Annual PSAI conference in Dublin on 20 October… well, it was not a big crowd, which maybe was just as well as I was a bit nervous going into it.
The paper was on the democratic case for CSO advocacy, and went something like this: lots of problems with democracy, one of the answers is more participation, but different ideas of what participation is, CSOs have important role in participation in general (picture), but also specifically in contributing to decision making through their advocacy work (direct). Hence (participatory) democracy needs CSO advocacy. I ended up by talking about criticisms of CSO advocacy and (hopefully) presenting the case for why they are wrong with reference to the ‘7 is too young‘ campaign. Here’s the slides.
What was I nervous about? Two things I guess: (1) that my argument about why participatory democracy is ‘better’ than deliberative democracy, may not wash with the deliberative democracy people; and (2) that maybe I was just stating the obvious, and that this line of argument is all a bit unnecessary.
An interesting moment happend when another speaker got a question about whether the NGOs she was talking about (in rural India) did not in fact come with their own ‘agendas’. After she answered the question (yes, sometimes they do but that not a universal problem), I came back with “actually I think this language of ‘agendas’ can be pretty unhelpful”. Yes, of course, there is a problem when people in NGOs are more concerned about their own power, the survival of the organisation or the maintenance of salary levels, than the issue that they are there to address, but that in fact often NGO ‘agendas’ are a good thing. They are a good thing if they respond to need, are based on a core set of values, and are developed with communities. But sometimes they may well be imposing something from the outside, and while that needs to be done very carefully, it is not necessarily a bad thing for an organisation to bring agendas like environmentalism, equality, rights etc. I referred to the example of the antislavery movement being in some cases ‘outsider’ driven… enlightened outsiders imposing agendas on an unsuspecting community.
Well, that was contested. The response was that ‘interests’ coming in and imposing their agendas distorts participatory democracy, so I guess that takes care of point (2), or at least suggests a discussion worth exploring.
On the first point, my argument about the difference between participatory democracy and deliberative democracy was not picked up in the discussion, will have to find another place to see how that one goes down.
So despite the relatively small group I would say that overall I am happy I did it. Good disciple in whittling down the two chapters into one short paper, certainly helped focus my thinking, and met some interesting people… that, and oh, an opportunity to do a snazzy circle diagram!