Alternatives to Elections (Parliament/Congress Duty Part-2)

I have been debating whether it would be better to make participation in the Parliament/Congress Duty mandatory, like a jury duty, or voluntary, like a driver’s license? That is, in some countries, able citizens are required to serve in a jury duty if called unless they have a valid excuse. On the other hand, people are only required to have driver’s licenses if they want to drive, and then they have to pass road rules and driving tests before they are given one.

I see advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The jury duty model would expand the pool of available candidates significantly, which on the plus side means that every citizen has an equal chance of being selected to serve. On the other hand it also means that people will be forced to serve even if they have no desire to do so. There is also the issue of whether some of the people called to serve will have the capability to understand complex laws they will be voting on, but who is to say that all of the elected politicians are capable of understanding the laws they vote on.

Requiring people to pass tests before their names can be added to the lottery pool would address the qualification issue, but it would also reduce the pool of candidates to pick from. This would also avoid the issue of forcing people to serve, as only those who are interested in serving will take the tests.

I am thinking there would be about four levels of tests:

  1. the first level would qualify one to serve in the city/town/village council and for the mayor’s office
  2. level two for state/province level offices, including the governor’s office
  3. passing level three would qualify one to serve as an MP/Congress person and in the upper house/senate
  4. candidates who pass the level four test will have their names added to the pool of candidates who are qualified enough to serve as the leader/president of the country

Now to the more difficult/thorny issues: who writes the tests, and what should be in the tests? The whole reason I am proposing an alternative to elections is that, in my opinion, politicians and the political process in most countries have been captured by special interest groups with deep pockets, where I feel most of the laws passed only benefit the interests of the moneyed over those of the majority. And it is highly likely that if proper care is not taken, the contents of the tests, and those who write them, will be hijacked by the same forces in order to ensure that the candidate pools are filled with the type of people who are likely to serve the interests of corporations and the moneyed class.

So, how do you insure that those interested in serving are able to take the tests and pass them if they are well prepared and are motivated enough? First and foremost, the tests need to be free or affordable, and test preparation material should be freely available at libraries and community centers, and available to download for free.

What should be in the tests then? At all levels, I would like to see people tackle subject matters and issues such as (with the degrees of complexity and difficulty increasing with each level):

  • education, science and technology, health
  • law: constitution, international treaties, intellectual property*, etc.
  • economics: local/regional/national economic source and budget (e.g., where most of the resources go to: education, law enforcement, etc.); what the nation’s competitive advantages are (e.g., is it sciences, manufacturing, IT, tourism? etc.)
  • environment: parks, clean air/water, wildlife, etc.
  • cultures/diversity; history of labor/women’s/minority movements and their impact on society at the local, national and international level
  • national defense and security
  • local/regional/national/international history
  • much more that I can’t think of at the moment…

*At least at the levels three and four (may be even at all levels), I would like to see candidates tackle the effects of national and international intellectual property laws (patents, copyrights) on sciences and technology, entrepreneurship, health, and human rights, so that they won’t pass laws sponsored/written by special interest groups (e.g., the entertainment industry), which end up having disastrous effects on the other issues. We are seeing way too many of these draconian and one sided intellectual property and other laws being passed in many countries, which I strongly believe would have no chance of passing if parliaments and congresses were made up of randomly selected citizens, instead of being populated by professional politicians whose reelection campaigns are funded by special interest groups.

 

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Three simple rule changes to make football more exciting

I have come to realize that my passion for watching sports has begun to wane over the last three or four years, to the point where it’s now been months since I last watched a televised game. I used to love watching football and basketball, but now I find it difficult to watch an entire match, and usually get bored before half-time.

I am guessing there are two main reasons for this: I am getting old; and most football games are, plain and simple, boring. There is nothing I can do about the fact that I am getting old, so I thought may be I should come up with ways to make football more interesting.

I am sure I am not the only one who gets irritated by the constant interruption of the game flow because of niggling fouls, mostly committed on creative players. And unless the fouls are egregious enough to warrant yellow or red cards, a team and a player can get away with committing dozens of fouls a game as there are no consequences to doing so. Addressing this issue alone would improve the game watching experience considerably and the first two proposals are aimed at that.

