Strengthening democracy is about dignity, possibility, and hope

31 May 2023

Strengthening democracy is about dignity, possibility, and hope

Chief Executive's introduction to Westminster Foundation for Democracy's Annual Report and Accounts 2022-2023

This year marked both the 30th anniversary of the establishment of WFD and the first year of a new three-year strategy period. For WFD colleagues past and present around the world, it was a chance to reflect on 30 years of experience, relevance, and impact: celebrating democratic achievements and taking stock of lessons learned to inform our 2022-2025 strategy.

The new strategy outlines our vision: a world where freedom and democracy thrive, and where inclusive and accountable governments serve people fairly and effectively. This year, we have seen more clearly than ever that this vision is at risk: it is under strategic assault from autocrats around the world who wage war with physical weapons but also with information and digital tools.

But those who believe in democracy will not be cowed, as brave Ukrainians have shown us for more than a year.

Against a background of aggressive, advancing authoritarianism, it was powerful to hear my colleagues and friends around the world bring our vision to life. As we launched the strategy, we asked: what would it be like to live in a world where freedom and democracy thrive?

Evidence shows that democracy brings economic growth, increased access to safe water and electricity, and decreased levels of infant mortality. What is more, democracy increases levels of education, improves gender equality, and reduces conflict. And, democracies commit to and deliver more policies to respond to climate change. These tangible benefits are reason alone to strengthen democracy worldwide.

These are the kinds of tangible benefits that those whom we partner with to strengthen democracy are working to realise in their societies. For example, in Uganda this year, inclusion champions who WFD support tabled a motion in the Parliament of Uganda urging the government to address high education fees so that teenage mothers and people with disabilities can afford better education. The motion attracted support from the whole house and passed in December 2022. Meanwhile, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, women leaders who took part in WFD’s mentoring programme set up enterprise zones to foster local entrepreneurship so young people do not need to emigrate to find work.

Democracy is a problem-solving system, and strong democracies solve real-world problems – they nurture good ideas, address citizens’ demands, and cooperate with global allies. Inclusive and effective democracies are better at delivering services fairly, and investing in a future where everyone benefits.

But it was not just these concrete benefits that were forefront in my colleagues’ minds when they pictured a world in which freedom and democracy thrive. They spoke of feeling heard and respected, being valued, living free from fear, and unleashing people’s full potential.

Far too many people – in fact, most of the world’s population – live under a form of autocratic regime, unable to access the benefits democracy brings, both tangible and intangible.

WFD’s staff comprises local and thematic experts around the world, and they do not just run our programmes – they are our programmes. 2022-2023 was the first year since the COVID-19 pandemic began that I have been able to witness in person their unparalleled understanding of political dynamics and ability to see and maximise the bright spots of democratic opportunity that drive WFD’s impact. Our anniversary was an opportunity to pay tribute to their part in 30 years of impact and I thank them again for their dedicated service.

WFD's mission is to mobilise British and international expertise to support people around the world to strengthen democracy in their country. We help them address problems their citizens face while building long-term democratic resilience. Recently, we saw a glimmer of hope in the latest Freedom House report, which reported a slight uptick in levels of freedom around the world compared with the previous 15 years of decline. As we continue to carry out our mission, we do so remembering that strengthening democracy is not just about ensuring more people have access to health, education, and sanitation, or securing prosperity and peace. It is also about dignity, possibility, and hope.

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