In The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, his 2007 critique of top-down international development strategy, former World Bank economist William Easterly relates an anecdote about potholes. In his neighborhood of Takoma Park, Washington DC, he makes a complaint about a pothole on his street to a local elected councilwoman, who contacts the works department, who fix the pothole. That, he says, is how democracy should work: citizens expect governments to provide services, and hold them accountable when they do not. He contrasts this with a hypothetical situation in Tanzania, as an example of a country dependent of foreign aid, where a citizen would have to relay their request through multiple levels of intermediary bureaucracy, and involve the advocacy and grant-writing efforts of various NGOs, governmental and international agencies before funds could be allocated by the aid establishment, be transferred to the national government, and then (hopefully) make their way back down the aid chain. Accountability is thus fragmented, and local citizens left disillusioned and disempowered.
In this short film, from a 2008 interview discussing his experience as a public interest journalist and the workings of democracy, Goran Veličkovski narrates an actual case of pothole-fixing from the Republic of Macedonia. In the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, with economic development impeded by conflict in other parts of the former federation, international concerns over the country’s stability, and by economic and political pressures from its other neighbors, the Republic is now classified by the UN as facing particular challenges to development as a Land-Locked Developing Country (LLDC). It shares this economic status, as well as significant international intervention in its economy and budget, with eight of the twenty-nine East European and Eurasian countries where Freedom House each year monitors the progress of democratic transition. For 2011, Of these nine countries (the other eight are the Republic of Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyrstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekhistan), Macedonia was the only one that scores above the average: on Freedom House’s 7 point scale, it is one full point clear of the closest among these least developed European and Eurasian counterparts, and three points clear of the two lowest-ranked.
How are potholes fixed in a poor democracy? Not, as Veličkovski narrates, by the efforts of local elected officials—who may promise, but do not always deliver. They may turn to civil society—in this case Veličkovski himself, whose weekly show Zevzekmanija delivers a mix of political satire, coverage of conditions for ordinary Macedonians and advocacy for charitable giving that often stirs audiences, and sometimes political leaders, to action—as an independent media should. In this case, the outcome showed that representative democracy may not always deliver at the local level, but that, once awakened--through a belated process of self-reflection--the participatory spirit of community action can.