Duminda Silva, a classic example
I was recently at the hospital when Mervyn Silva came in. Mervyn is violent and loud in the media, but in this incarnation he was short, quiet and softly high-pitched. He ushered a young child in to see the doctor, chatted with the family and left. This was ahead of everyone else and whatever, but that was what he did. In his own way, he helped somebody.
The before everybody else part is where this type of politics breaks down. Politics is really about helping people, and that’s how politicians get ahead. If you drive around all you see is cutouts, but if you walk around you’ll see that politicians offices are full everyday with people asking them favors. And they give them favors, they help them get kids into school, they help them during medical emergencies, they help them find jobs, they help them when someone dies.
You can call this favoritism, but wait till you need to get a kid into school, or need dialysis, or need work, or need some sort of support. This ward type politics actually does help people and fill a very real need. The problem is simply that it doesn’t scale.
One politician can only help so many people. They need money, they need time, and they need energy. They also have to waste a bunch of all three running for elections, which leaves them asking for favors from other people, thus beholden to dodgy business and drug dealers, thus making it difficult for them to help the end citizen. It’s a Catch-22, but that contradiction is inherent in the current system.
By creating exceptions within a bad system, the politicians actually perpetuate the machine. It’s like letting people in through a window cause the front door is broken. This works for a while, but at some point you have to tell the people to wait while you fix the door. The trouble is that, meanwhile, someone else breaks in the window, kicks you out, and the the bad loop resumes.
The Humanity Of It All
On a very human level, however, this is understandable. People actually do have an immediate need that corrupt politicians can fill. Many civil society groups will give people a training or a lecture but they won’t give them money, or get a kid into school, or break somebody’s legs when the legal system fails. It’s like they’re explaining what a front door is while people are just like, ‘can’t you just let me in the window?’ For an illustrative scene just see the Godfather.
In this case, a man’s daughter is sexually assaulted and brutally beaten and the father cannot get justice from the system. So he goes to the Godfather. And the Godfather delivers. For that he is beloved. On the other side, of course, he is brutalizing and draining the very community, but he also helps people in their time of need. It’s a bad loop, but it has a compelling logic. Seriously, just put yourself in the shoes of someone with an urgent need and you’ll begin to understand.
Government As A Service
At some point, however, you need to actually fix the front door. Simply calling for better governance and less corruption isn’t enough, and neither is calling for Constitutional fixes or anything immediately vague. You need to address the immediate problems of poverty, health and education through institutions in a way that actually out-competes the politician. You have to remember that some of these politicians can deliver immediate justice, immediate financial relief and in many cases save lives, jobs, careers, etc.
Is that possible? Actually, yes. Institutions can rarely deliver instant relief, but where they can outcompete ward politicians is that institutions can scale. With technology and professional management, you can clean cesspits, house people, support employment and generally respond to peoples actual needs. Compare it to the private sector. You can get dodgy satellite TV connections with little or no monthly fee from Pettah, but Dialog TV still prospers as a paid service. Why? Because you get a reliable product with good customer support.
Starting at the local level, I think it is possible to get the same level of service from your government. It just requires a bit of leadership, a bit of investment, and a bit of drive to get beyond the short-term value ward politicians deliver to the long-term scalability of government as a service.