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Conference News: Technocratic Policy Making and Democratization

1 May 2000



While the world has seen an increase in the number of democratic states, a recent UNRISD meeting analysed another trend that threatens this worldwide quest for democratization: governments' increasing tendency to restrict economic policy making to experts thus insulating key public institutions, such as central banks, fiscal authorities and finance ministries, from democratic scrutiny. Technocratic policy making, alive and well in many countries and global economic institutions, preoccupied more than 80 participants—academics, multilateral agency staff, NGO activists, government authorities and unionists—for two days in Geneva.

Offering a more optimistic view of economic globalization in her keynote address, was Sylvia Maxfield, Lecturer in Government and Research Associate at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. She cautioned against doomsaying about the political consequences of capital mobility arguing that the expansion of financial markets does not necessarily constrain policy choice or automatically cause a democratic deficit. She suggested that doomsayers "miss important nuances in how financial market behaviour constrains economic policy choice in developing and transitional economy countries" and "that they also fail to see how financial flows could help strengthen fledgling democracies."

Discussion then focused on independent authorities and democratic accountability. Cases from Europe and Japan were examined. Participants also considered policy making in the multilateral economic organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. Issues raised in the discussion included why the recent protests against these organizations were able to mobilize so many different groups; the linking of social conditions to trade issues in WTO negotiations; and trade and the self interest of workers in the North. The role of labour unions in formulating economic policies was also covered.

Panels then examined a range of sectors and areas that are affected by technocratic policy making such as health care regulation in Tanzania, and democratization, economic reforms and poverty alleviation in Africa and Latin America. Case studies of economic policy making and parliamentary accountability from Argentina, Benin, Chile, Hungary, India, Malawi and the Republic of Korea were also presented. Participants concluded that history, geography, culture and other factors under the same pressure from the global financial market had resulted in different forms of economic policy making and that technocracy is not always democracy detracting.

The conference closed with a keynote address by Richard Joseph, Professor of Politics at Emory University. He reminded participants of the "failure to democratize gains from recent global economic expansion" and called for the establishment of a 'post neoliberal agenda' in governance reforms, which would go back to the original notion of democracy, rule by demos. He proposed that further research in this area include a matrix for analysing the democratization of institutions, power and development which would seek to answer the question: how can institutions (existing and new) be configured to foster the democratization of power and development in this globalizing era?