Occupy Sexism

2011 was a year where the world changed, visibly and suddenly, in a way that most of us have never before seen in our lifetimes. From the Arab Spring across the Middle East, from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya, to the protests across Europe and the Occupy movement beginning in New York and spreading all over the world, millions of people who didn’t have a voice or a say stood up and changed the way things worked in the world.

It’s still too early to judge what the effect of these in the long run will be, whether the system over the world will change, how the new governments that replaced the old dictators will do. But ultimately, that’s probably not the only metric by which they should be judged. It could easily be argued that the legacy of these worldwide protests in the year 2011 could be summed up in the following words by one of the protesters in Egypt:

“In the end,” Wael Nawara says, “things will turn out all right, because the relationship between people and authority has changed forever. People discovered that they can change and stop authority from going too far. That self-discovery changes everything. They learned they can replace a ruler. That’s the revolution.”[1]

To phrase it simply, all of these have shown us the power that people have nowadays.

Between almost everyone of teen or adult age having a cell phone, to Wikipedia letting us getting information about anything, to Facebook and Twitter allowing for quick communication between millions, an increasingly connected world is one where the good intentions of the everyday person gets increasingly closer to catching up to the might of the media and politics owned by the powerful few in a way that wasn’t possible even five years ago.

It’s created a generation growing up with the mindset that, much like Wikipedia has content created by ordinary people across the globe that corrects itself to show accuracy, or protests organized through Facebook and Twitter connects people who couldn’t have carried out any revolutions on their own can now connect and collectively brainstorm, where ideas aren’t created and followed through from a single authority but a good idea pops up and then becomes viral, spreading organically, growing stronger and being adapted to different situations like an open-source program.

And now, people are starting to take advantage, to tackle various injustices and issues through the impact a good message can have.

Having laid the groundwork with the idea that the world has shown us, now, that we have the power to change things drastically and how to go about it, I’d like to move on to the main point- a cause that should be a major issue but is so neglected, and shouldn’t stay that way. Namely, rape and sexual violence in society. It’s almost frighteningly prevalent. Various statistics seem to collate the number that about one in every six women have been raped at one point in their lives[2]. About one in every seven college girls have suffered the same crime[2].

Numbers staring out from a page doesn’t quite have as much power as they should, but just try imagining what it’s like living with that kind of statistic, especially for you male readers out there or people who believe the war for female equality has been completely settled. As a friend of mine once told me, “One in every six. If I have five friends that’s saying statistically that could easily be one of us.” And from among the people you know, probably already is. If you’re a guy just try imagine how you’d feel if you knew that you had a 15% chance of being stabbed, for example. You’d afraid going to your car in a deserted lot. You’d be nervous going home at night in a cab. When you hear about dictatorships or old Communist states where activists ‘disappear’ for expressing a different opinion, and think about the horror of living somewhere you’d always have to worry and watch your step every moment- imagine that. Having to live with fear isn’t a free and just world, and a world where this continues is not one where the fight for female equality has been won and should just be neglected. That’s what the scope of the problem is right now.

And only like a 10% of those girls report it to the police[2]. Only 1% end up getting to pressing charges[2]. And even from those, more than half the time the rapist is acquitted[2]. This is a crime which affects people’s entire lives, which is almost like killing a little part of someone, where they may never be the same- it’s one of the most disgusting crimes imaginable. If you’re a guy and don’t really understand how horrible the thought is or can’t understand why people find it so horrifying, just think of the idea of a guy bigger and stronger than you forcing themselves into you– does the thought makes your skin crawl? How’d you react if a bully did that to you in school or a deserted parking lot? Think for a moment, before you continue. This is the crime- how can someone doing one of the worst crimes possible get away around 99.5% of the time?

The answer clearly, is that something is terribly wrong with the status quo, and most of this with the mindset that the population in general, and figures in law enforcement and courts specifically as well, seem to have regarding rape and sexual violence. In English, these certain views are known as ‘rape culture’. It doesn’t refer to rapists- but to sexism and objectification of any women, to dismissing or stigmatizing women who have been victims of a crime, of a reluctance to consider the problem as one or to blame victims. It’s hard to deny that cultures do have a problem with sexism and objectification, and that it directly leads both to the enormously high rate of sexual violence as well as the disproportionately low rates of punishment. And this statement leads on to the basic idea that the views you hold and the things you say- whether it’s a sexist joke, or an objectifying discussion, or ‘dating tips’ that tell you how to manipulate a girl to try get them, or a demeaning comment to a woman when with a bunch of friends- directly create the atmosphere where women are unsafe, where these crimes can happen, and where people get away with it.

