Inclusivity and information

Inclusive Development and Growth was the rubric of a discussion held recently at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute in Colombo by the South Asia Policy and Research Institute (SAPRI). Invited to lead the discussion, ably moderated by Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, were Lord Meghnad Desai, Founder, Centre for Global Governance at the London School of Economics and member of the House of Lords, Dr. Shankar Acharya, a former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India and Dr. Kamal Hossain, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Law in Bangladesh. For close upon two hours they held forth with views on how development could embrace justice, be sustainable and overcome systemic flaws in governance, endemic to South Asia, that kept its rich dividends hostage to a few in polity and society. Nothing particularly epiphanic, but for turn of phrase and incisive insights, a thoroughly engaging discussion.

Oddly however, especially given the august constitution of the group, the entirety of the discussion, which included audience interaction, failed to note, even in passing, the role of information, the Internet, web or mobiles in inclusive development. Though panellists lamented the rapidly decreasing interest in political activity, there was no recognition at all of alternative politics and political forms online. This was rather strange, and bordered on the anachronistic. Later that evening, your columnist asked Dr. Acharya what, if any, the reason for this omission was. His answer was revealing. “Sanjana” he said, “Did you realise what our (referring to the panel) average age is? We are old men. I know something important is happening in these domains, but I don’t think any of us (again referring to the panel) can really put our finger on it”.

Dr. Acharya wasn’t condemning himself, Lord Desai and Dr. Hossain to irrelevance, but his honest answer is one that bedevils many younger women and men as well who are in charge of policymaking in today’s democracies – how to engage with populations, especially from a younger demographic, who by traditional markers are less interested in governance but by new indicators, are more than even a few years ago, engaged in political critiques, social agitation and change movements. Ironically, these gentlemen were less familiar with online discourse and its wide-ranging potential than, for example, someone in an underserved community, who almost intuitively grasps the power of new media – the ability of a mobile phone to communicate discontent and bear witness or the potential of the web to support collective action. And herein lies a new disconnect – the lament of political dysfunction and apathy by those who are well versed in the literature and learning of yesteryear with a growing need to recognise new, embryonic and transmuting forms of social and political engagement that can only be understood by actively participating in online fora, or by close study of engagement across online media.

There are already powerful examples. Aides to Anna Hazare, the 75 year-old Indian anti-corruption crusader, recently announced their intention to launch a political party and crowdsource it’s name. They also intend to be radically transparent in party donations and seek feedback, via online and mobile media, on the selection of its political candidates. The role of government has shifted from sole provider of basic services to key enabler (or conversely, primary prohibiter) of social and political innovation. This is a seismic shift from governance by a few to the curation, through progressive policy making, of ideas generated by a larger community. This is why as part of its overall ICT strategy, the British Home Office in May this year introduced a set of comprehensive social media guidelines for civil servants, why Queensland’s Government in Australia issued a similar set of guidelines two years ago, why Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Twitterati this year includes those like Susan Rice, Paul Kagame, Carl Bildt and even Hugo Chavez who regularly, either personally or through official aides, use Twitter to engage with even critics and why the E-Diplomacy hub, a compelling web visualisation created by news giant AFP shows just how much the traditional conservatism of international relations is now punctured by new conversations and relations made and sustained entirely online, through web based social networks and micro-blogging platforms.

From India to Tunisia, and even in Sri Lanka, mobiles, the Internet and web create and strengthen new information and ideational markets. It matters less whether governments loathe or love new economies of citizen generated ideas – the Internet is already too valuable a space even for even repressive regimes to completely censor. Progressive policymakers have already realised that information generated and exchanged online have a direct bearing on sustainable development and democratic governance.

Senior development theorists have much to gain from and give to this active debate.

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Published in The Nation, 12 August 2012.

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