  1. Five team fouls per half limit, after which a special direct free kick is awarded to the aggrieved team every time the opposing team commits another foul. For the special direct free kick, the ball is placed anywhere inside the ‘D’ or semicircle just outside of the penalty box, with only the goalkeeper facing the free kick taker. This is more like a penalty taken not from the penalty spot, but from the ‘D’.
  2. If a player commits three fouls, s/he is taken out of the game for five minutes, where the team has to play with one less player until the five minute penalty period expires. If a player commits five fouls, then that player is dismissed from the game and the team has to wait ten minutes before introducing a substitute to replace the dismissed player. This is similar to a player fouling out in a basketball game, but with the added team penalty of playing with a player short until the penalty period expires.
  3. Abolish the offside rule. It is a stupid rule, and I have always hated it. Shouldn’t it be up to the defenders to know and keep track of the position of the opposing players? Why do they need a special protection?

I think these three simple rule changes would make football much more exciting to watch, and I imagine, play to.

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Parliament/Congress Duty (as in Jury Duty)

I went for what turned out to be a two hour walk earlier today as it was a beautiful day, and that I also wanted to think about some of the projects I am working on. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to come up with any breakthroughs or solutions to my problems as my mind kept wandering in a million and one directions, which I was only happy to indulge.

So out of the blue I started thinking about elections and how incumbents will do everything in their power (legal or otherwise) to stay in power; and the violence associated with elections (before and after) in a lot of countries; campaign financing and the inevitable corruption that comes with it; the time MPs/Congresspeople spend raising money and campaigning instead of doing their jobs; etc…

The obvious question then is: do you need elections in order to have a democratic system or live in a democratic society? Or is there another way to enjoy the good things that democracies bring, and eliminate most, if not all of the problems associated with elections?

The solution I came up with was this (and it would surprise me if I was the first one to propose this idea, but I am too lazy to do a search): instead of having elections for parliament or congress, etc. every 2/4/5 years, why not randomly pull a name out of a district’s eligible/registered residents and require that individual to serve in the coming parliament/congress for 2 years? This is how jury duties work in some (most?) democratic systems, where citizens are required to serve when called, unless they have a reasonable excuse that prevents them from serving. So if it works for the legal system, why wouldn’t it work for selecting MPs/Congresspeople? As an MP/Congressperson the newly chosen people would still draw a decent salary plus expenses, and will have available to them professional staff or civil servants, just like current MPs/Congresspeople, which should address hardship issues and the steep learning curve that comes with the job.

This would eliminate most of the issues I listed above, and I would also add that it brings with it additional benefits that do not exist with election based democratic systems.

First, with the current system most people know that there is no way that they would ever become MPs/Congresspeople since they know that you either need to come from a prominent family, have a ton of money, or have great political connections if you are ever going to have any chance of getting elected, which I would argue makes people to become politically disengaged.

However, If we all knew that we could one day be called to serve our country, and that every two years we have 1 in 1000 or 10000/100,000, etc, chance of becoming a council person/state representative/MP/Congressperson, then I would argue that most of us would become more politically aware and involved, and would be more likely to pay increased attention to issues that affect our community, country, and even the world. As such, we would attempt to form views on the issues that affect our families and communities before hand, and would probably get involved in our school systems or health services, etc., in order to have a better understanding of how they work and problems that need addressing. In short, I would argue that more people would become involved in their communities and politically engaged, and even pay more attention to global issues, which can only be a good thing.

The second benefit I see is that if a district is populated by different ethnic or racial or political groups, where say one group makes up 40% and another 60% of the district, in the current system it is very likely that the majority will win every election, shutting out the minority group and leaving their issues unaddressed. In the new system, however, the minority will have a 40% chance of one of their members being chosen at every election. It is possible that the majority will resent this, but at least they know that they have a higher chance of getting one of their own selected next time around.

Another benefit I see is that since women make up more than 50% of the population of most (if not all) countries, this random parliament/congress duty selection system will ensure that the law making institutions in a country will reflect the true make up of the country’s population, and as a result the laws passed will more likely be designed to address issues that women consider important.

I am still debating whether this should also apply to the office of the president/prime minister though. On the one hand I believe that every citizen should aspire to and have an equal chance of becoming the head of state, but, the job of a head of state demands more, so may be we should still have elections just for the head of state? Then again, could anybody in Zimbabwe/Cameron/Libya/etc., do or be worse than the current office holders?

For this to work you would need to make sure that the random name selection process is truly transparent and the systems used are thoroughly inspected and certified by independent organizations in order to prevent the gaming of the system.

What do you think? Would this work, or do you have a better idea? I haven’t listed any cons, so I would love to hear why you think it wouldn’t work.

Update:
Another benefit I see to this system over an election is that the parliamentary or congressional members are almost guaranteed to come from more diverse professions than the current system, where they are dominated by lawyers. I believe that if teachers, doctors, waiters, etc., are equally represented then the laws they pass would be designed to address issues that affect them. Plus, it would help a great deal for other members to hear first hand from another member who is a teacher or a doctor when debating an education or health bill, than to exclusively rely on lobbyists and special interests when crafting and debating bills.

