Honduran charter cities trample on democracy
A worrying development in Honduras echoes anti-democratic trends in Italy and Greece, whereby technocracy is usurping popular rule.
Honduras has long been one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. A year ago, the National Party, with support from the opposition Liberal Party, decided to form the Región Especial de Desarrollo (RED), or Special Development Region. These would encourage domestic and foreign investment, and in turn jobs, homes and an environment in which the public will be able to enjoy a better standard of living.
Last month, President Lobo of Honduras established a Transparency Commission of five experts and “influential supporters in the broad community of people concerned with economic development”. This Commission will act as the guardian body of the proposed new cities, and is tasked primarily with establishing a procedure for receiving and reviewing development proposals from would-be investors, as well as ensuring that business dealings related to the RED remain open, competitive, and free of corruption.
What sets the REDs apart from other charter cities is the belief that in order for the cities to thrive they must suspend democracy. The unelected Commission will govern the new city, until they decide the population is ‘ready’ for democracy; only then will new local councils be set up. The logic goes that if a city can be built in an economically underdeveloped country, but with highly-developed rules and governance, then citizens can then choose to live there – and live better for opting to do so. So goes the thesis of Paul Romer, economist and architect of RED.
This suspension of democracy is worrying for three key reasons.
The justification for the postponement of democracy is that the Transparency Committee will avoid the pitfall of corruption which exists at every level of public life. From civil servants to judges, the perception is that everybody in Honduras has their price and so cannot be trusted to build and manage a new city. But honest or not, by making the Committee a permanent body outside of any elective process, the public are stuck with officials regardless of how they govern. And who is to say the people would prefer to be governed by supposedly whiter-than-white politicians who do not represent them, than someone a little shadier who would prioritise their interests?
The establishment of the Transparency Commission reflects the belief of the Honduran government that the public might ‘get it wrong’. The Transparency Committee will not engage with or respond to public demands. Romer wanted RED to go even further. He wanted the rules of the city to be drawn up by foreign companies and bodies rather than a body with a relationship to the Honduran government. It seems that in Romer’s view, the further removed from the public that politicians are, the better policy-making will be.
The suspension of democracy is ultimately problematic because it is a prerequisite to a functioning society, not a barrier. As a new city is built, debates will need to be had over housing, education, healthcare, wages and public space – issues that are always fundamentally contested. If the public are shut out from determining the kind of society they want to live in, then far from the RED creating opportunity – in which people can determine their environment – they will be subjects. People are likely to be less free to live as they choose than they currently are. Without a democratic framework through with to argue for what matters to them, and thusly depose of useless politicians and manage the role of the state, the REDs will be little more than open prisons.
This undemocratic approach to development is of course not unique to Honduras. The recent effective suspension of popular sovereignty in Italy and Greece is a case in point. The global elites’ vision of a functioning government today is not based on achieving popular consent, but on how quickly it is able to enforce the will of experts and unelected officials. Elected politicians in Mediterranean countries have been replaced by bankers and other technocrats. So it is with the Transparency Commission which includes George Akerlof, another expert economist and Nancy Birdsall, formerly of the Inter-American Development Bank, and now running the Centre for Global Development. None of the above has ever faced election, but rather draw authority from their disciplines that have led them to believe – and fellow elites to believe – they have the ‘right’ answers. Politics and debate come a poor second to these individuals supposed expertise.
The people of Honduras, like Europeans, deserve better, and that means proper democracy, whatever the experts say.Tagged in: anti-democratic trends, democracy, greece, Honduras, Italy, Liberal Party, Región Especial de Desarrollo, Special Development Region, technocracy
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