Why Politics Still Matters

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by him here.


 

One of UK comedian Bob Monkhouse’s better jokes goes something like this: ‘People laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian; they are not laughing now’. When I published the first edition of Why Politics Matters in 2006- which looked at rising negativity towards democratic politics- there was polite interest at presentations made to politicians and journalists but a sense that my concerns were not exactly the pressing issue of the day. As I publish the second edition for 2017 negativity about the practice of politics is a major news item and anti-politics and post truth politics are terms that have entered everyday debate.

Some politicians are taking advantage of the mood of anti-politics by offering populist stances on issues and by distancing themselves very clearly from something called the ‘political establishment’. The top nominations for 2016 might well have been Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in Britain, leading the Leave campaign in the EU membership referendum. Other politicians offer convoluted apologies to public audiences for being a politician. Isobel Harding, a journalist at a meeting I was chairing in 2016, argued that she would throw up if she heard another politician explain how they only took up the job ‘by accident’. They were an engineer or doctor – or some other occupation deemed socially acceptable – turned up at some political event and then, seemingly through forces outside their control, found themselves as a candidate for election and then eventually an elected representative.

If politicians fear they are social pariahs as a group, then most citizens would not try to persuade them that the situation is otherwise. In 2011–12, we asked some people in focus groups to indicate what words they associated with politics. The eight most popular grouping covered: deception, corruption, feather-nesting, self-serving, politicking, privileged, boring and incomprehensible. Not a terribly positive list, I think you would agree. We know that millions around the world like the idea of democratic governance in the abstract but struggle to be convinced by the politics essential to its delivery. Why Politics Matters tries to understand this contradiction and, because politics matters, it asks what, if anything, we could do to make it work better.

While the problems and solutions to the current malaise of democratic politics will vary from country to country, I believe that my focus on common features and key comparisons provides a good starting point for discussion of where we are, and what needs to be done. The negative response to politics that many of us share is, I think, a very human reaction to the way politics works. As an intricate mechanism in our multifaceted and complex societies, politics exists because we do not agree with one another. Politics is about choosing between competing interests and views often demanding incompatible allocations of limited resources. Crucially, because it is a collective form of decision making, once a choice has been made then that choice has to be imposed on us all. In the context of greater individualism and a determination to make your own choices the mechanics and institutions of politics can appear out of touch. Yet although social media may be changing the technological expression of politics but it does not mean the fundamental nature of politics has changed. It’s still about making and then imposing collective decisions.

Perhaps there is something in addition about the way that politics is done today that moves citizens from being slightly irked by politics to outright annoyed People don’t like to be taken for a sucker or treated like an idiot. Politics as experienced daily often seems calculated to do exactly that. When politicians debate issues in simplistic terms, when they imply that we can have it all at no cost and appear to manufacture arguments they think will play well to different groups, it is hardly surprising that we think they are taking us for a ride. Nor is it odd that cynicism becomes a common coping response. My book does not berate citizens for not engaging in politics but tries to understand why they often don’t but also how they might be persuaded to do so more. You can’t have democracy without politics. In this light, it’s clear that we need to change some of the practices of politics.

The Second Edition brings into play new research conducted with colleagues over the last decade.  It offers a more comprehensive portrait of rise of political disenchantment in different countries. It provides a fuller and better organised account of many of the competing explanations of that rise in anti-politics. It is updated to deal with the rise of social media, changes in party politics and the rise of populism. Finally, it offers a more extensive discussion of some of the democratic innovations that are being trialled to bring new life to politics.

In truth, the book ends on a slightly more pessimistic note than the First Edition. The Trump campaign and the EU referendum in 2016 seems to have established a new low in politics which is pulling many other actors towards it in a cycle of misinformation, dishonesty, and fear mongering. However, a favourite saying is: ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Perhaps if I ever get round to a third edition I will have something more positive to report. There are many people out there who care about creating a better politics. If my book gives them any ammunition in their battles I will be a happy author.