Update-2011-09-29:

I said when I wrote this article that it was unlikely this was a novel idea, but I was too lazy to do a search if anyone else had a similar idea, or whether it’s ever been used. Then today I learned, while reading comments on Hacker News on an interesting article (The “overlearning the game” problem), that this was indeed a very old idea, and is called Sortition. I encourage every African democrat who is fed up of corrupt and incompetent incumbent politicians to seriously consider sortition as a viable option to elections. I intend to learn more about it now that I learned the Greeks preferred this to elections. As Aristotle said “it is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected is oligarchic” (quote taken from the wikipedia article). I couldn’t agree more.

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e-petitions and Legistlation

I just read a very interesting BBC Technology article on making e-petitions compulsory for all UK councils, and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if similar legislations were to be passed in many African countries?’ Having said that, I don’t think this bill goes far enough since, most e-petitions do and will continue to be ignored by lawmakers.

So what if, in addition to e-petitions, the law required lawmakers to publish summaries of legislation they plan to pass at least 45 days in advance? Similarly, citizens would also create e-petitions of laws they would like to see passed during the coming legislation period. Then let citizens vote (via sms/web, or even via direct mail) on the combined list of e-petitions and legislation proposals. Lawmakers would then ‘only’ work on, say, the top 10 of the vote getters. And if none of the proposals by the legislators make it to the list and they want to work on passing them, then those not on the list would need a super majority vote to become law (e.g., require 66%).

The reason I believe it is necessary for citizens to have a say on what laws are worked on and passed each legislative period is that a large number of laws passed by legislators are proposed by powerful interests/lobbyists and are either against the interests of the citizens or are of no or little benefit to them. This would go a long way in making the legislative process more democratic and accountable.

I have no doubt that powerful interests will try to game this system, so I would appreciate your feedback as to whether you think this is a good idea, and how would you improve on this proposal.

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Guinea millitary rulers have no authority to sign mining deals

After the brutal killings and attacks on unarmed demonstrators last month that left at least 157 people dead and over 1000 injured, the military dictators in Guinea have no right to sign a $7 billion mining deal with a Chinese company. Even though these people came to power by force, initially they had a lot of support and goodwill in a country where the people were tired of the previous corrupt ruler and his drug dealing son. But after this massacre, they have forfeited their right to rule the country, and as such have no legitimate authority to sign any deals, let alone a $7 billion sell off of the country’s mineral assets.

It is also astonishing that the Chinese would sign this deal less than a month after the horrific attacks by the military on unarmed civilians. This is another clear example that China doesn’t give a damn whether Africans live or die as long as it gets its hands on Africa’s raw materials. Would anybody be surprised if China were to oppose the EU development chief’s call to put the Guinea ruler Capt Moussa Dadis Camara on trial for “crimes against humanity?”

In light of this latest development, one has to wonder what Rwandan President Paul Kagame was thinking when he praised China for the “way it does business in Africa.” Really, Mr. President? I wonder if the people of Guinea, or those in Darfur’s camps would agree with that. Or was he talking about how African dictators feel about the way China does business with them?

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micro-financing and ‘meso financing,’ not either or

Just listened to BBC World Service’s The Forum, where economist George Ayittey, if I am not mistaken, argues that what African small farmers need is not micro-financing but what he calls ‘meso financing.’ He advocates that rather than giving 1000 farmers $100 each, the $100,000 should instead be used to buy a truck to transport what the farmers produce to the market.

I have been thinking about this for a couple of years now, and I believe both micro and what professor Ayittey calls meso-financing are necessary in order to end poverty and build the middle class. By now it is clear that micro-financing has lifted many families out of poverty in the developing world, and it would be irresponsible to end it. At the same time, small loans in the amounts of $100 to $200 will not be enough to build a large middle class in an impoverished African country.

In addition to a free and good educational system (from elementary school to university level), a developing nation needs an affordable and accessible small business loan program in order to build a vibrant entrepreneurial class. Using professor Aittey’s example, a business man or woman should be able to borrow say $20,000 or $50,000 in order to buy a truck to transport farm produce to the market.  Or, in addition to lending the farmers $100 each to improve their output, why not also encourage them to create a coop and then lend the coop the amount of money needed to buy the truck?