We begin to realize that these are an issue even as young as high school or teenage years. Not only because opinions that last for life can be created or broken at that age, but even in a direct way- if, as the earlier statistic says, one in every seven college girls has been raped, then trying to cut out the possibility even before that is obviously crucial.

So now we’re led to the question of how this is connected to the first section of this article. Ultimately, this is a call for action.

They could be the little things that individual readers can decide to do, too. For example, the guys among our readership who aren’t already so deciding to have guts, and stop making sexist statements or objectifying comments and be more respectful to women, regardless of whether other guys will make fun of you, to be a real man and decide that creating a safer world is a principle more important than trying to be macho and fit in. Understanding that no means no, and trying to understand when you’re trying to make a move or talk to a woman or understand if they say no that, for someone growing up with the very real possibility of a violent crime happening to you anywhere and of anyone you are alone with hurting you, that for all they know you might do the same. Or for girls to demand the bravery of standing up for that from their male friends, classmates or boyfriends; because when something is no longer acceptable in your classes or circles of friends, it makes people think about whether and how it is wrong.

But mostly, for students in schools or colleges, or people who’re working. Not everyone will read this, maybe only a handful. But this is a call of action for you with the hope that you’ll go back to your schools or classes or workplaces, and you’ll ask the teacher or the principal or the boss for some time to talk a little or give a presentation, and that you will.

I’m firmly of the belief that, even though some unshakeable jerks exist in every group of people, that a large majority of people who are sexist or objectifying will stop once they understand the magnitude of the issue, that even though individual criminals may be okay the mindset which shapes these future criminals and then lets them get away with it is a matter of ignorance that can be corrected. Much like people’s views on racism has changed between the 60s and now, or how many people who grow up against homosexuality get rid of their homophobic views as they learn more about it and see that it’s normal. Those were all also situations where people were to some degree dehumanized, and thus a mindset of discrimination and violence against them was more acceptable than it is now- as people are taught to not think of a woman as some weird other species, or a video-game puzzle to unlock to get some, or someone at a bar to try trick and manipulate into sleeping with you, or as temperamental, irrational bundles of emotions, or eye candy, or someone at work who is less good at things.

It’ll help them realize the fact that not calling it out is creating an atmosphere where sexist comments are considered okay, and having to calmly bear objectifying or lewd remarks is considered part and parcel of life that girls should just live with and get over. One where people who’d do stuff like that hear  all that, instead of things that make them take a look at themselves and think- and then believe or make themselves believe that it’s not as big a deal, that it’s condoned, that doing so and so to a woman isn’t as bad, and go on to do those kinds of things. And that a world where those things are accepted instead of called out and shamed is one that creates the kind of sexism where police and juries and people are able to dehumanize those girls far too easily and assume a lie instead of facing a possibility that makes people uncomfortable, making people so reluctant to report it because they’re more likely to get in trouble than to get help; a world where people constantly put some responsibility of it on them, even though nobody finds it that hard to believe if someone says they got robbed or beat up, or says they were asking for it by looking like they’d own a wallet. And as that changes and improves, open and widespread sexism and objectification will become a thing of the past as much as open and widespread racism has become nowadays.

So this is a call for action for all of you, in an increasingly connected world, with the internet allowing you to share your own experience with it or plan and make ideas, to try that in your own schools and workplaces so that a number of the twenty or fifty or two hundred others you talk to may just walk out of there with a different mindset, that they may tell their friends or share their views or stand up for those beliefs to other people, and that way it could change a city. That in a world with Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and dozens of friends from various countries, that this idea could spread to other schools and other cities and other countries.

It’s a belief that our generation is one that can change the world and that it’s probably around time for us to start. That we can set our minds to it, starting here in our own communities, on to our cities and countries, and perhaps, who knows, the world- to start in our hallways and classrooms to make sexism and rape no longer something ‘everyday’.

 

Footnotes

[1] – http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102132_2102373,00.html

[2] – www2.binghamton.edu/counseling/documents/RAPE_FACT_SHEET1.pdf

 

New Economy

 

Introduction

We live in a world where the barriers towards creation and dissemination of content are systematically getting reduced. To take the example of media- twenty years ago all we could see and read was what certain authority figures- newspaper editors, cable channel studios, governments, etc- could create, moderate, modify, color or present with a shade of bias and show us. But now the cost of creating content is as small as a webcam, Movie Maker and YouTube, or your mobile phone camera, or a blogging platform like Tumblr. There’s no need for expensive equipment and technical knowledge, or being in a position at a channel or studio a select few hold and so on. And the barriers to information dissemination have also gone from owning or working for a major newspaper or studio, to YouTube or Facebook pages or a trending topic on Twitter.

