Phil Oxhorn, Director of the Institute for the Study of International Development.

"Canada has always seen itself as being a world citizen. World citizens don’t run when the going gets tough," Phil Oxhorn says.
"Canada has always seen itself as being a world citizen. World citizens don’t run when the going gets tough," Phil Oxhorn says. / Photo: Claudio Calligaris.

Fostering democracy from the frontlines to the classroom

By Neale McDevitt

More than most of us, poli-sci professor Phil Oxhorn has a deep and intimate understanding of democracy. Much of his knowledge has been gained from his work as a leading scholar focusing on theories of civil society, democracy and processes of democratization. But an equally vital part of that understanding was gleaned in the 1980s in Chile when Oxhorn, then a Phd Candidate from Harvard, spent two years doing research on the dangerous, often violent, frontlines of civil unrest as that country’s poorest citizens rose in protest against the reign of terror of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Some 25 years removed from those heady times in which he witnessed firsthand the sowing of the seeds of Chilean democracy, Oxhorn is at the helm of the soon-to-be-launched Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID), which will officially take over from the Centre for Developing-Area Studies (CDAS) on Mar. 23. Recently, Oxhorn sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk all things democratic.

What does it mean for the CDAS to become the ISID?

It gives us more status in the hierarchy of things, which means we’ll be able to do a lot more. First off, the Institute will be able to receive jointly appointed professors with different departments that are dealing with development-related issues. Once you have jointly appointed faculty you can get really creative and do things that you can’t normally do without dedicated personnel, such as have teaching programs.

Can you elaborate on those teaching programs?

We have the International Development Studies undergraduate program. Sometime in the future, we will also be responsible for Latin American and Caribbean studies, African studies and Middle Eastern studies. The reality is, once the Institute assumes responsibility for these we’ll go from having no teaching responsibilities to probably the second biggest teaching unit in the university even though we have no dedicated staff. Conservatively, we’ll have 1,000 undergrads.

We have a brand new development program at the graduate level called Development Studies Option. There are six departments participating (Economics, Sociology, History, Poli-sci, Geography and Anthropology). This is the first year we’re running it, but applications for next year are already running close to 200 – for a brand new program. We’re very pleased – it means we’ll be getting the best of the best because we’ll only be taking about 12-15 people.

What is the mandate of the ISID?

The way we look at development is in terms of democratic government – that’s our starting point. What does that mean?  It may not mean the same thing for everyone. We think there are common elements running across anything you’d call democracy in a meaningful way, but what are its foundations?

At the ISID, we are primarily concerned with three sub-themes: economic development and quality of life; states and state institutions; and civil society and social difference – trying to deal with differentiated societies, divided societies.

And your mandate within McGill?

We’re trying to bring together all of the various elements in McGill that deal with development – people at Macdonald Campus, the McGill School of the Environment, Desautels, and the Faculties of Science, Law and Arts. The key is to bring McGill faculty into the fold, to make them realize that it is worth their while to get involved. We will do that with speaker series, conferences like the one we will be hosting on Mar. 23-24 [See page 12]. We want to be the locus for development work at McGill.

How has international development changed since you entered the field back in the 1980s?

When I started as a grad student in the mid-80s, we were looking mostly at transitions to democracy away from authoritarianism. Then in the 1990s, there was a major change because people weren’t happy with their new democracies.

Why would people be unhappy with something they fought so hard to attain?

The short answer is, people have to understand that democracy is relevant to solving their most pressing problem. What often happens is people say “politicians don’t listen to me, they’re only interested in their own personal gain.” People don’t get disenchanted with democracy, but it becomes irrelevant. Once that happens, people don’t participate or, even worse, they might think that something else would be more effective, like a dictator or a populist like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

The danger is that people will not take advantage of the opportunities that free and fair elections offer them to make their democracies more meaningful. By missing the opportunity, the result could be much, much worse for the people who aren’t happy with the way their democracy is working now.

Other changes in the field?

The variety of new actors. There always have been U.S. foundations out there working on development but there are more of them and they are doing bigger things than ever before. The Gates Foundation, for example, is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars – if not more – into very concrete, very important development goals.

Related to that is another private actor, which are the non-government agencies or NGOs. We began to see them in the ‘80s but not as prominently as they were in the ‘90s or to this day. They’ve become real collaborators. NGOs often have better access, better local knowledge and expertise, so they become a mechanism for funneling aid rather than going through the state, which may or may not be accountable.

What do you say to critics who say that during these tough economic times, our money is better spent at home than abroad?

Usually a crisis in the North is magnified in the South. But this crisis is different because, for the first time, most southern countries are experiencing a slowdown and not a depression or a recession, including Latin America, India, Brazil, China.

This is good and bad. Good because you don’t want repercussions to affect people in the South more than (they are)  affecting us in the North because the damages are potentially severe. It is also bad because people say “if they’re only slowing down, well why bother to give my scarce tax dollars to help the Chinese, Brazilians or Chileans?” But who gets hit the hardest by these slowdowns? The poor. So, in China, instead of 10 per cent growth, they’ll have 6 per cent – yet tens of millions of people have lost their jobs. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean – a UN organization – is saying that the gains in poverty reduction over the last six years could be wiped out overnight.

And doesn’t the shrinking world make one person’s problem everyone’s problem?

Absolutely. When you have economic slowdowns, you’ll see increases in poverty and increases in inequality. This leads to increases in crime and violence. This has major spillover effect. The violence in Mexico around the drug trade is already affecting B.C. Look at how SARS, which began in Asia, closed down TO. The world has gotten smaller and this can mean major ramifications.

And shouldn’t we help just because we’re Canadian?

Sure. Canada has always seen itself as being a world citizen. World citizens don’t run when the going gets tough. Whether it be for self-interest or  a sense of morality and what is right in the world, the last thing you want to do is turn your back on the South now because the demands are going to be even greater than people realize.

How did you become so interested in democracy?

Sometimes it’s just chance. I was in grad school at Harvard and I was interested in understanding ideas of participation and democracy but I was looking for a subject for my dissertation. Just around then the mobilization against Pinochet took off. I thought this might be the closest thing to understanding how poor people might want to be included in the democracy because the bulk of the mobilization was among the poor in the shantytowns. So I packed my bags and went to Chile.

It must have been an incredible experience.

You don’t understand it until you live it. I’d go to a protest because this is what I was studying, and there’d be 15,000, 20,000 maybe even 50,000 people. Then I’d go home and watch the news and they’d say 1,000 people showed up. How do you challenge that? If you didn’t see the demonstration, why wouldn’t you believe the official news?

How did the protesters view you?

It took time to build people’s trust and build their confidence to tell me what they were really feeling. But one of the most rewarding things was the way they looked after me. [Laughing] I guess they didn’t want to see the gringo get killed.

Often people were really flattered that this Harvard PhD student was interested in what they had to say. In general, I think they believed I was an honest person trying to get their version of the events out there.

But it was eye-opening for me talking to these people all the time whose life experiences are so far removed from anything that I had experienced. They had been arrested, tortured, exiled – it puts things into perspective, especially the liberties we take for granted.

Phil Oxhorn’s first job

A friend of mine got me a job in his uncle’s pizza place. I discovered that the secret ingredient to pizza sauce, believe it or not, is carrots.