Decolonising Democratic Innovations: not just a research agenda

by Sonia Bussu and Dayo Eseonu

with Hans Asenbaum, Nicole Curato, Dannica Fleuss, Maarten de Groot, Swati Gola, Gehad Hasanin, Azucena Moran, Melisa Ross, Oksana Potapova and Marianna Sampaio

Decolonisation might well be the new academic buzzword of choice. Like all buzzwords it risks appropriation, co-optation, misunderstanding, misuse. What does decolonising actually mean when we apply it to democratic innovation? Can we even start a deliberation process on decolonising democracy and democratic practices from within institutions built on stolen land? Who should lead this research agenda? And what are the implications for the study and the practice of participatory and deliberative democracy?

We met in Manchester at the end of November 2022, a group of academics and practitioners keen to explore these questions through our different perspectives, cultural and geographical backgrounds and experiences. It took deep intellectual honesty to engage with some thorny issues that have been lingering within the field for several years now, but which have never been seriously addressed. We questioned our own practice, but we also supported each other with generosity and solidarity as we started to navigate the many ethical dilemmas in this journey towards more inclusive democracies.

As deliberative and participatory democrats, we tend to assume a position of moral authority; our normative standards of accountability and inclusivity after all are presented as the beacon of what “real democracy” should be. We earnestly raise our critique of liberal democracy as a Euro-centric, elitist and unrepresentative model, an instrument of neo-colonial domination across the world. But is the field of democratic innovation, grounded as it is in the Habermasian cafe ideal of Enlightenment tradition, based on the exchange of rational arguments among allegedly equal participants, as inclusive and democratic as we imagine it to be? Can we really claim the universality of the tenets of deliberative democracy? Or are we guilty of making the same Western-centric assumptions as the champions of liberal democracy?

The rich reflections that emerged from our exchanges in Manchester inspired this new Agora series on Decolonising Democratic Innovation. In this short introduction, we set out some of the key themes that the articles in the series will engage with in greater depth and from different perspectives.

Teach out on Decolonising Democratic Innovations, Manchester, November 2022. Contributions from: Nicole Curato, Azucena Moran, Melisa Ross, Maarten de Groot, and Dayo Eseonu. Filmed and edited by Azucena Moran

The problem with one-model-fits all approaches

We observe with some apprehension current trends favouring, somewhat uncritically, sortition and citizen assemblies, increasingly portrayed as a panacea and an antidote to all the ills of our societies. The deliberative wave has turned into a tsunami of citizen assemblies and other so-called mini-publics, as an easy-to-replicate – although quite expensive – format providing a veneer of legitimacy to the same old socio-economic systems. Renouncing aspirations for mass participation, mini-publics can easily turn into tools that tame democracy, chaining it once more to Western ideals of rational argumentation and talk-centric deliberation. The fact that these models of deliberative democracy are mostly designed (and sometimes patented) and delivered by Western-based organisations is quite telling. Although sortition could definitely play an important part in democracy, this top-down, Western-led approach to mini-publics (and other democratic innovations) shows little sensitivity to, and understanding of, local cultures and democratic practices in different parts of the world. Furthermore, it leaves untouched the neoliberal political economy that continues to fuel material inequalities between and within countries. In fact, these democratic innovations often nicely fit into the neoliberal rhetoric of open government and good governance. The paradox of radical experiments of participation in the global south, such as participatory budgeting in Brazil, being appropriated and de-radicalised by Western-based international organisations, and then re-packaged and exported in diluted – shall we say sanitised? – formats across the world (maybe attached to aid packages to push market policies?) is indeed quite troubling.

All one-model-fits-all approaches, no matter the merits of the model itself, are problematic and inherently colonial, constraining rather than fostering democratic creativity and critical energy.

As a group we embrace demo-diversity that understands democracy as situated, relational, co-designed with participants. We aim to help create democratic space that fosters and builds on the work of grassroots politics and social movements. We promote participation that is independent of a burgeoning, mostly Western-based industry of participation consultants, who might be actually reducing the horizon of democratic imagination.

Who’s building whose capacity?

Why should we assume that the Habermasian cafe-style of communication is the benchmark of good deliberation? The field of deliberative democracy to be fair has gone to great lengths to acknowledge the importance of conflict, storytelling, non verbal communication for constructive and inclusive deliberation. There are many different ways of doing participatory deliberative democracy that can foster inclusivity through using the arts, theatre, music. We need all of that and more. People learn from each other and from engaging in different democratic practices, responding to their contexts and the problems they’re facing.

There are assumptions that people might need upskilling and capacity-building to meet the criteria of good deliberation as developed by academics and practitioners in the West (far removed from the reality of participation in contexts of poverty, entrenched corruption, war). This only reflects old colonial missionary attitudes. If the aim is to renew democracy for social justice, we need to make room (and put in resources) for people to engage creatively and autonomously with their own spaces of participation.

Whose research agenda?

One important question we ask ourselves is how we can all contribute to decolonising research and practice of democratic innovations. Critical reflection on our positionality is necessary here. Should white scholars based in Western institutions occupy this epistemic land, as their ancestors might have occupied geographical land? Do white scholars risk appropriating this space in an effort to support? With what implications? As a group we understand participatory democracy as a means to achieve social justice, but is decolonisation more than that? We have a collective responsibility to make room for different voices, different faces, different languages to talk about democracy. We should all engage in this change, but perhaps not everyone can take the stage.

It is crucial that we recognise that knowledge-making in our globalised societies is a process deeply rooted in Western thought. To decolonise knowledge-making, we need to invite those whose knowledge has been othered, ignored and rendered invisible to teach us how to meaningfully deconstruct it, so as to rebuild and reimagine more inclusive democratic innovations.

Collective Performance on Decolonising Knowledge-Making, Manchester, November 2022. A film by Azucena Moran


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