I’d argue that it’s almost inevitable that as it develops and the barriers for other things (financing online, communications, biometrically secure voting, etc) the model will expand to everything from business, to government, to health, to whatever. Whether it’s by technology enabling voting to be more representative- or something like, to run on from the previous example of media, a framework allowing a large number of artists and art school students to band together, upload their content to it, select by votes or thumbs-up the best series or films they’ve made, and upload it two days ahead of time all in time-slots to be aired as a cable channel but created democratically, as an example- or many other things.

I think that a massive change in social structures and everything, the biggest since the 40s or 60s. Whether this happens in 5 years or 10 or 20. I think that the current generation, who’re growing up in the organic-systems age where there is no barrier to creation of content has the mindset of attacking issues by creating organic, self-correcting systems, very much unlike almost all of human history so far where to some extent or the other authority figures have been the ones creating all the frameworks and material and decisions. That there will be a general trend towards systems that are set up to develop organically and self-correct, instead of controlled by some authorities. Wikipedia, an encyclopedia created through mass creation and correction towards the most accurate information; open source software and mobile app stores; Twitter trending topics and blogging and YouTube forcing media accountability.

Essentially, a massive shift in the way the whole world works- from authority figures creating/deciding content/ideas/news/designs/products/laws/systems/whatever to systems being created organically, like apps adding to a mobile phone and patches fixing problems in it. A world where content creation or information spreading or a voice no longer limited to a handful of authorities with money, reach and equipment to do it but is made as a whole with bits being added or fixed like apps and patches do for software. Organic systems. From the media, to businesses, to the government, to the economy. I think it’s inevitable.

 

Politics

Something I feel is that mankind isn’t meant to stand still in any aspect of our lives. There are fields and areas where moving forward is a goal, if not the goal- science, technology, medicine. And then there are areas where we somehow attach a certain moral significance and weight to ideas- democracy down to every letter as envisioned decades ago, capitalism as a moral bastion over communism down from the Cold War days, a commitment to education as putting kids in schools and drumming ideas down their throats…

There is a tendency to keep on staying still with a loyalty to ideas that had served us well, without looking to evolve them or build on them, or use the technology or knowledge we have now to expand on their possibilities. It’s a path the world is moving towards. With social networking and microblogging, Wikipedia and increased connectivity, millions of apps and the proliferation of mobile devices, and the associated change in mindset that has come with this decentralization of knowledge and free spread of ideas. It’s a path that, as I’ve repeated a few too many times already, I believe is inevitable.

Our governments are based on a centuries-old system, democracy, that is often left untouched and unimproved out of some feeling of the moral right it is supposed to embody. However, as the world advances, that there are some very major flaws but which technological improvement to the system- patches, so to speak, or bug fixes- can or will actually fix.

One of these major flaws is that elected officials will vote in their own interests, and they’re usually rich, or backed by special interests, or in other ways the kind of people who were in circumstances to be able to be elected- and those interests rarely dovetail with those of the public (whether voting to give themselves more benefits, or to please their corporate sponsors, or whatever). The other is gridlock when it is never in the interests of one political party to allow another to notch up any successes so it’s always in the interests of one party to shoot down anything the other tries to push through (usually opposition against ruling), because the fewer successes the other party has, the better the prospects of your own party is in the next elections.

Until now the only reason we elect representatives by votes, and so on, is because it’s the only way we have the capability to run a country- millions of people can’t meet in a city hall and take a show of hands on an issue, referendums are too expensive and logistically difficult to set up in a fair way so only left for enormous issues like whether a country wants to join the EU, etc- but as that capacity gets created, those bits should be plugged in to the system. I could theorize that if the technological capacity to run a referendum without all that expense (for example if widespread computing or even electronic platforms in neighborhoods, connectivity and some kind of biometrical test like retinal or something scans if a database of national IDs and fingerprints/retinal scans exists) comes into being- if someone designs a platform and someone else improves on it and it ends up good enough to be fair and all-encompassing- then for major issues or budgets or major bills at least, direct democracy can run a vote on it. Which eliminates votes on issues being affected by MPs’ own interests or direct corporate campaign donors or something, and eliminates gridlock of people just blocking every major issue to make the other party have no victories, so two of the main flaws of the system are reduced.

Or, to go further along this line of thinking but perhaps more practically- draw a perfectly random, statistically large number of people- selections among citizenry is already widespread in most countries as done for jury duty, for example- that is representative, give them files or evidence containing views from all the stakeholders and arguments from both sides, etc- again like jury duty- and then let them be a factor voting on major bills. They’ll be randomly drawn and a large enough pool to balance out so they’ll be fully representative, they won’t mostly ‘1-percenters’ or even career politicians, they’d have no interest in future electability so no need for just opposing everything or creating a gridlock, and since they are randomly drawn for each major issue as it comes and haven’t been in the career for years would be much harder to secretly lobby or buy out. (Something along these lines, called deliberative polling, are already being tested out in Australia by the IDA). Whether through jury duty style selections or outright referendum or whatever, this direct democracy is a nice layer- one that could work almost like a third house of parliament, so to speak, one that has a major say in some of the larger issues and has final say on the biggest matters- that can be plugged into the political system to eliminate its two biggest flaws.

