On the front page of newspapers daily, at the heart of foreign policy agendas, at the center of debates, democracy is a central theme of our times. And in its international salience, in the confidence with which it is parlayed across the globe, it is often taken as a truth held to be self-evident, easily defined by its most prominent features, including free and fair elections, a multiparty system, and freedoms of expression and the press.

    Yet as recent events have highlighted and as long-standing debates have underscored, democracy is not nearly so clear-cut. Indeed, its complexity requires new forms of understanding. The article below is excerpted from the new volume Democracy: Anthropological Approaches, edited by the author (SAR Press 2008). The book is the product of an Advanced Seminar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It brings together essays by prominent scholars to explore what new insights about democracy might be revealed through anthropological modes of research and analysis.

    For many interlocutors—academic, policy-oriented, in the media, or in the broader public—a starting point for discussions of democracy is one of definitions: how is democracy defined? Democracy: Anthropological Approaches takes a different approach, one involving an ongoing exploration of a wide variety of lived meanings and practices. The authors begin by relinquishing preconceived notions of what democracy is or should be. Instead, the very questions being investigated develop through dialogue with people in a variety of fieldsites, thereby generating new ways of framing inquiries. Such an analytic openness is a key contribution of anthropological approaches to democracy.

    Here I examine the practice of participatory democracy by looking at its impact on social movement organizations and inquiring into their ongoing significance. Based on ethnographic research in 2004–2006, this article offers a view into political relations in Ecuador during a historical moment predating the current political environment, which features a new constitution and president nationally and new social movement organization leadership locally.

    Cotacachi’s Participatory Democracy: Setting the Scene

    About three hours north of Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, along the Pan-American Highway high in the Andes Mountains, a road stretches off to the left. It cuts through agricultural fields occasionally bisected by entrances to rural communities, then proceeds downward over a bridge spanning a river and ravine. As the road ascends on the other side, set vividly against the hills are large billboards announcing the international accolades won by this place. “Cotacachi, City for Peace, with Citizen Participation and Transparency” says one (referring to the UNESCO 2002 Cities for Peace Prize), and “Example of Participatory Democracy and Decentralization” reads the other (UN and Habitat’s 2000 Dubai International Award for Best Practices).

    The signs are a tribute to the work of the government of Auki Tituaña Males, a Cuban-trained economist and indigenous resident of urban Cotacachi. Elected in 1996 as a candidate of the political movement Pachakutik, and affiliated with the national indigenous organization, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), Tituaña came into office along with the first wave of mayors forming “alternative local governments” in Ecuador. In keeping with CONAIE’s effort to establish popular parliaments, Tituaña created the Assembly of County Unity, in which representatives of organizations come together for making policy recommendations and creating agendas for the year’s work. As described on Cotacachi’s municipal website, the Assembly of County Unity is

    a space for citizen expression to socialize, work together, [and] plan in a participatory way the future of the county, whose decisions are based in the principles of: solidarity and tolerance for the existing pluricultural and multi-ethnic diversity, without distinction of gender or generation.

    Through the assembly, organizations including youth, women, and neighborhood groups convene to engage in a process of planning and decision making about the county’s future. The assembly holds its main meeting once a year, when commissions report on their work and set agendas for the year ahead. The mayor presents a public accounting (rendición de cuentas) of budgetary income and outlays and describes how promises for public works and programs were met. In addition to its annual meeting, the assembly functions year-round through numerous task forces. Broad working groups, called intersectoral committees, tackle major issues such as the environment and natural resources, health, education and culture, tourism, production, and municipal governance. Through a participatory budgeting process, organizations identify priorities for the expenditures. Organized citizens also helped create the county’s development plan. These mechanisms constitute Cotacachi’s version of participatory democracy.

    Over the years, Cotacachi has become known worldwide. Its reputation is strengthened through the mayor’s international travels and the frequent influx of visitors (mayors from other Andean countries or emissaries from provinces in southern Ecuador, for example) seeking to learn about Cotacachi as a model of participatory democracy. Through these processes, Cotacachi has attracted an inflow of external funding and garnered substantial international recognition.

    Investigating the Importance of Social Movement Organizations

    After I gave a presentation on participatory democracy in Ecuador, at the United Nations Development Program conference in Paris in January 2005, an attendee asked why I insist on the continued importance of social movement organizations. After all, he suggested, such organizations may come and go. They may display elements of corruption, clientelism, and lack of representativity. Is not the most reliable strategy the formation of enduring procedures for participatory and transparent governance?

