In the days following the VILLAGES IN ACTION conference I was copied into an email discussion that I felt was best opened up to a wider audience.
The email was sent to @tmsruge and the heading simply said OK, A QUESTION” and it was from someone called Chris who has asked me not to give his full identity here. But here is what he had to say
I’m trying to understand various viewpoints and perspectives regarding national development so if I end up asking an odd question or two it just stems from curiosity and that wish to understand – it’s not from anything else. I’m aware these are complicated issues and I enjoy learning whatever I can so please bear with me.
One thought that I’ve been kicking around pertains to some of the writings I’ve read in conjunction with the VIA project where various people have felt a certain sense of exclusion by the UN. Or at least remarked upon the exclusion of the poor from the UN process itself.
My understanding of the UN, however, was that it was always an international body composed of national leaders who in turn represented their own populations. I was never under the impression that it was a world government, but that it was instead a meeting place for world leaders to officially register their positions, whether they be supportive of certain global initiatives or not. The lack of actual UN enforcement mechanisms that people often seem to get so frustrated about, is just part of the nature of the UN as a global meeting place or a forum, rather than as it’s own united and independent governing body. Nations are still sovereign and national leaders are still ultimately the ones who decide whether to act or not, and when they act they use their own people’s money, be it tax dollars or export revenues, to do so.
As a result, the collection of national leaders that is the UN, can’t really do too much other than to try to officially agree or disagree on various agendas. One of those agendas was the idea to compel all world leaders to agree to certain standard of living targets within their countries. After that, however, it’s up to the individual leaders to decide how they feel their own unique nation should proceed in order to meet those targets. I could be wrong but I don’t think the UN actually forces specific projects upon nations. I don’t think it has the mandate or the capacity to do so. I think it might use it’s UN budget to commission analysis, or research papers and then to publish suggestions based on that research but I think it’s still totally up to each national leader to decide whether or not he or she would like to take that advice. The Millennium Project is one such report of recommendations but it certainly doesn’t need to be followed. It’s not like a Structural Adjustment Program from the IMF.
If this is all true then logically it seems that the voice of the poor would have the most effect when heard by its own leaders. When heard by the leading men and women who hold their tax dollars and who actually make decisions on their behalf. The UN is just a global chat room for National representatives – it’s still up to the individual nations themselves to implement solutions. In that sense, it doesn’t seem absolutely essential for Uganda’s poor to really have a direct voice with Thailand’s foreign minister for example. It can’t hurt, of course, and certainly the more open the communication the higher the possibility of something positive resulting, but the primary undertaking seems like it should be the dissemination of the voice of Ugandans across Uganda itself. Am I wrong? Why do people feel that the UN should speak to the poor directly and circumvent their own national representatives or leader? This seems odd to me. It doesn’t seem like an arrogant, elitist conspiracy, but rather it seems like respect for National sovereignty.
Does that make sense? I’m happy to discuss it or to figure out what I’ve missed if that’s the case. Just happy to be able to have a dialogue with someone about this stuff cause it’s something I think about a lot.
Here is the response from Teddy to Chris’ question
So after thinking about it for a spell, I think you do have a valid point about the UN specifically. But the general point of #VIA2010 wasn’t to dismiss conventional structure of the UN, it was more about a call for more inclusiveness.
The VIA platform serves to sensitize the world and the poor about global development issues. Both for the world to hear directly what the poor have to say and for the poor to interact with the world at large. That is something that would never have happened in Kikuube without VIA. So say that it is true, that heads of state do attend and represent their countries, but do you realize that those very same heads of state are not accountable to their own people, nor do they ever LISTEN to them. When your “tax” base is international aid, you have very little incentive to be accountable to your people, so you push the agenda of whoever is funding you.
Your argument would be valid if there was such a thing as a taxable middle class for our electorate to be answerable to. As such, there is non. What drives nearly 65% (if not higher) of our economies is the informal sector. Almost zero income tax is collected by the state with a setup like that.