 

Economy

Occupy Wall Street the movement has suddenly brought into light the failures of the current economic system as well as the aforementioned political systems. Instead of settling for regulations and laws while sticking to old schools of thought and old ideas, the current atmosphere of focus on the failures of the existing situation provides an opportunity to look at new ideas and thought without the lens of skepticism through which new ideas and change are usually viewed.

There may be some changes in law or role of businesses. Even now, in certain states in the USA, business licenses based on the social good a company does as well allow businesses to no longer be limited by legal obligations to provide maximum return to shareholders, allowing for companies that can set as goals impact on communities or change in society. Along this direction towards new laws there might be, for example, something like- a law that massive companies over a certain size should own, say, at least 5% of their assets, in the form of venture capital or shares in small businesses. This could specify that these massive companies can own at most a 49% share in those small businesses or that it has to be a non-voting or simply financial investment in the holdings which count towards the 5% of assets, so that we don’t see many small businesses simply going under the control of large companies through this investment. A law like this would make millions of dollars available for funding for small businesses and startups that currently find it very hard to get financing. It would do this without causing a direct loss to those large companies too, since they are not being taxed this amount- those are still assets they own and investments on which they will be getting a return on their original financing. Since the massive companies have a vested interest in these small businesses succeeding, the chances of frameworks through which they get training and support needed to grow and be successful is much more likely- this wouldn’t happen with an alternative like companies just giving away some money for SMEs, for example.

A main shift will probably along the lines of increased entrepreneurship and shifting away from banks and major financial institutions. Returning to the theme of societal change caused by connectivity- it allows normal people or small businesses to band together and benefit from economies of scale in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to before- and ultimately, towards making resorting to many currently necessary institutions unnecessary. Systems which will provide a framework of security and checks-and-balances that avoid the worries many people have for pooling resources, and the connectivity to allow people to collaborate in this way.

It could be real estate- groups of people pooling their economic power to buy or develop apartment blocks or a number of housing units enough to divide up at an affordable cost instead of having to take out bank loans at exorbitant levels of interest to pay for the retail prices individuals would have to pay- or basic goods stores, services, investments in small businesses, anything. The basic idea is that as the frameworks for people to both connect and securely pool their money, these ‘superconsumers’- consumer units of many individuals banded together through a technology/framework that allows them to both find like-minded individuals and safely/securely do so- will become a larger and larger economic force.

Another main change I foresee is in banking. Occupy has brought many of the issues surrounding the practice of banks and the banking system to light, ranging from crises in housing to student debt practices little short of intentionally cruel. For much of recent decades banks have been a necessary institution- their role in allowing people to buy homes or fund businesses through loans or allow people to invest their money wasn’t one served elsewhere. But now we’re starting to see an alternative to traditional banking coming up in various forms.

It’s in something that are actually two rather different original ideas, but could be similar enough in evolution for me to discuss them together. One is ‘Islamic finance’, or namely the banking models sprouting up over the world under the religious limitation of interest being prohibited. Most of these banks follow the system where people who put in their money to save, instead of getting fixed interest and having their money then be lent out again at a fixed interest, have their money invested in a loan applicant who applies for a loan for any value-generating process (whether to start a small business, or a loan to build a house which he will then rent out, or so on) as a part shareholder. So, for example, if I put in my savings to the no-interest bank, my money, instead of being lent out, will be given for a share of (non-controlling) ownership, and instead of loan interest being the interest I get in my savings account, it’s the dividends that I get as regular payments. Some of those investments into small businesses or ventures won’t be successful, of course, but overall it brings in enough profits to cancel out those rare losses and give gains to people who deposit their money in the first place. That was a very short summary that doesn’t really capture the concept- for details, you can read up on the subject from various sources online.

The other, related area is microfinance. Companies such as Kiva (as well as many other microfinance institutions) allow people to invest their money, from as little as $10 or $25, in the form of loans to people who will use it for something that generates value- starting a small business, getting stock for agriculture, and so on. Many of these microfinance institutions report loan payback rates of over 98%- Kiva itself has a loan payback rate of 98.88%- which adds up to a low overall risk.

