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Jill Carlson

Inventing new (food) democracies
Used under creative commons license from colorblindpicaso

Food democracy must start from the bottom-up, at the level of villages, regions, cities, and municipalities. – UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter in March 2014

Olivier De Schutter recently finished his widely acclaimed term as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. During his 6-year tenure, he called for a "radically and democratically-redesigned" food system. In his closing address, he highlighted the significant changes he has witnessed: the small-scale food producers having a more visible voice in decision-making; the growing number of local initiatives that create a ‘transition from below’ for a more sustainable food system; and ‘agroecology’ becoming a part of mainstream discussions about solutions to current modes of food production and consumption. De Schutter stated, “Much work remains to be done, of course. But there are promising signs that things are moving in the right direction.”

Innovation is the key to solving so many of the problems facing us: widespread malnutrition, environmental damage, and a warming and increasingly unpredictable climate. Our need for innovation is an uncontroversial statement; something we’ve heard a million times over, from politicians, agronomists, environmentalists, and agricultural corporations alike.

They keep using this word, but we do not think innovation means what they think it means. Or at least, it shouldn’t.

Most of the time, “innovation” is being used to describe some new technology, a gadget, an app, a machine, or maybe a specific agricultural technique. And these can all, indeed, be innovations. However, this point of view reflects a “technocratic” mentality, where experts and technical wizzes toil away in their laboratories and board rooms, inventing the solutions that the rest of us can gratefully adopt. The ability of people, of citizens to deliberate and discover innovations from and for their own communities and regions is marginalized when a technocratic approach dominates, and abdicates our abilities and responsibilities in a democracy.

This is especially important in the areas of food and agriculture. In light of the clear evidence that equality, most especially equality for women, is our greatest tool for fighting hunger, it seems beside the point (if not misguided entirely) to focus on production practices and technology as our inspirations for innovation. If a lack of production is not the fundamental problem, then how will technology to increase it be “the solution”? Indeed, technological approaches have many times hurt women and the poor by replacing their traditional roles—without creating new ones—and thus exacerbating poverty and disempowerment. For example, technology that sped up and changed how rice was hulled in Java (Indonesia) “is estimated to have thrown 1.2 million landless women, who were employed in the hand-pounding of rice, out of work.”

But then, what is the innovation we’re speaking of, if not in technology? What do we think it should mean?

Simply stated, the answer is a deeper democracy. Deep democracy involves citizens coming together, sharing perspectives, exchanging ideas, challenging other ideas, and refining their own. Deep democracy acknowledges that all perspectives—whether held by a minority or majority—must come into contact with each other to yield informed decision-making and transparent policy outcomes.1 Deep democracy takes a different approach and appreciation of “innovation”, emphasizing that each of us can and should be able to more directly engage in decision-making throughout society. Using a suite of democratic or “social technologies”, we can productively share the responsibilities to act and govern our systems in collaboration with each other, rather than through a large number of elected and unelected experts and leaders far-removed from our day-to-day realities.

Specifically in the areas of food and agriculture, we have often heard of “science-based” approaches to improving development, food security, and agricultural sustainability—which is all well and good, but the research could hardly be clearer that equality and a responsive democracy are key to food security. These two “soft” variables have a huge advantage that technological innovations do not: all else being equal, increased equality and democratic engagement improve multiple key elements of quality of life, especially for the poorest. New technologies, on the other hand, have no such guarantee: they likely will make some people better off, but their effects on the poorest and least food-secure might be positive, negative, or simply non-existent.2 For example, in discussing extreme hunger, historian Cormac Ó Gráda points to the march of “accountable government” as a key factor in averting famine. According to him, a famine-free world depends on “improved governance and peace; it is as simple—or difficult—as that”.

It’s important to point out, however, that what we're talking about is not democracy as we in the US often think about it—at least, not just that. Rather, when we refer to it as “deeper”, we're referring to ideas that have been variously called “strong”, “deliberative”, “participatory”, and “deep” democracy. More specifically, we mean systems that decentralize decision-making to local peoples and communities so that they are “supported, but not directed” by central governments.3 Further, the power, authority, and resources to enact the decisions made by local groups have to be present in some form. Although this kind of decision-making by citizens themselves, and not simply their representatives, will require some challenging shifts in the way we do things, examples of the improvements possible are all around—from thousands of panchayats4 in India, Citizens’ Juries throughout the United States, the more than 1,500 cities that have tried “participatory budgeting”, and the thousands more examples from around the world of effective watershed, fisheries, and forest management. Using deep democratic approaches will mean a far more engaged civic life than we’ve become accustomed to in much of the world, but it’s a challenge worth rising to: as the saying goes, you can’t fix a problem using the same methods that got you into it.