    This question is an excellent one to bring to bear in the case of Cotacachi, which is (in theory, at least) a near-perfect example of what he was calling for. As noted above, the municipality invites participation by organized citizens; residents decide most of the county’s budget; broad working groups tackle important themes; the mayor gives an annual public accounting of budgetary income and outlays; and a systematic planning process guides expenditures. Moreover, an explicit discourse of “interculturality” highlights cross-ethnic interaction; prominent symbolic displays celebrate the culture of indigenous peoples; a citizen oversight committee monitors government propriety; and a commitment to honesty is exemplified by the fact that the salary of every municipal employee, in rank order from highest to lowest pay, is available on the website for all to see. In such a context, do strong, independent social movement organizations continue to be necessary?

    History of a Cotacachi Organization

    Answering that question requires a brief detour into the history of the Union of Peasant and Indigenous Organizations of Cotacachi (UNORCAC), the most prominent social movement organization in the city. Since it was founded in 1977, its forms of political action have changed over time with transforming national and local circumstances. In its first years, the organization was oriented toward combating discrimination, exploitation, and abuse, particularly the racism embedded in the hacienda and church systems. Linked to broader affiliations with the national peasant movement and organized labor around economic rights during the 1970s, it engaged in organizational styles that privileged conflictual action over incorporation into existing institutionality.

    Involvement in electoral politics following the end of military rule in 1979 initiated a changed approach to political action. That included working partially within the governing institutionality, with a single representative in an otherwise exclusionary municipality. UNORCAC also shifted its focus from a primary insistence on cultural rights to an effort to increase public services to rural areas. There is something of an irony here. In contracting directly with external financing organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), UNORCAC strengthened its economic power and broadened relationships, thereby increasing its political leverage. At the same time, by engaging in the kind of work that a municipality would typically do, it risked deflecting responsibility from elected government.

    Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, UNORCAC’s role in local development increased, leading to literacy campaigns, microcredit financing, reforestation, and infrastructure projects through relationships with NGOs and national funding initiatives. It continued to fight for public services in rural areas.

    Quandaries amid Participatory Democracy

    UNORCAC was instrumental in bringing about the election of Cotacachi’s first indigenous mayor, Auki Tituaña Males, in 1996. Yet that achievement in the electoral process, and the formation of the Assembly of County Unity, presented not only opportunities but also challenges.

    Cotacachi’s assembly is constituted through local organizations rather than through participation by individual citizens. To move forward, then, a number of organizations have come into being through the process of local governance rather than surging from social struggles independent of it. Whereas UNORCAC has existed for over three decades and is closely connected to the communities it represents, the newer groups have a more limited historical trajectory and less extensive grounding in grassroots relationships. With its broad set of relationships with external funders, UNORCAC also manages important relationships and funds and has ample experience with development projects. In acting through the assembly, therefore, UNORCAC may dilute its own power as an organization, subordinating it to residents of urban neighborhoods who are given disproportionate voice (in terms of cultural style of political discussion and in terms of their weight in the decisions), and equal representation in votes, despite a less profound connection with a social “base.” At the same time, the assembly gains credibility through UNORCAC because of the organization’s history of organizational strength and its representational structure.

    UNORCAC’s independent ability to shape policy and hold the municipality accountable is also submerged within a set of personal loyalties, institutional cooperation, and identification with the mayor’s cultural identity that has made cooperation with the municipal government far more the norm than contestation, and that perpetuates a sense of ambivalence and mixed fortunes in having an indigenous mayor who does not emanate from, nor necessarily build, the organization. Ironically, for UNORCAC, holding an indigenous, inclusive mayor accountable may be more difficult than holding to task a mestizo, exclusionary mayor, against whom the organization could more easily exert pressure. As with the national-level indigenous organization CONAIE in regard to the political movement Pachakutik, through which candidates run for office, the question to be grappled with is whether the indigenous movement or the rural organization can formulate proposals to direct the politicians and establish mechanisms with which to hold them accountable. Although gaining elected office has provided opportunities, it can also pose risks to the indigenous movement and rural indigenous organization.

    Why Social Movement Organizations Are Necessary

    The possibility that UNORCAC might be weakened by channeling its demands through the assembly and by lending its support to the mayor has consequences for the achievement of ongoing social movement goals. In what follows, I explain why the existence of strong social movement organizations is vital even in the face of apparently participatory and transparent governance. Far from being suitably replaced by a transparent and responsive local government, strong social movement organizations are crucial for the following reasons.

