The role of democracy in sustainable development

September 14, 2023

Next year is seen as a pivotal moment, a so-called "super-year of elections", when almost two billion people will cast their votes.

Photo: UNDP Mali

Today as we mark the International Day of Democracy (IDD), we stand at a crossroads of reflection and action, reviewing the challenges and opportunities ahead. Indeed, many are setting their sights on 2024 as a pivotal moment, a so-called "super-year of elections", when almost two billion people will cast their votes in some 70 elections. But does the simple act of casting a vote truly embody the essence of democracy? 

While elections, especially at the scale anticipated for 2024, are important occasions, they are but one facet of a multi-dimensional democratic system. As we at UNDP, alongside many others, celebrate the IDD, it’s important not only to acknowledge the important act of voting but also to advocate for and reinforce the broader principles and practices that ensure democracy thrives.

Beyond ballots, democracy embodies a profound commitment to human dignity, rights, and the collective well-being of our planet. It's not just about periodic electoral exercises, important though they are, but also about ensuring that the voice of every individual resonates in the corridors of power and decision-making.

As we stand on the cusp of the SDG Summit, which is expected to herald a new phase of heightened efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we are reminded of the intertwining paths of democracy and sustainable development. It’s imperative, now more than ever, to delve deeper into the symbiotic relationship between democratic governance and progress on sustainable development. After all, democracy is for people and planet. Both thrive when they’re mutually valued, respected, and nurtured. 

An ever-unfolding endeavour

Democracy is a notion to be perpetually questioned, understood, and lived. The democratic systems around the world, while championing noble principles, were often planted and took root in the soil of inequity, patriarchy, racism and violence, and sometimes those legacies remain. Democratic systems in themselves do not always lead swiftly to improved sustainable development. When people perceive that their governments are failing to deliver, they often demand change, not always favouring more openness and democracy. This should not cast doubt on the intrinsic value of democratic ideals. Both the concept and practice of democracy have, and should, continue to evolve in response to socio-cultural and political circumstances, adapting to the unique circumstances of communities and nations, as well as profound global shifts such as digitalization.  

While electoral processes stand as a cornerstone of democratic governance, they face the daunting task of facilitating genuine choice in an era marred by intense polarization. Recognizing this challenge, UNDP, in alliance with its UN and other partners, has been boosting its support to information integrity as a component of its electoral assistance work. Our programmatic responses are diverse, including digital tools for fact-checking and social listening, and support to electoral institutions and independent media, as well as public resilience to information pollution. Our endeavour extends far beyond support to electoral mechanisms and established democratic structures, to ensuring the principles of democracy are upheld and advanced across a range of spaces and processes, according to each country’s unique circumstances.

The unanswered challenge

Democracy's heart lies in inclusivity and agency. It emphasizes each person's perspective and their right to shape their lives and their societies, individually and as part of a collective, at local as well as national levels. However, too often people are excluded and silenced. 

Young people, in all their diversity, are vital to shaping the world today, yet their voices are frequently ignored, or their participation instrumentalized. In recognition of this, the focus of today’s celebration for International Democracy Day is “Empowering the Next Generation.” UNDP’s programming, in collaboration with UN and other partners, emphasizes youth empowerment and engagement from peace and security to climate action. Women are also routinely dismissed, harassed or ignored, as a result of deeply entrenched social norms. The 2023 update of the UNDP Gender Social Norms Index shockingly reveals that nearly half the world’s people believe that men make better political leaders than women. We support women’s political participation including addressing violence against women in politics; promoting gender quotas to advance women’s public participation; and the transformation of gender norms. We support the empowerment and agency of all people, ensuring that no-one is excluded due to identity, ethnicity, disability, sexuality or any other factor. 

The backbone of democracy

Accountability ensures that leaders and decision-makers are answerable for their actions and decisions. It provides people with mechanisms to ensure that promises are kept, resources are used judiciously, and the well-being of people and planet remains at the forefront. It carves out paths to justice, offers remedies for grievances, and plays a pivotal role in bolstering trust in public institutions. UNDP collaborates with various stakeholders to amplify accountability across diverse spheres, including through supporting comprehensive and integrated rule of law and human rights programmes, anti-corruption initiatives and the spaces and capacities for civic engagement. By strengthening these key pillars, UNDP helps to ensure that governance systems remain robust, resilient, and reflective of the will and welfare of people.

Democracy and sustainable development

In reflecting on the core elements of democracy, we recognize that the principles at its heart are also those that contribute to sustainable development. So, as we move forward into this 'super-year of elections' and accelerate action towards achieving the SDGs, let us celebrate today that the realization of democratic principles is a living, evolving struggle that holds the power to transform societies and safeguard the well-being of both people and the planet. In this pursuit, the realization of democratic principles and sustainable development are not separate endeavours but intertwined pathways to a brighter and more sustainable future for all.