Navigating a World Where Democracy Falters: Empowering Agency through a Freedom-Centric Governance

February 29, 2024
Illustration - justice - Africa

The year 2024 will go down in history as the “Super Elections Year,” with an estimated two and half billion people across 50 countries expected to go to the polls. This has led many to assert that this unprecedented year will serve as a crucial test for democracy. However, democracy is a much deeper concept than simply the conduct of elections to select a legislature. 


Democracy, originating from the Greek word dēmokratia, literally means “the rule by the people.” As a political system, it has undergone significant evolution from ancient Greece to the modern era. A concise definition of democracy can be found in a seminal article by prominent political scientist Philippe C. Schmitter, who asserts that “a modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.” With its ancient roots and its modern evolution primarily located in the western hemisphere, democracy’s appeal has spread globally through what scholars have termed the “three waves of democratization[1].” This phenomenon led some scholars, such as Fukuyama, to believe that the world was inevitably embracing liberal democracy and capitalism, marking “the End of History.”


Discontent towards democracy began to rise in the mid-2000s. Philippe Schmitter observed that “democracy is being “dissed.” Its citizens are increasingly discontent, disillusioned, and disgruntled with it and distrustful, despairing and deprecating of it.” Despite this, people still seem to favor democracy over other political regimes. According to a 2023 Open Society survey of over 36,000 respondents from across 30 countries, more than 80% expressed a desire to live in a democracy. 

Graph - Open Society Barometer - Democracy


However, people express discontent with how democracy is practiced. This discontent is often provoked by manipulation of democratic processes: hasty or rigged elections, gerrymandered constituencies, distorted referendum questions or constitutions, and so on.  But democracy is also undermined when the elected bodies that result, even from fully free and fair elections, are unable to give citizens a genuine voice and no other channels seem open to citizens to secure effective responses to their concerns. This, in turn, impacts its aura and appeal around the world. The UN Secretary-General has pointed to an “epidemic of coups,” which in some countries were accompanied by popular demonstrations of support. Our era is characterized by a strong democratic ideal alongside a growing trust deficit in most existing democratic systems. 

"Recognizing the pressing need for change, we propose embracing a freedom-centric governance model where freedom is not merely a means for prosperity or an end in itself; rather, it serves as a proactive force for collective action and innovation."

In a world where democracy faces unprecedented challenges and trust deficits, particularly in its capacity to deliver prosperity fairly, navigating its complexities requires bold and innovative approaches. Recognizing the pressing need for change, we propose embracing a freedom-centric governance model to address these issues effectively. This model acknowledges that freedom is not merely a means for prosperity or an end in itself; rather, it serves as a proactive force for collective action and innovation. Restoring the centrality of our agency and collective engagement is fundamental to revitalizing the practice of our political institutions and our political systems, ensuring that they remain resilient and adaptative in the face of evolving global dynamics.


Democratic Ideals on the World Stage


Significantly, none of today's fundamental documents within the multilateral system explicitly mentions democracy or democratic principles. The United Nations member states in the preamble of the UN charter “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”. Furthermore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly in Articles 19 and 20, asserts that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression … and Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association." Article 21(3) states that the "will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government" and that "this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures." The preamble of the Agenda 2030 mentions “democracy, good governance and the rule of law as well as an enabling environment at national and international level … essential for sustainable development.” However, the word democracy is not found in the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed upon by world leaders in 2015, committing in its sixteenth goal to "promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels." Instead of referring to democracy, the text of the UN documents affirms fundamental notions such as equal rights, freedom from want, fear, and oppression, as well as freedom of expression, association, and representation through free and fair elections.


Western advocacy groups often conflate democracy with freedom, but the range of freedoms goes far beyond the freedom to vote or to speak and organize for elections.  Roosevelt’s 1942 “four freedoms” – of speech and of worship, from want and fear – sit within a wider conception of freedom covering both the absence of state constraint on agency (the freedoms to worship, speak, assemble, organize, vote etc.) and the absence of wider constraints such as fear, hunger, disease, ignorance, oppression and discrimination.  Both forms of freedom – “freedoms to” and “freedoms from” – are important if discontent with democracy is to be addressed.