Coupling participation with power: Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre and beyond

Porto Alegre, the capital of the Brazilian state Rio Grande de Sul, is renowned for its “participatory budgeting” model that was in place from 1991 to 2004.5 Now being used in over 1,500 cities worldwide, Participatory Budgeting directly engages citizens in making priorities for spending in their communities and neighborhoods. In Porto Alegre, participation reached the level of at least 50,000 of its 1.5 million citizens. In some cities where it’s been implemented, as much as 10% of a town’s total population have participated.

It was in Porto Alegre, however, that the most advanced form of participatory budgeting seems to have developed. In their system, each of the 16 regions of the city held two annual meetings. At the first session (in some areas attended by over 1,000 people), the people elect delegates to represent specific neighborhoods, and review the budget and results from the previous year. After this meeting, these delegates hold a number of meetings with their fellow residents to set neighborhood budget priorities and develop specific proposals.6 Three months later, each region holds a second annual meeting to choose and approve neighborhood proposals, and to elect councilors to the Municipal Council on the Budget. The 42 councilors (two from each district and ten who have specialized in city-wide thematic areas) then develop criteria for evaluating proposals (including social justice criteria), develop a budget based on the proposed projects, and approve and send a budget to the city legislature and the Mayor. The legislature may suggest, but not require, changes; the mayor can approve the budget as proposed, or send it back to the participatory Municipal Council (who can override a veto with 2/3 vote), but otherwise the budget has to be adopted as proposed.

Between 1989 and 2004, the portion of the city budget decided through this process expanded from two percent to 20 percent; poorer districts saw much greater levels of investment and improvement; the percent of city residences with running water went from 75 to 98 percent; and functioning municipal schools nearly tripled. Beyond this, the process also seemed to promote more civic engagement throughout the city, the formation of more city groups, and improved understanding of the compromises and processes of city budgeting. AND, research indicated that although women, low-income, and low-educated citizens did not have representation at the Municipal Council proportionate to their slice of the city population, they did make up as much as 35, 34, and 18 percent of the councilors, respectively. So if you’re wondering how this is different than plain old “normal” representative democracy, one comparison to make is to see how many city councils are 1/3rd women, 1/3rd low-income, and 1/5th citizens without a high school diploma.7

More detailed accounts of Porto Alegre abound (for example, here and here), but researchers Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza point out that Porto Alegre maintained some very important innovations that haven’t always been translated to the 1,500 other cities using these processes. Specifically, they point out that Porto Alegre saw the successes it had in part because of the scope and importance of the PB process in Porto Alegre (eventually deciding 20% of the city budget.)

In other words, this is a process where—whether it’s on your city block, in your apartment building, at the grocery store, or at a public event—you’re no more than a short walk away from someone who had direct input into the city budget. Indeed, all you need to do to be one of those people is to attend a meeting.

Deep democracy: The new hotness

Democratic innovation has been at the heart of numerous successful interventions to improve equality and quality of life, particularly for women and children. And over time, truly deep democracy must also address inequalities, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it increases the ability for individual communities to make appropriate decisions and recommendations.  This is because so many local idiosyncrasies and differences can complicate (or simplify) creating equitable management: “from a community’s culture, history and tradition to the political system in which decisions are made—…no single solution will apply.” (Judith Layzer, The Environmental Case).8   Additionally, strong local governance, such as the Panchayat reforms, has seen formerly unheard of numbers of women participating in policy. Not only can the structure allow for equal participation by gender, but issues relevant to the struggles of women and children are voiced more clearly and assertively with women’s representation.9  Also, we know that people support specific forms of egalitarianism and equality, as was discussed in a previous post: people have a tendency to trust, share and cooperate with those who share and cooperate with them, and a “virtually unconditional willingness to share with others to assure them of some minimal standard” of living, especially through the provision of essential goods. (Relative equality has been pointed to by some researchers as a requisite for deep democratic technologies.) Further, humans have a much easier time cooperating, and making mutual sacrifices for, people they must regularly interact with face-to-face, a robust scientific finding that manifests itself in many different ways. Today many of our institutions and policies do not support or encourage this face-to-face interaction nor the unconditional willingness to share, so that most would tell a different story of human behavior: one of selfish and ungenerous tendencies, one of distrust and skepticism of neighbors. We can instead, however, design different spaces for our human interactions that bring out the cooperation and mutual generosity we are biologically ready to undertake.

As Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom explained in a 2010 interview, humans are not hopeless when it comes to cooperation: 

“[W]e’ve done experiments where we create an artificial form of common [shared, resource-limited] property—such as an imaginary fishery or pasture—and we bring people into a lab and have them make decisions about that property. When we don’t allow any communication among the players, they overharvest. But when people can communicate, particularly face to face, and say, ‘Well, gee, how about if we do this? How about we do that?’ then they can come to an agreement.”

