Magazine article New Internationalist

Something to Build on [the Roots of a Popular Democracy in the Markets and Refugee Camps of the South]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Something to Build on [the Roots of a Popular Democracy in the Markets and Refugee Camps of the South]

Article excerpt

At first glance there seems to be little room left for the expression of any democratic impulse among people located on the margins of the global system. The decision-making in the boardrooms of mega-corporations; the closed councils of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization; the executive offices of powerful governments; all of these crowd the available political space and set the course for whole economies. This concern over the lack of democratic space for ordinary people brought together a group of us at the University of Toronto. We set out to discover what goes on far from global and national power centres.

Our investigations carried us from the fishing villages of South India to the struggles for the empowerment of women in Central America. We started with a simple question of fact: what are concrete instances of political space (these 'political settings' could be anything from a neighbourhood meeting to a riot) that local people create through their action, and how do they operate? We were amazed and heartened to discover the great energy and real skill local people used to create surprisingly democratic local political settings.

Owino market in Kampala, Uganda is just one example. Ugandans and foreigners alike enter Owino market with some trepidation. It covers a whole city block, with 5,000 vendors and 30,000 employees. The place has a reputation for thievery. The congested, often muddy, narrow passages and the unpleasant smell from the inadequate drainage channels add to the unease. Yet the constant movement of customers and transporters, the amazing variety of carefully arranged goods (from bananas and grains to automotive parts and used clothing) and the engaging conversation of the vendors awaken an excitement and curiosity that soon displace anxiety.

A market where everyone is focused on how to come out ahead in the next transaction may seem like a strange place to look for the elements of democracy. But we were astonished to find a plethora of meetings, associations, tribunals, clubs and activities that fit our definition of political settings: spaces and occasions where people get together to discuss and decide action on matters of common public concern. Many of these spaces operated according to democratic principles.

Our interest centred on the Market Vendors Association (MVA), an independent organization with a central office and executive, and a pyramid of committees in each division of the market. After one meeting in the much-used MVA office we witnessed a five-minute gathering of all the vendors in a nearby division. They stood together listening to a man, talked some more and then dispersed. This was a meeting to explain what had transpired in the central meeting; it all happened faster than e-mail.

The MVA had an extensive system of dispute settlement. In the rapid transactions among vendors with very precarious livelihoods friction is inevitable. For example, two women had long collaborated in selling fruit in the market. One fell ill and missed a week of the joint work, but her partner carried on alone and pocketed all the earnings for the week. When the partner who had been absent complained to the division head, the head immediately called a meeting of the nearby vendors. They heard from both sides: one claimed she had done all the work that week and deserved the earnings; the other said that as a partner who still desperately needed her income she deserved to get her usual share. After vigorous discussion the group decided the absent vendor deserved one-fourth of the earnings. Both the disputants agreed to abide by the decision.

The Kakuma refugee camp nestles in the dry and sparsely populated hills of northwestern Kenya. Here more than 20,000 refugees from the war in southern Sudan live in clusters of huts built of poles, mud and blue tarpaulins. Kakuma became for me an unlikely metaphor for the capacities for action of very marginalized people, especially those subjected to the ministrations of helpful guardians. …

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