Graph - Open Society Barometer - Rights


Considering democratic governance through UNDP's thought leadership arm, particularly its independent Human Development Reports, the organization was prolific in the early 2000s, starting with the seminal 2002 Human Development Report, "Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World." This report established a clear link between democracy and human development, highlighting democracy both as an end in itself and as a promoter of human development. It emphasized the importance of deepening democracy beyond elections, cautioning against hastily organized elections as a proxy for genuine democratic values. 


UNDP's subsequent regional studies in Latin America (2004 and 2011) and the Arab World (2004) maintained consistency in this approach. In Latin America, UNDP found the same challenge of deepening democracy beyond elections in both reports. The emphasis was on the importance of the democratic exercise of power, rather than solely focusing on democratic access to power through elections. The analysis delves into the impact of extreme inequalities, ultimately power asymmetries, on democracy itself. The analysis highlights challenges posed by the influence of money in politics, a weak system of checks and balances among branches of government, and the real power of the state to provide security to citizens through holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Combining the analysis of democracy with the examination of power and inequalities in Latin America, the report identifies priority areas to “consolidate democracy: fiscal reform, social exclusion, and citizen security.” In fact, identifying challenges posed by various powers and by inequality does not lead to a rejection of democracy as a political system but rather identifies ways to consolidate it.

Table - HDR focus


While UNDP in Latin America was analyzing the deficits of existing democracy and how to address them, the Arab Human Development report published in 2004 was addressing a region lacking any form of democracy at that time. This led to the assertion that “the Arab world’s capacity to face its internal challenges depends on ending tyranny and securing fundamental rights and freedoms.” The report meticulously documented various restrictions on freedom in the Arab region and elucidated their consequences for human development. Adopting a comprehensive definition of freedom, the report incorporated not only civil and political freedoms but also liberation from factors inconsistent with human dignity, such as hunger, disease, ignorance, poverty, and fear.


This report, released amidst the Iraq War and its claim to bring about regime change and democratization in the Arab World, notably challenged a predominant culturalist approach that claimed Islam was incompatible with democracy. This approach was found in a school of thought led by the political scientist Samuel Huntington or the historian Bernard Lewis. Instead, the report rooted the very idea of freedom in the political culture of the Arab World. It emphasized that democratization and freedom were only possible through domestic processes, precisely anchored in the political culture of freedom unique to this region. This perspective sought to reshape the discourse surrounding democracy and freedom in the Arab World, challenging stereotypes and emphasizing the importance of cultural and regional contexts in the pursuit of political change and human development.


In Africa, there are extensive studies of governance through the lens of National Human Development Reports (NHDRs). Over a dozen reports addressing the nexus between democratic governance and sustainable development have helped reshape the development approach based on the strengthening of democratic values. Among the most significant reports is the Benin Human Development Report on Governance (2000). This report presents an in-depth analysis of the conceptual framework of governance, including its performance and its various dimensions. Equally are the Burundi Report on Good Governance and Sustainable Development (2009) and Kenya's report on “Participatory Governance for Human Development" (2003), which focuses on participatory governance and political freedom as prerequisites for sustainable development.

"The organization's principled stand underscores the interconnectedness of various human rights, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive approach to freedom and democracy; echoing not only the "freedoms to," which pertain to political and civil rights, but also the "freedoms from," which involve economic and social rights."

There is remarkable consistency in UNDP’s approach to the analysis and understanding of democracy and freedom, despite the diversity of contexts and realities examined from Latin America to the Arab World and Africa. UNDP remains not only consistently anchored in the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also takes a courageous stance against the prevailing international context and narrative advocating regime change through external intervention. This steadfast commitment is reflected in the understanding that freedom and the democratic system guaranteeing it “cover all realms of human rights: economic, cultural, and environmental rights, as well as civil and political rights.” The organization's principled stand underscores the interconnectedness of various human rights, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive approach to freedom and democracy. This encompasses a more comprehensive understanding of democracy, echoing not only the "freedoms to," which pertain to political and civil rights, but also the "freedoms from," which involve economic and social rights. 


This commitment to all human rights gains special importance in the context of debates over democracy when some significant potential rights-holders may be unable to exercise any democratic voice. For example, future generations may in principle have rights, but they are unable to vote or to play a role in other processes of citizen engagement which may nevertheless – for example through global heating or severe pollution – determine their fate.  Similarly the environmental rights of, say, down-stream riverine communities may be violated by decisions taken in an upstream state; they may also be violated by actions taken by upstream communities in their own state if democratic processes have been hollowed out and reduced to votes on the provision of basic services only.



