Reflections on Northern Ireland, Catalonia, Division, Institutions, and Post-Conflict Reconciliation

“You need to watch this,” the cab driver told me.

I stood outside the cab after I had to retrieve money from the ATM to pay for the ride, half of my body inside the car bent over the rolled down window. In the video, an open casket, a man wearing a black hood that only showed his eyes, and a row of children witnessing how the hooded man shot several bullets to the sky. In the background, I could hear kids screaming. “These things still happen, you know.”

Two days later, an Uber driver provided context for the video. During “the Troubles,” the period of conflict between the late 1960s and 1998 in Northern Ireland, members of the IRA, the Irish Republican Army which supported a united Ireland, were killed in Gibraltar by members of the British Special Air Services. Their bodies were brought back to Northern Ireland and the funeral was attacked by a Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (supporter of union with Great Britain), leaving three mourners dead. In retaliation, at their funeral, the IRA killed two undercover police officers who had driven into the procession. The man in the casket was one of the IRA members who had been convicted for that murder and recently died.

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Nothing, ever, should be decontextualized and in a place like Northern Ireland, where everything seems to be seen through the prism of sectarianism, everything can be misinterpreted. I have spent the past five days here as part of a research and outreach trip for our UK project. I have been in more than 30 countries, but I had never witnessed such palpable and physical manifestations of division and polarization. This, as most, is not a simple story. Division and sectarianism are very much heightened by the institutions and trickle down from above. The leading politicians from the DUP (unionist and [very] right-wing party) and Sinn Féin (nationalist party at the other extreme of the spectrum) dominate politics and have vested interests in maintaining a divided society as that guarantees their survival and power.

As I started to write this, I was sitting at a coffee shop near Queen’s University in Belfast (if you are ever here, I highly recommend you visit the Pocket). Looking around me and visiting the neighbourhood, it felt exactly like any other university city in the United Kingdom. Yet when we visited other neighbourhoods with Paul Nolan, who kindly showed us Republican and Unionist neighbourhoods, it felt completely different. While the area where the university is located is integrated, a big part of the city is segregated.

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Belfast is dotted with “Peace” walls (there are now more walls than during the armed conflict) that keep communities separated/ “protected” from each other. The system perpetuates, entrenches, and even promotes apartheid. Division is a continuation of the past as much as it is reinforced and perpetuated by the institutional set up and the market reactions to the situation. If you are looking for housing, you have to choose whether you want to live in a Catholic or a Protestant area. Applying for social housing, you have to tick one of the two boxes. A woman I met with was telling me that if you want to live in an integrated neighbourhood, you pay at least double in rent. If you are not well-off, you are condemned to living amongst “your tribe,” separated by walls, sending your kids to segregated schools (only 7 per cent of children are in integrated schools). This has horrible effects for working class people who are doubly locked into poverty and segregation. The neighbourhoods are clearly identifiable by the flags and murals that decorate the streets.

The forced choice between one or another tribe is present everywhere. Because of “equality legislation,” everything and everyone needs to be tallied. If one community receives something, the other must as well, so everyone must be included in either one of the two official categories. Sometimes, you can opt for the option “other”, lumped into an all-encompassing group that can mean many things and nothing at all. The system does not facilitate multi-layered or complex identities, nuance or empathy.

The Good Friday Agreement that “formally” (if perhaps, not really) put an end to years of armed struggle, included a power-sharing agreement (consociationalism). It is cross-community power sharing at the executive level. Only two communities matter. The First and Deputy First Minister, one unionist and one nationalist, have equal powers. The multi-party executive is made up of both unionist and nationalist parties and the d’Hont system determines how many of each.

The Good Friday Agreement was a laudable effort. Power-sharing was perhaps the best way of getting all parties to sign the agreement and give up arms. But in a time when dominating parties seem to be out of touch with the reality of the people they need to serve, it is mandatory to revisit the question: are those provisions still fit for purpose?

I would say that most people we talked to agreed that many DUP voters do not vote for the DUP because they agree with their policies, but because of identity. They fear that if they do not vote for the DUP, Sinn Féin will win and immediately they will lose. As long as the ultra-nationalist and the ultra-unionist parties play into the politics of fear, they will retain power (high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and PTSD, the presence of paramilitaries, and high addiction to prescription drugs also help). What are the consequences of such a system for society?

