Here’s what International Day of Democracy means to our staff

As the world marks the United Nations’ International Day of Democracy, WFD staff describe how their recent experiences in the field have underlined to them the importance of democratic governance.

Anthony Smith, Chief Executive, on the impact of terrorism in Tunisia:

In March 2015 I was with Lord Steel in Tunisia, holding an induction programme for newly-elected members of parliament. Two weeks later gunmen shot dead 21 people, mostly European tourists, at the Bardo National Museum in the grounds of the parliament in Tunis.

During the programme, after visiting the Speaker, we had been taken on a visit to the Bardo museum itself. We were incredibly impressed by the commitment and dynamism of the new MPs. And so the shock of the terrorist attacks was very much increased by our personal engagement with the parliament, as well as with the staff of the museum. We knew how difficult it would be for the country to respond. We also knew how important it was that parliament itself responded in a way that reinforced democratic governance and democratic values.

Since then, I have felt a strong connection with the people who had to respond to that attack, and to the separate attack in June. They have had to maintain Tunisia’s democracy and help their society as a whole to respond to this crisis. They have also helped me to see how important it is for parliament to lead the way in maintaining commitment to the rule of law and tries to ensure both reconciliation and decisive action in response to those challenges.

Ellen Shustik, Senior Programme Manager for Elections and Programme Development, on elections in Ukraine:

Ellen (third from right) with polling station officers in eastern Ukraine

I was an elections observer in the east of Ukraine for last year’s presidential election in May 2014 – right after the Maidan protests – and also in October for parliamentary elections. What struck me was the incredible level of enthusiasm, even within the smallest rural communities where people walked for miles to cast their votes, in the post-Maidan political environment. There was a real excitement about the country moving in a new direction and the reforms that these elections could potentially bring.

From 18-year olds voting for the first time to people in their 80s, I witnessed the pride and joy that people take in casting a ballot in countries where democracy is not taken for granted. It was a stark reminder that people elsewhere have to fight hard to get that right. How moving it is to see the right to have one’s voice heard exercised in a way that is full of enthusiasm and commitment.

Janet Bamisaye, Programmes Accountant, on local government in Kenya:

One of the reasons I joined WFD was because I wanted to help give people who don’t have a voice a say. In August 2014, when I was in the office of the Honourable George Ndotto, Speaker of the Kitui County Assembly in Kenya, hearing him speak so passionately about the contribution we’d made to his work gave me a lot of joy.

We’d been providing the assembly with training to help Kitui’s local politicians develop a five-year strategic plan for the county. Mr Ndotto was excited about the difference our work had made – bringing ambitions in line with approved resources, capturing feedback from the grassroots, etc.

It meant a lot to him, and to hear him talk about it meant a lot to me. Hearing the Speaker talk so passionately about it was, for me, a personal fulfilment. It felt like we were making a big impact to ensure democracy, equality and fairness in local politics.

And the training has made a difference, too. The assembly was able to come up with a recommendation on a realistic county development plan which was eventually passed in the Kitui assembly. The plan is currently being applied and is the main framework for planning and resources allocation until 2017.

Devin O’Shaughnessy, Director of Programmes, on the case for democracy assistance:

Photo: Dean Terry

Three visionaries – from Bangladesh, France, and the UK – have helped crystalise for me why democracy is a universal principle worth defending.

Amartya Sen: “Freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means.”

Democracy is not just a luxury for citizens from wealthier countries to enjoy, but it is both a fundamental human right and a means towards greater and more equitable development.

Alexis de Tocqueville: “When the principle of equality spreads…not only within one nation, but at the same time among several neighbouring peoples, the inhabitants of these various countries, despite different languages, customs, and laws, always resemble each other in an equal fear of war and love of peace.”

Democratic countries will rarely if ever go to war with each other; the more democracies, the greater likelihood of world peace.

Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

A crucial reminder; though democratic politics can be rough and tumble, slow, frustrating, and even a bit dirty, democracy is still the best option we have, and everyone should do his or her part to make it better.

I am proud to have made contributions, even if small, to helping defenders of democracy from parliaments, political parties and civil society build their own democratic institutions in some of the most difficult contexts imaginable. Helping new MPs in Somalia, provincial councillors in Afghanistan and civil society organisations in South Sudan has brought me great personal fulfilment, knowing I am doing my best to help make the dream of global democracy a reality.

Kerrie Doogan-Turner, Communications Assistant, on women’s rights in Afghanistan:

In September 2014 Amnesty International, where I was working, sought to highlight the lack of women participants at the NATO summit in Wales. Their ‘talk to me, not about me’ campaign really resonated as I’d previously worked to support women in Afghanistan who were promoting and defending human rights in their country – in a bid to strengthen Afghanistan after its very turbulent past.

