Thursday, April 26, 2012

The distinct allure of abandoning democracy in Honduran cities

Three months ago, when I was new in Honduras, I probably would have dismissed the 'charter cities' idea pitched in a column in today's Globe and Mail as undemocratic and dangerous.
Now I'm not sure the Honduran government's decision to give them a try here is wrong.
The concept is a free-market elitist's dream.  Set aside a large parcel of land, big enough for a city with several million inhabitants. Make it, at least figuratively, a walled city separate from the norms and conventions and justice system and laws of the host country.
Suspend democracy and give power to appointed experts who would set up new rules and enforcement systems. (Some basic rights and guarantees would be preserved.)
The common model would see foreign governments, and private companies, help with administration - maybe providing judges or a police force.
The concept is that the cities, by providing stability and safety and shunning corruption, would attract foreign investment. There would be jobs. And people would choose to move to them. The Globe column pitches the idea as creating a little Canada in the middle of Honduras, which is in itself attractive. Equally, it could be described as setting up a little China in the middle of the country, with the state's experts making all the rules.
The idea tends to be embraced by free-market enthusiasts, who counter the undemocratic aspects by noting people can vote with their feet by moving away from the city if they don't like it.
That's not really democracy, nor is it really true. Desperately poor people - and more than 40 per cent of Hondurans live in extreme poverty - grab at any opportunity. Survival takes priority over exercising or demanding democratic rights. Some 700,000 Hondurans are living illegally in the U.S., and every day people try a dangerous journey to a better life, risking robbery, murder and starvation along the way. In the first three months of this year, the U.S. has sent 8,200 people back. (The economy would be devastated if Hondurans didn't head to the U.S. They send about $2.7 billion back to their families here - about 19 per cent of the country's GDP. (Those quick with numbers will note that the entire economic output of this country of 8.3 million people is less than British Columbia spends on health care.))
So claiming that they will leave a charter city if the masters abuse them is just false. (There is a useful post on the perils of model cities here; advocates make their case in this report.)
Democracy is messy and inefficient. But who would the appointed directors of the charter city serve - the citizens, or the companies, largely foreign, whose investment is essential to the city's success?
It's not just a theoretical discussion here. Last year, the Honduran Congress voted to allow Regions Especial de Desarrollo, or REDs. The law clears the way for charter cities.
But all that said, I can't reject the idea out of hand. It is really tough to see a way forward, one that would ease the suffering and give hope to Hondurans, who consider crime, corruption, poverty and bad government the norm, and an inevitability.
Maybe model cities - for all the risks - would offer an alternative that would at least suggest possibilities for the people of this country.
As Bob Dylan said, when you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.