Democracy in Crisis: Erosion of Trust and Emergence of Alternatives


Nevertheless, we observe an increase in trust deficit towards democracy, which coincides with broader changes in the quality of democratic regimes globally. Some countries have veered towards populism and extreme polarization, and even the most established democracies are facing challenges from populist movements and mass mobilization against inequalities. Other countries have experienced the overthrow of democracies, such as in Thailand, Myanmar, and other countries in the Sahel. Africa, in particular, saw an increase in successful coups, with eight occurring between 2000 and 2020 and nine just between 2020 and 2023. 

The principle of checks and balances, introduced by Montesquieu, a fundamental concept at the core of any democratic system, is under attack in many countries. It asserts that only power can effectively constrain power and has led to the principle of independence and separation between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of governance. Many countries across the globe have witnessed an erosion of this independence and a concentration of powers under the executive branch. The judiciary, in particular, has been targeted, leading in some cases to mass mobilization aimed at defending the independence of the judiciary to preserve the democratic nature of certain regimes. 


Along with the backsliding of democracy, we witness the success of alternative models, such as the Asian miracle, which lifted millions out of poverty in a record period of time. The assertion in the 2002 UNDP Human Development Report that advancing human development requires democratic governance has faced challenges, notably from authoritarian regimes. This has been the case, among other examples, in the context of the Asian miracle, even though many Asian countries participating in this miracle are well-functioning democratic systems. Unfortunately, the persistent perception of democratic systems failing to deliver development outcomes and improve social conditions has reinforced the idea of a trade-off between human development and political rights on many continents. 

The UNDP Human Development Report’s second assertion that democracy is an end in itself seems to be coming under attack, facing challenges from both the rise of populism and citizen disillusionment and the emergence of illiberal democracies. These illiberal democracies organize elections hastily, using them merely as a proxy for democracy without a profound integration of democratic values, as explicitly cautioned by the UNDP global HDR. Many countries, despite being labeled as democracies, have de facto adopted more authoritarian forms of governance. This phenomenon of illiberal practices is pervasive worldwide and has been well-documented by scholars.

While the narrative of democracy backsliding prevails, it is crucial to acknowledge the resilience of some of the established democratic systems.

Against this backdrop and upon closer examination, it becomes evident that most coups in Africa occurred within illiberal democracies that were unable to facilitate legitimate changes in power. It should be acknowledged that in a few countries, coups happened in the context of successful free and fair elections followed by sound socio-economic policies, putting the country on a positive path toward delivering a better life to the most vulnerable. However, in some other cases, elections were systematically rigged or utilized as instruments to legitimize constitutional changes, enabling endless successive mandates for the same ruler. They were even hastily organized amid violent insurgencies in the Sahel, rendering millions of citizens de facto unable to vote. In none of these contexts was there any uncertainty regarding the election outcomes, let alone the potential for meaningful change. This is exacerbated by the perception that democracy is failing to deliver development outcomes or security to the people. The Sahel, home to some of the poorest countries globally, has become the epicenter of violent extremism. This significantly clarifies the relief expressed by cheering populations, particularly the youth, who welcome coups as the sole disruptor of a stagnant illiberal political system still labeled as democratic, yet unable to deliver prosperity or security to the people. Faced with such political deadlocks, violence remained the ultimate means to effect a change in power, as seen in military coups. Indeed, even without resulting in casualties, a military coup remains an act of seizing power through the brute force of arms. Asserting the existence of non-violent coups is an oxymoron and a fallacy. 


While the narrative of democracy backsliding prevails, it is crucial to acknowledge the resilience of some of the established democratic systems. Numerous democracies in the West, Latin America, Asia, and Africa have proven to be resilient against internal challenges posed by populism and a lack of trust, with no major regime changes observed. A 2023 study on the value of democracy relative to other institutional and economic outcomes among citizens in Brazil, France and the United States, was able to estimate the “people’s willingness to trade off democracy for individual income (as well as other social attributes).” It found that “on average, individuals are strongly attached to democracy and a robust welfare state.” They conclude that “liberal democratic values remain substantially robust in high- and middle-income democracies.” 

