Reconsidering democracy promotion

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von Hans Dembowski

Human rights are universal, not western

The rise of right-wing populism in Europe and North America does not delegitimise democracy promotion. The Arab spring and other popular uprisings have shown that the demand for self-determination is not specifically western. People want to be in charge of their lives all over the world.

Last week, I attended a conference at the German Development Institute in Bonn. The topic was “Rethinking development cooperation”. This debate goes on for what feels like ever. The reason is that aid affairs and development are complex topics, so there is a need to constantly reassess what assumptions are still valid and what needs to be reconsidered. There is no blueprint for solving global problems of poverty and deprivation.

Several topics have marked the international-development debate in recent years. They include issues like the rise of emerging markets, increasing south-south cooperation or the aid-effectiveness principles such as national ownership, harmonisation of donors and alignment of donors to national institutions and procedures. These issues will seem rudimentarily familiar to all of you who read D+C/E+Z regularly. Other topics from outside the narrowly-understood aid arena matter too. We therefore do our best to tackle overarching issues such as the rise of right-wing populism and the threat it poses to multilateral policymaking. For obvious reasons, aid experts who work for government agencies, nongovernmental organisations or think tanks find it easier to discuss the topics they have specialising in for years than to assess the fast-changing global scenario. They have been professionally involved in the first set of issues, but handle the latter as newspaper-reading private citizens.

In Bonn, people from all over the world were open-minded about things we do not understand well yet. That was quite inspiring. Aspiring scholars and ambitious managers normally like to show off their knowledge, but in Bonn the shared interest was evident to find relevant answers to the many new questions that are arising. I’ll give a short example.

There was a workshop with the topic “Rethinking the why and how of democracy promotion”. To get the debate started, there were three short presentations. All three made perfect sense, but were old school in the sense of not discussing the threats to democracy that have emerged in advanced nations. They focused on whether and to what extent approaches taken to democracy in developing countries were working out. The debate fast moved on from the presentations’ specific content. The big question was simply: Is democracy promotion still legitimate at all?

As I argued recently, the USA is in a constitutional crisis. In Europe, populists are now in power in Poland, Hungary and Italy. If we cannot be sure that democracy is working in advanced western countries, can we really consider it a model for other world regions?

This question was immediately answered by a participant from India. This scholar stated that India’s democracy is in crisis in spite of being old and having deep roots in South Asian traditions. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is promoting a Hindu-supremacist kind of nationalism with little regard for the rights of minorities or fundamental civic liberties. Hindu fanatics perpetrate murders and lynchings, knowing they can expect impunity. According to the participant in Bonn, moreover, there is now so much pressure on Indian media that the press can no longer be considered to be free. Arfa Khanum Sherwani recently argued that case in D+C/E+Z, by the way. Asked whether governmental or nongovernmental support was needed, the conference participant in Bonn plainly stated: “We need all the help we can get.” In this perspective, anything that puts pressure on India’s government and casts doubt on its legitimacy is useful.

That an Asian voice should appeal to European colleagues to support an Asian democracy actually shows one thing: the idea that democracy is something specifically western is distorted. Indeed, the principles of democracy are universal, and governments with authoritarian leanings reject them, whether in Washington or Delhi. In the past, democracy promotion was too often understood to be the attempt to transfer the western model to the rest of the world. That was a misunderstanding for two reasons:

  • as we see today, Western democracies are more fragile than we thought, and
  • as the Arab spring and various other popular uprisings around the world showed, people everywhere want to be in charge of their own lives, be able to have an impact on public affairs and be entitled to decent lives. In short: they demand human rights.

As the debate evolved, it became clear to me that the emphasis should actually be on human rights and not democracy. The reason is that the list of human rights is clearly defined and has been adopted by the United Nations. Whether you like or resent human rights, they are unequivocal. Democracy, by contrast, is never perfect. It can become very difficult to assess to what extent a country like India is still or is no longer a democracy. Insights like this are useful. They allow us to make arguments more stringently.

Of course, proponents of right-wing populism will reject this assessment. They will tell you that they are expressing “the will of the people”. In truth, they are divisive. They define “the” people as suits their purposes, deny the legitimacy of all other political forces and do their best to subvert institutions. Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist has assessed the matter well. His book is excellent and deserves a lot of attention – including from professionals who specialise in aid matters.


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