From organising children’s parliaments to running corporates, sociocracy shows the way
Several myths surround empowerment of women. A popular, cultural myth in India is that women cannot handle money and power, just as men cannot take care of children. However, when women are asked what they want they say they want autonomy, livelihood options, opportunities to govern and a great future for their children.
Women in some parts of the country are more empowered than the others. Why is it so? Here again, there are several myths and explanations, ranging from gender binary to culture and religion. Debates over these disparities in levels of empowerment have focussed on cultural and religious variables and overlooked the facilitation for opportunities to govern and the facilitation of a forum where all voices will be heard. While democratic governance offers some solution it still remains inaccessible to a majority because of its limitations, especially in the area of inclusive participation.
Against the backdrop of these apparent disparities in the status of women, a shining example has been ‘Kutumbashree’, a Kerala government initiative, in which the voice of the poorest of poor women is heard. Kutumbashree in Malayalam means prosperity of the family. It is Asia’s largest women’s movement with 41 lakh members.
As a strategy, Kutumbashree mobilises women through the neighbourhood approach, which is ensconced in the ‘sociocratic’ system of governance. It has a three-tier structure for its women community networks with the neighbourhood groups (NHGs) at the lowest level, area development societies (ADS) at the middle level and community development societies (CDS) at the local government level.
Turning to ‘sociocratic’ system of governance, sociocracy was first introduced by Kees Boeke, a Dutch thinker. Later, Edenberg developed the Quaker system of egalitarian principles as sociocracy. The word is composed of the Latin word ‘socius’, which means companion, and ‘kratein’ which is to govern. It means rule by people who have a relationship with one another.
In India Fr Edwin of the Neighbourhood Community Network (NCN), Nagercoil, first introduced the concept through ‘neighbourhood parliaments’.
Sociocracy is based on four principles: (1) governance by consent, (2) circular organisation structure, (3) double linking, and (4) elections by consent.
Explaining the principles, John Buck, a prominent guru of sociocracy, said in a personal interview that it is the ‘either-or’ thinking, which is at the base of violent and selfish thoughts. His book, We the People, gives deep insights into sociocratic governance and a new way of looking at leadership and the needs and rights of people in the context of an egalitarian system.
Governance by consent is inclusiveness to the degree that people at the lowest level of society have a voice and say in decision making. Consent means ‘no objection’. One may not agree in totality but there is no objection to a decision. Buck calls sociocracy dynamic governance for its other three important principles of circular organisation structure, where communication and decision making take place in small circles, double linking among groups where members of one circle are represented in the next bigger circle and election by consent is where all give consent to electing their representatives. This means that objections are discussed and sorted before electing representatives.
Buck believes India is an awakening giant and has potential for such transparent inclusive and accountable system of governance because of its age-old tradition for nonviolence and its success as a secular democratic nation.
Buck says that although sociocracy shares the values of democracy, it ensures that values are implemented. Democracy or majority rule could lead to a divided society with the majority dominating and leaving the vulnerable and underprivileged out of governance. Sociocracy, with its systematic, coherent approach, promotes transparency inclusiveness and accountability which results in effectiveness, productivity and harmony.
While Kutumbashree is an example for the empowerment of women and the vulnerable, sociocracy has been used in large, medium and small organisations successfully owing to its ability to focus on addressing individual needs to participate in decision-making and improving team dynamics.
Akin to sociocracy is social development coaching, in which coaches look at individual needs and link this with group needs and to those aspects of the group that will enhance cooperation and harmony.
Research has shown that sociocracy in non-profit organisations leads to creative problem-solving and reduces burnout, as everybody’s needs are heard. It also improves fund raising. There is also improvement in safety record, awareness of costs and volunteerism, and it supports leadership.
Corporates that function on meritocracy can be enriched by adding the principles of inclusion and decision by consent.
Richard Heitfield, CEO of Creative Urethanes, who uses sociocracy for corporate governance in the UK, says, “Dynamic governance [that is, sociocracy] creates a radical change in the way organisations are run.”
Another area that has been profoundly influenced by sociocracy is child rights protection. This has been possible through ‘children’s parliaments’ across India. Organisations such as Kindernothilfe, Neighbourhood Community Network (NCN), Christoffel Blindenmission (CBM), Eriks Sweden, and Holistic Child Development India are promoting parliaments where children draw their own action plans for combatting abuse and child rights violations. CBM and NCN have steadily worked toward having inclusive children’s parliaments where children with disabilities become part of the circle governance, take up leadership roles and promote child protection creatively along with their fellow parliamentarians. These inclusive parliaments have made all children sensitive to the abuses that children with disabilities experience.
Swarnalakshmi, ‘prime minister’ of India’s children’s parliament, who also represented the country at the United Nations, is visually impaired and a class topper. She is pursuing her science degree in a college in Chennai. She says that child protection, especially of girl children and of children with disabilities, can be strengthened through the parliamentary system because of its inclusivity and its double linking system. She says child protection becomes the responsibility of all children in the parliaments and they participate in their own safety.
In the double linking system children of the neighbourhood link with the panchayat, block, district level parliamentarians and chalk out their plan of action for their safety and other community issues.
Stakeholders such as women’s self-help groups, teachers and local political leaders contribute to child protection by forming child rights vigilance committees and child protection committees. These act as safety nets for children. The sociocratic principles learnt by the children steer them away from either-or thinking which is their first step toward learning a collaborative (as against a competitive) governance system. Through sociocracy, children learn a more mature and creative way of looking at structures and life in general.
Within the sociocratic parliamentary system, children respond to each other respectfully and develop a sense of camaraderie through collaborative leadership as against competitive leadership. The recent children’s parliament election for Gujarat, hosted by the Ahmedabad dioscese in November 2016, was a delight to watch because of the election process carried out by the children in a very sophisticated manner. One very touching instance came when, after each child had read his/her election manifesto, a boy stood up and withdrew his candidature because he said his opponent (for want of a better word) was more talented and capable for the post of education minister than he was. This unusually wise and mature decision was acknowledged with a hug from his so-called opponent and a round of applause and admiring remarks from fellow parliamentarians.
Buck says that most parents will teach children ‘either-or’ thinking which instils hostility and dogmatic thinking. He believes schools should prepare to adopt this dynamic governance system because an investment in sociocracy is investing in value-based collaborative living and in the corporate future of children and youth.
Sociocracy has been criticised because its implementation requires a lot of time and many feel uneasy participating in difficult and challenging decision-making situations. This system may also initially lead to scepticism and heightened emotionality among the practitioners. However, sociocracy, because of its many advantages, such as its systems approach and value-based implementation, is like the beautiful unicorn, which is perhaps good to have in our own garden.
Dr Athalye is a Pune-based trainer for child protection and children’s parliaments. Her area of work is psychosocial care, child and gender rights.
(The article appears in the June 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)