The Uber driver that took me to the airport told me he used to vote for the DUP because he was brought up to do so, but he believes in same-sex marriage and abortion, two policies that the DUP fights against. The reverse is also true for many Sinn Féin voters. It creates a vicious circle where the leaders of those parties have a vested interest in maintaining division and tribalism and get a free pass for incompetence and extremism. It does not matter that they are inept (as the failure to have a government – let alone a functioning government – since 2017 demonstrates); they will be elected because of the identity they represent, not because of their policies or their abilities.

Likewise, the Spanish transition was perhaps the best it could be at the time. Yet it included a “a pact of forgetting” which ensured no accountability and allowed for a transition devised by the very same people who for four decades maintained the dictatorship (with others that were eager to find peace and establish a democracy, even if it would be a flawed one that required them to find agreement with former supporters of the dictator). Institutions were not purged. There was no Truth and Reconciliation.

A society that does not deal with the past has a doomed present. The consequences of that past are more ever-present in Spanish society today. A country that over the past four decades has seen tremendous change in a positive direction has stalled. A country of great culture and geostrategic significance is now one in which issues of identity are once again brought to the fore and on the driving seat of politics. People’s fears and anxieties can be exploited by the far-right. Institutions are once again less trusted, and to be honest, in some instances rightly so (preventative prison for political prisoners for such an extended period of time should not be an occurrence in a modern European democracy). We need institutional reform, just as Northern Ireland does.

This morning I spoke at a panel about the rise of the “Neithers”. According to the last Life and Times survey in Northern Ireland, about half per cent of the population does not identify as unionist or nationalist but as “Neither.” I suspect that if they did a survey in Catalonia where they asked people to self-identify as either independentist or unionist, there would also be a non-trivial percentage of the population who would fall in that category. I probably would. And yet, there is no space for nuanced discourse in an age of fake news, tribalism, and strident politics. The incentives are simply not there.

These reflections come at a time when the Peace Agreement in Colombia is also being jeopardized by some (not all) leaders of the FARC, who have decided to take back arms. Colombia, another country that for decades has suffered a conflict as complex as the Northern Irish, worries me. Gabriel García Marquez’ magical realism simply seems realism if you know about the Colombian conflict.

And I worry.

I believe in politics and as someone who leans towards idealism with a strong dose of pragmatism, I have perhaps become more moderate over the years. A few years ago, when I read that a woman I truly admire, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, said that change is better when gradual, I got upset. Now I understand that perhaps, sometimes, we need change to be gradual to prevent backlash (I also understand how there are things, like racial justice, that simply cannot wait).

I do not have answers to our problems and what I usually say, that we need empathy, understanding, kindness, nuance, seems fluff in the face of a rogue American president, increasing hate crime, recurring armed violence, and the surge of authoritarian populism. What I do know  is that we need to have those uncomfortable conversations and we need to have them not only with “our side.” That change is sometimes necessary, and we need to revisit past agreements. If there is another peace process, another democratic transition, as much as there are agreements, revision of them should also be part of the final pacts. And we need to learn from the past to not relive traumatic experiences.

I am incredibly fortunate that I am leading our UK project with a dear friend and committed member of the conservative party. As a progressive, very socially liberal woman, I need to hear that side.

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Binita and I crossed the border from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. Calling it the border is almost a misnomer as there was simply a blurred line on the floor and no controls. It is simply a continuation of the road. This is one of the many spots that is likely to become problematic if there is a no-deal Brexit without agreement on the Northern Irish situation.

On Literature, Politics, and Empathy

I once heard in a podcast that literature is the best vehicle for empathy. As a social science researcher, it is part of my job to design surveys, analyze data, conduct interviews and focus groups and try to understand our reality to find a way to improve our societies. In this day and age, to look for ways of strengthening a social pact that is now fragile and shattered. Yet no amount of scholarly research can be as powerful as a well told story.

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What I am saying is far from novel. Pundits talk about the power of stories to inform beyond data, although we often stick with numbers and fail to connect with the people that matter.  “Thinking small,”in fact, can be the best way to understand something that is big. Thinking small is the notion that by focusing on what is individual, local, and within our sphere of influence, we can make sense of the story, empathize, and have a greater sense of agency, as opposed to the paralysis and powerlessness that we feel when we are faced with what seems like an unmanageable crisis. To provide a few examples, if we think about international affairs, we do not usually see much uproar in the face of Saudi Arabia’s actions, yet there was massive mobilization when activist Khashoggi was assassinated. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea claimed the lives of thousands, but few events gathered people´s attention as much as the death of Alan Kurdi. This is called the singularity effect.

