By Anthony Smith, WFD’s Chief Executive
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is not only a health crisis. It is already having seismic economic, social and political implications. Those interested in democracy and good governance should be alive to both the risks and the opportunities posed by the current crisis – their voices could make the difference between setback and progress.
Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) remains operational across all our offices and is gearing up to work with partners in new ways. We’re doing so remotely, and implore everyone to stay at home as much as possible and follow local public health advice and information (gathered from a reliable source).
A strong, healthy democracy needs constant care and attention, even in good times. During a crisis we need to be even more vigilant. The current pandemic poses a particular risk to emerging or less resilient democracies.
For example, corruption may rise due to flows of emergency funding and increased state economic intervention. Elections will be postponed, cancelled, or held without adjusting for the restrictions on movement, undermining their credibility and legitimacy. Emergency measures may not be repealed, leading to permanent changes in our rights without proper public and/or parliamentary debate. Power may be centralized and shifted towards the executive.
As well as these adverse effects on democratic rights, the pandemic could negatively impact individuals and marginalised groups. Unless governments take active steps, public health and economic recovery policies will rely heavily on women’s unpaid or underpaid labour, further exacerbating gender inequality. Lockdown policies and shifts in resources towards policing emergency measures leave women and children more vulnerable to violence.
Other groups that have faced discrimination – including young people, LGBT+ citizens, and people with disabilities – are also likely to feel the negative effects of a democratic backslide sharply.
At Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the UK public body dedicated to strengthening democracy, we are keenly aware of these risks. Our teams in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are working to help mitigate them, building on our solid foundation of work with parliaments, political parties and civil society and on elections to build more inclusive and accountable democracies.
We stand ready to help seize any opportunities for democratic innovation and strengthening and we can see ways ahead to strengthen representation, accountability and transparency.
For example, the likelihood that restrictions on social contact will be prolonged is a powerful incentive to parliaments and other institutions to develop innovative ways of working which could be beneficial long after the pandemic.
Already in Indonesia, parliamentary committees have been active in coordinating with relevant ministries as they execute the response to the pandemic through online channels. Similarly, the Albanian Parliamentary Committee on Labour, Social Affairs and Health convened online to review measures to combat the pandemic. And in Pakistan, the National Assembly has proposed a special joint committee to monitor how the government tackles the pandemic.
Coronavirus’ economic shock will require a rigorous examination of the impacts on a range of groups. This is an opportunity to change the standards of policy-making so that forgotten groups are properly considered, for example by mainstreaming the use of sex-disaggregated and intersectional data to assess and compensate for the impact of regulation and legislation.
Young, urban, tech-savvy populations in many countries mean we are seeing extensive sharing of people’s experience of the pandemic. This presents an opportunity for citizen groups and the media to play a more vocal role in public debate and decision-making.
Democratic accountability institutions like parliaments, audit authorities or courts could use this information to listen and respond to public debate and to provide more effective oversight. We know that the most effective public health responses depend on citizens having a high degree of trust in their governments. When that trust is absent, for example in countries suffering conflict, public health measures can be ignored and health workers can be attacked.
Parliamentary committee inquiries could use the crisis as an incentive to strengthen their structure and procedures, especially where they haven’t been relevant or incisive enough.
And the pandemic could be a chance to accelerate the development of online participatory democracy and civic tech. Moreover, governments might consider remote voting tools to ensure inclusive and credible electoral processes on all levels of government.
We will highlight examples from around the world, lessons from our programmes and activities to date, and research, to share knowledge about what works when it comes to democratic strengthening – whether that’s helping make sure the human rights impact of legislation is assessed and taken into account, supporting parliamentary committees to gather the data they need to scrutinise government policy, or making sure marginalised voices are heard in decision-making.
In addition to our programmes and activities, our experts in gender, accountability, transparency, elections, human rights, and communication are applying their knowledge and skills to support democracies that are innovating, rejuvenating and strengthening. Look out for their original commentary in the coming weeks.