Thursday, 20 March 2014

Black swan or time-bomb? Mexico’s frustrated citizens are increasingly taking up arms


On New Year’s Eve 2013, armed vigilantes – members of unofficial self-defence groups – fanned out across the state of Michoacán, west of Mexico City and home to former President Felipe Calderón.

Their aim?

To drive out the Knights Templar, a drug trafficking organisation.

One prominent vigilante, José Manuel Mireles Valverde, had previously demanded the arrest of seven notorious leaders of the Knights Templar. But the Mexican authorities failed to heed his call.

The rise of the self-defence groups has surprised many. However, it should not have.

In the absence of state protection,  ordinary people are taking on the drug cartels


The members of the self-defence groups appear to be ordinary people exasperated by the authorities’ inability to protect them from predatory criminal organisations. The state of Michoacán has been greatly affected by the activities of the Knights Templar drug cartel, an offshoot of La Familia, using the region’s strategic location to move drugs north towards the US market, whilst diversifying its revenue stream by way of kidnapping and extorting the local population.

The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) responded to the developments in Michoacán first by creating the Commission for the Security and Comprehensive Development of Michoacán to deal with the issue, and later decided to integrate some of the groups into local police forces. This is a risky move, as lessons from Colombia have shown.

Mexico should heed lessons from Colombia (and elsewhere in Latin America)


In 1964, a law enabled the creation of civil defence units to support the army in counter-insurgency operations. However, as many groups developed links with criminal organizations including drug trafficking groups, they were outlawed in 1987. In the 1990s, provincial governments established another type of group – Convivir – based on the neighbourhood watch and community policing concepts. Yet while by law Convivir were not allowed to carry rifles or heavier weapons, they armed themselves illegally and worked hand-in-glove with rogue elements in the state security agencies and the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), which the US government designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2001.

Self-defence groups have contributed to violence and undermined the rule of law in other Latin American countries too. They include the Sombra Negra (Black Shadow) death squads in El Salvador, Peru’s Rondas Campesinas (peasant patrols that played a critical but dubious role in the defeat of the Shining Path insurgency in the 1990s). More recently, Brazil has seen the rise of justicieros who publicize their punishments of petty criminals on social media and have added yet another headache to the soon to be World Cup host.

The phenomenon is not new in Mexico.

In 2011, a group of women took up arms to protect the forests of Cherán from illegal loggers. It is also not localized. In early 2013 in Ayutla de los Libres, a municipality in the western state of Guerrero, a local group arrested and detained thirty-nine men and women accused of extortion and kidnapping, among other crimes, released half of them, and eventually handed over the other half to state authorities. In fact, a longstanding institutional arrangement has allowed certain small communities in the state of Oaxaca to rule themselves according to local customs. Among other things, it grants them the power to choose and establish their own police forces.

However, the scale to which these groups have grown in Michoacán is unprecedented. While the current administration is now pressing states to develop stronger police forces while complementing this with a new federal force, the National Gendarmerie (scheduled to become operational this year), will this be enough to diffuse the time-bomb?

Jerónimo Mohar is an analyst on foreign affairs. He is a former Mexican government official and previously worked at the Mexican think tank Grupo COPPAN.

Benoît Gomis is an analyst on international security, drugs and counter-terrorism and a Visiting Scholar at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). 


They wrote earlier this year on the Rise of Self-Defense groups in Mexico for World Politics Review.

Previous blogs in Governance and Development on crime and the state:

Image credit: By Lokal_Profil [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Inspiring change on International Women's Day - let's de-ghettoize women's rights the unruly way

By Mariz Tadros


It is time to turn to unruly street politics to build constituencies for women's equality.

When I think of “gender and development practice”, what immediately comes to mind are images of an endless stream of workshops, conferences, seminars, roundtables, policy briefings and media statements addressed to the converted, semi-converted and pretenders. We are told that this is important for policy influence and dissemination, that we have to tinker with the system from above to elicit change from below.

This is not to question the wisdom of the need to challenge the structural sources of inequalities inherent in policies, laws, institutional mechanisms and thinking. But there is something still very disconcerting about how the integration of gender into development has made it so disconnected from the public that we no longer have a constituency. 


Integrating gender into development: where has it gone wrong?


Is it the language we use? Mainstreaming, empowerment, gender analysis are abstract terms which do not mean much, and when translated into other languages these terms often mean even less!

Perhaps it is the way in which a paradigm that was initially intended to be radical in challenging power hierarchies now sits comfortably with the most conservative and authoritarian of regimes. A colleague of mine evaded the secret political police’s potential crackdown on their conference in a highly autocratic context by pretending that the topic of the event was “gender and development”.

