All posts tagged Democracy

A Precarious Generation in Transition

Posted by / 17th February 2015 / Categories: Miscellaneous / Tags: , , , / -

Recent market reforms and the increased importance of the internet are limiting the nation-state’s role as a source of belonging and material welfare for young men and women.  Within this context, un(der)employed youth constitute a global precarious generation that is simultaneously freer to formulate its own goals and act upon them and increasingly limited by lacking opportunities and the need for financial security. This paradox becomes particularly apparent during empirical studies of young people in moments of rapid social change. On the one hand, possibilities seem unlimited in the global era, while on the other, there are fewer safety nets for young people to feel independent enough to pursue their preferred options.

The total number of unemployed people in the world is estimated at 1.1 billion. At the height of the recent economic crisis, there are estimated youth unemployment rates of around 55% in countries such as Spain and Greece; around 25% in long developed nations such as France and the United Kingdom; and alarmingly high rates in many sub-Saharan African countries. Unemployment rates are also hard to estimate in countries where people work mostly in the informal economy, and they do not take into account people who are underemployed (part-time, intermittent or temporary work).

Alcinda Honwana argues that young people around the world are in ‘waithood’, a period of suspension between youth and adulthood whereby un(der)employed youth are unable to become recognised fully fledged citizens (adults). They lack a steady and sufficient income that would allow them to become financially independent, get married and start a family.  In many countries around the world, however, accessing adulthood is dependent on marriage and household formation. The New York Times  recently produced a series of articles arguing that millennials are redefining adulthood because they lack economic opportunities and are disillusioned with the institution of marriage and the existing job market. Middle-class youth often prioritise daily leisure over long-term professional planning because they either lack stability or do not regard it highly.

The most recent technological revolution has opened up the sphere of existing possibilities for un(der)employed youth. The internet facilitates access to capital, freelance opportunities, learning new skills and networking using dynamic tools such as MOOCs and social media. The long-term effect of these technological changes on the way societies conduct politics, learn and organise the economy will be significant, as online initiatives grow exponentially. Along with other forms of shared cultural consumption, they contribute to young people’s growing sense of awareness and existence within a wider world.

Young men and women are now also freer to travel around the world. The sharp decline in transport costs have encouraged millions of un(der)employed youth to travel elsewhere in pursuit of jobs and exciting new lifestyles.  They encounter new forms of social organisation and become accustomed to cultural diversity, providing new outlooks on their own lives. Travelling to new places also raises awareness about the existence of other un(der)employed youth who migrate for similar purposes, a sort of new ‘class consciousness’ in-the-making that can be observed on public squares, in local neighbourhoods, in workplaces and more.

Meanwhile, neoliberal economic reforms such as reduction in public spending and emphasising labor flexibility have limited young people’s ability to become independent and plan ahead. Public sector jobs were once widely available in many European and African countries. They were guaranteed for life and enabled young men and women to have the material stability required to start planning their futures. Permanent contracts in the public and private sector are being progressively replaced by temporary or part-time work. Prevailing economic paradigms seek to optimise wage distribution through measures such as zero hour contracts and consultancies instead of long-term employment. Welfare benefits are also getting slashed in an attempt to create a more ‘responsible’ body of citizens, leaving few opportunities for young people to pursue personal projects and long-term professional ventures.

In the absence of work, the flexible individual must constantly renew his or her skill set and obtain new experiences that can be sold on the job market. There is a large demand for qualified workers in the private sector that remains void, despite an increased focus of public and non-profit institutions on professional training. The ability to become flexible and more employable, however, is highly dependent on a person’s wealth, education and social network (although the internet is changing the latter two). Youth from poor or lower middle-class families are less capable to commit to learning skills because they often need immediate revenue streams.

This precarious generation must focus on short-term strategies to live according to an acceptable standard of living. Many of them get by using creative tactics that allow them to assert their independence and compromise, despite a strong lack of opportunities. Walid, 31, speaks four languages and most recently lost his job in a hotel on the Tunisian coast. Despite wanting to work in a hotel again, he roams the streets of Tunis selling old cellular phones and finding tourists who can teach him about their country and language and give him some money. After completing her Law degree, Maria, 28, has spent the past five years away from her hometown of Barcelona where jobs have become scarce. She moves from one European country to another every few months looking for jobs in catering or cleaning, despite wanting to be a lawyer. While these cases may seem isolated, they both highlight a lack of long-term opportunities and the continuous negotiations between young people’s expectations and their actions to find work.