It seems obvious that there is enormous untapped potential for increased growth among millions of people without the situation to empower themselves- as technology allows the kind of connectivity to tap into these potential and automate the process, ‘ethical’ banking/microfinance companies which manage the savings of people given them and use them to manage portfolios of microfinance investments that provide steady if slow gains to these savings accounts, allows them to make a difference to the world that they can look up on if they so wished, drives actual economic growth, and has the low risk of not wiping out massive amounts of money if any one creditor defaults.

 

Business

Business being a more ‘individual’ segment than most of the other parts of this article, I’ll write this part in idea form.

Let’s look at what too many businesses and companies look for when hiring-  maybe not so much in cutting-edge industries of developed countries nowadays, but something that is still the only reality in many developing countries, especially South Asia. Your official qualifications, and your experiences. I would argue that sole focus on this, specifically for high-level positions or positions of responsibility, where ideas or creativity is important, isn’t necessarily the way to go about running a business. Looking at some of the companies in the forefront of innovation, we see a culture where the focus is on talent and ideas. Google, for example, lets their employees have a fifth of their work time to work on their own projects. And people on the internet who make amazing online tools for Google services are quickly recruited- recently, a college student who made an Instant search for YouTube the way Google Instant operates now was immediately contacted with a job offer..

The theme I’m getting at here is that companies should probably start to consider the ideas a candidate says they have as the main factor when hiring. Look for the message, not the messenger, and hire the people who have brilliant ideas and can demonstrate that they can back them up. Where I lived most of my life, and in much of Asia, this culture is pretty much nonexistent- qualification or seniority matters most. We need to cut that out. Why shouldn’t a company- or a government ministry, or small business- looking for the best put out their job offers asking applicants to not just show their list of past jobs, but to study your company and explain to you the ideas they have to change or improve it? I think here in the Maldives we should start giving that some weight as well.

For example, encourage anyone looking for a job at your company to just walk in and present what brilliant thing they could do, in a specific format of proposal which you make publicly available on your website and your reception desk, and if someone suggests something brilliant, give them consideration. Don’t worry as much about their qualifications and experience as much as brilliant ideas and creative solutions. They could even be someone inexperienced in the field, or a teenage college student.

This continues on to having merit based recognition on a general basis as well. The information explosion in the world in recent years is due to the ability for everyone, instead of a limited number of professionals, suddenly being able to act on ideas and create content. The post-Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube age, where information can be looked up instantly and content can be easily created and made accessible to the world, is seeing humanity now generating as much total new knowledge and content every three years as was the sum of all human knowledge in all the years up to 2003[6]. This was driven by  mindset change of everyone being part of the creative process, in testing and ideas and content and design, all over the world- with the best ideas and suggestions and content and websites, as one would expect through capitalist principles of competition, rising to the top- getting the most visibility and most being the most acted-on or influential.

A company or economy can increase productivity, by moving with the times and use technological resources available only now to replicate this system of anyone being able to have the building blocks to come up with ideas and the means to present them easily. Have company policy that allows employees no matter their rank or seniority to suggest solutions or ideas, in form of proposals in a particular format; incentivize this by evaluating and rewarding them accordingly. If a desk employee presents a proposal for some brilliant new operation the company could start which would bring in money, put him as one of the members in charge of planning the project. Keep basic company information easily accessible to employees, as well as previous successes and failures of ideas- allow the employees that would take on the task of trying to create something new or brilliant the tools to carry this out by keeping this information available. Create a system for the submission of ideas and projects- a proposal form or template, for example, which employees can fill in and submit directly to the required department.

The next theme I would get at would be creativity among employees. Knowledge. The fact that a wider breadth and variety of knowledge and details, and freedom to express ideas, will breed creativity, and creativity will breed innovation and good ideas and the shortcuts or developments that will make your business or government office or country, whatever, succeed. The capability to do this very simply and at next to no cost exists now, and building them for the future would be easy enough- why not take advantage? I don’t mean just now-ubiquitous services like Wikipedia- I’m also talking about things like KhanAcademy, for example, the online site which has video lessons at college level for subjects from biology and chemistry to economics and history in short, simple lessons, or iTunes University, where short videos of actual lectures in universities like Harvard are available for free.

I’d say that every employee should be learning something throughout their life in a company, that their value should keep on increasing as much as possible during their stay for a business to benefit the most from them. For example, all employees, from office cubicle workers to managers and admin staff, can have a format through which they can keep on constantly learning and gaining education while they work. Not just in their fields, but in the whole breadth of education, because people who know a lot about a lot of things will be more productive, more creative, and crucially in the current business environment, more innovative. The different schools and methods of thinking in the different fields is why interdisciplinary knowledge makes people most capable of thinking outside the box.

For example, all employees could log in to a video lessons portal and watch one video lesson and do one exercise every day- this will take about twenty minutes of the day. Over time, businesses can have their own knowledge bases as well- files on previous projects, 10-minute video explanations of various aspects of the company or things employees should know.