Which is not to say that creating well-designeddeep democratic processes is easy—this is precisely why we need to focus much more of our attention and support for innovation around “democratic technologies”. The exciting and heartening news is that there is already plenty to build on. There is ample evidence, for example, that participation in well-designed democratic processes increases people’s capability to effectively participate in deep democratic processes. That is, when properly implemented deep democracy doesn’t assume that everyone knows how to act collectively, truly listen, debate points, and come to agreements—but rather relies on evidence that people can learn to do all these things when circumstances permit and require them to do so. Further, there are actually many practical and innovative examples that already exist that we can learn from. For example:

As we have said, we believe deep democratic approaches have the distinction that they’re the only way forward in the face of the problems that face us.

Authors and ecological economists Prugh, Costanza and Daly succinctly cover why:

“The problems of sustainability… are not mainly technical. Nor do they affect simple linear systems… The systems involved are complex and interactive in ways that make them inherently unpredictable… Because there can be no permanent solutions in a world that is ecologically and culturally dynamic, these choices will have to be made again and again as circumstances evolve. Therefore, moving toward sustainability will require a radically broadened base of participations and a political process that continuously keeps them engaged. The process must encourage the perpetual hearing, testing, working through, and modification of competing visions at the community level.” (In The Local Politics of Global Sustainability, xiv).

The changes necessary to make these kinds of systems work are numerous, and the challenges of implementing them on a larger and more systemic scale are immense. They don’t work automatically, or without struggle. But rather than focusing on how hard and different this kind of democratic involvement is, we would turn it around: the challenge of creating and sustaining deep democracies is the challenge before us, and our responsibility is not to quail in the face of its difficulty. We admire and eulogize technological innovators; it’s time for panchayat reform to be as well-known as Gates Foundation initiatives; for participatory budgeting to be spoken of as much or more than micro-finance; for existing projects like the Dudley Street Initiative to be carefully supported, and new projects based on and in community conversations to flourish. This will require increased autonomy and resources for local governance; it will require us to do less impersonal railing on the internet and suffering from partisan gridlock among elected figures, and more talking directly to fellow citizens and going through the long, difficult process of hashing out our differences ourselves.

In concluding, a favorite phrase is appropriate here: “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.” The necessary social change will not be easy or instant, but at IATP we take the long view—social change always happens, the important part is who is involved in making the changes. Deep democracy—and its close cousin, food sovereignty—will not come tomorrow. But to get there, we need to talk to each other, work together and build together, today.

At IATP, we're currently exploring how to build a deeper democracy and spread the word of how democratic innovation can advance us toward a more sustainable future. You can read about our most recent effort, the Rural Climate Dialogues with our partner The Jefferson Center and look for a new report on deep democracy and how it can help us achieve a food sovereign, just, and sustainable world in the coming months!

[1] See our recent blog posts about IATP's first Rural Climate Dialogue, an example of this type of process in action with partners from the Jefferson Center and the residents of Morris, MN!

[2] One quite notable example is geographer Raju Das’s analysis of the Green Revolution in India. In a 2002 paper, he wrote: “the very fact that the [Indian] state could not rely on the [Green Revolution] for poverty-reduction and thus started a ‘direct attack’ on poverty through [other] policies is an indirect indicator of the limited impact of the GR… technology is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for poverty reduction. If the lack of technology was a necessary cause of poverty, one in seven people in the United States of America would not have to live below the line of absolute poverty.” Interestingly, at least two other papers have also tied inequality and biodiversity loss.

[3] The quoted phrase and subsequent sentence draw on Baiocchi and Ganuza, “Participatory budgeting as if emancipation mattered”, available here.

[4] Panchayats are decentralized forms of village self-governance that can be found in parts of India, as well as parts of Southeast Asia.

[5] This section on Porto Alegre relies heavily on pieces by Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Baiocchi and Ganuza.

[6] There are also parallel “thematic” meetings where delegates consider problems that affect the city as a whole.

[7] Some might question whether the latter two numbers—low-income and low-education participation—are not bad things. To me, this jibes rather uneasily with two other deep American tendencies—skepticism of authority and supposed respect for those who have gone through the “school of hard knocks”. I’d argue that low-income and low-education citizens deserve as much direct representation as anyoneeveryone else. Also, we strongly disagree with the idea that you can solve problems like poverty or lack of education by developing solutions “at” people, rather than with them.

[8] Layzer was here referring to common property resource systems, but the admonition clearly applies beyond this specific form of a resource system.

[9] Local governance structures can facilitate more equitable inclusion amongst women and the marginalized. Women face many barriers to entering political office, including lack of time, information access, child care, and transportation. Local participation can abate these barriers. (