By Hernan Saenz Cortes
Cui Bono? is one of those legal-jargon phrases that all law students (should) know. For the rest of us, it sounds like another Latin phrased that is used only by those who had a very expensive education. However, answering it can be a game-changer in trying to understand why things happen, and most importantly, why not.
Back in the 127 BC in Rome there was a Roman Consul named Lucius Cassius who was famous among population because whenever there was a crime or a contentious issue, he stood up in front of the Consul just to openly ask ‘Cui Bono?’. Meaning Who benefits?
It is this question that more than anything distinguishes a focus on inequality from a focus on poverty. To focus on inequality is to constantly ask yourself not just who the losers are, but who are the winners. Who benefits from society being organized in this way?
This simple and obvious question also opens up critical debates about the root causes of conflict, crime and corruption. It is indeed, one of the key questions that we at OXFAM always try to ask ourselves.
In our work tackling inequality and addressing power relations, understanding who benefits from certain decisions and analyzing who has influenced them is crucial. It has as well been key to develop our work on political capture – the undue influence by a few powerful ones over the political process so to keep, reinforce or indeed increase their privileges.
Political capture is a phenomenon that has been analyzed by many international organizations and that happens everywhere. It has similarities with what has been called ‘grand’ corruption – not the petty paying of small bribes, but the large-scale manipulation of the state for private gain. The basic idea is that power asymmetries in societies – due to inequality for example – make some individuals or groups more influential in the political process of, let’s say, a tax reform. Thus, governments feel a lot of pressure from these individuals and due to their power, they prevent any tax reforms that increase taxation on the rich and powerful, or indeed secure further cuts to their taxes instead.
Latin America and the Caribbean is the most unequal region in the world. This inequality has meant lack of opportunities for the majority while the elites at the top have increased their wealth and their power.
During the first decade of the century, inequality was reduced in many Latin American countries, although it still remained very high. Most of this reduction in inequality was also achieved by increasing transfers to the poorest using the proceeds from positive economic growth, rather than by challenging powerful and vested interests.
This power has in fact been constantly used to block progressive policies, which in turn further increases inequality. It also rightly increases the popular belief that the governments only serve those at the top, making Latin America as well one of the regions with more dissatisfaction with democracy in the world.
Elites have not only captured the democratic process to benefit from it directly. They have also used their power to try to reduce the space for opposition against their interests. Protests have been always present in the region and in the last fifteen years these protests have targeted corruption and the influence of elites in democracy in order to implement a real democracy, protect the environment, reduce inequality and fight gender justice. In response to these protests, governments across the region have moved to close down civic space.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an amplifier of all these problems in the region. Political capture has been more evident than ever with the first vaccinations going to those with money, and many public contracts awarded without scrutiny. Inequality has increased, hitting disproportionately the most vulnerable; disaffection with democracy has stayed extremely high; and civic space has shrunk even more, up to the point that nowadays only in one country of the region society enjoys an open civic space (meaning just 0,5% of LAC’s population live in an open civic space based on OXFAM’s calculations using CIVICUS data).
OXFAM’s contribution to the renewal of social contract in the LAC region
This unrest and discontent has in turn led to a fierce debate in the region and within the international community about how to revive the social contract in Latin America so that it works for people and not powerful elites. For us the answer is clear: the region needs to radically reduce inequality and stop political capture.
As part of this we wanted to demonstrate this relation between inequality, the democratic disaffection, reduced civic space and political capture in the region and thus present ideas to contribute to the social contract debate.
That’s why we are publishing the discussion paper “Crisis and capture: reclaiming democracy and fighting inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean”.
If we were to present our paper in a Twitter thread it’d go like this:
Taking four case studies of the political capture of policies by elites in Latin America, our new paper seeks to draw conclusions on the future of the social contract and of democracy in the region.
Disaffection with democracy and with several institutions is a trend in the region. What’s the reason behind it? There could be many answers, but we dig into how inequality impacts it. Of course, it has a central role.
Inequality is particularly harmful because of the power that some socio-economic and political #elites accumulate, which is then used to benefit their interests #politicalcapture
LAC is also suffering from a deep shrinkage of civic space. Less than 1% of LAC’s population lives in an open civic space! Almost 9 out of 10 persons live in an obstructed or repressed civic space. Pandemic speeds up and increases this shrinkage.
Case studies from #Peru #ElSalvador #Argentina and #DominicanRepublic show how elites capture public policies. Natural resources, fiscal policies, public procurement and strategic sectors such as telecoms.
Two mechanisms are highlighted due to their importance: #mediacampaigns to control and shape public opinion; and party financing to ‘push’ the campaigns of those ‘friendly’ candidates.
The paper presents some suggestions on how to reconfigure the ‘social contract’ that has been affected by COVID19. Some of the ideas: democratize democracy, regulate the meddlers, protect civic space or reshape international cooperation.
In a nutshell: only a democracy free of capture will tackle inequality.
This last ‘tweet’ expresses the feeling and the objective we have at OXFAM. If we really want to tackle unfair power relations, fight inequality, defend human rights, democracy and gender rights, we need to fight political capture. And the key for that is to always ask who is benefiting from any decision taken. Indeed, that is answering cui bono.
Hernan Saenz Cortes is Oxfam International’s Political Inequalities & EU-LAC Advocacy LEAD
- Featured image: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
- COVID Inequality Illustration: Emily Eberly/Oxfam
- Figure 1: Support for democracy and trust in various institutions in LAC (2010-2019) Accessed at https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/crisis-y-captura-el-descontento-social-en-tiempos-de-pandemia-en-america-latina-621200/
- Figure 2: Relationship between the GINI coefficient and support for democracy (2013-2019). Accessed at https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/crisis-y-captura-el-descontento-social-en-tiempos-de-pandemia-en-america-latina-621200/
- Figure 3: The relationship between support for democracy and equality of political power among socio-economic positions (2015-2019). Accessed at https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/crisis-y-captura-el-descontento-social-en-tiempos-de-pandemia-en-america-latina-621200/
- Figure 4: LAC countries and the status of their civic space in 2020 (%). Accessed at https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/crisis-y-captura-el-descontento-social-en-tiempos-de-pandemia-en-america-latina-621200/
- Table 2: Capture mechanisms used in the cases analysed. Accessed at https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/crisis-y-captura-el-descontento-social-en-tiempos-de-pandemia-en-america-latina-621200/