Democracy is a public good. What is the development community doing about it?

By Anthony Smith, CEO of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD)

Democracy has been undervalued by the development community. I understand why – I am a child of decolonisation and its political economy of liberation, and my introduction to international development was through the target-driven Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But I have come down firmly on the side of Amartya Sen’s view on the timing of democracy.  He said: “A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.” For too long, some in the donor community have been ambivalent about this, wanting proof that development goals would be reached faster in democracies than in autocracies and implying that democracy could wait. For too many of us, the politics of our partner country was just a factor to be navigated around to avoid disrupting our programmes.

So I have three big reasons why it is essential that the development community switches now from doing development technically to doing development democratically.

The first reason is that better political systems are essential if we are to tackle the perfect storm of challenges ahead:

  • The climate emergency needs environmental democracy – voice for those at risk, access to information for decision-makers, and justice for those affected.
  • Global public health needs greater transparency and stronger accountability.
  • Social justice – including racial equality – needs a radical shift in political participation and a focus on inequalities.

These are global challenges, and all the evidence shows that a majority of countries, including but not only developing countries, have systems of democratic governance that are weak in some or all of the areas needed to address these unprecedented challenges. And the pandemic has made things harder, both because of the economic impacts and because of the setbacks to gender equality. We know from a recent WFD-King’s College study that when women are able to exercise political leadership, there are gains not just for women and girls but for the whole of society, not least in counteracting corruption and focusing resources on the quality and consistency of public service delivery.

The second reason is that the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs requires a bigger dose of humility than most of us have swallowed so far. We should be proud of our moral stand against absolute poverty but also ready to make the mental shift from being donors to being investors and partners.  The MDGs were a donor tool that gave new purpose to post-Cold War aid budgets. Thankfully, the world is no longer a simplistic black and white – racial or metaphorical – dichotomy between developed and developing countries. The SDGs are a joint effort and apply to all of us.  We see more clearly now that we are all on a (full colour) spectrum and that each country’s development can only be sustained through engaged citizens and accountable governments. So while it was possible 25 years ago to focus exclusively on resource transfers to substitute for the lack of finance in developing countries, that was never going to be enough. Today, countries are more clearly in charge of their own development and it is critical that more development assistance is invested in building inclusive, accountable and resilient political systems.

The third reason for the development community to focus on democracy is that it is under serious threat. The spread of democratic governance is not inevitable, in fact democracy has been in retreat for the past 15 years. This is not because people have decided they do not want democratic freedoms but because those with power have found new ways of undermining political and civic freedoms and consolidating their own power.

So what should we do about all this? We must first recognise that “good governance” is not the same as democratic governance.  Donors should not be trying to choose between effective service delivery and democratic values. We need both. Political systems should be accountable, transparent, inclusive, participatory and representative, as well as effective, as SDG 16 says (the UN General Assembly shied away from using the word “democratic”, but you get the picture). Democracies can be messy and building a democratic culture takes a long time, so at the same time as countries help each other to tackle the real challenges they face, we should also find ways of supporting wider representation and stronger accountability, whether through parliaments, oversight bodies, political parties, civil society or independent media.

Democracy is, I believe, a global public good – the more of it there is, the easier it is to tackle those global challenges. We can have more confidence in the commitments made by democratic countries because they have more transparent political systems and more open public debate.  Our shared commitment to democracy and human rights also provides a better basis for collaboration at both government and public levels.

There is plenty for everyone to do on this agenda, whether donors, philanthropists, Civil Society Organisations, faith leaders, the private sector and academics. That is because democratic governance is a broad issue, not a narrow one, bottom up, not top down. The work to build and sustain democracy is constant and universal and starts wherever you are. There is no doubt that the fate of democratic governance in each of our countries has a real impact on others. We need to live our values at home and in our interactions with other countries.  Now is the time, for all our sakes.