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The vicious cycle of inequality

bppk“Without the cooperation of the population, there will be insufficient resources and effort to break free from the vicious cycle of inequality” (Regional Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2010). 

There has been a long-standing suspicion that something is inherently wrong with the political system in Belize.  It seems that the system continues   to perpetuate the very same inequality that every political party swears to eradicate once they get into office.

According to the 2010 Regional Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean (HDR), that “something” is not a only a Belizean problem, but rather it’s a phenomenon found throughout the entire Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region.

The report repeatedly underscored the fact that the LAC region is characterised as the region “with the highest levels of inequality worldwide.” And, yes, Belize is numbered with the rest of the countries in the region.

While the report makes the point that democracy is the ideal system for achieving equality, it points out that within the system there exist anomalies that would prevent the “positive effect” of democracy from flourishing. “It is important to pinpoint the weaknesses of the region’s democratic systems which prevent them from effectively combating the stubborn levels of inequality that plague the region.”

Following its own advice, the report identified four “closely related phenomena” that distort the social democratic contract that should exist between citizens and the government: clientelism, state capture, corruption, and institutional weakness and civic engagement.

Clientelism

The leading hindrance discussed is clientelism, which is defined as an asymmetrical relationship between a politician, public servant or candidate for office (The Patron) and the citizen or voter (The Client).

HDR further described this relationship as one in which “the patron supplies the client with assets and services in exchange for political support and the client’s vote come election time.” In essence, it’s the “buying” of the client’s vote. Doesn’t this sound awfully familiar?

The report added that  on “repeated occasions, citizens renounce their political rights and their role as principals [the original wielders of power who delegate politicians] in formulating public policy in exchange for assets that matter to them in the short-term and which they cannot access through institutional channels [emphasis added].”

This corrupt strategy tends to work best with those who suffer from the greatest lack; but what makes this approach even more sinister is the fact that it epitomizes the inequality trap. What do we mean by that? The citizens who become engaged in clientelism are usually those who perceive that they are unable to have their needs met through the established institutional channels. They, therefore, are inclined to become more dependent on the “patron”.

So, by keeping the official institutional channels for accessing basic needs weak, the “patron” keeps the more underprivileged sectors of society vulnerable to clientelism. It keeps a recurrent batch of voters willing to sell their “power” as voters to politicians in exchange for basic needs—education, food, shelter, etc.

But it also continues post election. “Similarly, those who are elected to office engage in clientelism to improve their chances of re-election.”

For this approach to work, the patron needs to forge a strong co-dependent relationship with the voter. “[T]heir close relationship with the patron enables them to access such favours more frequently. In turn, the agent [politician] needs to establish a closer relationship with his or her client, beyond a simple exchange of favours at election time, to ensure that the latter complies with his or her undertaking to vote for the patron and also to prevent other candidates from winning over their client.”

The state has the regulatory capacity to implement policies that can improve how resources are distributed and, thereby, increase the levels of equality. But, as long as the citizens continue to engage in clientelism and allow the “agents” to keep the proper institutional channels and institutional capacity weak, then the public’s assets—which truly belongs to the people anyway— will continue to be used to the politicians’ benefit, while the system continues to perpetuate the very same inequality.

State Capture

On the opposite end of “clientelism”, the report also pointed to “state capture” as a hindrance in the democratic process. Whereas the former is taking advantage of the underprivileged, state capture is the privileged taking advantage of the patron.

Under the tenets of state capture, it is the social elites and those who yield great power, resources and influence that use their privileged position to move those in public office to directly cater to their interests “in exchange for individual political or economic gain.”

Naturally, such an approach would mean that those “without” power, resources and influence would find themselves in an even worse position. To combat the effects of this distorter, proper accountability systems ought to be established.

“Several key elements have allowed the region to make slow progress toward ensuring greater accountability: i) the creation of independent institutions to oversee the organization of transparent elections and to ensure more professional career path for public servants; (ii) the creation of entities that provide citizens with the information they require to make decisions; and, (iii) the oversight of public duties.”

The access to information plays a key role in the fight against inequality, as the lack thereof can continue to give life to those elements that perpetuate the inequality. It is interesting to note, however, that Belize has several of the organizations listed above that are designed to make the government more accountable, but they fail as it pertains to adequate functioning.

For example, to guard against state capture, there is an entity called the Integrity Commission. On paper, this body is designed to do great things; however, in practice there is much to be desired. Even the Auditor General’s Office is to serve as an independent oversight body, but—as Auditor General Dorothy Bradley pointed out in her recent report—the office is financed and staffed by the very same Executive Branch of government that it is tasked to scrutinize.

Speaking of oversight bodies, we come again to those 13 House Committees that are dominated by the incumbent government, which outnumbers the opposition’s members four to two in the committees—including the opposition-chaired Public Accounts Committee.

Corruption 

For the most part, it is safe to assume that most of us know what corruption refers to; therefore, we won’t spend much time exploring this infamous concept. However, the report described corruption as a phenomenon that occurs “when the agent (for example, a public servant), given his or her relative advantage over the principal (the public or the legislature itself, which is typically charged with controlling the government) in terms of information, fails to honour his or her delegated powers by employing public resources for his or her own gain.”

We see this type of thing often in the form of bribes that grant undeserving priority to an individual or group to resources and/or benefits. Also it shows up in the form of public servants using the privilege of their office to bestow direct benefits to themselves or their families or close acquaintances. Whichever form it takes, it often translates into more inequality in the country.

Institutional Weakness and civic engagement

“The frequent application of arbitrary criteria in distributing public resources completely ignores the objective needs of the population, while breaching the democratic contract and often generating the idea among the public that social relations and proximity to power are crucial and much more useful factors than more formal institutional processes for accessing assets, public services and state resources.”

Put in another way, the report just described the very real existence of nepotism. In Belize, this factor is felt often, and we would hear citizens say: “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

Institutional weaknesses, where they exist, make it such that individuals feel unable to use the properly channels to access needed resources. If we take this week’s BGYEA protest as an example, we could see where the group feels that the institutional process—through the Lands Department—is flawed and favours only few elites and those who are well connected.

While the prevalence of Institutional Weakness may feed clientelism, it may also persuade citizens to adopt more perverse approaches to attaining those needed resources, especially if “breaching” the established institutional process would not necessarily result in any significant short-term consequences.

In the land acquisition issue, this may form the bedrock for increased squatting or other methods of obtaining land, as was seen this week where citizens took it upon themselves to clear land to claim for themselves. Taking it to the extreme, this also serves as the foundation for other criminal activities.

Conclusion of the matter

The sad reality is that inequality that exists throughout the region is also present in our tiny country, and after more than 30 years of independence it is time for citizens to start asking themselves what they want for themselves and their country. Do we want this inequality to continue when it is common knowledge that a large part of its perpetuation is attributable to intentional, man-made system of politics that perverts the true precepts of the social democratic contract where a government is elected to serve the interest of the people—all the people, and not just those “animals” that are “more equal than others.”

But, if we accept that clientelism, state capture, corruption and the institutional weaknesses are all parts of a system designed to keep the poor dependent on government and, thus, keep things unequal, then we cannot expect the change to come from government.

Therefore, to close, I quote from the Regional Human Development Report again: “Without the cooperation of the population, there will be insufficient resources and effort to break free from the vicious cycle of inequality.”[email protected]

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