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Debate on decisions

Off The Wall With Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

LAST week I shared with you about the launch of the book, "Voices of the People," which contained the results of a research project by the Pacific Theological College's Institute for Research and Social Analysis on "perceptions and preconditions for democratic development in Fiji".

According to the authors, the motivation for the research was the desire to avoid further upheaval, and to assist the Fijian people in their search for an appropriate and suitable form of governance. This research, aimed to carry out an extensive and impartial inquiry into governance issues.

Convinced of the importance of recognising the views and wisdom of the people of Fiji in creating a form of governance that is appropriate and suited to Fiji's historical cultural context, specific local political conditions, and aspirations of her people, the report is based on a systematic exploration and analysis of views of Fijians from all sectors of society.

Key to understanding the research is the concept of "Hybrid Political Orders".

In post-colonial states, including Fiji, state institutions are not the only institutions which fulfil functions that, in the model Western state, are clearly state obligations.

There are also locally-rooted social entities, such as extended families, clans, tribes, village communities, and traditional authorities (eg village elders, chiefs, healers, "big men" and religious leaders), which determine the everyday social reality of large parts of the population.

As seen in Fiji, state institutions are to a certain extent "infiltrated" and overwhelmed by local, customary non-state "informal" institutions and social forces, which operate according to their own logic and rules. This has led to the departure of state institutions from the Western ideal type.

On the other hand, the imposition of state agencies has impacted on non-state local orders as well; local customary institutions are subject to deconstruction and re-formation as they engage with, and are incorporated into state structures and processes. As a result, they adopt an ambiguous position with regard to the state, appropriating state functions and "state talk", while simultaneously continuing to pursue their own agenda.

As a result, governance is hybridised by the interactions between introduced liberal democratic state institutions and local customary non-state institutions. In hybrid political orders, diverse and competing authority structures, sets of rules, logics of order and claims to power co-exist, overlap, and interact; they combine elements both from introduced Western models of governance, and local indigenous traditions of governance and politics. Further influences are found in the forces of globalisation and associated societal fragmentation.

In hybrid political orders, different types of legitimate authority — beyond the rational-legal authority legitimised by liberal democratic procedures — can be found, such as traditional and charismatic types of legitimacy. These co-exist, compete and interact with rational-legal legitimacy, leading to a hybridisation or fusion of legitimate authority.

This week we discuss the topic of Decision-making as shared in the 41 focus group discussions involving 330 participants and 82 in-depth interviews.

Decision-making in Fiji today is multi-faceted: the hybridity or fusion of the socio-political order in Fiji plays out in the duality of Fijian decision-making processes. Traditional structures and processes of decision-making co-exist with modern structures and processes. Moreover, these different types of decision-making do not only co-exist, but also interact and overlap.

This situation causes some confusion and stress, thus posing major challenges for all Fijians, ordinary people and the elite alike.

It comes as no surprise then, that some interviewees pointed to the disadvantages of a "dual system of decision-making", and are concerned about a "conflict of governance models".

In order to encourage the prospects for future democratic development in Fiji, clear political strategies for rendering decision-making structures and processes conducive to democratic development must be identified.

The starting point should be the acknowledgement of the hybridity (as highlighted above) of the current means of decision-making. Next, the challenge of reconciling these different systems of decision-making must be addressed, so a system and culture of decision-making that is perceived by the vast majority of Fijian citizens as being just, appropriate and sustainable can be established.

This should not mean abolishing one type of decision-making process only to impose a new and allegedly better (that is, more democratic) one from the outside and from the top. On the contrary, what is already there should be engaged with, through trying to nurture, strengthen and improve it, with a clear vision of the direction this should take.

Democratic decision-making should then be understood as inclusive, participatory, consultative, accountable, deliberative, transparent and egalitarian. In particular, the representation of women and youth needs to be strengthened.

Taking this approach seriously means acknowledging how decision-making structures at local level function, while simultaneously initiating a debate about how to strengthen the representation of women and youth in decision-making processes. Such a debate will inevitably lead to reforms of the current decision-making structures and procedures. What is more, the mere fact of having this debate will itself transform the ways decisions are made.

Starting with reforms in the local context, this approach can be expanded so as to address all the different levels of decision-making, from the local to the national. Improving the transparency of decision-making processes at higher levels, and improving communication channels between all the different levels are of major importance, so that people do not feel alienated or excluded from decision-making beyond their locale, but can gain better insights into those decision-making processes that are removed from their everyday lives.

This process will not lead to the substitution of one system of decision-making for another, but instead to the facilitation and management of hybridity in ways that foster more democratic decision-making.

The focus groups and interviews gave plenty of evidence of where starting points can be found in day-to-day life for the gradual reform of decision-making. Participants and interviewees alike perceive decision-making to be a social process of arguing and bargaining, and are also familiar with the idea of voting and decisions taken on the basis of a majority vote; voting as a means of decision-making is generally accepted.

Even the more conservative sections of the populace are aware of the norms of democratic decision-making, and the need to engage with those norms; outright rejection of democratic decision-making is clearly a minority position today.

In other words, the notion of democratic decision-making has become authoritarian in today's discourse, and its proponents are on the offensive.

The debate no longer revolves around the validity of democratic decision-making as a principle, but rather about how to implement this principle. In pursuit of this debate, it would be imprudent to sideline and marginalise those who are still sceptical or who oppose it, as this would lead to destructive conflict. Rather, they should be offered ways to join the process of reform.

At the same time, all those who see democratic decision-making as desirable, but are fatalistic about its achievability, should be shown realistic ways in which change can be brought about.

Next week we learn what the researchers learned on the issue of "leadership" in Fiji.

A full copy of the report, "Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji" is available from the Pacific Theological College's Institute for Research and Social Analysis.

"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity."

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. These are his views and not of this newspaper.





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