Yet, how can we move past the singularity? Perhaps one of the possible answers is through complex stories delivered in the form of beautiful novels. Storytelling is incredibly powerful, and few authors do it as well as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I started the year reading her book Half of a Yellow Sun. Already a fan of hers, I had previously devouredPurple Hibiscusand also enjoyed Americanah.

Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of a series of characters during the Biafran war of independence in Nigeria. The story is told through the eyes of three characters. Ugwu, a houseboy, Richard, a British writer living in Nigeria/Biafra, and Olanna, a professor at Nsukka university. Each chapter develops the narrative iterating between characters. Displaying her literary prowess, Adichie tells a story that marries love, politics, family, and betrayal in a way that does not give more weight to one or another. It carries the reader with the story, it makes the reader empathize with the feelings and pressures that all experience. There is a powerful scene in which one of the characters engages in extremely disgusting behavior yet as the reader you understand how peer pressure led him to do what he did.

There is much talk now about lived experience. I have no desire to enter the debate and I would never question that there is nothing as compelling as experiencing something first-hand. But perhaps literature is the next best thing (although I am keeping my eyes open for virtual reality!).

Contact theory is a theory first developed in the fifties to study the effects of intergroup contact. The idea is that under certain conditions (equal status, common goals, intergroup cooperation, top-down support, and potential for friendship) contact between people of difference can decrease prejudice. Perhaps a good novel can achieve the same. Spending time with a novel, you can connect with characters that are extremely different to you, relate to their circumstances, and without having anything to lose in real life, feel invested in their success. Perhaps literature is contact theory via fiction.

It is my belief that we are now at a historical critical juncture. Empathy will be key in overcoming division and polarization. Empathy towards groups that have traditionally been discriminated against and empathy between people who hold different ideologies. I wish it were as easy and enjoyable as picking up a great book and getting lost in its pages, but in the meantime, I recommend to all to pick a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is fiction, but great fiction, fiction that shows you the complexities of love, human emotion, how flawed we are as people, and how politics fits into it all.

 

 

 

 

Language Orthodoxy and Political Correctness

They say language is performative. I get that. I would not contest it.

Over the past month my colleagues and I have been conducting in-depth interviews with Americans of all walks of life. I must say, it has been one of the most interesting professional experiences I have had (quite possibly, this is a feeling I always experience when I do qualitative research). We are so deeply embedded in our own bubbles that sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us that a conversation with someone different can flow almost naturally. As someone who actually struggles at small talk (I claim I am an introverted extrovert), a script helps and sometimes I forget that we have such different lives and backgrounds even though we have limited time and specific topics to cover.

Our project aims to understand polarization in the United States as well as the role identity, otherization, and in-group and out-group dynamics play into this phenomenon (as well as the extent of it). Methodologically, we used cluster segmentation analysis to identify different segments within American society. We have named the groups at the extremes the Progressive Activists (8 per cent of the population) and at the other end the Religious or Christian Conservatives (25 per cent, names are still under review). There are four other groups in the middle, who hold different views (in tone and intensity). As someone who is clearly not American, I have not interviewed the people who most strongly opposed immigration as that could bias the interview, but I have talked to everyone else from the spectrum. I am also lucky that my colleague who has interviewed the Religious Conservatives is extremely brilliant and I can watch his interviews – he is one skilled man at eliciting interesting information.

And wow. Speaking to people of different beliefs generates a sense of empathy and understanding that perhaps only fiction can also engender. Qualitative research entails suspending judgment and letting the interviewee express her views without challenging them and hopefully with full honesty – I’d strongly encourage everyone to do that at least every once in a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I still hold my progressive views, but as time goes by, I am more and more convinced that the way the left in the U.S. (perhaps also in the U.K. and increasingly more in some European countries) goes about it is only fostering more backlash and taking us further and further away from our ideals. This applies in different realms, but today I want to briefly talk about language.

