Deliberative Legitimacy

Good deliberation must also be marked by a legitimate process and so be respected as an ethical form of discussion that has the respect of those involved. In their study of deliberation in international organizations, Millewicz and Goodwin found that to be effective and have any credibility, deliberation must be an empowered space where decisions stick and deliver results.18 They identified seven key characteristics in the successful deliberations they examined:

  • • Authenticity-deliberation is real, not token
  • • Inclusion-all relevant people are involved
  • • Efficiency-deliberation is decision-orientated, not a talking shop
  • • Legitimacy-deliberation is recognized as official and powerful
  • • Discursive discipline-people know how to talk well together
  • • Empowered decision-making-deliberation will lead to action
  • • Feedback loops-deliberation continues, learns and adapts

Political Deliberation with Wider Society

In most humanitarian organizations, people are aligned around common goals and generally have a common language in which they can sufficiently share. Political deliberation with external parties is a much more subtle and challenging process across wide gaps in culture, class, life experience, intentions and interests. These distinct political dynamics are usually in play when humanitarian agencies try to deliberate on difficult programming options with affected communities, national authorities, armed groups and donors.

Some form of public deliberation is imperative in most difficult instances of humanitarian ethics. Article 7 of the Code and its emphasis on participation demands it, and wider and diverse discussion will tend towards better decisions and greater legitimacy for humanitarian agen?cies. These discussions will usually involve a structured dialogue of some form in community meetings, regular inter-agency meetings and private discussions at senior level. Deliberation of this kind typically involves asymmetries in power and big differences in political objectives. Discussing aid options with communities of destitute people usually puts a humanitarian agency at a political advantage. Discussing humanitarian access with a government or armed group tends to see power tip away from agencies.

Humanitarians do not usually talk about "deliberating” with authorities. Instead, they use the terms "humanitarian negotiation” or "humanitarian diplomacy” to describe their discussions with state and non-state authorities.19 But in both these processes, ethical deliberation is in play as humanitarian workers make the humanitarian case and discuss optimal ethical arrangements for humanitarian action in a given context. In their definition of humanitarian diplomacy, the Red Cross and Red Crescent definition makes clear that humanitarian deliberation around ends and means is at the heart of humanitarian diplomacy: "humanitarian diplomacy is persuading decision-makers and opinion leaders to act, at all times, in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect for fundamental humanitarian principles”.20 Both diplomacy and negotiation have a more persuasive element than pure deliberation, and humanitarian diplomacy is often played out on a very uneven political field in armed conflicts and disasters.21 Nevertheless, a process of ethical deliberation by humanitarian professionals certainly needs to precede diplomatic and negotiation efforts, and the best diplomatic meetings or negotiations are the ones in which all sides deliberate openly, empathically and constructively to find the most ethical strategy for humanitarian action.

The principle of deliberation has been at the heart of democratic politics since classical times. In the last twenty years the distinct idea of "deliberative democracy” has had a renaissance in political theory, largely in the wake of the new emphasis on discourse ethics inspired by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.22 Deliberation is one important way in which political communities or their elected representatives can make decisions. It is recognized as a form of arguing and reflection that is distinct from other forms of democratic decision-making like bargaining or voting. Bargaining is essentially competitive and compromising, whereas voting is the simple adding up of preferences. In contrast, deliberation is a form of constructive argument that is intended to be transformative, leading to creative and co-generated options that are ethically acceptable to all parties.23 In politics, deliberation typically happens in open spaces like parliaments and formal meetings, while bargaining and deal-making takes place in backrooms, corridors and private lunches.

The main advantages of public deliberation as a democratic process are summarized by Diego Gambetta, Italian social scientist, and James Fearon, Stanford political scientist, in the list below. These advantages also stand as sound reasons for public humanitarian deliberation.

Advantages of Public Deliberation in Political Decision-Making are:

It distributes information and reveals private information of concerned parties

It lessens or overcomes bounded rationality

It spurs the imagination and incentivizes people to create new options

It introduces a demand to justify options and preferences in public It shares risk and instils the courage to try daring options It dilutes self-interested claims and injects principles into public consideration

It can make better and fairer decisions in terms of distributive justice

It can generate wider consensus It produces more legitimate decisions

It improves the ethical and intellectual qualities of the participants It increases public accountability24

But public deliberation has its risks too. As Gambetta points out, there are problems with deliberation.25 First, as we have seen in our burning house scenario, "if the quality of outcomes declines rapidly over time, deliberation may simply waste precious time”. Secondly, political rhetoric and sheer eloquence during deliberations can lead people to be duped, or can promote conformism in any deliberative group. An important variant of this emerges when elite lobbyists push propaganda or false information into a discussion. This can deceive and create what Susan Stokes calls "pseudo deliberation” and "pseudo preferences”.26 Finally, "the subtlety that deliberation may bring to a discussion can have a paralyzing effect”, as we have seen in the tendency towards neutrality in collective discussions of ambiguous situations.27 This is the so-called paralysis of analysis. Michael Walzer marks a wider note of caution about exaggerating the feasibility and significance of deliberation in politics. He points out that reasoned and impartial deliberation (similar to the objective and socially diverse deliberations of a criminal jury) is only a small part of how politics actually functions. Its significance should not be overstated alongside other political activities like campaigning, protest, elite bargaining, manipulation and sheer power play.28

Public deliberation today is not just face-to-face discussions. Most societies are constantly humming with much wider forms of deliberation, particularly in the new information age of blogs, tweets, internet news and other virtual discussion spaces. Sharon Krause, a political scientist at Brown University, rightly observes that there is a larger "deliberative system” at play in every society that is much wider than officially organized discussions.29 This system includes: the talk and emotions of protests, campaigns and influential movies; the discussions of expert advisory bodies; the preaching of religious officials and media commentators; and the "everyday talk”30 of people puzzling through burning issues for themselves around the dinner table, during car journeys, on Facebook, Twitter and around the office printer. Krause notes that all elements of this deliberative system play a critical role in the formation of sentiment, opinion and will towards particular moral problems. Humanitarian agencies play a big part in this wider deliberative system around armed conflict and disaster with their advocacy, campaigning and fundraising. Increasingly, they need to inform this public deliberation but also listen to public reaction as they draw ethical conclusions for their own operational decisions. In some situations, agencies might be wise to use public polling and public meetings not just to ask for money but to canvas public views on the ethical strategy their agency is taking. A two-way conversation with the public rather than a one-way "ask” could give agencies ethical guidance and legitimacy at particularly difficult moments, like the decisions to stay in the Goma camps or go cross-border into Syria.

All humanitarians will have experienced the different benefits and risks of deliberation when talking with local authorities and affected communities. Dialogue that happens across different cultures, languages and classes is always hard. Developing good quality deliberation is especially hard in polarized societies or in emergency situations when time is short. Sometimes it is extremely dangerous for local communities or government staff to be seen talking in depth with humanitarian agencies. But there are important moments of frankness and constructive discussion when valuable deliberation is possible with local authorities, affected communities, armed groups, donor agencies and donor publics. These moments need to be sought and seized.

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