DON’T BANK ON IT: THE QUESTION OF CONFIDENCE IN LOCAL GOVERNMENTS
There’s been extensive coverage in the Caribbean and around the world surrounding the recent revelations in the region’s financial sector, and its offshore banking sector especially. This is right and appropriate given the importance of this issue to people of the Caribbean and beyond. Yet so often this is a story of national governments interacting with other governments. While this is necessarily a focus, the heart of this issue is ultimately one between a Caribbean nation’s government and its voting citizens. So beyond calls for reform globally, what developments have been seen in recent times that impact this dynamic?
CITIZENSHIP AND GOVERNANCE IN THE CARIBBEAN
In broad terms, a citizen’s engagement with government has only become more difficult in recent years. This owes to a number of factors including a growing frustration with government surrounding global trends that hit locally. Each nation and each community experiences them differently, but with common elements.
The rising cost of living, diminishment of traditional jobs and emerging social challenges — such as how to maintain operations in education and healthcare when young people will need to learn differently and life expectancy is increasing and redefining what a ‘senior’ is — have created a gulf between what citizens seek, and what government can deliver.
This in turn has seen new tensions emerge on a deeper level between citizens and government. Beyond the general duties of government in providing security, making laws and maintaining essential services, recent global phenomenons, like Brexit in the UK, have evidenced a strong shift in public sentiment.
Since the end of World War II the postwar liberal order has seen democratic nations around the world by and large subscribe to policies that promote international engagement, free trade and a spirit of openness, welcoming to people of all backgrounds.
That has changed markedly in more recent times. Led most prominently by the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump, many nations are looking anew at the idea of isolationism; of
‘pulling back’ from the world community, and focusing on their own affairs at home. This aim is pursued even though it seems impossible for any nation in the 21st century so integrated into the global economy to withdraw, and it will only grow harder in future.
The same applies to economics, where protectionist policies have looked to replace free trade ones; again, often regardless of whether such policies actually protect struggling industry or endanger it more.
The new immigration debate seen in many nations is also often viewed as not merely one about immigration but about a pushback against multiculturalism by some voters.
A BAD TIME TO LACK GOOD FAITH
Many voters continue to feel disaffected and it can become a dangerous cycle. As disaffected voters don’t engage, then the quality of input (and pressure when necessary) on a government from citizens diminishes in turn.
For many years the promise of technology has been forecast in this space as a beacon that would make it easier and fairer for citizens’ engagement with government. While there is real promise, there is also the reality that progress ideally would have occurred sooner. Optimists are right to have great hopes for digital democracy but it’s also plain that people cannot wait forever, especially as the danger of voter disaffection comes at a time when the democratic system is being tested by external pressure. Not only has the past decade seen powerful authoritarian rulers assert themselves anew on the global stage, but also doing so via insidious means.
Long gone are the days when a foreign government required a physical presence to threaten a nation’s security inside its borders. In its place is the capacity to interfere in elections, attack critical national infrastructure and even just simply undermine the capacity for citizens to communicate clearly and openly with their government, free of propaganda and other intrusions.
Certainly there is never a good time for citizens to feel a fatigue with democracy.
But with the growing technological power of authoritarian governments to not only control their citizens at home but project power abroad, it can be said that this era is an especially bad time for such a development. Yet, as a result of big global challenges being being visible within the local context across many nations, the interweaving of the two is essentially unavoidable.
It is here, especially, that many people of the Caribbean can feel a unique frustration
when it comes to the ongoing challenges of dealing with the revelations of the Panama and Paradise Papers, and what new reforms within the offshore banking sector across regional nations entails.
The reform process here not only demands more time and energy in government offices around the region, but in some instances has highlighted systemic challenges within the governing process. In doing so, it has compounded the raw feeling of frustration — indeed, anger — that many voters have held for a long time.
THE LOCAL PAIN OF GOVERNMENT CORRUPTION
Right now these challenges are being seen most vividly in Haiti. Recent weeks have seen two killed as thousands took to the streets in anti-corruption protests following the release of a government report surrounding the alleged involvement of two former prime ministers in a PetroCaribe embezzlement scandal.
It’s also been seen elsewhere, and affirms it is not simply a question of leaders, but of systems. As Jamaican lawyer Greg Christie has observed in writing of his own nation, progress on corruption will not occur if institutions themselves are structurally flawed.
It’s also been seen here in Saint Lucia which, over the last year, lost ground in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, slipping 5 places from 55th to 60th in the world where nations are ranked as least corrupt.
Decisive reforms to address the offshore banking issues are not only in the interest of local governments in their diplomatic relations with global stakeholders, but also with their own citizenry.
After all, it’s not hard to follow the argument that citizens of a nation with porous offshore banking laws are not the biggest beneficiaries, but in fact the greatest victims, of its egregious and odorous flaws.
But any framing of the offshore banking sector as a story of the ‘people vs the power’ would be unacceptable. Yes, local governments face pressure abroad, but it’s their citizens who require reforms most.
Haitian demonstrators ask: “Where is the PetroCaribe money?”