Americans from all segments told us that political correctness is a problem. This included (and I hate hate hate categorizing) black, Hispanic, Asian, and white Americans. Everyone, except a few in the Progressive Activists segment. We must be respectful and mindful when we speak, there are rules of decorum and human decency that we should all follow, but when language orthodoxy gets on the way of people’s ability to ask genuine questions, we have a problem.

There are now many words or things that one is not supposed to say and the list increases at a fast pace. I must admit that I am still trying to figure out how to go about it and I can definitely understand the rationale behind it, yet even as I write these words,  I fear that what I am saying might be perceived as offensive and insensitive (should we really feel like that?). The left too swiftly assumes ill-intent and casts those who stray away from acceptable language as someone to be ostracized, black-listed. In doing so, in a way, we are distancing ourselves from (may I add, essential) ideals of freedom and deliberation.

In a podcast I was recently listening to, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it better. She said that in liberal orthodoxy there are now things that we are not supposed to say and there are now “fiercely leftist crusading well-meaning people” that make those who don’t use the right language feel tainted; people in my “tribe” respond by silencing, not with debate.

More than shutting others down we need to be better equipped to, first (and most importantly) listen with an open mind and an assumption of good will and, second, debate with respect. I am afraid that if we don’t do that, we will push people towards Trump-alikes, not for the love of them but for lack of alternatives that don’t leave them feeling like inferior beings not worthy of conversation.

I’d love to have a conversation about this. Thoughts?

Reflexiones sobre el caso catalán

Hay múltiples versiones sobre lo que está sucediendo en Cataluña. Mientras los medios de comunicación españoles y catalanes ofrecen sus respectivas versiones, la prensa internacional se hace eco de los eventos con mayor o menor rigor.

Vivimos en un mundo totalmente distópico. La realidad catalana lo demuestra. Mientras algunos en el gobierno español niegan que haya habido referéndum y afirman que los catalanes están atacando a la policía (¿?), algunos en el lado secesionista se aferran a la idea de que este referéndum es válido y que si gana el sí se puede declarar la independencia en 48 horas (digo algunos en ambos casos porque realmente quiero creer que queda gente con dos dedos de frente en todos bandos, aunque se mantengan escondidos).

En teoría del juego este sería un caso de no ganadores o de “lose-lose situation”. No tenía por qué serlo, pero la ineptitud de los líderes políticos nos ha hecho llegar a este extremo. No cabe duda de que el gobierno español tiene la ley de su lado, aunque quizás no la legitimidad. Operamos en un ordenamiento jurídico que – acordémonos – puede y debería ser cambiado según evoluciona la sociedad. No se puede negar que el gobierno catalán ha transgredido ese marco legal.

El Gobierno Catalán tenía la superioridad moral. Al principio, querían negociar (2012), y cuando el gobierno español se negó a dialogar, querían votar. Siempre, sin excepciones, el gobierno catalán ha rechazado el uso de la fuerza.

Cuando el gobierno catalán decidió saltarse leyes españolas y reglamentos catalanes, y cuando el lado independentista acosa e insulta a aquellos que osan cuestionar las garantías del referéndum, los independentistas pierden la superioridad moral, la legitimidad.

El gobierno español, no obstante, se ha superado con creces y ha transgredido varias líneas rojas. Nos ha llevado a un mundo completamente Orwelliano. Mientras representantes del gobierno español niegan que se ha celebrado un referéndum, el gobierno central llama a hacer uso de la fuerza contra los que intentan votar. Repito: fuerza en contra de una papeleta.

Que las instituciones españolas se han ido deteriorando a un paso alarmante parece incuestionable (si eran sólidas y legitimas en primer lugar, es una cuestión que felizmente podemos discutir otro día), pero lo que se ha visto en los últimos diez días – detenciones de opositores políticos, violencia por votar, y cantos que devuelven recuerdos de los momentos más oscuros de la dictadura – es devastador. Lo que no es, es sorprendente.