    First, the movement and its organizations need to exist to hold politicians accountable to the needs and demands of people in “base” communities. Without an organized public to direct a rendición de cuentas to, and without a set of social consequences (such as pressure and mobilization) for deviation from the agenda, there is much latitude for governing officials to respond to other agendas, such as their own efforts in seeking higher office or responding to the agendas of funding agencies.

    Intimately linked to this first point is a second: the vital importance for social movement organizations rooted in communities to set forth proposals that can guide governance, and to which officials can be held accountable. The classic consequence for a politician not responding to a constituency is to be voted out of office (or, in some cases, to be removed before the end of the term). An alternative candidate, however, may not fulfill social demands any better than the predecessor, as the indigenous movement discovered when it deposed a president only to have him replaced by a man who perpetuated the policies of the first. Hence, the need for strong proposal-making social movement organizations.

    Third, local governments (and, increasingly, national governments) are sharply limited in what they can accomplish in a time of global economics and transnational governing and financial structures (such as the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund). Parallel to the globalization of capital, therefore, social movement organizations need to be able to transcend boundaries, creating connections and sharing ideas with other organizations, moving political power and pressure beyond the confines of a given locale. In the case of Cotacachi, land holdings are sharply unequal and salaries notoriously low. These phenomena are largely beyond the influence of the local government, as participatory as it may be. Addressing them requires connection with a broader social movement and organization.

    Fourth, social movement organizations are a crucial space in which to produce a new generation of leaders who can become candidates for mayor, council, and governor, as well as organizational leadership. The founders of UNORCAC came of age through expanding (though by no means universal) educational opportunities and social movement experience. Gaining experience within a social movement organization’s struggle for rights and against injustice provides a set of life experiences very different from being trained in administration through a local government: it produces different kinds of visions, commitments, and connections to rural communities and broader social movement activity.

    Fifth, in Cotacachi’s particular form of participatory democracy, the assembly is a space for making proposals, but it does not have binding control over the mayor. An independent social movement organization can, in principle, exert pressure on politicians. The weakening of a social movement organization could mean a concentration of power in the mayor. Even within the ambit of the assembly, the social movement organization has to be strong to be effective. Specifically, to take advantage of the space created by the assembly, members need to be skilled in formulating proposals, prepared in knowing the ins and outs of issues being debated, and able to assert leadership.

    Finally, social movement organizations are crucial for longevity of struggles for civil, human, and cultural rights. In the case of Cotacachi, the assembly—the local instance of civil society participation—could potentially be dismantled or radically transformed by a mayor of a different political party or approach to governing. If the process of participatory democracy were to weaken a social movement organization, or relegate it not just to a parallel development agency but to a mere constituent of the assembly, and if the assembly were as a result to disappear, the prospects of long-term advancement for social movement organizations and their constituents—the very people meant to be key players in a participatory democracy—could be seriously undermined.


    Actors of a wide variety, from international financial organizations to NGOs, governments, and academics interested in civil society and social capital, have set their sights and hopes on the democratic potential of citizen participation, particularly as implemented through local governments. But attention should also be paid to the strength of independent grassroots organizations, which are crucial for the reformulation of democratic practice. For collective actors, the forms political action can take—what can be achieved and what kinds of individual and collective subjects are constructed—are crucial questions. This essay suggests that, even in the most successful and highly touted cases, these local participatory democracies have their limits and must be judged in relation to the aspirations and organizational capacities of social movement organizations.

    What are the implications of this for an anthropology of democracy? Anthropology can contribute to such discussions by highlighting and comparing local definitions and practices labeled “democracy” to gain insight into how these modes of political practice are achieving goals as the people define them, rather than assume a universal template for what democracy is or should be.

    Julia Paley is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Her book, Marketing Democracy: Power and Social Movements in Post-Dictatorship Chile, won the American Ethnological Society’s Sharon Stephens book award. She is currently doing fieldwork in Ecuador and Washington, D.C. on indigenous organizations’ and international aid agencies’ promotion of citizen participation.


    This article was researched with funding from the Fulbright Commission and the Wenner-Gren Foundation and is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant 0620452. Additional funding came from U-M through the Rackham Graduate School and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. The article benefited from discussion in the advanced seminar “Toward an Anthropology of Democracy” at the School for Advanced Research (previously School of American Research), which received additional funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

    I thank Viviana Quintero and Adriana Salcedo for their comments.

    This article has been reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright 2008 by the School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe. www.sarpress.sarweb.org