Or maybe it is about the way in which the strategies of engagement which seem to primarily involve bringing people together in five star hotels or their equivalent is too elitist, sanitized, and contained?

Perhaps it is the professionals who have come to "do" gender and development, have a wealth of knowledge on gender injustices and inequalities but are incapable of communicating in ways that touch the public. To put it simply, what they have is just not 'contagious'.


Informal political initiatives are mobilizing ordinary citizens


Yet outside the gender and development practice, ordinary citizens have mobilized large constituencies to challenge all kinds of unequal power relations.

Recently published research on the informal youth based initiatives that have sought to transform the streets of Cairo into harassment-free spaces for women points to strong evidence that they can contribute to positive social and political change.

Men and women forming a chain in the street carrying messages for passers-by to read. Credit: Nefssi

They do not speak of “gender empowerment” but their catchy slogans of “don’t harass: the street is yours and hers” and “Look me in the eye” have been widely circulated in the internet and through silent human chains (as in this photo) and in the media. They may not do gender analysis, but their powerful graffiti images speak volumes.

Men in vests inscribed with “Against harassment”  have roamed the squares and streets in groups seeking to prevent women from being assaulted and setting new models of what masculinity means. Unlike the conventional gender and development practice which has engaged with men as objects of  “awareness raising” programmes, these young men are leaders, organizers, innovators in challenging patriarchy in ways that strike a chord with the public.

In contrast with many of the gender and development practitioners who disappear when a project is over, many of these initiatives have followers close to 30,000 on their Facebook pages. Their work has contributed to the breaking of the silence on this issue among the public, drawing greater attention to it through the media and putting more pressure on authorities to be responsive. Members of these groups have been approached in the streets by ordinary citizens who commended them for their work and encouraged them to carry on. Some can boast of a large cohort of volunteers.

The intention here is not to present a romanticized picture: some of these youth-based initiatives may be co-opted by the more established non-governmental organizations in Egypt, they may lose steam or be inhibited by political encroachments. It cannot be denied that these initiatives are the offspring of a revolutionary wave that struck the country, unseen since the 1919 uprising against British colonialism. However, irrespective of these initiatives’ fate, what they have offered is an alternative model of unruly politics whose impact was to de-ghettoize women’s rights.


Why is there so much resistance to learning from ordinary citizens?


When I suggested to gender experts and policymakers that we could learn from such initiatives, their response was that these case studies would be ideal for south-south exchanges or across the Arab world. Why they would not see it as a learning opportunity for rethinking their own theories of change, policies and practices with respect to promoting gender equality needs to be flagged?

Is it because the normative framework is one premised on the transfer of ideas from West to East, a reversed reality seeming unthinkable? Do they think there is nothing to be learnt from the Middle East because the record on women's rights in the region is so poor? 

Is challenging social norms via graffiti or human chains are not seen as development practices?

Or is it that the groups, being informal and on the margins, seem too unprofessional?

The intention here is not to replace a one size fits all blueprint of how to do gender activism with another. Neither is it to advocate for a particular model of how to elicit positive social change. Rather, it is to suggest that there may be a need to think outside the gender and development practice box, and opt for some unruly politics. It might - just might - help us reconnect with ordinary citizens on equality - an issue that has been ghettoized as a woman’s thing for too long.

Dr. Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow with Governance team at the Institute of Development Studies

Monday, 3 March 2014

Absence of trust in government helped fuel Ukraine's protests and challenges its future

by Marc P. Berenson

Just after Ukraine experienced its worst violence in its rather peaceful 22 years of independence and quite possibly the worst in the country since World War II, a new government was selected last week in an unprecedented manner by both the Maidan (Independence Square) protest members and the Ukrainian parliament. New presidential elections are to come on May 25. 

So, what has been at stake in Ukraine? 


While a complicated story, at the heart of the dispute these last several months has been a struggle over which form of governance Ukraine should take up – a post-Soviet model, founded on coercion and corruption where individuals seek government positions in order to enrich themselves and where the rules of the game are changed to suit those in office, or a rule-of-law model, which protesters believed was exemplified by the West, which is founded on trust, compliance, institutional checks and balances, and where no one, including the president, is above the law.

Now, efforts by the temporary, pro-reform (but not national unity) government, led by new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk, is taking on the tremendous challenge to re-create the Ukrainian state along the lines of the rule-of-law model.

But it is doing so under some pretty hefty constraints—namely a poor economy, a struggling currency, a state that needs some USD $36 billion to avoid defaults and, perhaps, above all, now a takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea by Russia, which seeks to overturn the outcome of Kyiv’s February revolution. (For an insight into Russia’s perspectives, see for example, the speech on 1st March, by Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin to the United Nations Security Council.)

