ENGAGING WITH DEMOCRACY
It has been a privilege to work with dedicated people from many countries, who share the vision of why democracy, a democratic culture and democratic political parties are important. I have enjoyed our discussions about the threats and challenges we need to respond to. The articles in this book titled “ENGAGING WITH DEMOCRACY GLOBALLY” represent some of the reflections I have made over the six years I have worked for the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy. It was published in December 2016.
Below you will find the introduction to the book, with the title WHY SUPPORT FOR DEMOCRACY? The book is available in full here: Engaging – 2016 – final
a fragile flower
After 40 years of riding on the upward side of the ‘wave of democracy’ that started in 1974, we are now riding on the downward side. This ride is both dangerous and depressing, and we urgently need to come together as a global community to find answers that can guide us in moving forward.
I am not suggesting that the system of democracy as such is in danger. However, many commentators have suggested that we experience a growing gap between what citizens believe has been promised, and what they feel is being delivered. We also see rising levels of polarization, populism and authoritarianism as ways of responding to the gap. Nationalism and isolationism also seem to be part of the response.
Robert Kagan from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C has expressed the situation we find ourselves living in much more poetically in the book “Democracy in Decline?” edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plather:
“Today, as always, democracy is a fragile flower. It requires constant support, constant tendering, and the plucking of weeds and fencing-off of the jungle that threaten it both from within and without. In the absence of such efforts, the jungle and the weeds may sooner or later come back to reclaim the land.”
rays of sun
Having worked with democracy and development in its many forms and shapes for almost four decades, I know that the search for a ‘magic bullet’ is futile. In fact, such a search can be tricky, because dreaming about the distant ideal can prevent us from implementing responses that are necessary and ‘good enough’ right now.
Fortunately, there are also many rays of sun streaming through the grimy windows of our global house of democracy. Many of the efforts and experiences I refer to in my articles offer reasons for optimism. The problem now is to find ways of scaling up the necessary changes out there, as well as at home.
This understanding was a major motivator, when I decided to publish this book.
I am a practitioner, who has tried to follow the academic debate, and who has listened to the critical voices on the ground. I believe that our intentions are good, but accept that we may not always have been able to deliver in the most appropriate manner. This is true for the development community in general, and it is certainly also true for the democracy support community. There is a need for critical self-reflection, also among practitioners.
My humble hope is that some of my reflections could be a contribution to the broader effort to re-invigorate and re-position the democracy-support community.
values must drive us
When I joined the UN in early 2003, the broad understanding was that governance or democratic governance or democracy was an essential part development. The view was shared by the majority of people I worked with inside and outside of the UN.
This was not necessarily because the evidence convincingly pointed to democratic governance as a precondition for social and economic development. In fact, there has always been many in the research community questioning the admittedly rather simplistic assumption about free and fair elections automatically resulting in the economy growing and livelihoods of the poor improving.
China is often mentioned as the key producer of policies that lifted millions out of poverty. The argument seemed to be that if you really want to do away with poverty, you need to use authoritarian forms of governance.
It is important for all of us to look for evidence of how governance and growth, or democracy and distribution interact. This is our responsibility as participants and stakeholders in development. Searching for evidence of what works is necessary. Understanding what does not work is equally important.
I have always been a strong believer in taking the values of democracy as our point of departure (like human rights in general, freedom of speech and assembly, free and fair elections, gender equality, respect for minorities and inclusion of all, to mention a few). I see democracy primarily as an end in itself, not first or only as an instrument to achieve other ends, although I agree that this can be a legitimate approach.
This belief is reflected in the articles included in this publication.
However, I also agree with those who argue that democratic institutions and procedures do not necessarily create a state capable of delivering what people expect. Democracy-supporters like myself must therefore be able to think holistically, when we deliver the programmes that can support our partners.
values under pressure
Democracy as a platform for development was certainly present, when representatives of 189 states met in 2000 in the UN General Assembly, to sign on to the Millennium Declaration as the expression of the principles underpinning the measurable development targets of the Millennium Development Goals covering 2000-2015.
While no specific democratic system is referred to, the declaration makes it clear that values like freedom from repression, protection of human rights, gender equality, inclusion of minorities and access to information must be the foundation for the types of development that will offer all human beings freedom from poverty.
