Who’s leading the charge against corruption?


Photo of an anti-corruption protest "Enough filth!" at Brazilian Congress by Flickr user The World Wants a Real Deal

A year ago, I wrote a post called “The ‘middle income’ poor and corruption” about campaigns in India and Brazil against corruption. Lessons we learned from campaigns in Brazil, and the unfolding of a dramatic anti-corruption movement in India have me questioning: just who is leading the “charge” against corruption in these middle income giants?

Clearly, the key to sustainable, lasting change in corruption will be strong coalitions between rural and urban people, and across class lines.

Both Indian and Brazilian campaigns have shown how different groups have different interests and favored means of communication, and holding together a lasting coalition of them is no small feat.

The Indian urban groundswell

India has seen a massive swell of support for Anna Hazare and his India Against Corruption campaign in recent days. Parallels have been made to Gandhi, with scenes of tens of thousands of non-violent supporters coming to his side as he fasts. Hazare rejects the bill debated in Indian Parliament, and as such essentially rejects its elected representatives as a means for the immediate change he and his supporters demand.

Last week one of his supporters was arrested in a T-shirt “I am Anna” disrupting Parliament.

Hazare has come under increasing criticism for this “maverick” attitude, in the world’s largest democracy, including by writer Arundhati Roy.

Academic Ashutosh Varshney asks why India’s middle class is the base of Hazare’s movement, and why it chose “movement politics” over “electoral politics”. He concludes simply

The countryside is where the vote is; the city is where the money is. […] Because the electoral logic of Indian politics is so village-heavy, the urban middle class has been gradually withdrawing from the electoral sphere. It recognises the media and civil society as its own spaces, the voting arena as somewhat alien.

Link between exclusion and tolerance for corruption

So even though corruption hurts the poor more, it is paradoxically the urban middle classes who have pushed forward, angered by cases of spectacular corruption.

Recent research by UNDP in Eurasia showed

The social exclusion in communities with low level of acceptance of corruption is almost eight times lower than in communities with a high level of tolerance to corruption.

[…] probably the underlying factors that lead people tolerate corruption also boost social exclusion.

Whether this is the case in India and Brazil is to be seen. But it does raise interesting questions. How durable is this “toleration” of corruption by the excluded?

What would it take to create a coalition between the excluded, hurt so severely by grinding, day-to-day corruption and the “disenfranchised” urban middle classes, angered by sporadic revelations of large-scale corruption?

I suspect part of the answer lies in the means of mobilizing different groups.

Lessons from Brazil

In Brazil with the massive Ficha Limpa anti-corruption campaign, the biggest challenges were linking the “grassroots”, often pastoral “real” communities – often less urban – and the massive online mobilization, which appears to have been quite urban and more middle class. The campaign took advantage of the Brazilian constitution’s allowance for laws to originate from popular initiative.

Research we sponsored, conducted by Brazilian thinktank Esfera, on this site called Poder Legislar (Literally, to be able to legislate), shows that the campaign occurred over two stages, with somewhat different groups participating.

In the onerous signature collection phase, which required over 1.6 million people to not only sign a petition, but also present voter registration, the work was very much physical, very “face to face”. It had its own special energy. This work happened at work places, in churches and at community meetings – and each state had participation targets.

The second phase occurred when the law was introduced into Congress and faced huge opposition as it would have put made up to 1/3 of Congresspeople ineligible. This was much more virtual, it was a groundswell of online activity, propelled by Avaaz and other actors, which blasted through the corporate media barriers and turned the campaign into an unavoidable social fact.

It passed in Congress, but with very little offline mobilization to back it up. The online, “middle class” mobilization seemed sufficient. But was it?

Now Brazilian civil society struggles on, to pressure the judiciary to implement the Law and to open new “fronts” at the municipal and state levels.

There is a sense in which the Ficha Limpa campaign will only last and be a real victory with a sustained coalition of “real life” groups, online activists, and voters of all stripes across the rural/urban divide.

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