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Advantages of an Active Democracy – in numbers


 

In
the West, we continuously confuse the terms “consumer” and “citizen”: what the
Old Greeks used to know, we do not know anymore. When we speak of representative
and other forms of democracy, namely a participative or active democracy, we
only create confusion. Strong interest groups are trying very hard to perpetuate
the neo-liberal school of thought in the field of economy – and politics! Thus,
the rich become richer, and the poor poorer. The great majorities are hypnotised
and crippled by the technological marvels of the last decades. Active minorities
have reacted and for years they have emphasized the point: Another World is
possible! This year, at the end of January 2001, they met at the first Forum for
a Social World in Porto Alegre, while at the same time in Davos, the neo-liberal
elite gathered at the World Economy Forum. Ignacio Ramonet wrote the following,
in Le Monde Diplomatique,
Nº 562, in January 2001, about the South-American event:

“…
Porto Alegre is a sort of social laboratory, international observers follow with
a growing fascination. For twelve years now, this city has been governed, in an
original way, by a left coalition, led by the Workers Party (WP). In many fields
(housing, transport, administration, removal of refuse, public health,
hospitals, sewerage, environment, social housing, schools, culture, security and
so on) they have experienced spectacular developments. The secret of such a
success? The participative budget (‘O orçamento participativo’), that is, the
possibility for the inhabitants of the different neighbourhoods to decide in a
specific and very democratic way, how they want to spend the public money. Thus
they decide what sort of infrastructure they want to create or to improve, and
for this they dispose of the possibility to follow the development of the works
and the payments. (The
following paragraph, written by I. Ramonet too, is cited from the article “The
Consensus of Porto Alegre”, published by the Spanish paper “El País” on Feb.
12th 2001) All this in an atmosphere of open, democratic debate, since a very
active opposition from the right has to be reckoned with. The WP does not
control any mass medias; neither the press, nor the radio, and much less the
television. (…) Porto Alegre is nowadays one of the best administered cities
which offers the highest standard of living of Southamerica.”

With
two more examples, I will try to highlight the advantages of an active and
participative democracy.

On
April 25th in 1987, the English magazine “The Economist” published on page 60 an
article under the title: “A real people’s democracy, for once”. There we are
informed that some inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Orangi in Karachi,
Pakistan’s’ capital, had begun to govern themselves, i.e. they participated in
the ruling of their society. They had formed Street Committees, to build a
drainage and sewerage system. The pilot project gave practical and technical
advice. Materials were sold at cost. The people did the labour themselves or
hired someone. The cost of being hooked up to the sewerage system was around
1,000 rupees (more or less 60.—US$) that meant one month’s average wages.

Seven
years later, on the 13th August 1994, again “The Economist” reported, on page 56
under the title: “But there is a small bit of good news.” Once again this was
about the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). Meanwhile over 72,000 of Orangi’s 95,000
houses, that is four houses in five, had been connected to covered sewers. The
national average is one house in five. Sanitation, combined with some other of
OPP’s health projects, had brought the district’s infant mortality down from 130
per 1,000 in 1982 to 37 in 1991. Nationally, the figure was 95 per 1,000 births.
(All cited numbers of the example from Orangi come from the mentioned copies of
„The Economist”.)

If
these covered sewers had been built under the supervision of the local
authorities; the inhabitants would have had to pay 5 to 7 times more. That is
not only one monthly salary but five to seven: kickbacks and different
“commissions” would have caused this difference!

We
know that in mathematics 2 + 2 are always 4. But we fail to understand that in
the political-economic-sociological field 2 + 2 are hardly ever 4 ! The citizens
of Orangi, with their active participation, turned the mathematical rules upside
down.

They
succeeded in making 1 + 3 = 5. And they did so as follows:

1 (a
subsidy) + 3 (personal money) + 1 (work and active participation) are five.

If
the authorities had done the job, the numbers would have looked differently:

1 + 3
= 1


Namely: 1 (a subsidy) + 3 (personal money) but MINUS 3 because of the kickbacks
and different commissions. The result would have been: no covered sewers for the
inhabitants of Orangi.

And
this has not only local, but national consequences. Imagine something that you
badly need costs 30 to 40 % more; well, by making an effort, you could afford
these additional costs. But when things that are done by the state cost 5 to 7
times more, than when you do it yourself, this obviously means that in this
country fewer things are being undertaken, and this affects the economy of the
whole country.

The
last example tells of a situation, I have experienced – and still am
experiencing – myself. In August 1976 I moved into a shack, in the neighbourhood
of the Carmelo in Barcelona (Spain).
But at the same time as I became a new neighbour I also became a member of a
community that was already politically active. That is, my neighbours were
people, who had short- and long-term plans, which they also discussed and
carried out. (I have explained in more details in my book “Handbook for a
Democratic Society”, published in 1994 in Vladivostok, how citizens can organise
themselves.) They had formed a Street Committee or rather a
neighbourhood-committee, that, in 1976, had already organised covered sewers,
the supply of electricity and water, the tarring of the paths and other things
that make life easier. In September 1979 we moved out of the shacks into
provisional flats, so that they could build flats for us on the same plot of
land, where the shacks had been. In 1984, we moved into the new blocks of flats
in Plaza Ramón Casellas. In 1998, the Neighbourhood Committee negotiated a price
for the purchase of the homes of over a hundred neighbours with the owner of the
flats, the City Council of Barcelona; that price was 50 % lower than it would
have been, if each of us had approached the City Council individually. On the
market such a flat is worth at least twice as much as the offer we were made. In
money terms, these are sums between 30 and 50,000 US$. For rich people these are
trivial amounts. For me, and many of my neighbours, these sums represent quite a
few yearly-salaries. The conclusion may be: He or she, who is not ready to
discuss and carry out plans with his or her neighbours and fellow citizens, will
have to go on fighting misery in that very lonely, and ineffective fashion,
where personal interests can neither be genuinely defended, nor protected. Not
to develop an awareness for community also means, one is ready to pay many
yearly salaries to those people, who have made it to one of these coveted jobs,
where juicy commissions can be cashed in. Through this passivity, the rich
become richer and the poor: poorer still. Barcelona, in November 1998 and
February 2001                       


Christian Bongard, Swiss born, but living in Barcelona since 1975, where he
earns a living as a language teacher. In Vladivostok/Russia, however, he is
considered a political thinker. After 1993 he published there some articles
and the book "Handbook for a Democratic Society".

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