Playing at Democracy

In Calcutta, when some younger kid came along and insisted on joining the game my friends were playing, we would let the new kid in, but only after whispering into each other's ears the words, elé belé . An elé belé is a player who thinks he is participating but, in truth, is merely going through the motions. Everybody knew that a goal scored by him was not a real goal.

As a child, mastering the cruel art of elé belé was important. When a new kid arrived, accompanied by a doting mother, we could convey to one another with a mere glance that the kid would be an elé belé.

The technique of elé belé also thrives in the adult world. All of us can recall collective decision-making situations--a selection committee, a team for drafting rules--where some members were elé belés. All of us have been elé belés at one time or another, though we may not be aware of it.

What's true of children and adults is also true of international institutions. Indeed, organizations that are officially committed to involving all nations in their decision making are often controlled by small groups of powerful nations, while others merely go through the motions of participation. The World Trade Organization (WTO), supposedly run on the principle of one country one vote, actually has its agenda selected behind the stage by a small group of nations.