Strengthening democracy in a pandemic: 5 lessons from 2020

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16 December 2020
Commentary
Strengthening democracy in a pandemic: 5 lessons from 2020
As we look forward to 2021, we are reflecting the five key lessons we will carry with us into the new year.

The world crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is a test for democracies everywhere. Democracies need constant care and attention. In a crisis, that support must be stronger. Throughout 2020, WFD has worked to make sure that democracies are more inclusive and more accountable so that everyone’s voices are heard in decision-making and nobody is left behind. 

As we look forward to 2021, we are reflecting the five key lessons we will carry with us into the new year.  

1. Constraints breed creativity 

Before COVID-19, WFD was expanding its regional and global engagement through support to a growing, interlinked network of democracy advocates inside and outside government. WFD was therefore in a strong position to successfully adjust our activities to address the challenges facing both new and more well-established democracies in 2020.  

Across the globe, our country offices adjusted their work to support democracies’ COVID-19 responses. In Nepal, WFD helped MPs to review decades-old legislation that was used to respond to the pandemic. In Malaysia, we convened MPs and civil society to highlight the importance of a gender-sensitive response, and in the Gambia we assessed how the COVID-19 response impacted people with disabilities.  

Read about WFD’s COVID-19 response 

During 2020, we launched our online event programme. Headline events included a discussion on democracy and trade with Richard Graham MP and Rushanara Ali MP, both British trade envoys who sit on WFD’s Board of Governors. We also delved into whether Biden’s foreign policy can re-build global democracy with two former members of the Obama administration. 

Watch our online events 

As soon as the pandemic hit, we began monitoring democratic responses to the pandemic. Our Pandemic Democracy tracker, which launched in June, made WFD data on the quality of democratic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic available to the public. Among other things, the tracker shows whether emergency powers have fixed expiry dates and if elections have been postponed. Experts at the University of Birmingham have used our data to explore how parliaments have overseen and scrutinised the executive’s response to COVID-19 – we will publish that research in January. 

2. Our planet needs democracy

From public health and inequality to the climate crisis, democracy is key to addressing the challenges the world faces in 2020 and beyond.   

The link between a well-functioning democracy and addressing environmental crises is clear: the people who will be most severely impacted by climate change are the same people often excluded from decision making. Citizens – via parliaments – must be able to check and challenge government action and inaction. 2020 saw the launch of our environmental democracy initiative, as we began supporting parliaments, civil society and political parties to effectively respond to the crisis.

3. Inclusion is as important as ever

Women, persons with disabilities, youth and other marginalised groups have been most severely affected by the pandemic. Their inclusion in political and decision-making processes is essential for mitigating this and ensuring that democracy lives up to its promise. Not to mention, our 2020 report with the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London into the impact of gender on democracy showed decisively that when women take part in politics, the whole of society benefits. 

In 2020, we were proud to launch a new programme with Kaleidoscope Trust that focuses on fighting discrimination against women and girls, LGBT+ people and other intersectionally disadvantaged groups.  

We continued to focus on ensuring that young people are included in politics, including through our programmes in NigeriaUgandaNorth Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Ensuring that laws and policies are gender-sensitive during the pandemic and beyond was a key goal of many of our 2020 activities.  

Our support for the political leadership of people with disabilities’ included playing a leading role in supporting the government to submit its first report on implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Sierra Leone. In North Macedonia, the European Commission noted the Parliament’s adoption of the Declaration for Active Political Participation of Persons with Disabilities, a process which our Western Balkans Democracy Initiative supported, as one of its key achievements this year. 

4. Parliaments are essential for building peace

In November 2020, we launched the first research paper to seriously consider parliaments’ role in peacebuilding, in partnership with the University of York. The study shows that parliaments’ role in building peace is often overlooked. It concludes that they are integral for post-war governance and cannot be ignored. 

One of the case studies in that report is the Bangsamoro, an autonomous region in the Southern Philippines and the centrepiece of a long-running peace process in which the UK Government played an important support role.  

We launched our first programme in the Bangsamoro this year,  where WFD is leading a programme supporting the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority by working to strengthen the fledgling parliamentary system.  

Read about how the Bangsamoro is transitioning to peace during a pandemic

5. There is power in partnerships

2020 saw the conclusion of the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy (CP4D), which we led. Early in 2020, CP4D brought together more than 200 delegates across to chart the road ahead to more inclusive and accountable politics in the Commonwealth and celebrate the successes of CP4D, including: securing the commitment of more than 500 women in India to run for local office; training over 3,000 student leaders in Ghana; and supporting the development of 3 disability rights bills that were passed in Kenyan Counties.  

Over the past year, WFD also continued working in partnership with the Coalition of Arab Women MPs to Combat Violence Against Women, the Arab League and the Royal Household of Jordan to support the development of the Arab Convention to Combat Violence Against Women. In November, UK MPs joined the Arab League in calling for the region’s first legally-binding treaty to tackle violence against women.  

Looking ahead 

In Summer 2020, former aid adviser to President Obama Alex Thier made the case for placing democratic governance at the centre of the UK’s approach to foreign policy, development and national security.  

Listen to his argument 

Next year, a new British foreign policy will be implemented. The UK Governments’ ongoing Integrated Review on security, defence, and foreign policy will be concluded in early 2021, setting out its updated international agenda and strategy. Britain will be in the Chair of both the COP26 climate summit and the G7, in addition to its seat on the UN Human Rights Council. It can use its leadership to forge closer collaboration with international democratic allies. Meanwhile, the US President-Elect Joe Biden had publicly stated his intention to reignite US support for democracy next year.  

It is anticipated that democracy support will remain high on the list of priorities for the UK’s international strategy. 

This matters, as democracy around the world is in decline for the fourteenth year running. We must work together to turn this tide as we emerge into a post-COVID world. This isn’t just a battle against a virus – it is a battle for democracy.  WFD stands ready.