This type of thinking is fully in line with the tradition of Danish development cooperation, which has been my ‘home’ for more than four decades. Although the specific positioning of democracy and human rights in the strategic construction of our cooperation has varied, the general approach has been consistent. In that sense our cooperation has been value-based, not just a set of technical approaches.
Unfortunately, much has changed since the Millennium Declaration was adopted more than fifteen years ago. The Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2015 to guide global development over the next fifteen years also refer to democratic governance and as a basis needed to ensure people-oriented development, but the reality is that we can no longer take democratic principles and values for granted.
We do not need to point towards repressive, despotic or authoritarian regimes in Africa to see what is happening. We only need to look at certain parts of Europe. This is documented by the annual reports from the US-based Freedom House, as well as by the Democracy Index published annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Yes, there are obviously differences with regard to the levels and methods of repression between countries in Africa and Europe. However, the values and principles in the declarations do not operate at different ‘levels’. Rights cannot be ‘massaged’ to fit changing interpretations.
Therefore, the sad truth is that the values are under pressure, not only in countries of the global South, but in the global North as well. Many of the countries we work in, cooperate closely with new donors that are ready to ignore human rights, protection of minorities, inclusion of the marginalized and equality of women and men.
I have been practicing, reflecting and writing within this broad context. I also realize that we may not have taken these challenges seriously enough, hoping or believing that they would suddenly disappear and leave the market-place of democracy-support to us.
sources of the articles
During my years with DIPD, I have made detailed notes of all my missions and major meetings, including outlines for articles that I would want to write at some point. Many of the articles in this book are the result of such a process.
Some articles have initially been written for a specific purpose and occasion, and they have been published or shared with others in one way or the other. I have decided not to change any of the arguments and conclusions, although today we know that in some cases they present positions that have turned out to be wrong! Such is life – we can actually be wrong! In some cases I have decided to revise some sections for purposes of clarity, and this has been indicated at the start of the article.
Only the concluding article is what you could call a truly ‘original’ contribution. Having reread the ‘old’ articles, I felt that there was a need for some form of ‘conclusion’ or response to the challenges we face as a community. Time has not allowed me to elaborate as much as I would have liked to, so the themes and arguments highlighted in this article will be on my agenda when I retire from DIPD.
Throughout the book, you will find references to books and people who have inspired me. Some of them have contributed critically to form my views on what is happening in the world around me, and in a different type of book I would certainly have made the necessary references in an appropriate manner. The democracy literature is vast, and I am only scratching the surface. Hopefully the few readings I recommend in the final chapter of the book will be useful for some of you.
structure of the book
The first part of the book presents articles about what DIPD has been involved with at the partnership and country levels. In particular, in the countries I have personally been responsible for or visited on many occasions – Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Egypt and Zimbabwe.
Since each country is unique, and the DIPD interventions therefore are ‘custom-built’ in each case, the approaches and lessons learned mentioned in these articles do not at all represent the totality of DIPD experiences. Readers who would like a broader perspective can visit the Annual Reports from DIPD, in particular the 2015 report about “Postcards from DIPD Partners”.
Furthermore, my personal experiences are of course dominated by the multi-party activities that I have been directly responsible for during my years as director. This is only half of what DIPD is involved with. The Danish political parties manage the other half, and as argued in the article called Parties and their sisters, I believe it is useful for DIPD to be able to cover the two types of party support.
I also believe that many of my observations are relevant irrespective of which type of partnership we are dealing with. This can be documented through the reports from the activities of the Danish parties that I have had the pleasure to read over the years since DIPD started.
The second part of the book presents articles that focus more on general reflections about democracy and support for democracy. Some of these reflections are the result of decades of work, including my work in the field of civil society organizations and the UN system. Other experiences are direct results of my work with political parties in DIPD.
In one of the last articles of the book titled Ideas that can inspire, I have tried to summarize what I consider to be key elements of the DIPD approach. Simply stated, this is a Danish approach, based on Danish competencies, Danish experiences, Danish history. In my view, this is not a ‘nationalistic’ version of what is Danish, and it is not presented in an uncritical or unreflective manner when we meet our partners.
But it is what we know best.