El sr. Rajoy tenía hoy una oportunidad única. No quiso negociar en su momento, no ha querido oír a hablar de secesión o referéndum. En España, todos esperábamos esta respuesta. Por lo tanto, tenía la capacidad de sorprendernos: se podría haber mantenido dentro del marco de la ley evitando ciertas prácticas y permitiendo una votación en la que seguramente habría ganado el no y que habría sido nula (por extra-legal). Nos habría sorprendido a muchas y calmado a una comunidad internacional que empieza a mirarnos con preocupación. Por desgracia, escogió no sorprendernos. Rajoy lo mejor que podría hacer es dimitir y convocar elecciones generales. Nada, ni siquiera violar leyes sobre referéndums en cumplimiento de la constitución (ja!) justifica la violencia.

No sé cómo va a acabar todo esto. Lo que sé es que hemos embarcado en un camino que quizás no tenga retorno. Quizás es lo mejor. Quizás esto marque el inicio de la desaparición de una democracia frágil para construir una más sólida. Quizás esto nos recuerde que los problemas políticos necesitan soluciones políticas. Que el poder judicial no debería meterse en política. Que la separación de poderes era una gran idea (lo es). Quizás abra las puertas a un dialogo que permita reescribir la constitución y permita a las leyes servir su mayor propósito – avanzar la sociedad hacia un tipo ideal, no reprimir la disidencia. Son muchos quizás, y mientras esperamos respuestas, mi corazón llora ante las imágenes de policías atacando a civiles inocentes.

Eso sí, catalanes y españoles tenemos algo en común: nuestro sentido del humor. Solo en España (vale, y quizás en Italia y Macondo) se hospedaría a la policía en barcos de los Looney Tunes.

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Eso es todo amigos!

An attempt to write a balanced account of what is happening in Catalonia

Photo via eldiario.es

There are multiple accounts of what is happening in Catalonia. While Spanish media and politicians spread different versions of what is occurring, international media report the events with more or less accuracy.

We live in a dystopian world. The Catalan case evinces this reality. While some in the Spanish government claim that no referendum is taking place and Catalans are attacking the police (?), some on the secessionist side cling onto the idea that this referendum has validity and if the result comes positive independence can be declared in 48h (I say some on both cases because I really really really want to believe that there are sensible people – if perhaps hidden – on all sides).

In game theory this would be a case of no-win or a lose-lose situation. It needen’t be, but all parties have brought this situation on us. It is undeniable that the Spanish government had the law on its side, if perhaps not the legitimacy. We operate within a predetermined legal framework that – let’s remember – can and should be adapted as societies evolve. There is no denying that the Catalan government went beyond that legal framework.

The Catalan government had the moral high ground. They wanted first to negotiate (2012) and when the Spanish government refused to dialogue, to vote, and have always – without exceptions – rejected the use of force.

When the Catalan government decided to more than questionably bypass Spanish laws and Catalan rulings in the Catalan government, and when the Catalan side thwarts the voices of those who dare question the guarantees of the referendum, it loses the moral high ground.

The Spanish government, however, has taken it several steps further and led us to a completely Orwellian world. While representatives of the Spanish government deny the existence of the referendum, the government has called for force to be used against those that try to cast a vote. I repeat, violence for voting.

That Spanish institutions have been deteriorating at an incredible pace is unquestionable (if they were very solid and legit in the first place, that is another issue that I am more than willing to discuss another day) but what we have witnessed in the past ten days –arrests of political opponents, violence for voting, and chants that bring back memories of the worst years of the dictatorship – is  devastating, if not surprising or unheard of.

Mr. Rajoy had a unique opportunity. He did not want to negotiate years ago, he did not want to hear any talk about secession or a referendum. In Spain we all expected the current response. He thus had the ability to surprise us: to remain within the scope of the law by refraining to engage in certain practices and allowing a vote that would have probably come out negative and would have been null (as it is extra-legal). He would have surprised lots of us and reinforced an international community that is finally looking with concern. Unfortunately, he chose not to surprises us. The best thing he could do is to resign and call for general elections. Nothing, not even the violation of a referendum law enshrined in the constitution, calls for violence.

I don’t know where this will lead. What I do know is that we have embarked on a dangerous journey that we might not be able to undo. Perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps this will mark the beginning of the undoing of a fragile democracy to build a stronger one. Perhaps this will remind us that political problems need political solutions. That the judiciary should not meddle in politics and separation of powers was a great idea (it was). Perhaps this will open a dialogue that allows for the Constitution to be redrawn and laws to serve their ultimate purpose – to advance an ideal type of society, not to constrain dissidence. These are lots of perhaps, and while we wait for answers, my heart is crying in the face of pictures of police officers attacking innocent civilians.