This can even apply to unskilled employees or manual workers- through the same concept, they can be in a position for much improved prospects by the time they stop working in your company. Certain companies in Massachusetts already do this, from what I know, allowing manual workers to get their GEDs. Your unskilled workers take half an hour or so a day to learn a little through the educational videos and an exercise, while working full-time. By the time three or so years pass, they learn the material they need to do a high school exam or GED and can move on to better prospects, strengthening the community and their livelihoods.

In today’s business world, with the crucial role of networking, flexibility and connectivity in business, I would argue that a focus on tying down employees is less ideal and actually aiming for a higher rate of turnover in most positions is something to aim for. I think that an ideal strategy, especially for a small or medium sized business but also for most firms, would be to have a policy where they support employees to achieve their life goals. Whether to move on to another bigger company or government position, or start their own small business (or even something more eclectic like get published or start their own conservation program, whatever). It will increase productivity by making employees feel valued, of course-however, the main purpose would be that, in a modern business environment where networking and connections are crucial, former employees with good relations and a moral debt to you in positions in bigger companies, or public roles, or running a small business which could provide goods and services you use (at better rates or with more focus on higher quality due to the personal interest than you could normally expect for said business or service, for example) or whatever creates a strong position for a business, is increasingly important. Formal and informal connections and the advantages they can bring is increasingly advantageous for businesses- employees that leave can be filled by new employees, but these connections cannot be bought or created by any other means than human ties.

Of course, all this also ties into the factor of goodwill- always an important commodity for a business. In a world with clear trends towards an increasingly socially conscious public and customer base- where businesses soon will not be just praised for corporate social responsibility and responsible operations that generate real wealth and benefit the communities they belong to but be expected to have them- again, something I believe that current trends point to and is inevitable- a reputation of such positive culture provides immeasurable value at little loss. (And applied on a policy level for the operations of businesses in the country, gives a reputation of positive culture and innovation to the country itself- crucial connotations in nations that depends very much on its image for its economic growth or survival).

 


Revolution: Two Years Later

A look at a Muslim country that also toppled a long-serving dictator to sweep in democracy but two years before the the Arab Spring began, and where the Maldives is now.

The Maldives.

You’ve probably heard of it either as an idyllic, beautiful tourist destination known as a popular honeymoon destination, or, as it is oft-advertised, as a shining example of a peaceful transition from a dictatorship to a democracy.

The former is true. The latter? Not even close. The overwhelming feeling is that the Maldives has left behind one dictatorial regime only to transition smoothly into another. Only now, after so many people had worked so hard to supposedly bring democracy into the country, felt celebratory at having accomplished something as momentous, something to even be proud about on the international stage, the idea that we’ve just gone from the frying pan into another, spanking-new pan is a bitter pill to swallow that’s not going to sink in easily. To an international media that had loved the narrative of the people of the Maldives rising up to bring about a peaceful change from an evil dictatorship to seeing the Light- one that could be lauded and held up as an example- the idea that this new leadership could be more of the same just doesn’t seem very nice.

What exactly is the problem now? It’s that, barely two years into our supposed new democracy, the handful of people elected into positions of responsibility have carried out the kinds of gross abuses of power much derided in the previous regime as hallmarks of a corrupt dictatorship.

Named by Newsweek as one of the world's ten best leaders and a hero. Heh

If you consider the fact that the previous dictatorship was widely talked about a ‘democracy’ and taught so as such to us in our own schools and in articles we read until the protest movement against it began, the idea that now again this is democracy being a masquerade for dictatorial leadership isn’t that surprising. It is one that is endemic from the top-down, with the president, charismatic former activist Mohamed Nasheed, himself also being guilty of some of the same things he campaigned so vociferously against in the previous presidency. From maintaining control of the state television and radio networks against the original agreements made to hand them over in 2010 and the orders of the courts to do so, to appointing cabinet ministers without parliamentary approval even when the law clearly says so, up to carrying out foreign and local policy programs without the consensus of pretty much any other body whether parliament, ministries, or experts and even carrying out campaign travels on state funds, something he had spoken so strongly against before he came into power. He also pushed together local council elections, in a move much advertised as a victory for democratic rule in the Maldives- creating local councils for islands and atolls in the Maldives for the first time and having elections for local citizens to be elected into the council. Only, once the councils were made which would govern every individual location, he created an office of ‘presidential advisers’ to be put into each of these councils, that would report to him directly. With many of the people elected into local councils inexperienced and not particularly qualified as well as with the apparent seniority of a government official in their midst, these officials have a considerable say in local affairs. The supposed victory for democracy only allowed stronger control and micromanagement of the nation by the president, in a move which while legally okay is in practice leaning dangerously close, once again, to dictatorial policies.

