Interview: Richard Youngs on the puzzle of non-western democracy

Many politicians, diplomats, and experts today argue in favour of non-Western models of democracy.

Yet it remains unclear what such models should look like. It may be more useful, Dr Richard Youngs argues in his new book The Puzzle Of Non-Western Democracy, to think in terms of specific areas of democratic variation that can encourage democratic renewal—outside, but also within, the West.

As part of WFD’s expert engagement series, our London staff were given the opportunity to discuss the issues raised in the book with Dr Youngs, who is a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Before the group conversation, we had a chance to sit down with Dr Youngs to explore his ideas. Below is the transcript of our interview.

Why did you decide to write this book?

RY: It had become clear to me that this issue of non-western democracy was becoming much more important and powerful at the policy level. It’s been a debate that’s been around for a long time, but it’s been becoming much more prominent in recent years – civil societies around the world, political leaders in rising powers, want to feel they’re contributing new ideas to what democracy means and how different forms of democratic institutions work. All western governments and agencies like WFD realise we need to take this search for democratic variation more seriously. The challenge is to understand what that means in practice.

puzzle of non-western democracyEveryone who works in democracy and governance appreciates context is absolutely critical – and that in different countries you will get different kinds of democracies as a result. But isn’t that something that is already understood by everyone?

RY: It is understood. In a way this is why the book relates to a very live policy debate, because all western governments and their leaders recognise that in trying to support democratic reform abroad, it’s not about supporting one particular model. It’s about understanding what citizens want in different regions of the world, what their understandings of democracy are. But, that’s easier said than done. We do also have to be a little bit cautious in thinking that there is a single non-western model of democracy that is completely different to what exists currently in other countries. We should be able to support forms of democracy that are right for local contexts without undermining core norms of liberal democracy.

That sounds like the key tension really between those two points. Have you figured out a way of resolving that tension?

RY: It’s not easy, and it’s about striking the right, delicate balance between supporting different models of democracy without ending up unwittingly supporting forms of democracy that verge on being almost soft forms of authoritarianism. We need to explore different understandings of rights, what we mean by liberal rights, in different countries around the world. People tend to want a more communitarian form of identity. They believe in democracy but they want to feel democracy is respecting their local understanding of morality and religion, of communal identity. With that, agencies and donors need to do more to change the narrative, in a sense – to convince people and show people that the core standards of liberal democracy don’t need to threaten local, traditional identities.

Was there anything that you weren’t expecting when you started your work on this book that emerged during its preparation?

RY: One thing that surprised me is how vibrant the debates are in countries around the world about this question, and just how sharp the differences are within different developing countries and rising powers. Some people in these countries feel they do want something that is radically different from western style liberal democracy. Other people find it quite condescending, where people argue their countries should have a different form of democracy. They insist they want the same basic rights as those that exist in established democracies. There’s a great deal of divergent opinion over this. It’s very difficult for agencies working in the field to get the balance right between understanding local contexts, supporting different varieties of democracy, but at the same time realising there are core democratic standards and institutions that do have universal applicability.

That leads to a final question about what we in Britain we should make of this. What should we take away from what you’re saying about these different kinds of democracies?

RY: The UK, as with other countries interested in doing what they can to foster democratic reform, needs to be a little bit more open to experimentation, to realising that a lot of the interesting innovations in democratic representation are today coming from other places in the world like Brazil and India. They need to be open to learning about those innovations and taking them on board. That doesn’t mean reversing everything the Westminster Foundation does; its traditional approach is to parliamentary strengthening and political party strengthening has a lot of validity, but somehow they need to be linked in with very interesting new forms of representation and protest and social movements that are emerging around the world.

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