Democracy is about people; democracy is about participation

Electoral Volunteers that support during elections in Rwanda help the cost of the elections relatively low. They are supported by UNDP

Kigali, 15 September 2019: Today, the global community celebrates the International Day of Democracy (IDD). It is an important day for citizens and governments to assess where their countries stand on the fundamental democratic values and principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. How much progress has been made in ensuring people’s full and active participation in governance? In promoting accountability? In advancing freedom of expression and of assembly? In promoting inclusiveness? These are some of the critical questions for everyone to discuss and debate on IDD.

The global theme for this year’s IDD is “Participation”, which puts a strong focus on  people. It reminds us that democracy and good governance is built on participation and inclusion. The right, and the opportunity, to participate meaningfully is a fundamental building block for democracy. It is also essential for peace and stability, and for ensuring sustainable development. History has shown time and time again that countries develop more robust long-term development solutions when space is created for a wide cross-section of people to participate in decision-making processes and to put forward ideas on things that matter to their own lives and communities. In this sense, participation refers to all people, and the call of IDD is for States to be inclusive, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals principle of leaving no one behind. Today is therefore a day to reflect on the extent to which different population groups – such as women, the youth, persons with disabilities, etc. – are meaningfully involved in decision-making and have equal opportunities to contribute their ideas.

The media - a key partner in promoting citizen participation in democratic processes and development

Across the world, the media plays a vital role in the democratic process. Not only does the media help to hold public (and private) institutions and officials accountable, but it plays a key role in educating and informing citizens on issues that affect them and their families and communities. The media can also be a voice for the voiceless, bringing forward stories and ideas from people who would otherwise be invisible in society. A vibrant, responsible, professional and independent media can be a powerful instrument to facilitate participation, good governance, transparency and accountability.

A core part of UNDP’s work on governance relates to support for media development. Here in Rwanda, and in many other countries, UNDP partners with various State and non-State actors to strengthen the capacity of media practitioners, including managers and owners of media houses. UNDP’s work often involves supporting the growth and development of media institutions, providing training to media practitioners, assisting with the development of media regulations and codes of conduct, and advocacy that seeks to widen space for the media and civil society, among other things. We are grateful for the continued partnership with institutions such as the Media High Council, Rwanda Media Commission, Swedish International Development Agency, Swiss Development Corporation, Rwanda Governance Board, and others with whom we have been working closely in this field.


Free and fair elections have long been held as a benchmark of democracy given the key role that elections play in promoting public participation and giving citizens the opportunity to choose their leaders. Across the globe, UNDP, with its many development partners (the European Union being chief among them), has been one of the main partners to governments on elections.

Over the past decade or so, UNDP has increasingly focussed on ways to make elections more efficient in order to facilitate deeper and wider public participation. One key area in which we have been investing is in Information and Communications Technologies in elections management. The results have been quite impressive. For instance, we have seen the use of ICT having a massive impact on facilitating online voter registration and higher voter turnout in elections. This has also been the experience here in Rwanda, where UNDP and other partners have supported the National Elections Commission to develop its ICT infrastructure.

Election and civic education programmes remain a mainstay of UNDP’s support for elections in many countries. Effective ‘participation’ requires an informed and engaged polity, cognizant not only of the issues and policy orientations of the various political parties and actors, but also of their rights and responsibilities as citizens and voters.

Women’s participation is key to sustainable development

It is often said that women make up a little over half of the global population. But women rarely have half the opportunity to participate in decision-making – whether in politics, their households, their communities or their work places. Rwanda, of course, has an enviable record of women’s participation in elections and representation in Parliament and Cabinet. We hope more countries will follow Rwanda’s lead and create similar opportunities for women to participate at levels where it truly matters.

Here in Rwanda, UNDP works closely with UNWOMEN (the lead UN Agency on promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment), Gender Monitoring Office (GMO), MIGEPROF, PROFEMME, and other institutions on empowering women to participate fully not only in the public sector but also the private sector (we have an exciting joint UNDP/UNWOMEN/PSF/GMO initiative called Gender Equality Seal in the Private Sector. Do find out more by contacting our office).  Another of our specific programmes implemented here and in various other countries involves supporting the development of women’s political wings within political parties. Experience has shown that capacity strengthening of women’s political organisations as well as of women political candidates pays dividends, especially when combined with public awareness raising and support for grassroots women’s organisations.

There are, of course, many other issues important to promoting participation, and UNDP is engaged in hundreds of programmes across the globe aimed at strengthening citizen voice and participation.

Today, we simply encourage everyone to take stock of what has been achieved and see where there are opportunities to further deepen participation and democracy.

This piece was  written by the UNDP Resident Representative, Mr. Stephen Rodriques.