Focusing just within Ukraine, the winter’s dispute and the current governance challenge has not been and is not about an internal disagreement dividing East from West. Ukrainians in both East and West have been unanimous on their support for independence. By January and February, calls by opposition protestors were not for President Viktor Yanukovych to sign an EU trade agreement even if that sparked the protests back in November (and even if an agreement now comes as early as March), but were calls for him to leave office. Nor has this been a Civil War, at least not yet, as civilians have not fought civilians, but protesters against the government.

Finally, while ethnically diverse, Ukraine is not the Balkans, as there is much mixing of ethnicities within families and as Russian and Ukrainian speakers accommodate each other. Of course, some of this could change on the margins especially as the Russian state media, which is watched significantly in eastern Ukraine and even more so in the Crimea, has been broadcasting a perspective on Ukraine events that labels those in charge now in Kyiv as “fascists” out to harm the interests of Russian speakers, most likely causing fear as it does so.

Ukraine is experiencing the result of long-term distrust in government 


Throughout the country, Ukraine today is experiencing the result of long-term distrust in government. Ukrainians have had exceptionally low levels of trust in their government.

In 2005, 2010 and 2012, I surveyed the Ukrainian population together with the Razumkov Centre for Economic and Political Studies. Ukrainians do not believe that they get much from their state. Across these years, only some 9 to 12 percent of Ukrainians felt that the state fulfills its obligations to its citizens and similarly only 9 to 10 percent of Ukrainians agreed that their state can be trusted to do what is right. Hence, as trust in the state involves both a material trust that the state will continue to provide goods and services as well as a moral trust that the state will treat its citizens fairly, Ukrainians appeared to be stating flatly from one year after the 2004 Orange Revolution that they cannot trust their state to do either.

This lack of trust as well as a lack of fear in the state also has accounted for far lower support among Ukrainians for paying taxes than their neighbours in Poland or in Russia. My own research, based on my survey work from 2005 and 2010, has shown not only that the Polish polity is far more willing and compliant in its attitude towards paying taxes than the Russian and Ukrainian polities. I also found that Russians respond to their state with greater fear of deterrence while Ukrainians, showing the lowest levels of support for obeying the law, react to state efforts to increase tax compliance with less fear and little trust.

It is also extremely important to note that the first survey in Ukraine came exactly one year after the Orange Revolution, after which the country was given a rare second shot at rebuilding the state’s relationship to taxpayers. Indeed, preliminary reports stated that tax and customs revenues were significantly higher than usual there in the first months of 2005, only to plummet in the late summer when the two Orange leaders, President Viktor Yushchenko, and his prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, had a falling out.

This suggests that the efforts to re-make the citizen-state relationship in Ukraine towards more mutually constructive ends for both state and society was a tremendous challenge for Ukraine’s political leaders just after the unfinished Orange Revolution and as it, undoubtedly, will be today.

Post-transition governments must find ways to create and build up levels of trust on the part of citizens in their state. And, yet, in the current transition, regardless as to who is in government, bridging this “trust in government” gap in Ukraine is going to be an extreme challenge, given the drastic economic reforms needed and the Eurasian neighborhood.


So, what must a new government do to create a new system of governance and gain citizen trust? 


The economy, of course, plays a huge role in all of this. Ukraine is one of the very few countries in the world that have not yet reached its 1989 high in growth per capita. And despite being a lower middle income country and in Europe, a recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey found that Ukraine was the third worst country in the world to be born in. But, beyond seeking out external aid and embarking on economic reforms that Yatseniuk has stated will be like“hell,” the government needs to strive for unity and inclusivity both internally and within the country as a whole.

Post-Orange Revolution, two grave challenges to President Viktor Yushchenko’s gaining the trust of the country in his first year in office were the emergence of a bitter dispute between himself and his prime minister and former Orange Revolution co-leader, Yulia Timoshenko, and a change in language laws that made Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine feel like second-class citizens.

On the language front, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has vetoed an attempt by the current parliament to throw out a Yanukovych-era law that allowed Russian to be an official language at the regional level—an attempt, which, before the veto, undoubtedly left eastern Ukraine less confident in the new government. Ultimately, the language issue needs to be resolved in a manner that gains the trust of all Ukrainians, and both state and private media may well need to come up with a competitive alternative for eastern Ukrainians, who get a good share of their news from Russian state television.

Finally, building trust with the public means credibly and visibly severing the incredibly close ties between business and the state. And, once the crisis with Russia stabilises, the government will no doubt seek out those foreign aid organizations that once “graduated” Ukraine from its aid lists—like the UK’s Department for International Development—to return.


Dr Marc P. Berenson is Senior Lecturer at King's College London Russia Institute and was formerly Fellow with the IDS Governance research team.