The urgency of resolving youth unemployment cannot be understated. Many academic studies and policy-makers acknowledge the need to address this issue as a security threat to existing societal arrangements. This precarious generation feels increasingly alienated from political decision-making processes and economic opportunities, highlighted by low youth voter turnouts in new and old democracies alike. Un(der)employed youth are prominent in informal social movements such as the Occupy movement (often due to student debt), the Arab Spring (the symbol of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia), uprisings all over Africa in 2010-2011, the 15-M movement in Spain, etc. Their marginalisation from the existing political and social order leads them to look for meaning in new creative ways; sometimes revolutionary, sometimes reactionary.

Honwana argues that waithood is gradually replacing conventional adulthood. The issue of youth unemployment has become a pressing policy matter (EU 2020 Priorities) and its resolution will be of great significance to the maintenance of the existing social contract. While competition becomes fierce for the few existing jobs, young people’s enhanced sense of freedom will enable many of them to create new things in the shell of the old. We are living in a transition period where the new has yet to be defined, as possibilities seem endless but short-term economic opportunities remain scarce. But the global precarious generation is certainly not complacent; it is actively shaping its future society in immeasurable ways.


Run-off Election in Afghanistan: International vs Local Media

Posted by / 14th June 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

Despite the violence break-outs and the many Taliban threats all around the country, on April 5th Afghans went to the polls and voted in massive and unprecedented numbers. According to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) around 7 million people, 36% of them women, went to the ballot box in order to choose the future president of the republic. Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai turned out to be the leading presidential candidates, but, according to the constitution, the percentage of votes each of them won (45% and 31.56% respectively) are not sufficient enough to proclaim a winner. Therefore, the next step is the run-off election, held today, on June 14th. Will Afghans further support the political process? Will the Taliban threat become deadlier? Will local population and the candidates themselves accept the results? How will the results affect the American withdrawal? How do international media perceive it all? And, local media? Those last two questions have distinctly different answers. The way that the international media understands the democratic process in Afghanistan stands in sharp contrast with what local media understands about Afghan’s interests and expectations.

International media vs. local media: differing view on the same situation

Many international voices have argued that a run-off election between the two head candidates is not the ideal path forward for the democratic process in Afghanistan. Since the country is divided by ethnic groups and both, Abdullah and Ghani, represent different parts of the population, many Western journalists have toyed with the idea of creating a coalition government between the two of them. While Ghani represents the Pashtun ethnicity in Afghanistan and the Uzbeks back him too, Abdullah is more closely identified with the Tajiks of the north who fought against the Pashtun-led Taliban, -even though his father was a Pashtun-, and many Hazarat have recognized they feel represented by Abdullah. Hence, for many, a hybrid government, which reunites the majority of ethnicities within two candidates, is preferable. If the “purpose of the election was to allow Afghans to choose a legitimate successor to Karzai” then we could say that “if Ghani endorses Abdullah, together they can claim the support of 75% of voters, far more than any sole candidate will ever obtain”.

However, ethnicity is not the only argument in favour of a coalition administration. The threat of Taliban attacks during the run-off have increased since the Taliban Spring has already begun and they feel ashamed because their bloodshed campaign during the first round of the election failed. This time they could be deadlier than before due to the fact the Taliban have to prove they can defeat the government and national security forces. This argument was underscored by the latest attempt of attacking the front-runner candidate Abdullah, who recently escaped a car bombing.

There is no doubt that the international community has applauded the Afghan effort of carrying out a rather peaceful and successful first round, but many concerns about security and electoral fraud have been raised for the run-off as well as the possibility of having warlords working extremely close to the new government-to-be. As Massoumeh Torfeh explains in her article “Afghanistan: Time for New Blood”, international circles have criticized both Abdullah and Ghani for choosing their political alliances within human rights abusers and alleged warlords when the majority of Afghans are demanding the end of the realm of strongmen and cronies and the persecution of past crimes committed by senior politicians and current candidates. Nevertheless, and even though the constitution bans “any individuals convicted of crimes against humanity, a criminal act or deprivation of civil rights by court from running for elected office”, the candidates could be accompanied to government by a minimum of four to five warlords. On the other hand, there is also a sense that a new generation of young men and women, working to change the old system of nepotism and cronies, are increasingly relevant. They were born and grew up amidst violent conflict, and they understand the needs and wants of their society beyond ethnicity and gender. Abdullah and Ghani are under increasing pressure to pay attention to such newcomers.

