Democracy Lab

Not All Elections Are Worthy of the Name

Sorry, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. Just because Iran holds elections doesn’t mean that its government represents the people.

In November 1990 Guatemalans went to the polls, determining that for the first time in decades the transition of power from one elected civilian government to another would take place at the beginning of the new year. I was an election observer. I recall being flown aboard a small, rickety propeller plane into a mountain village where we landed on a grassy field. A short car ride later we found ourselves at a polling station in breathtaking beauty. What really took your breath away, though, were the hundreds of Mayan farmers (Mayans represented at least half of Guatemala's nine million population at the time) lined up single file in the warm sun, waiting for hours to cast their vote.

Elections matter. That's why it raised eyebrows when Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that Iran has "a government that was elected" and Chuck Hagel, in his confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense, similarly contended that Iranians have an "elected legitimate government." Elections alone don't make for democracy, but there are no democracies without elections and governments of all stripes seem to crave the legitimacy that flows from the ballot box.

Francis Fukuyama has wisely observed that people often care as much about dignity and honor as they do about things like territory or food. Not long before his death in 2011, Christopher Hitchens recounted in Slate the story of a friend meeting an Arab acquaintance for dinner who became apoplectic when he discovered that Albanians had enjoyed reasonably fair and free elections. "What does that make us? Are we peasants? Children?"

Yes, Iran has elected government. But as John Kerry and Chuck Hagel surely know, not all elections are created equal.

Communist East Germany, officially known as the German Democratic Republic, had elections that included four different political parties that campaigned alongside the SED, the Socialist Unity Party that actually ran the country. North Korea has a multi-party system today. Cuba had its most recent elections last month -- though the same ruler has remained in power for 55 years running. There's a body of academic literature on how elections work in authoritarian countries. In the book Everyday Stalinism by University of Chicago Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick, one finds the sentence, "During the Soviet elections of 1929, conducted under the slogan of class war, more people were deprived of the vote than ever before." Yes, Stalin actually held elections.

How do elections work in Iran? For starters, not very well. Iran's head of intelligence recently acknowledged that his services are currently conducting "heavy monitoring" of the populace in advance of the country's Presidential elections scheduled for June. In the country's last elections on June 12, 2009, nation-wide protests erupted amid wide-spread allegations of fraud. The so-called Green Movement was born. Its slogan was simple: "Where is my vote?"

The Iranian government had sensed trouble back then as well. In the run-up to the 2009 election authorities blocked access to Facebook. They jammed international broadcasters like the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Voice of America. They slowed down internet access and on election day interrupted mobile phone communications.

The Green Movement as such didn't last very long. After the election, hundreds of protestors and civic leaders across the country were imprisoned. Two prominent Iranian opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both candidates in the 2009 election, were harassed and eventually placed under house arrest. Iranian Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi was forced into exile.

What about this time? As in the past, the Supreme Leader's Guardian Council, a group of 12 theologians, will vet candidates for the election. The process will exclude "reformists, liberals, individuals who are not in line with the Islamic establishment, and women," says Golnaz Esfandiari, the Iranian human rights reporter and curator of the blog Persian Letters. At the same time, the government appears to be pursuing a deliberate strategy aimed at ratcheting up the climate of intimidation and fear, according to Denise Ajiri, another Iranian journalist and founder of Iran Election Watch, a site covering the upcoming presidential election. Musavi's two daughters were arrested last month in Teheran. At least 17 journalists have been jailed in the last six weeks.

I recall meeting in Europe in summer 2010 the brother of an Iranian journalist friend, a Teheran-based engineer who described himself to me as having been previously thoroughly apolitical -- or at least until the disputed 2009 elections and the ensuing wave of repression. He told me that he and his friends had been left feeling furious and humiliated by government actions. In 1990 in the Guatemalan hills when I asked a poor farmer through an interpreter why he was waiting hours in line to vote, he responded simply, "How else do I get to have my voice heard?"

Elections matter.

In a 2002 essay in Journal of Democracy, Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way sought to distinguish between democratic and authoritarian approaches to elections. According to the authors, democracies must have: 1) executives and legislatures selected through open, fair and free elections; 2) virtually all adults permitted to vote; 3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of press and freedom to criticize the government without fear of reprisal; and 4) elected authorities who are not subject to control by the military or clerical leaders.

When John Kerry and Chuck Hagel talk about elections and legitimate government in Iran, what exactly do they have in mind?

Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images


Let Them Eat Subsidies

The Obama administration could revolutionize aid and save billions -- if only Congress would stand up to the farm lobby.

With massive, senseless cuts to the U.S federal budget looming, it is the rare kind of deal that should unite Republicans and Democrats. After all, with fairly minor changes to how we deliver food assistance abroad, we could achieve hundreds of millions of dollars of efficiencies (cue applause from budget hawks), while actually saving far more lives abroad (cue applause from humanitarians.) You would think this was a no-brainer, but then you wouldn't know Washington very well. A fleet of well-connected lobbyists linked to large agribusiness and the shipping industry is already scrambling to strangle sensible food aid reforms before they even see the full light of day.