However, this isn’t even the major problem facing the country. That would be the functional plutocracy- or oligarchy, if you will- made up of the members of parliament and high-ranking officials and judges, that currently pretty much control the Maldives as a whole.

Early protests against the Parliament or 'Majlis' bills, where protesters sarcastically kept a 'Majlis Fund' donation box for people to chip in five-cent coins.

The parliament recently attempted to pass an MP privileges bill- voted to pass it, actually, but then backed down by deciding to delay and edit it under unexpectedly fierce public pressure- which would give them a monthly salary increase that alone would be four times the wage of an average government employee as well as enormous lifetime pensions and wildly extravagant benefits for a country with a collapsing economy and not enough money to pay civil servant salaries; more worryingly, there were also a number of provisions which went under the radar of public anger at parliamentary financial excesses, such as making it illegal to search an MP, to arrest one in any circumstance before getting express permission of the Parliament speaker and, most crucially, a provision that any ‘criticism or words against’ an MP by a member of the public should be met with a fine, jail term and/or removal from their jobs- a provision that would, just two years into the bright new democracy, would make freedom of speech, expression and the right to protest illegal. Months later, after much of the public anger had subsided, the parliament is again passing privileges for themselves, this time bit by bit instead of as a whole- the aforementioned salary increase was passed last month, days after the Finance Ministry had claimed it just didn’t have the money to pay civil servant salaries. You can find a link to one of the bigger protest groups on Facebook, where the members of the public have detailed and informative posts and discussions, here.

A chart posted up in the 'Majliswatch' Facebook group. This in a time where the economy is undergoing severe problems, estimated one-third of Maldivian youth are addicted to hard drugs, prices of food and basic goods have risen by large amounts in recent times, and the currency is dropping in value quickly due to inflation by runaway government spending.

The corruption and graft in parliament doesn’t stop there, and runs from the companies owned by senior parliamentarians getting lucrative government contracts and tax exemptions to MPs accused of serious criminal offences remaining unpunished. However, the most worrying, probably, is what is now public knowledge that opposition party MPs are being paid off to publicly switch allegiances to the ruling party (link to op-ed that discusses with further details, amid a short analysis of the political scene), supposedly for seven-digit values. One of the senior officials of the ruling party had boasted openly that they could do whatever they wanted once the conversions of MPs reached a level where the ruling party would gain a majority, saying anyone, even the Supreme Court, just try and stop us once we get there! Between the push to suppress dissent by the public and give ruling members protection, along with the push to effectively merge the executive and legislature into a system where their word would be law and changed however they wish, is what would make it impossible for this to be called anything but a dictatorship, or to be called a democracy in any sense of the word.

All this is supplemented by a judiciary where a large number of judges do not even have a high school education and a third of appointed judges have criminal records; and crucially, where the Judicial Services Commission and high judges are corrupt and strongly linked to and work with the legislative branch. Article in more detail.

Things reached a head when a particularly vocal activist for parliamentary and judiciary accountability (her contact here), who had been leading calls and trying to get public and international support for an open Public Inquiry into these matters, was stabbed in broad daylight in the middle of the street during the height of peaceful anti-parliamentary discontent, in a gang attack so far out of the usual M.O. that for many people it counted as confirmation that gangs were being paid off and supported by powerful officials in government. She hasn’t gotten an open Public Inquiry yet, of course, and it’s probably not going to happen if things keep on the way they have been (if international pressure might end up forcing the issue, thank you). For all the talk of press freedom in the current era, it seems that, much like many other governments making a show at democracy you’re free to parrot one of two opposing lines- either the government or the opposition. But when it comes to criticizing or trying to hold the people in power accountable, although you can’t be legally charged or prosecuted for it; the fact that with the aforementioned stabbings, being constantly told by my parents and friends and family to not speak out against the state of things, that it was too much of a risk if my voice ever got out there enough to be a threat and that criticizing people in power would be potentially damaging for my prospects even if it had no impact at all, the fact that knowing all this is making me write this article under a pseudonym because I don’t dare take the risk of putting it out under my real name should be a good pointer as to how free you actually are to criticize.

The major media sources being owned or controlled by influential political figures with agendas, from ones that claim to be independent online news sources to channels that are blatantly political and the national TV networks as previously mentioned, makes protest and activism especially hard. Don’t go to them for news of what’s really going on, any journalists reading this, any more than you’d expect to find out the truth of Mubarak regime crimes through Egyptian state television last year. Civil servants and members of the public fighting against these issues have been labeled in various mainstream media sources as being political party members just creating agitation and ‘drama’, for example. As someone who has been involved in the movement, its made up of activists and ordinary citizens of various political beliefs but a shared anger at the situation- I can tell you that we are not political props playing out roles, as you can see from my criticism of the entire spectrum of leadership. All these issues are widespread in both the main parties, however much each blames only the other. Fact.

