Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dictatorship and unsustainability

Yesterday’s WSJ had an interesting piece from Morgan Tsvangirai, the president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. He ran through the main points of the corruption and totalitarianism of the ruling ZANU PF regime, headed up by Mugabe.











I studied in Zim for a few months in the fall of ’99, when things were still pretty good, and the country was a model for African independence and success. That spring was the election that really changed all of that – it was clear the vote was stolen and that Democracy in Zimbabwe was over. Since then the situation has deteriorated – land seizures, voter intimidation, cronyism, outrageous spending on personal luxuries while the population starves… it gets worse. Our prof from my time there has kept us posted over the years with inside accounts of what’s happening on the ground. It’s heart breaking.

Hyperinflation has been out of control for years – current stats are around 150,000% or something ridiculous, with unemployment at 80%. Clearly, the situation is unsustainable.

















Recently, a colleague mentioned that we need to deepen the dialogue around sustainability – to address questions like ‘is it possible to have a sustainable dictatorship?’ For me, the question illustrates how approaching sustainability without a concrete working definition can create confusion. And, as confusion can stifle action, or lead to misguided action, this can be dangerous in the face of the urgent threat of unsustainability.

Using the 4 Sustainability Principles as our definition of a sustainable society, we know it’s not possible to have a sustainable dictatorship. The 4th principle states that in a sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their basic needs. The situation in Zimbabwe is clearly causing circumstances that make it impossible for people to meet their basic need for subsistence – to simply stay alive – some are being killed, more are starving. This is not a sustainable society –something needs to give, and something will.

More generally speaking, the circumstances resulting from dictatorships are not always so dire. But, by definition, a dictatorship systematically undermines people’s capacity to meet their need for Participation – another basic need that we all have. It systematically undermines people’s capacity to meet their need for Freedom, as well. So by definition, it’s not possible to have a sustainable dictatorship. That’s not to say they can’t last for a long time. We know we can exhibit unsustainable behavior for long periods of time. But we also know at some point there will be undesirable consequences for people and other life. There are basic, underlying design flaws. Dictatorships are a dramatic illustration as to how abuses of power create unsustainable situations and negative impacts. They’re also a good example of how sustainability is not just about the environment. It’s about people live fulfilling lives on planet earth.















That’s a tough thing to do in Zimbabwe right now. And the situation has no easy answers – the country’s entrenched in downward spiral, created and influenced by a complex blend of historical context, cultural realities, international pressures, forces of the global economy, and so much more. Of course a return to democracy, a transfer of power, and a win for the opposition would be a huge step, and one I pray will come soon. There have been many calls but little action from the international community, no oil, of course - although China's been showing interest, presumably due to the food export potential. But as we know, we're all in this together, and while this may seem like an unfortunate, but isolated and irrelevant situation from our lives, it's not. For the people of Zimbabwe; Stay going.

5 comments:

barb michelen said...
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Celulite said...
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wtofd said...

Good post. I'm curious as to where or how you found this to be true:

"But, by definition, a dictatorship systematically undermines people’s capacity to meet their need for Participation – another basic need that we all have. It systematically undermines people’s capacity to meet their need for Freedom, as well. So by definition, it’s not possible to have a sustainable dictatorship."

All humanity across all cultures share these needs? On what basis do you make this claim? Agreed that Mugabe is a disaster, but how would you respond to Jordan? Some of the more benign Gulf States? Are you ignoring thousands of years of culture involving tribal people with little history of total participation and almost no history of democracy? This isn't a question of which system is better (I like ours quite a bit) it's a matter of cultural DNA. In some parts of the world this cannot be dismissed. Congrats on the move.

Georges said...

Good point - perhaps the assumption that dictatorships necessarily participation and freedom reflect my own cultural biases having never lived under a dictatorship? or maybe it's a matter of definitions of terms - is it a dictatorship if the leader reflects the will of the people and allow for open participation in society for the many? if so, I would stand corrected and need another term for the type of dictatorship I'm getting at - where significant portions of the population are systematically kept from participating and freedoms are limited.

This raises a great point though, that I neglected to address, which is that while research shows these 9 basic needs are consistent across time and cultures, and as noted it is the ways in which they are satisfied varies, what also varies in the degree to which they need to be satisfied. So culturally a people may be able to satisfy their need for participation with limited amounts of engagement, whereas other groups may need a lot of very direct participation to satisfy that need.

The scale may also be of issue - if a tribal people is by and large left alone by a central authority, and have sufficient participation within their smaller group, then what might technically be a dictatorship in the global nation-state system, might not really be in practice. But I'm speaking way off my base here with regard to the good examples you bring up.

In the Zim case it's been clear for years that those needs are not being satisfied, and the results are brutal. The election results looked very good for the opposition, but from what I can follow there is now talk of Mugabe looking for a run-off vote.

Thx as always for your insights. G

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