Gerry Stoker Why Politics Matters Second Edition is available from Palgrave https://he.palgrave.com/page/detail/Why-Politics-Matters/?K=9780230360662

 

 

Zika and the political battle of rights

By Pia Riggirozzi, Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


 

In recent years there has been growing global awareness of the interplay between rights and social development. In 1997, in an attempt to mainstream human rights as a central feature of all UN programmes, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, called for a reorientation of the UN’s mission to reflect the realisation of human rights as the ultimate goal of the UN (UNDP 2005). Within this approach, the UNDP declared that human rights should not be regarded as the outcome of development but should rather be seen as the critical means to achieving it. With the signature of the Millennium Declaration and more recently the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) there has been a renewed focus on the links between global poverty and human rights in development. As a consequence, protecting and promoting rights, and creating opportunities for individuals and groups to access, enjoy and reproduce those rights have increasingly been furthered in transnational campaigns promoting broader civil liberties, the ‘right to development’ (Grugel and Piper 2009) and ‘human right to health’ (Oslo Declaration).

However, as Easterly (2009) argues ‘which rights are realised is a political battle’ contingent on a political and economic reality often determined by what is considered (national and internationally) visible and urgent. The response to the outbreak of the Zika in South and Central America is manifestation of that battle.

Zika and systemic injustices

In February 2016, South America became, for the first time, the epicentre of a Public Health Emergency of International Importance when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the Zika virus and its link to neurological disorders deserved global attention. After nine months Zika dropped from the international radar as the WHO declared it was no longer an international emergency. But the crisis is not over. The Zika outbreak that began in 2015 and has now spread across much of Central and South America has implications over the medium and long term on equity, health, education, gender and community relations. The challenges of managing the medium/long-term impact of outbreaks, as previously seen in the case of Ebola, are still poorly understood, and so are the prospects of safeguarding the right to health and the right to development in policies advanced by international and national health agencies addressing those amongst the most vulnerable.

The Zika virus, as with other insect-borne diseases such as Dengue and Chikungunya, is part and parcel of troubling inequities, amongst which health inequality is key, based on deprived living conditions. What raised international alarm in 2015 was the number of cases of microcephaly detected in countries affected by the Zika virus, particularly in Brazil. Microcephaly is a condition where babies are born with unusually small skulls. It is a developmental defect and is usually also associated with serious nervous system disorders – including deficiencies in mental functions and muscular weaknesses of varying degrees (WHO 2016). More than 1.5 million people in Brazil have been stricken with the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and since the outbreak began in 2015, the country has logged around 4,000 confirmed and suspected cases of microcephaly. This is alarming, particularly compared to 2014 when there were 147 cases.

Economically disadvantaged segments of the population are at higher risk of exposure to Zika, of being infected, and of their children of being born with microcephaly or other genetic conditions that require special care in the long term. The Zika crisis has also reinforced the socio-cultural expectations about the role of child-raising/caring that disproportionately fall on women, limiting even more opportunities to engage in education programmes or seek/obtain formal employment. Finally, promiscuity, lack of education and the simple fact that poor women might spend more time at home and thus are more exposed to dirty water, sewage, and mosquito breeding grounds than men, also means that women bear the burden of the prospect of infection. This drama typically unfolds in conditions where infrastructural deficiencies and lack of quality medical care and social services are the norm.

Consequently, poor women and their families are likely to be stigmatised as poor, as women, as sexually irresponsible, as families marked by disability. The Zika crisis is, in effect, a window that exposes systemic injustices related to poverty and marginalisation of poor women and children. It also a constitutive dimension of the ‘structural violence’ as global, regional and national responses to the Zika outbreak have disproportionately concentrated on prevention of infection and transmission which although necessary and urgent do not change the structural and related socio-cultural conditions that perpetuate injustice and inequality in these societies.

Which rights are right? 

The Zika crisis is not gender neutral and a focus on women is needed. Take Brazil, where there is a large proportion of single parent families, the majority of which are headed by women. These households are more likely to experience perpetual cycles of poverty as a result of the economic shock of disease. In addition, where children are born with potentially disabling impairments, they are often further isolated by limited support or social protection. The significant increase in the number of infants with microcephaly in the Northeast of Brazil which triggered of the WHO declaration of international emergency, highlights the centrality of the social determinants of health in the transmission chain, as well as issues such as the social division of care and debates on sexual and reproductive health.

