Democratic principles underpin the systemic changes we need

September 14, 2022

The International Day of Democracy 2022 focuses on the importance of a free, independent and pluralistic media for healthy democracies. In Somalia UNDP supports Bilan, the country's first ever all-women media organization, to produce accurate, reliable and accessible information.

Photo: UNDP Somalia

The newly released Human Development Report details the devastating effects on human development of the food, fuel and finance crises, as the world struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic and a war in Europe.  These shorter-term crises are building on the accelerating climate emergency, growing levels of perceived inequalities, and digital disruptions.

The Report also highlights the intensification of political and social polarization across and within countries. It provides recommendations on policy responses focused on investment, insurance and innovation, to navigate the current uncertainties.  Importantly, it also highlights the need for systemic change,  a conclusion echoed recently by climate scientists: “Targeting a climate resilient, sustainable world involves fundamental changes to how society functions, including changes to underlying values, worldviews, ideologies, social structures, political and economic systems, and power relationships.” 

As the call for fundamental changes to our economic and societal systems moves from perceived radicalism to the respectable mainstream, there remain difficult questions on how such changes will come about and, indeed, our role as development actors.  Do our actions risk reinforcing systems which are ultimately unsustainable and unfair, reinforcing the grip on power by elite groups? Do we have the necessary tools to support the required shifts, enhancing equality (including gender equality) and justice as outcomes?  

As Head of Governance at UNDP, my entry point to thinking about these challenging questions is the governance arrangements which we need.  Manifestations of social upheaval and political polarization, which we are seeing across regions, often start with political institutions that are neither able nor willing to meet people’s needs and aspirations or to safeguard planetary systems. Indeed, dissatisfaction with political systems that not only fail to deliver but also appear to reinforce the enrichment of a small elite has reached an all-time high. Surveys typically find that people aspire to live under democratic governments, but that around the world there is wide dissatisfaction with democracy in many countries where people believe that elected officials do not care and fail to deliver their promises.

One important strand of UNDP’s assistance to countries is to support the capacity of governments to deliver public goods and services inclusively, drawing on the opportunities provided by - but guarding against the risks of - digitalization. For example, in Malawi, UNDP is supporting a district-level initiative to collect and evaluate data and coordinate service delivery based on real-time information, ensuring better targeting and prioritization. In Bangladesh, UNDP is supporting a grievance redress system as a monitoring and measurement tool in public service delivery (including health) to increase accountability and reduce corruption.  Supporting government capacity to deliver effectively, inclusively and accountably is important in its own right and can also help support trust in governance systems.

However, behind lack of capacity or willingness to deliver, in some contexts there is a more systemic challenge of political systems that reward short-termism and ‘winner takes all’ mentalities.  Formal democratic systems can prop-up corrupt and autocratic regimes, fuel polarization, and threaten social cohesion. They certainly drive global inequality and unsustainable practices and are pushing our planetary systems to the brink of collapse.

In this context, many social actors are now demanding a re-think of political systems, including those considered democratic, to ensure that they are more responsive to people’s appetite to engage politically and participate democratically. They want governance systems that address inequality, support human rights and the rights of future generations, including the right to a healthy environment.  Although there are interesting initiatives and pilots springing up in this area, the voices of people from the places and groups that are most affected are not always heard or listened to.  As UNDP, we must play an important role in amplifying these voices - facilitating dialogue in our partner countries and supporting the learning within and between regions.  To do so, we need to act understand our role differently, and work within a broader ecosystem of partners.

A key part of this effort must be prioritizing support to an inclusive public sphere, including information ecosystems which provide access to accurate and trusted information and in which people can participate and express their views freely, as a pre-requisite to agency and constructive societal dialogue. As Nobel prize-winners, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov recently noted, “we need a public sphere where fostering trust with a healthy exchange of ideas is valued more highly than corporate profits and where rigorous journalism can cut through the noise”. Indeed, UNDP is already supporting such efforts across all regions. For example, in Somalia UNDP is supporting Bilan, a women-run media organization producing accurate, reliable and accessible information. In other contexts, UNDP is supporting information integrity including, for example, during the recent elections in Kenya.

For the International Day of Democracy 2022, we focus on the importance of a free, independent and pluralistic media for healthy democracies. It is also an important opportunity to reflect more broadly on the need for governance systems that support the societal changes called for by so many. We can no longer separate dysfunctional governance arrangements – from global to local - from the ever-growing challenges we face. There are no easy answers, or ready-made solutions, but there is a strong body of evidence that when democratic principles underpin governance arrangements the outcomes are more equitable and sustainable. We should all be asking ourselves and each other what better governance arrangements might look like and how to move our societies in that direction. As a previous UN Secretary-General noted, “democracy is a dynamic social and political system whose ideal functioning is never fully ‘achieved’”.  Let us ask ourselves on this International Day of Democracy how its functioning can be adjusted and enhanced to help bring the world back from the brink.