerment and these definitions got to do with my assertion that empowerment has little to do with voting?
A further defining feature of community development has been that it’s focus has always been on community and/or collective actions and programmes as opposed to an individual or family-centred approach.
Voting could be said to more readily exist as an individual rather than a community action. One of the great rallying calls of electoral democracy has been “one man (sic), one vote". Certainly there have been community-based campaigns around the right to vote; the suffragette movement most notably. Nevertheless, once the right to vote has been won, or the community has been rallied to enrol, when the voter enters the polling booth it is very much an individual act.
Regrettably, under electoral democracy, once the voter has placed their mark upon the voting paper that is generally the end of their participation in public decision-making for the next three or four years.
Furthermore, when we look at the outcome of this process who do we see? A mostly homogeneous group of career politicians drawn largely from the upper deciles of society, highly educated and articulate, confident not only in themselves but also in their opinions and beliefs.
Look at the backgrounds of most Western parliamentarians or local body councillors. Lawyers, teachers, business owners, wealthy farmers, financiers. You need to search long and hard to find hairdressers, motor mechanics, truck drivers or – unspeakably – anyone who is unemployed.
No, these parliamentarians and councillors are hardly representative of the communities in which community development seeks to work. Very few, if any, are representative of the poor people in the World Bank definition above.
Empowered by Random Choice
If empowerment entails communities taking the final decision-making then electoral politics and the voting system are not routes towards it. Is there an alternative? What if there were a way to more easily ensure greater representation of the demographics of communities, cities and nations?
When making a decision what could be more simple or more fair than a random throwing of a dice, a flipping of a coin, or a drawing of names out of a hat.
Wait! Don’t dismiss the idea as absurd or fanciful. It’s been done. The birthplace of democracy itself – ancient Athens – used the casting of lots far more often than they did a voting system. Ahh – but that was over 2000 years ago. Yes, but recent experiments and research have resurrected the idea and found that it has enormous merit.
The idea even has a name, in fact, it has a couple. Sortition is used to describe a system whereby randomness is used to select people for some position. When applied within a political setting often the term demarchy is used.
When we think of empowerment as a community goal then demarchy has much to commend it. Randomly selected public decision-makers suggest a far more representative possibility than does our present system. In order to be selected by lot one needn’t be rich enough to be able to campaign, nor does one need to be famous enough to be voted for by name association. One just needs to have a name!
A further benefit of demarchy that has been found to occur is that once someone has experienced the practice of public decision-making they tend to apply and teach the acquired skills within the community from which they have come. There is then the possibility of overcoming another of electoral democracies pernicious weaknesses – elitism.
If, as the World Bank declares, empowerment seeks to enable people to participate and negotiate so that they are able to influence and control, then demarchy provides some answers where presently our political institutions do not.
Yes, community development has everything to do with empowerment and it can empower communities using randomness. Let’s not toss it aside, let’s toss our names into the hat.