One of the things that’s made me interested in working at WFD has been appreciating just how strong the connection between participation in democracy and progress on human rights really is. It’s only by being part of the process of government that you have a say in your future and the future of your country. You can’t build peace by leaving 50% of the population out – that’ something that’s always stuck with me.

Dina Melhem, Regional Director for MENA and Asia, on women’s rights in Iraq: 

MP Intisar al-Jubouri of the Iraqi parliament’s Women and Children’s Affairs Committee speaks out about her work combating violence against women and girls

Under a democratic system everyone is protected, especially marginalised groups. But amidst war and a lack of democracy, women are especially vulnerable – as events in Iraq in the last 12 months have shown.

In January and March this year, as the WFD-organised coalition against domestic violence met in Jordan and Lebanon, the testimony of two women MPs from Iraq was both impressive and striking. They have always been very active members of our coalition. This year we heard their report of conversations with a group of Yazidi women who had been attacked. Having the voice of women in parliament felt very important because they want to contribute to protect their women and girls from violence, as well as from the shame that victims may face even in their own families. We worked with women MPs on how to debate the domestic violence bill they are seeking to push through the Iraq’s Council of Representatives.

Coming from the region, I can very easily relate to what they have to say. I feel the outrage very acutely. It makes me appreciate the importance of our work. Democracy protects women, and having the voices of women in parliament can make that protection much more solid. It feels, after this year, that we need to do even more.

Charlotte Egan, Programme Officer for Africa, on Thai free speech trials

I come from a country where it’s hard to even understand that merely being a vocal opponent of the government is enough to get you in jail. When I was in Thailand last year, monitoring the trials of human rights defenders who faced ten years in prison just for saying something defamatory, I was shocked by what I saw.

But I was also impressed by the civil society organisations whose supporters stood outside the courts, even though they were potentially putting themselves in danger by doing so. Every single trial I went to was packed with people who were scrambling to get in. It made me think a lot more about how important freedom of expression is – and about how parliaments need a civil society space to be critical in order to function properly.

Majda ElBied, Senior Programme Manager for Africa, on the EU’s past:

I was in Brussels in June 2014 with a group of staff from the East African Legislative Assembly. They were trying to find out how the European Union aids regional integration via its policies. It was a very useful visit; the shared learning and new relationships were very valuable for EALA.

What really struck me was how lucky we are to live in a peaceful region. I’m from Belgium, so being in Brussels reminded me that Europe was created to bring people together for peace and security. We tend to forget about it. But images of the Second World War in the European Parliament building provided a stark reminder that the EU respects cultural and linguistic diversity and ensures that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced. European officials often get talked about in a negative way, but their work has helped a lot of people when it comes to democratic representation.

And let’s not forget that Brussels had once sent its staff to East Africa to explore opportunities for a common currency. Whichever way information flows, the purpose is the same: trying to share learning as we seek to establish and strengthen regional bodies.

Alex Stevenson, Head of Communications, on a fresh perspective on British politics:

After five years of writing about politicians’ varying degrees of rhetorical ability, and their ability to withstand some tough questioning, there was something ironic about my being asked to address a group of politicians in the final weekend of Britain’s 2015 general election campaign. This wasn’t a tired old local party meeting, though. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association had invited me to give a talk to their team of election observers, who had travelled to Britain from across the world, about the state of play in British politics.

When you’re immersed in a country’s domestic politics for many years it becomes hard to see the wood for the trees. Yet the fundamentals of democracy in a political party system don’t change much and this group of rather formidable MPs and senators quickly drilled down to the core issues. What struck me, as I stood there facing this cross-examination from parliamentarians from countries like Canada, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, Rwanda and the Seychelles, was the calibre of their forensic questioning – and what that said about the strengths of their respective parliaments.

I was also struck by how doubtful they were about the certainty of a hung parliament in Britain; a scepticism which, it turned out, was entirely justified.

George Kunnath, Regional Director for Europe, Central Asia and Africa, on Maidan Square:

Seeing the memorials to the fallen in Maidan Square in Ukraine in May this year really brought home the reality that democracy is fragile, hard won and obtained at a great price.

Democracy to me has always been about my freedom to choose. The freedom to choose your leaders, your religion, your job, your future. This freedom is what many great people over the course of history have sacrificed their lives for.

While, on International Democracy Day we tend to remember the historical greats like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and others, we should not forget that daily ordinary people across the world are standing up against oppression and for their right to choose a better life.

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