During 2016, a roll out of official declarations put women at the centre: the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the WHO reinforced the importance of women’s human rights being central in the response to the Zika outbreak in many states (Gostin and Phelan 2016), while the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention advised pregnant women to refrain from travelling to countries affected by the Zika virus. Most dramatically, health officials in El Salvador urged women not to get pregnant until 2018; Colombia called on women to delay pregnancy for six to eight months.

This particular response focusing on behaviour is problematic for at least three reasons. First, implementing vector control programmes in the poorest areas is particularly challenged by more structural issues of lacking infrastructure, running water and access to healthcare. And even if such operations are conducted, mosquitoes have previously shown their capacity to quickly resurface whenever there is inadequate funding or surveillance. Second, shifting responsibility to women’s behaviour delinks the disease from its social determinants and their rights; not least because most pregnancies amongst poor and vulnerable women in the region are unplanned. As Davies and Bennett (2016: 1046) note, responses tend to focus on the ‘immediate’ health-care problem, while the status of gendered inequality that underpins the prevailing unhealthy conditions is considered ‘beyond’ the capacity of public health interventions. Add to this prevailing high rates of sexual violence, elusive contraception, teen pregnancies and the lack of sexual education prevalent in Zika-affected countries. According to a study published by the Guttmacher Institute in 2014, as many as 56 per cent of pregnancies in Latin American and the Caribbean are unintended, either because of lack of access to contraceptives or because of associated forms of gender violence.

Third, reducing the problem in this way to a few modifiable behaviours ignores factors of social determinants of health and poverty. Responses to communicable diseases such as Zika, and before Ebola, have so far tended to focus overwhelmingly on short-term-vector control and surveillance (Gostin and Hodge 2016; Davies and Bennet 2016). Such responses may be effective in terms of disease containment, effectively masking the precarious social conditions in which they live, in which many rights remain merely notional.

A final issue raised by the Zika crisis is that of reproductive rights. In a region where birth control is limited and sexual violence is widespread, the debate on legalising abortion has gained prominence. Last February, the Obama administration put under Congressional consideration $1.8 billion in emergency funding to help prepare for and respond to the threat posed by the Zika virus. But abortion politics sterilised these discussions as Republican lawmakers leading a congressional hearing on the Zika outbreak made funding conditional on anti-abortion policies in recipient countries. And while Pope Francis hinted at softening the rigid stance of the Catholic Church on contraception because of the threat posed by the Zika virus, it is the region’s restrictive abortion laws that remain a critical problem. In most Latin American countries affected by Zika, abortion is illegal or can only take place in exceptional situations. In El Salvador, for instance, where more than 7,000 cases of Zika were reported between December 2015 and January 2016, abortions are illegal under any circumstances and miscarriages could even lead to homicide convictions if proven to be self-induced.

Advocacy groups in Brazil are increasingly presenting legal cases to the Supreme Court to legalise abortion and secure reproductive rights for women under the principles of the 1988 National Constitution that guarantees the right to health. But the challenges ahead are many, not least in what a human rights-based approach to health may mean in addressing the long-term consequences of Zika (and other such health crises).

To be clear, vector control actions are imperative, but policies and recommendations based on behaviour, control and prevention are not only not enough to address women’s marginalisation in society and the effect this has on their health, they may further exacerbate this problem in addressing the immediate health risk. More academic and policy debate is needed on the scale and nature of future needs (health, social, economic, educational, welfare) of vulnerable communities particularly women and children, and how to calculate them. Government awareness of this issue is still low in Central/South America and although regional, global and expert/practitioner networks might be able to provide support in the future (Riggirozzi 2015; Riggirozzi and Yeates 2015) both in defining the scale of need and in providing support to governments in developing policies to address them, their roles over the medium/long term require greater definition.

Governments in South and Central America are in urgent need of a multi-policy approach – and funding- if they are to put in place effective responses to mitigate long-term effects and not derail progress in terms of meeting the SDGs targets on gender, childhood, disability and inclusive growth. Vector control and compliance could be seen as first step. The right to health needs to be delivered with a view that development in general and the delivery of health in particular should be anchored in an understanding of the inequalities, discriminations and power relations that prevent many people having access to good healthcare systems, care provisions and education and a view that states have legal and ethical obligations under international law to ensure the best possible provision of services for all.

 

Pia is currently involved in a funded project on regional organisations and access to medicines in South America.