At least one thing that will keep us united – Spanish or Catalan, we all have a good sense of humor. Some things can only be branded as #madeinspain (okay, maybe Italy and Macondo as well). This is were the extra police that was deployed in Catalonia has been staying.

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That’s all, folks!

 

 

 

Ghana Politics 101 – Elections Contextualized

On Wednesday, December 7th, Ghana will once again celebrate democratic elections.  Ghana is usually hailed as the star of Africa or Africa’s most peaceful and stable country. Since 1992, the country has enjoyed substantial levels of political peace and stability. Yet as elections approach, tensions arise and there is a sense of uncertainty in the air.

There is no dearth of skeptical Ghanaians. On many occasions, I have been told something along the lines of “Ghana is hot,”  “this time, the stakes are even higher,” or “tensions are really high.” Incidentally, often these sentences do not come from “ordinary” citizens but from people who work in the NGO, policy, or peacebuilding space. Incendiary language abounds, pundits usually cite the role of the media as concerning, and amidst accusations of stolen policies (for example, here, NPP accused NDC of stealing its policies) or electoral rigging, it is hard to discern what the actual policies are. Even international media is painting a grim picture (see this article from The Economist).

Why this skepticism? In order to understand Ghana’s current political and economic environment, one needs to contextualize it. A broader historical frame helps to avoid overestimating the strength of Ghana’s democracy but also to value the institutions, mechanisms, and people that have allowed for peace to prevail. An understanding of the political economy of the country, helps elucidate how the electoral campaign has unfolded.

Ghana’s political history

In 1957, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP), Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to attain independence. Unlike the surrounding countries in the region, Ghana has not suffered widespread violence, yet the country’s political history has also been convoluted (for those interested, though, I recommend to delve even deeper; the history of the Gold Coast at large is fascinating).

Nkrumah’s rule can be divided in two periods. From 1957 to 1960 and from 1960 to February 1966. The first period was characterized by a more laissez-faire policy in the economic domain (including vis-à-vis the expatriates that dominated the economy), and a series of political measures that promoted peace and stability but also aimed at strengthening Nkrumah’s position as well as that of the CPP. Notable among these measures were the “Avoidance of Discrimination Act” that banned organizations, parties, and societies which were confined only to “particular tribal, racial, religious groups, which were used for political purposes” and the “Preventive Detention Act.” During the first period, however, these acts were not excessively used. Nkrumah, throughout his life, was also one of the main proponents of an African Union and worked actively to promote Pan-Africanism. In 1960, Nkrumah’s position shifted more toward socialism (he had always been a socialist but had not promoted it once in government) and he became increasingly more authoritative. In 1966, he was overthrown in a coup d’état that marked the beginning of two decades of alternating military and civilian rule.

Ghana experienced four successful coups d’état in a period of fifteen years. Each of the coups – 1966, 1972, 1979, and 1992 – was followed by a period of military rule that ultimately led to a peaceful transition to a Civilian Republic (there was one last failed coup in 1983).

The 1979 coup was led by a group of young officers, including Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. That same year, elections were called and Ghana returned to Constitutional rule. Yet in 1981, once again, Rawlings led another successful coup; the military was not satisfied with the way in which the country was being ruled. Under his mandate, the Constitution of Ghana was suspended and political parties were banned. In 1992, Rawlings funded the NDC, the party currently in power,  the fourth republic was proclaimed, and Ghana celebrated presidential elections. Rawlings himself was elected. He was reelected again in 1996.

This history of coups d’état coexists with the presence of unresolved regional conflicts that are at times exacerbated by political parties. Conflicts are of different nature: chieftaincy, natural resources, land, borders, religious, ethnic, or a combination of any of these, yet chieftaincy-related conflicts, in which the stool is contested, are probably the most prominent ones. Additionally, chiefs are not supposed to align with any party (as law mandates) yet in many instances, they are taking sides. Political parties are sometimes tied to factions that dispute chieftaincy rights. While political parties can gain support by spurring the feuds, it seems that the quarreling groups can also use the parties to settle old disputes.

It is against this historical background that elections take place in Ghana. Elections in Ghana are also strongly influenced by the country’s demographics and its political economy.