In the absence of direct, meaningful dialog with our leaders, then we must opt to have direct meaningful dialog in our own communities and the world at large. Just because VIA was broadcast globally, does not mean that those in Uganda were excluded. Plenty of people in Kampala and Nairobi watched the webcast. The clips that we’ll post early next year will also be available to the world at large, inclusive of Uganda. The only entry requirement is a connection to the internet.
So, in a way, if you think about it differently. The global organizations working directly with heads of state perhaps need to de-emphasize that coupling and opt more for direct communication with those on the ground. Cause whatever the UN has been agreeing on and discussing, is not getting down to the grassroots. That model is clearly missing something.
I wanted to add though, you’ve made some great points and it would be a waste to have this conversation simply over email. Consider posting your comments on the link I posted above. it’s a wrap up article I wrote for The Guardian. I think it’s worth opening your thoughts to a wider audience. Do give it a consideration….
Another response came from Tracey Pell of Project Diaspora and this is what she had to say
This is Tracy… I am Teddy’s co-founder in Project Diaspora. I also thought it worth mentioning, the the UN itself Struggles with the idea of inclusion. They have on occasion acknowledged the benefit of listening to the grassroots as it were, when define goals and objectives, like the Millennium Development Goals. The challenge they perceive is one of scale and accessibility. Specifically, it is too costly to unwieldy to create events designed to listen to the poor. However, when you look at what an event like Via cost to put on as compared to the cost of meetings for big heads of state. This argument really falls apart. So the very act of putting on VIA shows what is possible, more that any abstract conversation on the matter ever could.
Thanks for all the curiosity! Helps u’s verbalize the vision as well.
And here is Chris’ response to the above
I appreciate your email and I’ve been looking forward to continuing the conversation.
Regarding the VIA concept, I like it. I like it a great deal actually, I think I put that in my first email to you so I hope that sentiment comes through in the midst of all of this. I don’t know how hard or easy it is to set those up but I’m hoping you are able to do more somehow.
My point in that last email was one of surprise regarding the expectations that people seemed to have for the UN – in contrast to the expectations that they seemed to have for National governments. It was in reaction to the sentiment that somehow since the MDG’s were not developed in consultation with the poor directly, that they were therefore less valid or that this was sheer folly in and of itself. I don’t agree with that sentiment, not because I love the UN, but because of my understanding of the role that the UN is meant to play. The UN MDG’s are simply a set of overarching benchmarks or targets, and how any particular country chooses to go about trying to achieve those targets is completely up to them. So in all cases the work, the planning, and the implementation of development all falls under the aegis of the national governments. Logically therefore, any group of people that would like to add their voice to the development discussion and that hope to influence the direction or the nature of development strategy, needs to catch the attention of their own national government first and foremost – they are the ones who design and implement this stuff. And the UN may even be able to help in this regard I don’t know. Perhaps, they can publicly implore that a specific government do a little more to include its own citizens in its own development discussion. It is a rather toothless form of pressure to be sure, but it may have some effect. It would be up to the national government to decide whether it takes that advice or succumbs to that pressure though.
One issue that I’ve seen arise a few times, though not in this discussion, is confusion between aid and development. With the permission of national governments I know the UN has implemented many aid projects in times of dire need, though I’m not clear on how involved they are in national development during non-emergencies. I’d like to look this up actually, but in general national development (as separate from temporary emergency aid) belongs in the hands of the nation itself. The UN doesn’t have the means to build nations, (after all it is simply a collection of other nations) nor does it have the mandate to build nations, nor should it. No one knows the nation, its culture, its obstacles, its advantages and disadvantages better than the people of that nation and their government. As a forum for governments to build consensus on international issues the UN can commission research papers on nation building or collect statistics and make public pronouncements across the evening news in an effort to frame a particular issue or to set the agenda, but it is ultimately extremely limited in terms of enforcement or implementation. The fact remains that for all of our global interconnectedness – there is still no higher position of authority on the globe than the President or Prime-minister of any given nation. No one is higher than Barack Obama in terms of authority over US national development. In the same way, no one is above Yoweri Museveni.
