Merilee Grindle on Making Democracy Work

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on June 16, 2005

The world is watching as Latin American democracies face a series of critical political and economic challenges. Merilee S. Grindle is Edward S. Mason Professor of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School. She is a specialist on the comparative analysis of policymaking, implementation, and public management in developing countries, with particular reference to Latin America. Her most recent book is 'Despite the Odds: The Contentious Politics of Education Reform.'

Q: You have remarked that citizens of Latin American countries who embraced democracy 15 to 25 years ago perceive democracy as not having delivered what was promised. What sort of challenges do democracies face in Latin America today, and what does the 'end of the honeymoon' for these countries indicate for other new democracies across the world?

Grindle: When countries embraced democracy, 15 to 25 years ago, there was an incredible amount of enthusiasm for the system of government. Many of the countries in Latin America and elsewhere were reacting to decades of oppression under military dictatorships. They had very high expectations about what it was that democracy could deliver. Perhaps the expectations were too high.

Unfortunately, the era of the introduction of democracy in many countries was also an era of very severe economic distress. There were many changes in economic policies that caused hardship for large segments of the population, and growth was slow and sometimes even negative. People have come, in some cases, to associate the introduction of democracy with the failure of economic development itself.

I think a real challenge in many countries is really taking some time to sit back and think about what is it that democracy can deliver and what is it not necessarily going to deliver. Democracy is a very good solution to a problem of power and its control. It's not necessarily a solution to problems of economic development, although in some cases it can promote economic development but it does not necessarily do so. One of the challenges is really to think carefully about what it is that democracy can deliver.

I think we also need to acknowledge that with democracy there will still be conflict. In many of the countries I visit, I find people are very disappointed with democratic institutions because they see their countries are still in conflict. There's still a great deal of public debate or dissention within legislatures or division between the executive and the legislature. Once again, I think this is an issue of understanding that democracy is a set of rules about resolving conflict; it's not about doing away with conflict.

Finally - and I think that this is particularly true in Latin America - there is a real issue of inclusiveness. When large portions of populations are excluded from the democratic process, when they are excluded from any kind of benefits of economic growth or economic development, it's very hard to sustain commitment to a democratic process.

Q: Your recent research in Mexico reveals that some of the most hopeful signs for the growth of democracy are occurring at the grassroots. What have you found is happening at the local level in Mexico? And how can those changes/events be extrapolated to other developing democracies?

Grindle: I've been doing some research on local governance. Countries throughout the world - not just Mexico and not just Latin America — are decentralizing. All of a sudden local governments have more resources. But this means they also have more responsibilities. My research has been looking at the consequences. Are local governments getting better at doing what they're supposed to be doing? Are they improving their performance or not?

What I've found is that local governments, local communities, are incredible arenas where innovation and experimentation are happening. They're also in some cases arenas where some very bad practices and real failures are happening. But I think the interesting issue that we have to look at now is an array of experiences from which we can learn and an array of experiences in which we can actually look at the extent to which local governments and local governance can be a school for democracy. At local levels of government, individual citizens and groups of citizens and communities really do have a better opportunity to observe what government does, participate in decision-making when that's possible, to hold local officials accountable for what they're doing. They're simply closer to where the action is now that there's more action at the local level. And it seems to me that this is one of the things that we can be observing in the worldwide dynamic of decentralization.

Q: Much of your research in Latin America has focused on the dynamics of reform. What are the most significant obstacles in the way of implementing needed reforms?

Grindle: There are always many obstacles to bringing about change in policies or institutions in any particular country. Those obstacles often vary by country and by policy area. I think an interesting question about the process of reform or the process of policy and institutional change is really, what have we learned over the last two decades, when a great deal of change has happened? And it seems the clearest lesson that we've learned is that policy change and institutional change and reform is a political process. It's a political process that requires analysis, strategy, debate, discussion, rethinking of the contents of policy, rethinking how policy or institutional change gets implemented.

From my research in Latin America, I would say that a second lesson that's related to this is the extent to which policy reform needs to be more inclusive. My observation over the past two decades is that far too often those who are in decision-making positions act in ways that are top-down and closed-door when they're introducing new policies. They would be in a better position if they were more inclusive, more open, and engaged more in public debate about issues and sharing information about why particular changes are necessary and what consequences might be expected from them.

Q: What are some of your findings which address how public problems become defined and how solutions are posed for national political agendas?

Grindle: One of the important findings in my research across different reform sectors has been the importance of what we at the Kennedy School call 'exercising leadership.' That is, the skills by both elected and appointed officials in developing strategies and generating debates and discussions about moving countries in new directions. This may mean moving societies in directions that may in fact create losers as well as winners. It's the importance of leaders' strategic thinking, their strategic intervention, and the kinds of strategies that they adopt for building coalitions and for dealing with opposition. It's a matter of facing up, time and again, to the importance of thinking about policy and institutional change as political processes.