As Ms. Torfeh concludes her article “the second round of elections is a historical opportunity for the next president of Afghanistan to rise up to the challenge of making alliances with this new generation of activists and, at the same time, reducing the number of “warlords” in the cabinet. The presence of more strongmen in government would mean the continuation of most of Afghanistan’s acute problems including disregard for the rule of law, increased corruption, perpetuation of the narco-economy and the impossibility of keeping a check on good governance”.

In opposition to the aforementioned international idea of a coalition or hybrid government, the local media prefers to focus on respect for the constitution. In order to win the democratic battle, their argument goes, Afghanistan has to carry out a new round of the presidential elections, because that is what the constitution demands. In “Let the Afghan Voters Finish The Job” the local news agency Pajhwok Afghan News states that it is rather difficult to believe that there are some “behind the scene” conversations to create a coalition government since “the election has gone remarkably well so far” despite of some complaints of fraud and irregularities –already investigated by the Electoral Complaints Commission- and little violence. Even if some local voices claim that a possible coalition government between Abdullah and Ghani should be considered in order to –as international media has also said – let all major ethnic groups play a part and promote political stability, this is not the mainstream way of thinking among local analysts. Even national senators have encouraged Abdullah and Ghani to honor the constitution and to not ignore the votes of seven million men and women who want democracy to succeed.

Afghan media sees the pre-election campaigning as a successful mobilization of voters and a way of re-legitimization of the constitutional order. Just like the international media, local media applauded the first round. This does not mean, however, that the perceived success of the first round of the election is an indication of trust or support in the candidates, something that is much clearer at a local level than to observers around the world.

Security or democracy?

Security concerns are growing once again in the country. Since the recent attack against Abdullah, local media are questioning the stability surrounding the fragile political process, with the Taliban threat on the rise. The attacks have shifted from targeting the Independent Election Commission and its staff to attacking the candidates. If one of the front-runners gets killed, the constitution claims that a new election should be conducted, starting from scratch once again. Nevertheless, the Taliban threat might not be the real dilemma Afghans face: whereas local media do focus on these security issues, international media’s concerns with warlords becoming part of the government and wider political processes seems to be shared by the local population at large.

All of this said, a last minute deal between Abdullah and Ghani, which is unlikely to happen- could lead to a hybrid government undermining the constitution, hence favouring political expedience over democratic principles. It is ironic that Western media- representing democratic nations- seem less concerned about that than Afghanistan’s own media. Further taking into consideration the current alliances both candidates have, any new government would be formed by a dubious sources of political and military support. This, or so the argument goes, makes respect for constitutional fundamentals even more important. From a local media focus, the challenge Afghanistan is facing is the ability (or inability) of the nation to beat the Taliban threats and being able to achieve a rather peaceful political transition. The internal debate on the endemic trend of questionable alliances and more nuanced democratic challenges in government will have to wait.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Democracies and their Search for Enemies

Posted by / 17th January 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

In an interesting fusion of international relations and developmental psychology, the Enemy System Theory (EST) has been used since the Cold War to explain conflicts between human tribes. Its main premise is that the human mind requires the identification of both antagonistic as well as friendly groups that validate one’s own existence. In other words, we need enemies in order to feel good about ourselves. From an evolutionary human need’s perspective, it allows our psychology to show loyalty to our surroundings by sharing a common foe. If no such foe exists, we artificially create one. Needless to say, this urge seems to be alive and well in our modern day societies. In Europe and the United States, especially, there seems to be a continuous search for potential enemies to identify and hunt down. And if we cannot find them, we invent them.

An often heard misconception about our world is that democracies are more peaceful than dictatorships or other types of regimes. Even though there is some evidence to suggest that among themselves democracies tend to be peaceful, democracies have proven to be ferociously violent towards non-democratic regimes. This is true even if one leaves the United States out of the equation on the basis of being unrivalled- and therefore almost unavoidably irresponsible- in its military superiority. European democracies have been heavily involved in, and shared responsibility for, most of the violent and diplomatic conflicts this century so far.

