Reflections on democracy on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

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Reflections on democracy on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

November 09th, 2019

by Anthony Smith, WFD Chief Executive


The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which fell on 9th November 1989, prompts reflections on the state of democracy around the world. Back then, democracy was an easy sell – the contrasts between rich Western countries and impoverished autocracies in the former Soviet Union and the developing world were stark. Brave reformers in Central and Eastern Europe, Southern Africa and parts of Asia finally saw light at the end of the tunnel and were eager for support.

The UK Government’s decision in 1992 to establish the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) as an arm’s-length body of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was a response to cross-party pressure from MPs and a recognition that sharing Britain’s democratic experience – good and bad – could help others build their democratic institutions and practices.

In the years that followed, WFD worked in many corners of the globe where support for democracy was needed most. We supported the post-apartheid National Assembly in South Africa, to accompany the historic transition to democracy in that country. As peacekeepers entered Kosovo after the conflict with Serbia, WFD was one of the first organisations to follow to help develop democratic institutions. We shared lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process to inform reconciliation efforts in Colombia, bringing people from Northern Ireland’s churches, women’s organisations and government to present their experiences to Colombian counterparts in government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).

These are just a few examples of our work. There have certainly been successes, but today the challenges feel bigger than ever. Democracy is no longer an easy sell in any country, no matter how mature its democratic institutions. Three challenges stand out:

  • democracy is not anymore a prerequisite for economic growth
  • even dictators are now elected, so the line between democracy and autocracy appears blurred
  • the combination of digital technologies and post-industrial societies has fractured some traditional pillars of political power, with vacuums being filled by groups with no developed respect for political norms

It is in this context that WFD works in over 40 countries around the world to promote democratic values and freedoms.

Overcoming challenges to improve citizens’ lives

But how do we overcome the challenges to democracy that we see in our work? WFD has two main responses, based on our own experience and on the evidence from the democracy support community, including ‘thinking and working politically’.

First, we know that the demand for democracy remains high in every region of the world. A wide range of surveys reflect the immediate demands in a society – for peace and security when there is conflict; for jobs when there is high unemployment and poverty; and for freedom when there is repression. But there is also a strong and consistent desire for the ability to take decisions about our own lives, to prevent the abuse of power by elites, and to have justice systems that treat people fairly and equally.

Those are the building blocks of democracy, and by supporting democracy and good governance we are helping to improve people’s lives.

By helping to create better laws in Myanmar, we are improving the lives of countless citizens and helping them and their MPs overcome 70 years of military rule.

By supporting the Arab League, in creating the first-ever regional commitment to end gender-based violence, we are providing a legal framework to protect women from violent atrocities.

In the Western Balkans, funded by the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, we are improving women’s representation in politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina through our programme ‘More than a quota’. And we are helping organisations in Serbia address the structural factors that contribute to high levels of youth emigration.

This list could continue. But the main point here is that, although governments in democratic countries have a much better track record, we now also know that democracy does not guarantee peace or jobs, and we should not assume that it does or promise that it will. Peace and jobs come as the result of good policy-making, and that is why we help them get their policy-making right.

Building effective institutions

Our other main response is related to the acknowledgement that democracy is always a work in progress. The key ingredients of democracy are effective and accountable institutions, and leadership. We work to support both. Institutions build resilience by embedding norms and standards and bridging periods of weak leadership.

For example, we help to build effective institutions by strengthening the role that parliamentary committees play in holding governments to account by building bridges between UK institutions and our counterparts abroad. An instance of this is when we brought legislators from Armenia to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments for workshops on financial oversight, so they could see how our public spending procedures worked.

Strengthening institutions requires long-term investment and patience, which is why we combine these workshops with ongoing, long-term support.

Why leadership?

The second essential ingredient of democracy is effective leadership. However, democratic institutions such as parliaments and political parties can require even more patience, because their leadership can change frequently, and their role and authority can shift during a political cycle.

When momentum for political change builds, whether during an election, conflict, economic crisis or otherwise, institutions can play their part, but only leadership can determine how that momentum will be used. For example, in response to what is being perceived as the current environmental crisis, our new work on what we call ‘environmental democracy’ will help build institutions’ ability to enact laws to protect the environment that they have already introduced. We have found that many countries need a helping hand in ensuring that they meet the green eco-targets set in international accords such as the Paris Agreement. Helping governments implement this change will have lasting, positive effects on our planet, and is important ahead of the upcoming UN climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow.

Leadership is also critical in addressing what we see as a fundamental objective of democracy: inclusion. For too many people in the world, our democratic systems are fine in theory but flawed in practice. In different ways, these people do not have the power to participate in political activities or to influence decisions that affect their lives, whether because they are a woman, not rich, LGBTQ, disabled, young or otherwise marginalised or discriminated againt. Until this changes, democracies will be both flawed and vulnerable.

That is why inclusion is an increasingly central part of our work and took centre stage last year when we co-organised the Women MPs of the World conference in the House of Commons. This marked the centenary year of women’s suffrage in the UK, bringing together women parliamentarians from 100 countries to discuss how to further empower them to drive change.

Whatever some might have thought in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, democracy is not inevitable, but the demand for support to strengthen democratic systems remains high.

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