How strong democracy can help make development sustainable

This month we interview Tina Fahm, Commissioner at the Independent Aid Commission and recently appointed WFD Associate.

Establishing effective and legitimate multi-party democracy, is not something one organisation can help achieve in isolation. That’s why we are building a community of associates who can contribute advice and support to our programmes. With a background as an auditor, Tina brings over thirty years’ experience in governance, transparency and anti-corruption to WFD.

Tina, how did you start out working in international development?

Following my studies in politics at university, I developed a deep interest in geopolitics particularly that which related to emerging democracies. I was delighted to be appointed to the WFD Board by the Foreign Secretary. Though I had no prior experience in international development, my skills and expertise in corporate governance, organisational and leadership development were quickly made use of in WFD’s programmatic work and I soon found myself supporting the development of parliaments, political party structures and civil society organisations working alongside MPs and parliamentary colleagues in Europe, MENA and Africa.

Working at WFD helped to clarify my understanding of what constitutes effective governance, which I have come to regard as a dynamic framework encompassing leadership, culture, standards of conduct, risk management, internal control and democratic accountability in decision-making involving service users and stakeholders. I believe it is a key determinate of institutional effectiveness and of the quality of services provided. This way of thinking continues to inform my work in international development.

In 2017, we heard a lot of talk about the failure of democracy. Should we accept other forms of government can also deliver?

Sure we are living in interesting times! The rise of populism has triggered a global debate that has put democracy under considerable scrutiny. To some it may seem as if democracy has failed, to others recent events have highlighted the need to remain vigilant and not take democracy for granted and for governments to ensure inclusion and shared prosperity for all. I think there can be no better way to achieving this than through accountable and responsive democratic institutions mandated to meet the needs of citizens.

Personally, I don’t believe that any other form of government is able to deliver as well as democracy. I agree with an often quoted remark by Winston Churchill in which he says that ‘democracy is not perfect and unlikely to provide all the answers’. However recent research reported that the majority of people around the globe are still in favour of democracy as the best form of government. We just need to find ways to make democracy work for everyone.

Then, what role should democracy-strengthening organisations play?

Fostering improved democratic processes, bringing together individuals and institutions and encouraging them to work together to solve concrete problems based on democratic values and practices should lie at the heart of democracy-strengthening organisations.

But let’s not underestimate the enormity of the task. Democracy strengthening is complex and multifaceted and rightly involves a wide range of different interests including parliaments, public institutions, political parties, electoral commissions, audit authorities, anti-corruption agencies, civil society, universities, traditional authorities, media and increasingly the private sector. Each actor has their own culture, understanding of governance, different power structures working through formal and informal frameworks. Democracy building organisations need to remain agile, flexible and adaptable. It goes without saying that an ability to bring people together and create spaces to foster enlightenment and understanding is vital.

When I was a member of WFD’s Board we recognised and accepted that democracy building takes a long time. There are no short cuts. But if you get it right the benefits are enormous. Democracy can be its own return on investment.

Understanding local context in emerging democracies is key to the success of any initiative. Unfortunately, in many cases women are excluded from the political process. What is the best way to help address inequality?

Though many constitutions ban discrimination on grounds of gender, it frustrates me that women continue to face barriers to political participation across the world, and nearly every country (including our own) has yet to achieve gender parity in the political process.

There are a number of  ways to help address inequality and support women, starting with more emphasis on building skills, competencies and confidence, working with political parties to help promote greater participation of women in politics, working with women at a local level through civil society organisations and facilitating engagement with government.  Working directly with parliaments and legislatures to address issues of structural reform, especially those relating to legal and human rights can help secure long term changes that deliver a future where women are treated as equals in society, the political process and in public life.

WFD has made great inroads in tackling gender inequality and I have had the privileged of working on a range of programmes since 2007 including, in the MENA region working with the Coalition of Arab Women MPs on changes to laws on domestic violence, and with civil society organisations in Sierra Leone and in the Democratic Republic of Congo which resulted in an increase in the number of women entering politics.

The nature of democracy means that one election can change everything. That’s why we work with political parties as well as civil society. Does politics matter or should we focus on less transient and politically-neutral institutions?

I agree, one election can change everything, but isn’t that the nature of democracy?

Politics matters because it affects the daily life of every citizen. In order to have a well functioning democracy it is not an either or consideration, we need both. Democracy building is not easy, particularly in fragile states and countries that have undergone conflict, which is why the input of a specialist organisation like WFD is so important for state building and sustainable development. As an Associate, I am delighted to once again have an opportunity to support WFD in the attainment of its vision ‘the universal establishment of legitimate and effective, multi-party representative democracy’.


Photo: Tina Fahm (centre) with participants of a WFD workshop for women leaders in DRC in 2014.

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