The world has changed - so must our approach to supporting democracy
The author James Baldwin once wrote “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Since our founding over thirty years ago, at the inception of the wave of democratisation that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, WFD and others like us have supported pro-democracy actors and institutions around the world to establish and strengthen democratic practice.
But we and our funders must face how that world has changed in those three decades. Evidence suggests that the democracy wave began to ebb as early as 2006, but the way in which we approach and conceptualise democracy support has remained broadly the same.
Like an investor in a bull market, we must resist over-estimating the impact our own interventions made relative to prevailing conditions during that period of democratic expansion. We cannot assume historical gains guarantee success in the future. The ‘best practice’ approaches we have identified as driving improvements in strengthening democratic institutions and processes, evidence suggests, are likely less effective in current, increasingly autocratic, conditions.
Even now, we tend to seeing autocracy as being merely the absence of democracy, a natural void into which democratic culture and practice must be carefully poured. Again, this vision is belied by research into the ways in which autocracies actively reinforce themselves and, in some cases, cooperate to strengthen their control on power. Facing and re-evaluating these misconceptions is essential to adapting how we support democracy in the current geopolitical context.
Global democratic trends have changed and so must our strategies for integrating democracy support into foreign policy priorities.
WFD commissioned Professors Marie-Eve Desrosiers and Nic Cheeseman to examine trends in autocratisation and what strategies might be pursued to support democracy under different forms of authoritarianism.
The report comes at an opportune moment. In the UK, the 2021 Integrated Review, which already identified democracy as an important priority, is receiving a refresh in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A recent review of UK democracy support from the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) assessed UK-funded programmes as individually effective but lacking strategic coherence, undermining their global impact. In response, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is consulting on a new strategy for democracy, open societies, and human rights to guide UK work going forward.
The report confirms that authoritarianism is evolving. And while we cannot, and should not, avoid engaging with autocratising regimes, there are options that can strike a balance between securing strategic interests and ‘doing no harm’ to democratic processes.
Far from conflicting with other priorities, it is increasingly in our interests to shift to doing foreign policy and development democratically.
We will not be able to respond to every threat to democracy but acknowledging that different approaches are needed can help to make the global change we want to see.