Open and inclusive; a public sphere for human development

Strengthening trust in democracy

June 11, 2024
Four men stand under a tree

Collective action is urgently needed to address the many development challenges confronting our societies.

Photo: UNDP Somalia

All over the world, democratic institutions are experiencing a remarkable paradox; people continue to overwhelmingly value democracy but are also more likely than ever to choose leaders that may undermine it by bypassing the fundamental rules of the democratic process. 

When this pattern is observed, in country after country, we can infer that the core problem does not lie with particular leaders or people’s democratic aspirations. Something deeper is happening - a growing sense of insecurity and powerlessness is combining with deepening polarization to undermine citizens’ trust in public institutions.

Meanwhile the global Human Development Index (HDI) reached a record high in 2023, after significantly dropping in 2020 and 2021. However, this recovery has been highly unequal. While every country in the OECD is projected to go back to at least its pre-2019 HDI levels, only half of the Least Developed Countries are expected to do so.

These trends are the expression of a dangerous gridlock stifling the collective action that is urgently needed, nationally and globally, to address the many development challenges confronting our societies, from decarbonizing our economies, to preventing violent conflict, to ensuring that digital technologies are used to advance and not constrain fundamental freedoms.

Against this backdrop, the 2023/24 Human Development Report “Breaking the Gridlock. Reimagining cooperation in a polarized world” calls for a range of actions to “dial back the temperature” and re-establish the conditions for effective cooperation. These include, among other things, reimagining global public goods and rethinking many aspects of our governance systems. 

To be clear, divergences of opinions and interests are unavoidable in pluralist societies and conflict, broadly defined, is a natural aspect of public life. Nonviolent conflict can, in fact, be a major driver of social progress, as demonstrated by countless examples, from universal suffrage movements to the fight in South Africa against apartheid.

So, the question is not how we move from conflict to consensus. The question is how do we find pockets of common ground amidst diversity? How do we establish adequate mechanisms to mediate and, if needed, adjudicate our differences? Or, in other words, how we ensure that political decision-making processes are widely seen as legitimate and do not tear societies apart, but rather foster a sense of shared destiny.

In UNDP we believe that, to provide answers to these questions, we need to pay more attention to the quality of the public sphere – the complex network of spaces in which people come together, as members of a community, to articulate different, and potentially competing, visions of the public good.

Evidence shows that societies with more open and inclusive governance arrangements are better equipped to constructively deal with social tensions before they are mobilized into violence or hardened into permanent fractures. For this reason we believe that an investment in an open and inclusive public sphere is an investment in human development.

So, what will it take? The Human Development Report stresses the importance of new governance approaches focused on protecting human agency and enhancing people's voices, as well as the need to foster information ecosystems that are reliable and conducive to constructive public debate.

Consistent with this framework, UNDP’s Governance Team has developed an open and inclusive public sphere agenda structured around four priorities:

  • Nurturing spaces for civic engagement, based on the full recognition of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly
  • Promoting access to quality information on matters of public interest, including by responding to information pollution and fragmentation
  • Promoting, at all levels of society, a shared culture of democratic participation based on civic mindedness, a commitment to facts and reason, and respect for the “other”
  • Removing legal, cultural and other barriers preventing the meaningful participation in public life of historically marginalized segments of society.

The frustratingly slow progress in addressing the climate crisis that the world has been experiencing for decades now, the major increase in war deaths and forced displacement of recent years (reaching historical highs since World War II), the advent of artificial intelligence as a new and fast-evolving technological frontier with little or no regulatory guardrails, and high and often rising feelings of insecurity accompanying all of this, are just some examples of what happens when we fail to recognize and adequately manage our interconnectedness.

Effective collective action is more needed than ever, if the world is to rise to these and other challenges. But effective collective action is only possible within the framework of governance systems grounded in openness and inclusion. This is why UNDP will continue to promote an open and inclusive public sphere as part of its commitment to human development.