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Limiting Political Dynastic Rule in Africa

As expected, Ali Bongo has been elected the next president of Gabon. There is no doubt that Ali Bongo won this election because he is the son of Omar Bongo. Similarly, the only reason Joseph Kabila is the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo is because he is the son of the late president Laurent Kabila.

Does anybody honestly believe that these two men are the best qualified to lead their countries, or that their ascendancy to the throne furthers the cause of democracy in their respected countries?

So, what should be done to limit, if not end, political dynasties in Africa?

One way would be to prohibit immediate family members of political office holders from running for the same office for a specified period of time, say 10 years after their immediate relative vacates the office. For example, in Gabon, Ali Bongo would have had to wait until 2019 if he wanted to run for the presidency. This would have given the people of Gabon the chance to closely evaluate the qualifications and ideas of the other lesser known candidates. It may even have encouraged more, perhaps even better qualified, candidates to run for the presidency if they had known that Ali Bongo would be bared from running until 2019.

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What is the Purpose of the African Union?

Is the AU just an old boys club, whose only purpose is to look after the interests of the leaders, even a dictator who is responsible for the deaths of millions of his citizens?

Has the AU or its predecessor ever done anything that has significantly benefited ordinary Africans? For example, has it ever stopped a war; or sanctioned/suspended/expelled a leader/government/country for killing its own citizens; or confronted non AU nations, whose fishing boats illegally fish in African waters depriving African fishermen of their livelihood, and gotten compensation and/or some sort or a deal which prohibits/prevents future illegal fishing?

This is not meant as a rant against the AU, but as a serious question, which I am sure many Africans would like answered.

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Land Grab in the 21st Century

This has to be one of the most dangerous developments of the past 18 months. If these companies and countries continue to grab land from poor nations at this alarming rate, it is only a matter of time before riots break out everywhere and governments in these poor nations will be unable to control the rage of the hungry masses.

We have already seen unrests in several African countries in the past year as food prices sky rocketed. Just imagine the level of unrest and violence when people realize that while they can’t afford to feed their families because of sky rocketing food prices, large companies and other governments are shipping food grown in their country to feed their own population.

The level of greed, short sightedness and arrogance shown by these companies and countries is just incredible. To think that they can just buy millions of acres of fertile farm land in developing countries, especially in African countries where there is still a lot of lingering resentment left over from the colonial era, and not expect any backlash is just wishful thinking.

What is most pazzling about this report is that countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia, which currently receive large amounts of food aid because they are unable to feed their own populations, are selling fertile farm land to other nations and corporations. Food pricess in Ethiopia have gone up so much in the past 18 months that people are unable to feed their families and are resorting to food aid. How will the Ethiopian government justify selling prime farm land to other nations so that food can be exported in order for those nations to protect their citizens from wild price fluctuations while Ethiopians go hungry?

And as for Sudan, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions displaced from their homeland in Darfur primarily because the Janjaweed, backed by the government, wanted Darfur’s farmlands and water resources. If this doesn’t tell you how valuable and scarce land is in the Sudan then nothing will.

Who is being displaced from their land in the Sudan (or Ethiopia/Zambia/Cameroon,etc.) now, so China, India, Korea and a couple of Arab nations can feed their own populations; or companies such as Hyundai and Morgan Stanley can make millions or even billions of dollars? Does this also mean that the UN, USAid and other aid organizations will continue to feed the poor in Ethiopia and Sudan while those nations start exporting food? Where is the logic in that?

Are these nations and companies doing the land grab really this naive? Or has greed blinded them to such an extent that they are unable to see the obvious consequences of their actions? This practice has to end now, and the deals already finilized rescinded before violence breaks out in these poor nations and governments start falling. Otherwise we will see levels of violence unseen in Africa in decades, and the collapse of hard won peace, stability, democracy and development.

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R&D in Developing Nations

An interesting look into Microsoft’s R&D in India by Navi Radjou at the HarvardBusiness.org blog. It’s great to hear that Microsoft is employing “development economists” and “social anthropologists” to develop products designed to specifically address real problems affecting subsistence farmers and small businesses in developing nations. The article also has several good recommendations to other multinational corporations as to how to conduct R&D and deploy solutions in developing nations.

What is missing from the article though is whether the inventions that come out of this research are patented and/or are restricted to work only with Microsoft products. Or are the inventions that come out of this made available to local and other entrepreneurs or NGOs, so that the products developed as a result of the research are affordable enough and without crippling restrictions as to their use and distribution to make them useful to their intended audience?

I guess my fear is that IT multinationals will follow the footsteps of agribusiness multinationals and their genetically modified seeds and the horror stories we keep hearing about the experiences of farmers in developing nations who use these seeds.

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