In Africa, home to the largest number of Least Developed countries and where several successful coups have occurred, less attention is given to the successful democratic alternance in power in countries like The Gambia, Ghana, Mauritania, Malawi, Lesotho, Zambia, the Seychelles, Kenya, and Liberia. In some of these cases, the check and balances system operated effectively, particularly through the powers vested in constitutional courts. In other countries, youth mobilization played a crucial role in bringing about a change in power through the ballot box, presenting an alternative model to military coups. More importantly, the latest results of the 2023 survey run by the Afrobarometer network with a 34-country analysis and based on 48,084 interviews, shows that “for the most part, African citizens are committed to democracy. Most indicators of support for democracy and democratic institutions remain strong and quite steady.” However, the survey shows that a majority is dissatisfied with how democracy works in their country and “only about one in three Africans (35%) both think they live in a country that is mostly or completely democratic and are satisfied with how that democracy functions, down 5 points from a decade ago.”  This reinforces the point made earlier on illiberal democracies rejected by the people. 


Yet, on the international and national stage alike, the narrative of democracy's backsliding and the temptation of more autocratic forms of governance persist, despite what people convey in various surveys about their attachment to democracies. The trade-off between efficiency and political rights is increasingly instrumentalized as a justification for more authoritarian forms of governance, leaving the democratic system advocates under systematic attack for unfairly defending a specific type of political regime that is portrayed as unable to deliver development outcomes. 


Our era demands a critical examination of the trade-off between a political regime and socio-economic progress. It holds true that the majority prefer living under a democratic system that can deliver, rather than an autocratic one with the same capacity. However, challenges emerge when a democratic system fails to deliver the prosperity anticipated by its citizens. The so-called social condition has been a focal point of people’s aspirations for centuries, leading some to contemplate trading political freedom in exchange for development outcomes. 

Graph - Open Society Barometer - Army rule


To complicate the matter further, we now witness the emergence of climate and environmental conditions on the global stage that are redefining our conceptions. In reality, both democracies and autocracies have embraced an industrialization model fueled by fossil fuels, contributing to global warming and endangering life on Earth. These systems have championed exponential growth, exploiting finite natural resources and triggering an unprecedented triple crisis of climate, biodiversity and pollution. 

Today, the crucial consideration is not a trade-off between political rights and economic growth; it is the imperative to transform our means of production and consumption for our survival.

Political regimes regulate the rules for accessing power but do not guarantee socio-economic success and even less the drastic transformation needed from our times. What a political regime ensuring political rights does is place the fundamental right in the hands of citizens to change course if the current one is deemed inadequate.


Our era also brings new types of challenges to democracies with new technologies and Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the early 2000s, the internet and social media were considered a new medium empowering people against tyranny, such as during the Arab Spring or some revolutions in Eastern Europe. However, this was quickly followed by state and private corporation capture of new technologies leading to unprecedented levels of state control over the citizenry and corporation commercialization and manipulation of big data. Not only democracy but also the very freedom of choice is under attack. The very principle of libre arbitre is at stake. 

Graph - Open Society Barometer - Perception


Reimagining Governance: Empowering Agency through a Freedom-Centric Approach


Against these persistent challenges to democracy, which contribute to a chronic and growing trust deficit, I suggest revisiting and revitalizing the fundamental understanding of freedom advocated in UNDP’s reports. This encompasses economic, cultural, and environmental rights, alongside civil and political rights, with a crucial recognition of their interconnectedness. It means adhering to the principles outlined in UN fundamental documents, which articulate all freedoms as indivisible and universal embracing both the freedom to and the freedom from. Championing what I would term a freedom-centric governance means advocating for the simultaneous realization of political rights and developmental outcomes for the people. It is not an either-or scenario; it's about embracing both concurrently. 

"Championing what I would term a freedom-centric governance means advocating for the simultaneous realization of political rights and developmental outcomes for the people."

It is through the political theorist Hannah Arendt that I discovered another crucial dimension of the concept of freedom—the freedom to act together, the freedom to initiate something new. For Arendt, freedom is intricately linked to action: “Freedom... is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.” She further adds that freedom is acting in concert with others: “what makes man a political being is his faculty of action; it enables him to get together with his peers, to act in concert, and to reach out for goals and enterprises that would never enter his mind, let alone the desire of his heart, had he not been given this gift-to embark on something new.” 