Ghana’s Political Economy

Ghana is a middle-income country of about 28 million inhabitants. Highly heterogeneous in ethnolinguistic terms, Ghana’s growth strategy was partially based in the primary-export-led model[1] (currently, the top exports of Ghana are Crude Petroleum, Gold, Cocoa Beans, Cocoa Paste  and Cocoa Butter).[2] Its top imports are Refined Petroleum, Crude Petroleum, Gold, Rice, and Packaged Medicaments and the most recent exports are led by crude petroleum which represent 26 percent of the total exports of Ghana.[3]

Ghana’s economy grows steadily although according to Bloomberg markets, growth has slowed. Inequality levels remain extremely high, with an estimated Gini coefficient of 42,77 that keeps rising. So does unemployment. Precise data on unemployment does not exist due to the size of the informal economy, albeit it is uncontested that large swathes of youth remain unemployed (even regardless of educational achievements).

[More on Ghana’s political economy here.]

Ghana’s Contemporary Politics

Ghana is a multiparty democracy but there are two main parties that can realistically win the elections. The National Democratic Council is currently in power, with John Mahama Dramani as president. Nana Akuffo-Ado, of the National Patriotic Front, is his main opponent.

The NPP was in power from 2001 to 2008. Nana Akufo-Addo was the NPP’s runner up in the 2008 election and he run again in 2012. John Dramani Mahama took office in July 2012 following the death of his predecessor and he was elected to office shortly after, in the December 2012 elections. The NPP contested the results of the 2012 election before the Supreme Court. The appeal created tensions but in the end Nana Akkufo-Ado made a statement accepting the Court’s ruling in favor of Mahama and congratulated the president.

Now, in 2016, the same two men contest the election. Looming over this election is a sense of “a president’s right to a second term.” Over the course of the fourth republic, all presidents have been reelected and it appears that Mahama feels entitled to the same. That notion is strongly influencing this election as well, but people are also tired of the pervasive corruption and the palpable inequality.

How different are both parties and their policies? Reality is that they are both center-right parties with rather vague and sometimes unrealistic policies. One of the parties has promised “one district, one dam.” The manifestos include provisions such as “manage the economy competently” and they are rife of attacks against the other major political party and the respective leaders.

The elections are very tight and so far it is impossible to predict who will win. In the next few days, we will know the results. The conduct of the elections is relevant first and foremost to Ghanaians, but also to the rest of the continent and the world. In light of the events in Gabon, expectation over results in Ghana is even higher. Fortunately, the most recent election in the continent, that of Gambia, resulted in the incumbent admitting defeat and conceding the election. Whatever occurs in Ghana, the country has the advantage of having strong institutions and devoted citizens who are committing themselves to a peaceful election. The National Peace Council, the West African Network for Peace, the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, among others, are just a few examples.

Bibliography:

[1] Attah K. Boame, “Primary-Export-Led Growth: The Evidence of Ghana,” Journal of Economic Development (1998), 175.

[2] The discovery of oil in commercial quantitites, however, did not take place until 2007. For more on Ghana’s oil management see Ransford Edward Van Gyampo, “Saving Ghana from Its Oil: A Critical Assessment of Preparations Made so Far,” Africa Today 57 (2011), 49-69 and Kwamina Panford, “The Academy and The Successful Management of Ghana’s Petroleum Resources,” Africa Today 61 (2014), 79-107.

[3] Ibid.

Other readings:

Clementina Amankwaah. “Election-Related Violence: The Case of Ghana.” Current African Issues 56 (2013).

 

Africa is a Country. “All you need to know about Ghana’s December 7, 2016 elections.”

Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group. “Ghana Presidential and Parliamentary Elecitions.” (2012).

Anything by historians Adu Boahene and Naomi Chazan

How We Process Information: Why Politicians Can Overtly Lie and People Still Believe Them

Why do people still believe him if there is so much evidence that proves he is lying?

Over the past few months I heard this sentence (or different iterations of it) on multiple occasions. Whether applied to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Nigel Farage, Álvaro Uribe, Nana Akufo-Ado or John Dramani Mahama, the outrage was always the same. Behavioral economics can actually help in answering this question. By learning how we process information and what we do with it, we can better understand how the media gets to play the role it does and why sometimes it doesn’t help in disproving overtly false statements.

