This International Day of Democracy, I am sure I am not alone in wrestling anew with old questions – questions that seem in recent months to have become more perplexing than ever. What really is democracy? How relevant is it to most of the world’s population? Are democratic institutions and processes even fit for purpose in today’s world? When the context is less than ideal, can democratic mechanisms hinder inclusive change? How should democratic institutions and processes adapt to the changes in today’s world?
Of course, there are decades (in some cases, centuries) of excellent thinking and research on most of these questions, and many well-known answers. But as UNDP prepares to embark on the implementation of a new four year strategic plan with a commitment to strengthening democratic institutions and processes, it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the basics and being honest about some difficult issues:
Firstly, our established mechanisms of representation (regular elections, political parties, parliaments) are necessary, but not sufficient, for a democratic society. Other key elements include the active participation of people in politics and civic life with some measure of shared values related to civic responsibilities; protection of the human rights of all citizens, including minorities; and the equal application of laws to all people. An independent media and access to accurate information are essential.
Secondly, the elements of democratic governance (such as elections or parliaments) which the international community often find easiest to support (and see and measure) have not necessarily created sustainable change within societies or provided the greatest benefits for people. We also need to pay attention to supporting political culture, organization and norms, and civic engagement.
Third, people’s expectations that their democracies should deliver have not been met in many places. Procedures of democracy which do not yield visible benefits for ordinary people tend to decrease support for democracy, as public perception surveys across regions have shown. Likewise, corruption is corrosive to democracy, contributing in many contexts to regression on sustainable development and human rights, and supporting the rise of populist and sometimes oppressive regimes. Prioritizing anti-corruption mechanisms across all sectors is therefore essential.
Fourth, digitalization is profoundly changing the ways our political processes are functioning, across all societies in many ways, including through the ‘infodemic’. Indeed, 49 percent of tech experts surveyed recently predicted that the use of technology will weaken democracy in the coming years. How to subject technological advancement itself (including the use of artificial intelligence) to democratic oversight is complex in a context where change is being driven by huge platforms such as Facebook and Google.