It seems like an unequivocally good idea for the whole world to be more sensitive to the needs of the poor and for the poor to be able to interact with the whole world in return, and I enthusiastically support all efforts in this direction, but only national governments make the decisions regarding a nations development and so it seems that any real push for change would have to come through them. What may well be true is that not all of the federal governments of the 192 member nations of the UN actually represent their own citizens very well. You’ve pointed out that the Ugandan government operates as though it is not accountable to its own people and doesn’t make an effort to hear what its own people have to say. So yeah, that seems like a disaster. That, it would seem, is the primary problem to be address.
I loved the link that you made between tax and representation. I actually had a question about income tax on my list of questions for Milly but I got about half way down the list and decided that as gracious as she was being, it would be rude of me to simply keep asking question after question. It would have been much nicer as a conversation over tea, but then we were on opposite sides of an ocean so…..But yeah it seems like the link to tax collection is an immensely important one. In fact, just to throw in a little aside here – I think one of the advantages of the British parliamentary system over the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV (back in 1700) was that even though France had a much larger population, Britain was able to collect way more tax to fund its war effort and its continuing national development. Something to do with the nobles and clergy being exempt from tax collection in France. Back to the real world, I know that in general, countries with less thorough bureaucracies usually tax imports and exports since it’s far easier to control a port than it is to chase down individuals. Where that leaves Uganda, I’m not sure since I haven’t looked into to it yet – though I will. To hear that much of the government revenue is international aid doesn’t seem surprising, though it seems unfortunate. I had kinda hoped that there was a little bit more income tax than “almost zero” but again I guess that is logical.
So, I am aware, even if only in a general way, of how the Ugandan government might not be truly representing its people in the way that, for example, the Canadian government does when it shows up at one of these UN assemblies. And I think that if I were to look further into the causes of this, which I’m eager to do, and which I’m sure you’ve probably already done, then we could probably find a whole host of reasons, from land policy, to monopsonies, to national unity, to economic policy, to unequal global terms of trade etc…..but that’s an ongoing project that you, or I, or we, or whoever, could tackle as we go forward. What I’m trying to get at here though, I suppose, is that once we get this information, whoever gets it, or already has it, it seems like it would do the most good inside Uganda. I agree with you when you said that “in the absence of direct, meaningful dialog with our leaders, then we must opt to have a direct meaningful dialog in our own communities.” I’m less convinced that the “world at large” will have as much of a positive effect. I suppose it could have value as long as the main focus is within Uganda itself. I do agree, that it would not make sense to actually expend effort trying to limit things, – once it’s out there, it’s out there – and all you need is an internet connection – it’s just a matter of focus that’s all.
I know that in general these issues are broad and complex and as the dialog continues I expect my views to change somewhat, but for now, at this early point in my thinking, I’d say that I’m inclined to believe that there does not need to be any less emphasis placed on the UN relationship with heads of state. There is no getting around the fact that Presidents and Prime-ministers are still the highest authority figures on the globe, and all nations require leaders. Ban Ki-moon is simply the secretary general, a sort of host. Even the ICC, according to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is supposed to only prosecute cases when domestic court mechanisms and procedures do not already exist. In every nation there is always some discussion as to how well the population is being represented. In nations were that representation is particularly narrow or broken altogether then for the sake of those people it makes sense to try to fix that relationship. To fix that relationship requires fixating on the people who are part of it. If some of the good ideas being presented in the forum of the UN are not benefiting Ugandans because of poor Ugandan leadership, then it is the Ugandan leadership that needs to be fixed, not the UN. Only Ugandans can do that, though outsiders can certainly lend support. It seems to me that VIA has the incredible potential to perhaps unite the voices and concerns of the rural populations of Uganda in a way that I’m not sure has ever been done before. Perhaps it can unite that voice into one that IS heard by its own government. I’m certain it is a long long process but it definitely seems like something worth trying, not to mention it is something you seem to be already doing. Nice work.
This is a very long post folk but let me have your thoughts please