The kerfuffle began several weeks ago, as rumors spread that the Obama administration planned a major restructuring to the $1.45 billion that falls under Title II of its Food for Peace program, budgeted through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but implemented through the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Food for Peace program is used to support both emergency food aid during humanitarian crises and to serve as a source of funding for NGOs to carry out development work. For example, Food for Peace programs in Yemen last year helped target more than 550,000 people displaced by internal unrest, while trying to blunt a growing food crisis exacerbated by rising fuel prices that have undercut agricultural production.

For all its good deeds, the Food for Peace program has also long supported some of the most obviously ridiculous practices in the entire international development portfolio. Like most ridiculous practices in Washington, these customs came with names that made them either difficult to decipher or oppose, such as ‘cargo preference' and ‘monetization.'

To understand both concepts, it is important to underscore the degree to which America's food aid programs, by far the largest in the world, have also served as corporate welfare over the years. Let's start with the concept of ‘cargo preference.' In the mid-1950s, Congress legislated that 75 percent of all U.S. food aid be shipped aboard U.S. vessels. The law was originally passed based on a justification that these cargo ships and their crews could help serve as a reserve for the U.S. Navy in times of war. Such a military justification is now completely anachronistic, and indeed many of these ‘U.S. flagged vessels' are actually foreign-owned. All that cargo preference restrictions now achieve is to make U.S. food aid slower and more expensive to deliver, while giving these shipping firms a huge entitlement. The General Accounting Office has suggested that the law annually adds some $200 million to the budget in unnecessary transportation costs, and USAID has estimated that up to half of its spending on food aid goes to transportation costs.

Not surprisingly, both Republicans and Democrats have long believed that simply buying food for humanitarian crises closer to where it is needed makes a great deal of sense. Let's say there is a crisis in South Sudan and the United States wants to deliver food assistance. Currently, the U.S. government buys excess crops in Kansas or Iowa. These crops are then transported overland, let's say to New Orleans. The food is then put on a U.S.-flagged ship that may or not actually be owned by an American company. This ship then makes the arduous journey around the tip of South Africa or through the Suez, and then offloads, probably in Tanzania. The food is then shipped overland through Kenya and into South Sudan where it is distributed.

Now let's consider what almost every other country and multilateral organization on Earth does when it needs to deliver food aid to South Sudan. It finds a local or regional market where appropriate food is available closest to South Sudan. It purchases the food directly in Kenya, Tanzania, or Ethiopia, and moves it with minimal transportation costs to where it is needed. It is faster, cheaper, and saves more lives. It makes sense.

Buying food closer to where it is needed is not a new idea. President George W. Bush tried in four successive budgets to direct up to one-quarter of the Food for Peace program to local and regional purchases, as did his proposed Farm Bill in 2008. Lobbyists were able to largely defeat that effort, only allowing for small-scale pilot programs to be implemented. Renewed efforts to reform these practices stalled last year as the broader Farm Bill bogged down on unrelated issues.

But for the height of foolishness, one need only to look at the current U.S. practice of ‘monetized aid.' Ostensibly designed to fund development projects, monetized aid looks more like a Rube Goldberg drawing come to hideous life. U.S. taxpayer dollars are used to purchase farm commodities, usually in the American midwest. Again, they are shipped extraordinary distances at extraordinary costs on U.S.-flagged vessels. Then, the food is given to an international NGO, the NGO sells the food on the local market, and the NGO is allowed to keep the proceeds of the food sales to use for local development projects.

As the former chief of the World Food Program Catherine Bertini and former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman have noted, "monetized U.S. food aid typically generates only fifty to seventy cents of revenue on each taxpayer dollar spent." So the sale of about $400 million in food aid through the monetization effort generates only between $200-$280 million for the NGOs. The U.S. government could simply write a check for $280 million a year to these groups, save at least $120 million a year, and put a bunch of unneeded procurement specialists out of business.

So that brings us to the current imbroglio. Although details remain gauzy, the administration seems to have decided that the much of the Food for Peace program is simply broken beyond repair. (Anyone familiar with these programs or who has watched Congress try to handle the recent Farm Bill would probably reach the same conclusion.) So it appears the administration is simply trying to zero out much of the funding directed to USDA for the Food for Peace program and shift such funding directly to USAID, where it can be managed without the absurd rules governing monetization and cargo preference.

Lobbyists being lobbyists, they have reacted with mock outrage, suggesting that cutting the funding to USDA amounts to some sinister effort to slash international food assistance, when in all likelihood the administration is simply trying to introduce common-sense reforms that mean not one single less person actually receives U.S. food aid. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find anyone opposed to food aid reforms who is not richly benefitting from the current ludicrous system. The most vocal opponents of food aid reform have included the likes of ‘USA Maritime' and ‘The Alliance for Global Food Security,' and both appear to be serving as very active mouthpieces for vested interests -- like the Maersk shipping line -- that are making big dollars off of programs to help the world's poorest and hungriest.

The administration needs to get the full details of its plans for food aid in the 2014 budget on the table quickly, or all those companies who are taking both the U.S. taxpayer and a bunch of poor refugees for a ride are going to make sure it is all business as usual.

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