Chinese Academy of Social Sciences International Forum on Democracy: Shared Human Values

December 8, 2021

Democratic governance requires 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.

UNDP India/Prashanth Vishwanathan

Dear colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to join you today at this important International Forum on Democracy: Shared Human Values.   I would like to thank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences for the invitation to speak and the opportunity to share with you a perspective from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where I lead the bureau which supports policy and programming.

Around the world, UNDP helps more 170 countries to build the inclusive economies and societies which will enhance sustainable human development.

Democratic governance helps deliver that, contributing to the social cohesion and peace, all critical for sustainable development.  Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, one of the pioneers of UNDP’s human development approach, made this link clearly. In his book, Development is Freedom, he noted that “Democratic governance truly contributes to development by enhancing individual freedom, and such freedom is founded in the protection of human rights and ensured by strong, national institutions.”   

The work of UNDP on democratic governance is grounded in human rights, supporting countries’ efforts to strengthen their democratic institutions and processes, including through checks and balances, so that people’s expectations for accountable, inclusive and responsive governance are met.  We promote principles of effective governance agreed between Member States of the United Nations[1], rather than particular systems of government. Those principles include transparency, participation, inclusion, and accountability. Principles which are woven through the fabric of the United Nations.[2]

And yet, while we know that democratic principles are foundational to human development, we need to be frank that, in many contexts, democratic systems are not functioning well enough to deliver human development.

We see that established mechanisms of representation (e.g. regular elections, political parties, parliaments) are necessary, but not sufficient, for the kinds of governance systems that are needed today. These elements of democratic governance have not on their own created sustainable change within societies or provided the greatest benefits for all people, including future generations.

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 also essential.

And in these challenging times, when countries are addressing economic, political social, and environmental challenges simultaneously, they are under immense strain, putting pressure on fragile social contracts.  Protests and global protest movements are at an all-time high and there have been more coups in the last year than in the last five years combined.[3]

Today I would like to reflect on three areas that we have seen can help ensure that democratic principles drive our governance systems, to deliver sustainable human development.

The first area is transforming local governance ecosystems for more collaborative governance

For the vast majority of people, local governance remains the most accessible level of engagement with public authorities and state institutions – and we particularly saw this in the early stages of the pandemic.  

When state institutions and government are closer to the people, they are more likely to be responsive and held accountable. Local levels of governance are more accessible for citizens to question local officials, present their interests and concerns and resolve their disputes in a fair, just and impartial manner. 

The strong territorial dimension of the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the importance for all countries to have resilient local communities and governance eco-systems.

What is needed, and what will become more central in UNDP’s governance support, is to engage entire local governance eco-systems to build new forms of collaborations between local actors and communities, different tiers of government, development partners and the private sector.

This demands new and innovative methods and partnerships and, importantly, better, more collaborative platforms for engagement that bring together the ‘ecosystem’ of local governance actors to address challenges and agree on local solutions. 

One approach that we are working with at UNDP is that of social innovation platforms.  These SIPs tackle interrelated local development challenges with a systems approach that helps to identify challenges experienced by communities and highlight their interconnectedness; break silos across sectors, maximize the use of public and private investments and build new partnerships between different tiers of governments, the private sector and civil society.

The second area we need to emphasize is building and restoring trust within governance systems

Trust in institutions of the state, which is foundational to effective governance systems, is a complex issue, influenced by many aspects, and the data shows that there are persistent age and gender gaps in trust.

It is influenced by the way in which the public administration operates, provides or restricts information, delivers services, and provides or prevents opportunities for people’s voice in decision making.

In particular, corruption and elite enrichment through misuse of public funds continues to undermine public trust in governments and the services they provide.

Like many other crises, the COVID-19 pandemic provides a fertile ground for corruption to flourish

The uncertainty, disruptions and emergencies present many opportunities for corrupt actors to take advantage of the crisis for private gain.  And evidence is emerging on particular risks associated with health procurement, including vaccine procurement and delivery, as well as the rapid scale-up of social safety net provision and other emergency funding.[4]

This is especially prevalent in countries where there are weak governance institutions, lack of transparency, accountability and oversight, limited supervision and enforcement, and low levels of social capital.

Apart from corruption exacerbating poverty and inequality, eroding public trust, and damaging social cohesion, corruption is also undermining urgent global efforts to address climate change and ease planetary pressures.

UNDP adopts an integrated approach to anti-corruption - to accelerate climate action, build green economies, ensure universal health coverage, advance gender equality and end poverty. For example, in the health sector, UNDP, together with the World Health Organization, the Global Fund and the World Bank, has established the ‘Coalition for Anti-Corruption, Transparency and Accountability in Health (CATCH)’ to strengthen integrity in health systems, promote Universal Health Coverage and uphold the right to health.

The third area of focus is reforming governance systems to make them both more inclusive of youth and more responsive to future generations.

With more than 1.8 billion young people in the world, youth are critical stakeholders in decisions that affect the present and future state of the countries in which they live, and yet they are often excluded from these decision spaces.

They remain underrepresented in decision-making processes due to the lack of technical, political and financial support, discrimination related to age, gender, experience and capabilities, as well as lack of access to information.

UNDP supports youth inclusion and participation in governance, helping governments and national counterparts to take forward national youth policies and supporting youth participation in politics. We work to ensure that youth are included in UN and global forums, such as the recent UNFCC Conference of Parties (COP26), so that climate negotiations and policy-making as well as implementation, monitoring and accountability have youth concerns reflected.  Right now, we are facilitating a virtual global consultation for youth on democracy and technology.  At a time when many people, including many young people, lack trust in governance institutions, we need to explore how technology can contribute to make democratic governance deliver, especially for young people.

As I wrap up, I would highlight that the last few years have shown us that governance that delivers means a shift from command and hierarchy to collaboration and consent, involving more voices, and multiple actors working together at different levels, harnessing the potential of new technologies to support this change. At UNDP we seek to support such ‘whole of society’ approaches.

And by focusing, among other aspects, on local governance, enhancing trust, youth inclusion and inter-generational equity we seek to give reality to the democratic principles that support sustainable human development.

Thank you very much!