And this is why, at the end of the day I still say that, when I’m fighting for my country, I’m fighting to save it from a dictatorship. That is what we have become- a parliamentary dictatorship, a plutocracy controlling the country just as surely and with the free rein and abuses of power that are markers for a dictatorship. Barely two years in and we might have become just what so many of us fought against to begin with, and now with the legitimacy of being labeled a democracy, with the media labeling it a democracy and kids being taught that this is a democracy, there’s the genuine worry that if this situation goes on it could take root and become the norm for the next few decades again, until people revolt and start afresh again.

Why is this story of tiny little Maldives relevant to the world stage? Because while Egypt and Libya see long-serving dictators being toppled by people power here is a case study of a largely Sunni country with a dictator that had been in power for decades, toppled on a wave of people power that swept in the bright hope of true democracy. Let our mistakes be a lesson for the next wave of democracies- to design and instill strong checks and balances as you rewrite your laws and constitutions to create a framework where abuses of power cannot easily fester; to not compromise into doing a half-baked job when building the foundation for your new countries; to use the power of technology and the internet that didn’t exist in the founding days of democracy but do now to create a system where people representation is maximized and those in power cannot undertake massive decisions without a certain format of public approval, especially in small countries; to design technology frameworks from the start with your bright young computer whizzes to make sure that all decisions and transactions, where the government money goes and how aid money is allocated, is publicly visible on the internet in terms that laymen can understand; to link salaries or benefits of government and public officials to an index and create a percentage net (100-125% of average government wage as parliamentary salaries?) above which they cannot increase their own paychecks, and tie in wages to qualifiers such as actually attending and carrying out their jobs to keep incentives for performance much like any business employee would; as well as creating a framework for people to be able to mobilize and have a voice through a means not controlled by a party or state media as part of the new government infrastructure, and a means for allegations of serious corruption or abuses of power to be investigated or public inquiries to be made and penalties handed out by representative citizenry so that those things can’t be covered up or let off by merely a slap on the wrist or sacrificing a scapegoat and leaving the issue unsolved; and to think it over and look for flaws and create a strong, free democratic system that will have the checks and balances to run as fairly and freely as possible instead of just taking the system from some other country and smacking it onto your own. When you’re rebuilding your countries after you’ve toppled your old dictators, rebuild it to ensure you won’t go right back, to a dictatorship again and this time one that you’ve helped entrench.

Why am I writing this article? Because it is my only hope, right now. I hope that the rest of the world, for the Middle East as they undergo the Arab Spring, will learn from the past and build their new countries having learned from our mistakes. And mostly I hope that, in a small country so dependent on imports and tourism, international scrutiny or at least discussion of the situation may do what our activism at home couldn’t and give the government and parliament a push towards being more accountable, or at least towards not abusing their power as flagrantly and persistently.

Those of us that are young and trying to fight for our country and still studying, still getting our degrees in universities around the world, hope that when we come back with qualifications and new ideas we can try and cause serious change- but that’ll be in years from now, after the next elections in 2013 with the one after that being in 2018, by which time things may have taken root too deep to change if left unchecked- so for the now, for the next few years, all of you are our only hope. While we don’t have that international scrutiny yet, I hope that somehow and somewhere this post will help bring it about. So any of you journalists reading this, please cover this story, in some way or the other. People living abroad, just boycott us until things are cleared up, or the money you pay for that holiday will keep on being used to screw the people of the country over. Please do. All this, it’s all that we can hope for now as we fight for the future of our country.

Edit 10:20 6 Sep 2011: Our president Mohamed Nasheed yesterday justified the enormous spending of government funds on perks and bonuses for MPs and officials while the government declares it has no funds to pay civil servant salaries as being perfectly justified: arguing that high officials, renting out bigger houses and living a more expensive lifestyle, need this salary increase (which will take their monthly wage to 17 times the average government employees wage) as well as other perks.

Edit 9:13 5 Oct 2011: After major citizen activism and pressure against huge pay bonuses while civil servants were being unpaid, extra taxes affecting the poor being levied and the economy near collapse, resulted in a court order verdict demanding the extra pay amount be with withheld, the executive and parliament completely ignored the court verdict (as they have had previous history of doing) and went ahead with it anyway.

Contact a fellow activist who’s been in the activism much longer and harder than I have, and will know much more on facts and details, on Twitter here.

Another activist here.

A similar blog post here.

If I have made any factual mistakes or gotten any details wrong, do let me know and I will correct it.