To continue to insist that this is because democratic nations are more vested in spreading their self-perceived enlightenment around the globe- and thus accelerating Fukuyama’s now infamous End of History- seems unsustainable. Too many inconsistencies in Western behaviour undermine that thesis. Yet to argue that it is all down to realist, self-interested behaviour fuelled by oil and other geostrategic concerns, is also missing the mark. The large conflicts of our time (Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror in general) have been too self-destructive, too badly calculated, to have been born solely out of such sinister motives.

Our perceived need for enemies as explained by the EST seems to be a more appropriate explanation. In a time that natural enemies are increasingly hard to find, we actively seek them out. In many cases, we even encourage them. Reading the newspapers, one would almost get the false impression that times are particularly dangerous for the West right now. Our tribal instincts do not seem to be comfortable in a globalized world in which we can no longer define good or evil according to Cold War parameters. Hence, over the past twenty years or so, democracies have been actively searching for new targets.

During the hopeful and idealistic 1990s, the targets were particularly hard to come by. Those that were found- in the Balkans, for example- tended to be portrayed as enemies of humanity and human rights, rather than as enemies of democratic populations specifically. The first decade of the new century, however, saw the rise of terrorism as an all encompassing foe ready to be applied to our darkest nightmares. It led to wars with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed by democratic forces.

Now, with the fear and anger towards faceless terrorist on the decline, democratic aggression has turned back to more value driven targets, such as Libya and Syria. Iran seems to be the only constant throughout the ages, with Teheran making an appetising and useful target for continual rhetoric and sanctions. The North Korean regime has proven too extreme and too cartoonish in Western eyes to be useful as true antagonists, despite the human suffering among the Korean population.

It is hard to overestimate the psychological power of enemies in our collective conscious. British and American comedy shows still seem incapable to even mention Germany without some distasteful reference to Hitler or its Nazi past. Immigrants are increasingly perceived as a fifth column for unspecified rivals. Irrational fear of Iran’s nuclear program is shared by both the political right as well as the left throughout the West. The mere mention of terrorist plots continue to open political paths unimaginable in any rational society.

The level of enthusiasm for our own societal arrangements is inversely related to the relationship with our surroundings. Even internally, within democratic societies, the artificiality of much of the political discourse against the other side is obvious, of course. Railing against the other political side makes us feel good about ourselves and those who agree with us. Being a victim, potential or actual, of forces that are perceived to be against us, is a powerful sedative. It liberates us from introspection and self-assessment.

The fact that politicians gladly use the EST to their advantage is nothing new, and they will undoubtedly continue to do so. Yet it would be a mistake to automatically interpret this as wilful abuse on their part. Besides the irony of such attitudes towards them, proving the EST itself (making political leaders our perceived enemies), it is likely that they themselves are victims of their own human frailty. Just like all of us.

By any reasonable standard (mortal victims, economic destruction, geopolitical manipulation), democracies have proven the most aggressive actors in violent conflicts worldwide over the past decades. And yet we continue to see ourselves as the good side, righteous and generally well-behaved, albeit perhaps error prone in the practical application of our ideals.

Next time that the political right and the left come together to overthrow a regime in Libya, or impose tougher sanctions on Iran, or suggest intervention in Syria, perhaps should have a look at how that has worked out for us in the past. Maybe some modesty in both our admiration for our own moral superiority as well as restraint in our anger towards unpleasant regimes would be appropriate. It certainly would have benefited the Iraqi and Afghani populations over the past decade or so. After all, who needs enemies with friends like us?


The EU, the Mediterranean, and the Need for Coherent Policies

Posted by / 17th December 2011 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

On the verge of the New Year, it seems appropriate to start this article by going back to the very beginning of 2011. On January 4th, Mohammed Bouazizi died after burning himself in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by the police. This outraged response was the catalyst of the Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring. Since then, four regimes (if one includes Yemen) have fallen, and civil uprisings and protests followed throughout the north of Africa and the Middle East.

This democratic revolution has caught Europe off guard; the reactions have been uneven (such as the initial French offer of support to Ben Ali) and different among member countries (e.g. the disagreement about the position to take with regards to the NATO intervention in Libya). Beyond the political statements of the member states individually, and of the EU as a whole, it is also interesting to call into question the role of already existing European policies towards the region (mainly the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, European Neighborhood Policy and Union for the Mediterranean). These policies have an institutional framework that makes them more stable, while at the same time more rigid than political reactions and declarations. Could they offer a way to advance a common relationship between EU countries and the Mediterranean region as a whole?