Answers to questions submitted via e-mail:

Dear Ms. Grindle,

My work in emerging democracies confirms that there is a real need for more inclusive policy development in emerging democracies. The World Bank has tried in various ways to involve a large part of the population in public decision making. Decentralization, training of local governments and setting up special bodies for public debate all contributed to this goal. But despite the important decisions made closer to the people, despite the various channels for inputs from the grass roots and despite the consultation and facilitation training for local representatives, participation is still not satisfactory. The general public seems to be reluctant to participate.

In the case of Indonesia, a big-bang decentralization process has shifted most political powers to the district level governments. Local parliaments and district leaders are directly elected. Legislation is in place to demand accountability and to provide inputs into local decisions. Still, it seems that the population is not interested to exercise their rights. The local parliaments are left unchecked and they collude with the local governments to engage in rent-seeking and elite politics. Why is the population not interested?

I believe that most transformations from authoritarian to democratic systems are elite processes through which excluded elites force access to political power by mobilizing the masses. This is possible when a considerable part of these masses has developed political consciousness. In return the masses are allowed to vote. After the democratic turnovers, the system to select leaders has changed but the entrenched system of economic and political collusion only changes slowly. The pace of change, I believe, is actually strongly correlated with the spread of democratic values and political consciousness. Often only the urban public has developed the self-expression values (Inglehart) essential to make democracy work. Because the group of conscious citizens is so small, the burden of participation on this group is high and after a short all-out involvement during democratization processes, participation will fade.

Interestingly, decentralization exacerbates this problem. Because decentralization spreads decision making all over the country, participation will be further reduced because political consciousness in the more rural areas or away from the elite heavy capitals is likely to be low. (In addition to other problems: the cost of participation in more rural areas is higher, the capacity of decision makers lower, etc.)

In Indonesia we would like to try to stimulate political consciousness through basic leadership training courses for large groups of selected citizens.

My questions are: What are the causes of lack of participation according to you and do you have any good practices that have successfully overcome low levels of participation?

Thank you very much.


— Guy J.,
World Bank Office, Jakarta

Merilee Grindle responds:

Why don’t people—particularly poor people—participate more in local decision making? There are a number of possible answers to this question. You allude to some in your comments—elites monopolize power; rural people find it harder to organize and have less access to information about how to be effective participants in decision making; local governments do not know how to stimulate participation effectively.

Other possibilities:

  • People understand that there could be harmful consequences to participation. Poor people, in particular, usually understand local power relationships very well—their survival may depend on this understanding. In some cases, they may decide that in their context, participation can bring economic, social, or political retaliation.
  • Where there has been on-going political instability, people may not trust the longevity of new mechanisms for participation and fear possible future consequences if they become involved.
  • There may be easier ways to get what they want (creating clientelist ties with a “patron,” for example, rather than organizing as a group to demand some good or service from government).
  • Even with decentralization, the issues that are most important to local people may continue to be decided elsewhere. Regulation of wage and employment conditions, who has access to education, the assignment of teachers and doctors, access to markets, rights of minorities, effective redress for injustice—these are usually issues determined regionally or nationally, not locally. Depending on what people are most concerned about, they may not see much point in participating locally.
  • Local people may have long experience with participatory mechanisms set up by governments that has “taught” them that such mechanisms are not effective or are merely window dressing for decisions made elsewhere.
  • They do not have the organizational skills and knowledge of local institutions to participate effectively.

It is probably useful to assume that training in leadership and participatory mechanisms would be most effective if the last point is the main reason people aren’t participating. If it is primarily for other reasons, then different strategies for stimulating participation may be more useful.

A related question:

Is the most effective way for people to participate in government decision making through the kinds of participatory mechanisms that have been advocated by the World Bank, other international organizations, and by governments?

  • Historically, participation in democracies has been mobilized through political parties, organizations that represent the economic interests of particular groups (labor unions and business associations, for example), and associations of various kinds that advocate for the values of particular groups or broad sectors of the population (religious or cultural rights, for example, or equality in the application of laws).
  • The mobilization of citizens to participate is a political process, one that requires organization, the identification of common interests, and strategies that are effective in engaging in competition for power in political institutions. Some mechanisms to encourage participation may serve the purpose of “depoliticizing” what are essentially political issues.

Best practices will depend on the analysis of the constraints on participation in particular settings — constraints differ, and so will possible remedies. A useful way to begin, however, is to consider the range of experiences in a single country. While the overall experience with participation in a particular country may be disappointing, in all likelihood there are localities in that country where it has been more effective than elsewhere. If this is the case, what were the factors that made it possible for these relative successes to happen? Does it make sense to try to replicate these factors elsewhere?

A few sources of ideas:

  • The experience of participatory budgeting in Pôrto Alegre, Brazil. You might want to consider how this innovation was introduced, as well as its structure.
  • An article by Judith Tendler and Sara Freedheim (“Trust in a Rent-Seeking World,” World Development, 1994). This article uses a detailed case study to make important generalizations about how incentive systems can be created that produce a sense of local empowerment, government responsiveness, and rights to public services. Important in producing these results was a commitment to provide citizens with information about their rights and what they could do when they didn’t receive what they were entitled to.
  • An article by Peter Houtzager (“Comparative Anecdotalism,” World Development, 2005). This article explores “who participates” in an interesting way and explores the relationship between politics and participation.

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