Illustration - food - Africa


This additional crucial dimension of freedom complements the "freedom to" and "freedom from" at the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by incorporating the fundamental notion of people's active engagement in political life. It provides a more proactive understanding of the necessity to act together, and collaboratively create something new with others. 

This restoration of the centrality of our agency and engagement is fundamental to revitalizing the practice of our political institutions and our democracies.

It aligns with what our age requires—not just freedom as a means for prosperity, as known in our modern age, or as an end in itself to attain political rights, but also the proactive utilization of freedom to act with others and bring forth something new. This approach transcends the traditional understanding of democracy as a political system based solely on elections and representation, in which we relinquish our capacity to act to our elected representatives. Rather, it emphasizes the broader context of freedom, active citizen participation, and the pursuit of a better and more equitable future. It positions each one of us as an active agent of change in all spheres of human action, be it political, social, economic, or environmental, because “in politics not life but the world is at stake.”


This is not merely a semantic point but a fundamental conceptual and normative one. The term "freedom" rarely takes center stage in our work. Yet its universality and fundamental human nature are much more powerful than the concept of democracy, which is historically and geographically dated and has evolved drastically over time. It could also be argued that democracy has not always thrived in all parts of the world, often morphing into illiberal democracies or outright electoral autocracies. 

"Freedom is more than just the absence of restraints. It entails actively participating in public affairs and contributing to the formation of a new governmental structure and societal framework."

By embracing the universal concept of freedom, we foster genuine appropriation and universal ownership among people worldwide. We empower individuals with a shared narrative of freedom, echoing the fundamental texts of the UN wisely underscore the centrality of freedom. Freedom is not perceived as an imported or an alien concept in any part of the world, as it has been the common thread in human struggles against various forms of oppression such as slavery, colonialism, totalitarian regimes, apartheid, and occupation. Its inherent human nature makes it universally embraced. Therefore, freedom is universally empowering.


It is also essential to distinguish it from the concept of liberty. Hannah Arendt explains that all political liberties, “to which we might add our own claims to be free from want and fear, are of course essentially negative; they are the result of liberation, but they are by no means the actual content of freedom, which … is participation in public affairs, or admission to the public realm.” According to Arendt, freedom is more than just the absence of restraints; it entails actively participating in public affairs and contributing to the formation of a new governmental structure and societal framework. Thus, while liberation from oppression signifies breaking free from constraints, true freedom involves action, the ongoing process of establishing novel forms of governance and societal organization. By emphasizing freedom, we elevate our role as political actors, underscoring our agency in shaping the trajectory of governance. This perspective underscores the importance of collective engagement and action in public life within the polity. 

Only by advocating for a freedom-centric governance, with a comprehensive approach to freedom, embracing all political, social, and environmental aspects of our human condition, and incorporating the central notion of action to create something new, can we hope to address the now-global phenomenon of trust deficit.

We can regain the people's trust by placing their agency at the forefront. Without trust and a pathway to collective action, there is no way we can empower the world to undergo the necessary transformation to withstand the impacts of climate change and preserve human libre arbitre. This entails advocating for the essential freedoms that enable people to take meaningful actions, fostering a dynamic environment and practice of institutions where individuals can contribute actively to shaping a better and more equitable future for all. 

"The United Nations, more than ever, bears the responsibility of upholding the principles of universal freedoms embedded in its charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, illuminating the darkness of our time."

In conclusion, the current global situation, marked by the erosion of trust, injustice, inequality, racism, discrimination, and climate change, mandates a fervent call for universal freedoms—a clarion for governance centered on freedom. The United Nations, more than ever, bears the responsibility of upholding the principles of universal freedoms embedded in its charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, illuminating the darkness of our time. It also shoulders the profound responsibility of championing the freedom of individuals, empowering them to act together and reimagine our collective future. Through a revitalization of our agency and collective action propelled by the advocacy of these fundamental freedoms, the United Nations can forge a path toward transformative development that truly reflects the aspirations and hopes of humanity.



 [1] Although the term appears at least as early as 1887, it was popularized by Samuel P. Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard University, in his article published in the Journal of Democracy and further expounded in his 1991 book, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Huntington describes three waves: the first "slow" wave of the 19th century, a second wave after World War II, and a third wave beginning in the mid-1970s in southern Europe, followed by Latin America and Asia.