In this article, a brief overview is given of the evolution of European policies towards the Mediterranean region. This is done from the perspective of support for democracy, and to see how the EU institutions reacted to the Arab spring. This allows an analysis of which role these political and institutional frameworks could play to help European countries build a strong relationship with the new democracies.


Weak support of the path to democracy

In 1995, the Barcelona Declaration was signed, founding the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. The EMP was created as a new framework of relations between the EU and its neighbours on the Mediterranean, with a multilateral perspective. The EMP included a chapter of political dialogue that aimed to foster democracy, human rights and the rule of law. However, it failed to encourage political change: ten years after the EMP started, real elections were just a pipe dream in most of the partner countries.

2004 was the next significant turning point regarding Mediterranean relations. After the events of 11th September 2001, the scope of the EU strategy to its southern border evolved, giving priority to the stability and security issues, thus removing the political reform from the agenda. So, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was born, drifting from a multilateral perspective to a bilateral one.

Finally, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) was announced in 2008 by Mr. Sarkozy in a bid to give a new impulse to the EMP. Although UfM is a continuation of the EMP, its stated purpose is to bring a new focus: the UfM is a common initiative of the countries on both sides of the Mediterranean with shared management (through for example a co-presidency, one from an EU country, and the other from the Mediterranean partner states). This novelty was a response to the lack of implication of the southern countries, but at the same time is a barrier to the process of political reform. It is not likely that regimes that are being questioned will support civil society in its initiatives to gain influence and promote change. A clear example is to be found in the Anna Lindh Foundation, a network for intercultural relations. After entering into the UfM umbrella, the Foundation’s Board of Governors asked the executive boards to cut a number of initiatives which were considered too “political”.


Who wants to play?

Political leaders seemed satisfied with this complex institutional building they had raised, until everything changed so dramatically earlier this year. From that moment on, a stream of reactions of all types and origins started. The role of the EU was irregular: sometimes the Commission and the High representative succeeded in presenting a united front on behalf of the European countries, while other times the EU was left aside as a result of a lack of consensus among member states. A few examples:

In March of this year a Joint Communication of the Commission and the High Representative Ms. Ashton was published, the “Partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”. Later on came the review of the ENP (“A new response to a changing Neighbourhood”, May 2011). Both documents addressed the situation in Arab countries and the need to rethink the European policies in the region. Although they might be seen as only a rhetorical exercise, they also represent an effort to quickly respond to the events and critically point to policy changes that are required (e.g. emphasizing the reinsertion of the conditionality or “more for more” criterion), and introduce a package of measures in support of the region.

Additionally, both the appointment of Bernardino León as the EU Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean region, as well as the swift invitation to the free Libya to participate in the ENP and the UfM, are attempts of the EU to be consistent within the context and to present a coordinated response.

If we analyze the military reactions regarding Libya, the scene doesn’t look quite the same, unfortunately. The central military initiatives were taken by specific member states (mainly the UK and France), and within the NATO framework. This excluded the potential role of any EU defense structures or capabilities. The absence of political willingness to reach any consensus within the EU is a meaningful fact, and it is not an isolated example; the latest initiative by President Sarkozy –the Deauville Partnership- was launched within the G8 meeting, a forum in which France still pretends to maintain and influential international role.


Looking ahead

The relationship between the EU and Arab countries has always been difficult and full of problems. This has many reasons, but two especially important ones are the lack of credibility of Europe as a political actor (immersed in permanent contradiction and in the struggle between 27 diverging agendas) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not subject of this article but an constantly underlying factor.

In the EU it is hard to achieve a consensus between member states or, most of all, to have a sole representative voice. Yet such centralization is exactly what is needed to be relevant and coherent. National interest is nowadays a leitmotiv in every Prime Minister’s office. No one wants to play a minor role. Ironically, however, a minor role for Europe is exactly where that path leads to.

The only way to advance the common relationship that the EU so desires in the Mediterranean is through the common policies. Only in this way can it play an active role and recover influence in the current regional environment In the long term, the construction of this new relationship between the EU and Arab countries requires an ability to adapt to the circumstances, and to transmit a deeper support of democratic movements. These cannot be simply headline-driven policies, but require a coherent and strong commitment. This in itself is nothing new, and that begs the question whether everyone really wants a common relationship.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail