Studies Show: People Want Democracy to Deliver the Goods

Does the average person consider governance when they think about the things that affect their everyday lives? In a new Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper that assesses views on governance based on survey data from around the world, we find that they do. But governance has many aspects, and there are some that are more important to people than others.

In general, people seem to be concerned first and foremost about state performance and the ability of governments to deliver on key needs and expectations in areas including economic management, growth stimulation, job creation, health, education, or a more equitable distribution of goods and services. Corruption is a central part of this story, since it has such a big impact on people's satisfaction with their governments and their perceptions of its performance overall.

Other governance dimensions, especially those associated with political freedoms, are also important, but they remain decidedly secondary concerns. Perceptions of governance are quite instrumental: people tend to value political freedoms and democracy mostly in relation to how democracies perform and whether they successfully provide the expected goods and services. This can place democracy under considerable strain, especially in countries across the developing world where the ability of governments to respond to citizen needs remains weak. The question of how these democracies can be more effectively supported so that they can improve the wellbeing of their populations is therefore crucial, with important implications for a future international development consensus to succeed the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.

Our findings on governance perceptions draw on emerging results from My World, an innovative global U.N. survey on people's priorities for the future, which has gathered over 1.4 million votes from people in as many as 194 countries. The survey asks respondents to select their top six out of 16 possible development priorities for the future that would make the most difference to them and their families.

Of these options, most respondents prioritized "an honest and responsive government," which ranks only behind such central concerns as education, health, and jobs. Other governance-related options lag considerably behind, particularly "political freedoms," which ranked fourth to last:

Admittedly My World only provides a snapshot of what people care about, and doesn't reveal much about why they vote the way that they do. So we compared the My World vote results with more detailed regional Barometer surveys that cover larger samples of polling data from countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. This revealed a strikingly similar picture across surveys on what dimensions of governance people value more, and important insights can be drawn from those results.

People are concerned above all about the ability of their governments to "deliver the goods," namely in relation to economic development, employment, and essential public services such as health, education, and water and sanitation. According to these Barometer surveys (and very much consistent with the My World vote rankings) the number of people pointing to economic concerns and the provision of services as the main challenge that their governments should address is much higher than concerns about democracy and rights.

The regional surveys show that people do also care about democracy: when asked in the abstract which form of government they prefer, an overwhelming majority of people across countries and income groups choose democracy (and, implicitly, political freedoms). Yet very often their appreciation of democracy is linked to how democratic systems perform (which brings us back to the goods they deliver). Here, overall, assessments are much less positive.

As the growing number of popular protests and uprisings around the world indicates, there is profound dissatisfaction across the board with the ability of democracies to deliver tangible benefits and to improve the wellbeing of ordinary citizens. People are clearly clamoring for greater democratic rights and increased representation. But more fundamentally, this popular mobilization is also an expression of a profound revulsion with leaders and political systems perceived to be deeply corrupt and unwilling or unable to address the everyday needs of citizens. (In the photo above, an Egyptian boy holds up a piece of bread during protests, referencing the Arab Spring slogan: "Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice!")

As a recent essay in the Economist argues, even established Western democracies have not been spared. Disillusionment with the workings of democracy in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere has become rife. In particular, inequality has deepened over the past few decades (in the United States, for instance, the share of national income going to the richest 1 percent of the population has risen from 8 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2012), and there is a widespread sense that these democratic systems have become increasingly biased towards the rich and powerful, and are unable to provide for the population at large. Popular disenchantment has become even more pronounced in the context of the financial crisis and austerity programs. As the rise of the "Occupy" movement and its slogan ("We are the 99 percent") shows, people are deeply frustrated with the inability of democracy to provide goods, as well as the perceived social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and corruption that have come to characterize it.

People consistently rank parliaments and political parties as the institutions they trust the least, while the military earns the highest measure of public confidence. Even where people feel that they are able to express their "political voice" (through elections for instance, or the freedom to say what they think), they don't believe that their voice is being heard and can make a difference on how their governments work. This reinforces feelings of frustration at a widely perceived lack of government responsiveness and accountability, and is a particularly worrisome trend among young people.

So what does this all mean?

The preference for effective government has important implications for state legitimacy. Clearly the question of legitimacy is multifaceted and complex, and historically, states have relied on a combination of sources and methods to build public trust. But these survey findings suggest that performance-based legitimacy is particularly important.

The vast majority of countries today are formal democracies. People still seem to expect that such systems are inherently better at providing public goods, even though this isn't necessarily the case. This puts democracy under considerable pressure. The most urgent challenge of the 21st century, therefore, may well be to strengthen democracies around the world so that they can respond to the demands of their populations more effectively. If they fail to do so, democratic institutions run the risk of becoming increasingly hollow and perfunctory, at least in the eyes of the public.

Our findings also have important implications for emerging global development goals set to take shape after the MDGs expire in 2015. As has been amply discussed, institutional structures and dynamics are essential in shaping development outcomes and in explaining differences in progress between countries. For example, Nepal has made significant progress in improving maternal health care by devolving decision-making to local bodies, as well as by strengthening oversight and accountability among government, service providers, and local communities. Conversely, lack of policy coherence and weak accountability mechanisms to track performance have contributed to an under-provision of maternal health services in Malawi, Uganda, and Niger.

A key weakness of the MDG framework was its neglect of the crucial nature of governance. Including it as a stand-alone goal would signal its centrality to development outcomes, as the High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda has recommended. But as our assessment here highlights, it is also essential to understand governance above all as a government's ability to deliver tangible goods and benefits that make a difference to people's everyday lives. Governance must also be addressed as an objective that cuts across areas such as health, education, and the management of water and other natural resources.

Translating these ideas into consensus on a new development framework will not be easy. Doing so requires a significant change in the way we think about development, as well as in the current strategies to promote governance in the post-2015 framework. We will need to move away from normative conceptions of change and toward more practical approaches grounded in contextual realities. But this shift will be essential for the next set of development goals to have substance, and to fill the gaps that matter most to people.

Alina Rocha Menocal is a research fellow in the Politics and Governance program at ODI. Gina Bergh and Laura Rodríguez Takeuchi are both research officers in the Growth, Poverty, and Inequality program at ODI.

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How Do You Say 'MOOC' in Arabic?

"Massive Online Open Courses," abbreviated "MOOCs," are being hailed as a potentially revolutionary development in education. Is the Arab World about to miss out? So far, there's only one such course offered in Arabic -- and it's taught by Israel's Technion.

"Nanotechnology and Nanosensors" is taught by Professor Hossam Haick, who's had to deal with far more than he originally bargained for when he talked the head of his department into letting him develop the material for a very technical course in English and in Arabic. "We have to be democratic about choices and education. Education shouldn't be limited to institutions," Haick told me. "It should be open to all." As things stand today, the course in English has over 20,000 students signed up, while the version in Arabic boasts over 4,800 students from across the region and beyond.

To pull it off, Haick had to recreate the course material from the Hebrew-language version of the class he teaches at the Technion. The challenge was not just squeezing everything into the online lecture format (which is shorter, more compact, and lacks the key teacher-student interaction), but also translating it all into English and Arabic. I made a point of asking him about the latter: "I'm from the Arab minority in Israel," he says. "So I have the power of Arabic. I wanted to deliver this course largely to people who don't speak English." As he developed the Arabic material, he was cognizant of the variations of Arab dialects and attempted to adapt his speech to all listeners.

The political undertones of an Israeli institution offering the only university-level online open course in Arabic in the world are not lost on him. Haick isn't a political activist -- though he could perhaps be described as a scientific one. We discussed the politics of his class at the outset, almost so we could get it out of the way.

"I want to send a message to everyone in the Arab World and Israel that there are no boundaries when it comes to science," Haick says. "I'm in a situation of conflict: I'm an Arab living in Israel, and the Arab world is in conflict with Israel. So does that mean that I'm in conflict, too? My message is that we can disseminate science without politics. It's unfortunately hard for me to go to other countries. I've delivered a few lectures and conferences, but their impact is limited in terms of audience. With the power of the Internet we can disseminate knowledge across the world."

But his effort hasn't always met with the recognition he's been hoping for: "Honestly, I've been frustrated by the fact that people in the Arab world didn't appreciate our effort. Some people emailed to tell me that they had withdrawn the registration after realizing I'm from Israel." Some online reactions, too, have been less than supportive. Haick tells me about a few of his online exchanges. In one of them, a man offers his assistance to Haick, only to follow up his earlier message with this remark: "Not anymore. Turns out you're Israeli. No to normalization".

But politics aside: Why aren't there more Arabic MOOCs out there? In some ways it's not at all a surprise that a well-funded university, albeit a non-Arab one, should be the first to develop a MOOC in Arabic. The process requires funding and equipment -- two resources often sorely lacking in developing countries, a category to which most of the Arab world belongs. Most public universities in the Arab world likely don't even have the soundproof studios to record such lectures.

The financials can be discouraging for professors in the Arab countries, too. Chronically underpaid public university professors, who often have to work extra jobs in private schools in order to make ends meet, will probably find little value in spending their remaining free time on developing a web-based course. This is less of an issue in the Gulf, where academic salaries are comparatively higher. Even there, though, salary discrimination means that foreign professors are paid less than locals, and foreign Arab professors less than Western ones -- hence leading to the same financial disincentive.

Seif Abou Zeid, who founded Tahrir Academy, an education platform for 13-18 year olds (the pre-MOOC age, if you will), believes a technological gap is halting the growth of online Arabic educational content. But that isn't the only problem, he says: he also stresses the crucial role of research institutions as knowledge creators. "We lack research engines; and furthermore, knowledge creation is not a concept" in these Arab-speaking countries, he says.

In any event, a large new resource will soon be entering the Arabic market. "Edraak," which translates into "Cognition" or "Understanding," is a new MOOC platform developed by Jordan's Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development in cooperation with edX, the renowned Harvard-MIT online education consortium. Nafez Dakkak, who manages the Edraak project for the Queen Rania Foundation, tells me that while some edX courses will be translated into Arabic, "a big part of what we'll be doing is producing our own content." As he explains, the group is already working with several Arab professors across the region and in the diaspora. "Most of the instructors are completely volunteering their time. As for us, we're covering the cost of MOOC creation: video production, technology platform, TA costs, etc."

Dr. Islam Hussein, a Research Scientist at MIT, is passionate about MOOCs, which is why he accepted to volunteer his time and effort to develop a bilingual MOOC on edX on the topic of virology. "Language represents a barrier for many people," Dr. Hussein says. "Communicating the MOOCs content in Arabic will make it more accessible to non-English speakers." He says, though, that he fully appreciates the inherent difficulty of Arabizing the content: "English has become science's first language. Translating the scientific content of a one-hour lecture can take days!"

The challenge will be steep. The demand is there, but the means often are not. "We need increased awareness of the available courses," says Haick, "hence more funding to create courses. Unfortunately awareness is weak in the Arab world." Perhaps Edraak will contribute to the solution.

But are MOOCs harmful to local institutions in the development world? Will students flock away from their physical professors, towards the famous professor in the computer monitor?

"I understand the argument", said Haick, "but you want to ensure that MOOCs are high quality. It might be a loss to some universities but a gain for the students, and they're the ones we ultimately care about. In fact, getting some of the teaching online might take some of the pressure off big universities, which would be able to devote more time to research."

MIT's Hussein puts it simply: "MOOCs are the future of education." The poor quality of schools and universities in many Arab countries demands a solution, he says. "This is a way of coming up with a realistic, workable, and fast solution to fix our crumbling education system."

Dakkak personally believes the market for online and offline education is different -- and as such, they are not competing for students' attention. "MOOCs in the region will primarily be used in the following two cases: First, they can serve as a supplement to existing university education when it's inadequate or certain courses aren't available, and second, they can reach people who aren't in university for one reason or another, whether it be qualifications, time, or funds."

The digital education future is already here, Hussein says, and it's being led by students, not institutions. "You'll be surprised to know that Egyptians, for example, are avid followers of some of the major MOOCs platforms on social media. This is a clear indication that they are aspiring to a decent education, which they will find in MOOCs offered by some of the best educators from elite universities.... MOOCs speak at the same wavelength of the digital natives, for whom Internet is like the air they breathe, and soon it will become a major source of their education. In Egypt alone, we have more than 30 million Internet users. With the widespread availability of Internet and Arabic MOOCs, online education will grow more popular." (The photo above shows students crowding around computers in Cairo in 1999, when fewer than 200,000 Egyptians were connected to the Internet.)

Haick believes that the future might look like this: "Most universities in the world -- save for the top 50 -- will use online courses from top universities, and will focus more on research. MOOCs could give universities the ability to devote more time and quality to produce better research."

And both Haick and Hussein hope that their efforts will motivate others to follow suit and encourage professors in the Arab world to create courses of their own.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Read the rest of his posts here.