It is commonly believed that the vast amounts of information nowadays available and the way people share information should make it easier to separate falsehood from facts, yet as we saw in the latest American elections, this is usually not the case. Instead of identifying falsehoods, the multiplicity of opinions simply created a cacophony of errors that only after the elections started to be dispelled. Why does this happen?

In the era of internet and information, errors can be propagated and amplified. Combined with belief polarization and one’s likelihood to question news that contradict our prior beliefs (defined below), the likelihood of “liars” being discredited is extremely reduced.

As data consumers, generally, we do not collect dispersed information, contrast (or better yet, triangulate it) and reach a conclusion as to what is the “truth.” On the contrary, we usually fall into information cocoons or information segregation. Basically, we tend to just receive information that aligns or is biased in favor of our previous beliefs. As data consumers, we do not tend to read or watch the news in media outlets that follow a different editorial line. In other words, we are ideologically segregated (this phenomenon can also help explain why we can be convinced that there is a majority when there isn’t, we interact only with those who think like us).

In a surprising 2011 study, Gentzkown and Shapiro found that ideological segregation is even higher in face-to-face interactions than in online interactions. This makes sense insofar, at the end of the day, our friends tend to be somewhat similar to us (people we like). What about Facebook? Our Facebook feed might be representative of our face-to-face interactions, thus being highly segregated as well. The posts we see will not tend to discredit our opinions or the posts that we share ourselves.

As a direct consequence, we obtain one-sided views and enter – as professor Cass Sunstein says – into information cocoons and echo chambers which are, on the first place, a real problem for any democracy, but also a place where amplification of errors, hidden profiles, cascade effects and polarization are inevitable.

The situation becomes a bit more complicated if we add what is called belief polarization into the mix. We have what behavioral economist call “priors”, our beliefs without any information. The “posterior” is our updated belief once we have received information. We tend to think that when presented with the same information, our beliefs will converge. In many instances, this is not the case. We care directly about our beliefs (we are attached to them, we don’t want to relinquish them!) and thus we try to maintain them. Put simply, there are things we want to believe thus we do – we also discard the information that contradicts these beliefs (this is known as motivated belief bias and confirmatory bias).

If a media outlet reports that a certain politician that I dislike in my country is allegedly corrupt, I will probably believe it. But, if it comes out that Emma Watson was involved in the Panama papers scandal, I will probably question it or try to justify it (not that this happened…).

In a famous 1979 study, Lord, Ross, and Lepper conducted an experiment that demonstrated how people examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. In the study, people holding different beliefs on the capital punishment were presented with two studies, one that seemingly confirmed their prior and one that seemingly contradicted it. The subjects rated the study that contradicted their prior beliefs as less reliable and became more convinced of the veracity of their prior opinions, that is, the subjects, instead of converging into a shared position (or closer position), became more extreme. In other words, belief polarization ensued.

Hypothetically, if I were a Trump supporter and a media outlet presents me with information about the feasibility of building a wall (and Mexicans paying for it) and another media outlet proves that this is almost impossible, I will take the former at face value and discard the latter. In reality though, due to ideological segregation and information cocoons, it is possible that I will not even consume the information that contradicts my prior.

In sum, people believe that they are unbiased information processors, but the reality is that we tend to be recipients of one-sided information, we process information in a biased manner, and even when we receive contradictory information, we become more polarized instead of converge towards one position.

This way of processing data has a direct impact on how media outlets can operate.  If we are not going to discredit media outlets for reporting dubious information, they can care less about their reputation or the veracity of the news they publish (and can rush into publishing without conducting a thorough fact-check first). If they report false news, people who want to believe them will still believe them because they want to do so. Reporting quality, despite the availability of vast information, is then much lower. In fact, as we have seen, some studies suggest that an outlet will be perceived as more truthful if it confirms our priors.

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Sources for this article and reading recommendations:

Gentzkow, Mathew and Jesse M. Shapiro. “Competition and Truth in the Market for News.Journal of Economic Perspectives 22 (2008): 133 – 154.

Lord, Charles G., Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper. “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequantly Considered Evidence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 2098 – 21-9.

Sunstein, Cass. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

 

[Disclaimer: for this article, I drew heavily from what I studied in my Behavioral Economics class at the Yale School of Management with Prof. Florian Ederer and Prof. Shane Frederick ]