This is not a crisis of democracy. Instead, this is how democracy gets real. Thomas Carothers’ book presentation organized by NIMD and Leiden University brought home the message that there is work to be done. Violet Benneker, NIMD Knowledge Advisor and moderator at NIMD’s event “Democracies Divided with Thomas Carothers” shares her conclusions from the discussion.
A book about political polarization in our democracies cannot be good news, and it certainly is not. Thomas Carothers, a leading authority on international support for democracy and editor of the book ‘Democracies Divided’, gave it to the audience straight; people are angry and demand something better. Economic, religious and cultural differences are used by political leaders to split societies, and polarization tears at the seams of our democratic systems. Subsequently, the temperature of democracy is going up across the globe.
Is democracy in dire straits?
The panellists present at the event agreed with his stark message. Professor Ingrid van Biezen (Leiden University) presented the numbers; we see more countries in which the quality of democracy is on the decline, than we see countries where democracy is improving. Caroline Gaita, Executive Director of Mzalendo (a parliamentary monitoring organization and NIMD’s partner in in Kenya), painted the picture; in the 55-year-old democracy of Kenya, mistrust of government and political establishments is at an historic high and rising, while civic space keeps shrinking. Her work, which is to ensure that political leaders are accountable to the public, is a continuous challenge.
Polarization doesn’t justify pessimism
Yet, all the speakers believe that this is the moment when democracy gets real as well. Polarization is part of the democratic process, and democracies need to be prepared to handle it. And there is good news on that front.
Professor van Biezen emphasized that, despite the current setbacks, there are more democracies in the world today than ever before. More people now have a say in politics than ever before. Caroline Gaita’s work shows the promise of new technologies in democracy, as she uses them to connect voters to their elected leaders on a daily basis. Thomas Carothers sees solutions in bridging efforts that foster dialogue and greater understanding across partisan divides, and democratic innovation to reduce polarization.
Caroline Gaita of Mzalendo explains how polarization between parties can bring political progress to a halt.
The answer is better democracy, and more dialogue
What does this all mean for our work? NIMD believes political conflict and some polarization are unavoidable. Indeed, polarization is part and parcel of a functioning inclusive political system. However, the trick is to make sure such political conflict is resolved through dialogue, rather than violence – and that it results in political outcomes that reflect the demands of all citizens.
Thomas Carothers on how we can combat polarization in our own political communities.
We facilitate the peaceful resolution of political conflicts by building trust and facilitating dialogue between political rivals. We connect political power-holders to groups and leaders who are excluded from the political scene, such as women and youth. We lobby international actors to make sure that inclusive political decision-making is at the top of the global political agenda. Yet, we do not do this alone.
To quote Carothers: it is citizens themselves who create new bridges among the divides, who look for reforms in the political system that might change the way that elections work. Who get the media to be more consensual, rather than divisive. There is no single solution to polarization, but there are many small solutions.
Between 1 and 14 September, NIMD External Advisor Will Derks visited three Democracy Schools (Lviv and Odessa in Ukraine and Gori in Georgia), where he discussed the difficult times democracy is facing, and the innovations that may help us answer these challenges. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Will shares with you a few of the modern concepts under debate in democracy, and the ways we may face down current threats to democracy worldwide.
It won’t come as a surprise that, as the former Innovation Advisor of NIMD, I focused on innovative ways to strengthen democracy. As the American philosopher John Dewey put it: the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy. During my presentations I tried to show that there is an increasing number of people around the world putting this into action by furthering the deliberation and participation of ordinary citizens in democratic processes. More often than not, these activists come up with surprising, innovative means to increase democratic deliberation and participation.
During my talks I discussed a range of both technological and ‘non-tech’ innovations that people across the globe are presently experimenting with. What caught most attention from the non-tech examples that I mentioned was the idea of ‘liquid democracy’, as well as ‘sortition’ or lot-drawing. Sortition as a means to select people for public office (rather than elections) is actually already very old: it was in use in classical Athens, for instance, or later in some Italian city-states during the Renaissance such as Venice. Now it is revived as it were and felt to be a stunning innovation, which in Ireland and Iceland, for instance, was incorporated in processes to design new constitutions.
Liquid democracy, also known as delegative democracy, is, in fact, a hybrid system that combines characteristics of representative democracy and direct democracy. The idea is that everyone within a voting process (normally about issues rather than about people) can, for a variety of reasons, delegate her or his vote to someone else. This person, who sometimes is a professional politician, sometimes not, may in such a manner accumulate many votes and become a temporary political force to be reckoned with, albeit only for that particular issue. But even though a person has delegated her or his vote, it may be withdrawn at any time before the voting starts. And, of course, one need not delegate one’s vote, but can always vote directly.
As for the technological innovations to strengthen democracy, I first discussed one of the almost archetypical digital platforms for ‘participant-driven proposition development and collective decision-making’ that was especially designed to facilitate liquid democracy. Around 2011 the platform Liquid Feedback came into being and was intensely used by the members of the Pirate Party in Berlin, following an impressive victory in the elections for the Berlin parliament. In the subsequent years until to today, many varieties have followed and I touched upon platforms such as Airesis (Italy), Loomio (New Zealand), DemocracyOS (Argentina), YourPriorities (Iceland) or Consul (Spain) – most of which are ‘open source’ and can be downloaded and used for free.
Making democracy stronger
Both these examples of ‘civic tech’ and those of the non-tech innovations suggest that we are on the threshold of a political movement that will put citizens at the centre. We are developing from a democratic state to a democratic society in which citizens will become co-creators of the world, not just voters. This is what the late Benjamin Barber called ‘strong democracy’, a system in which citizens govern themselves to the greatest extent possible.
Will’s talks in Georgia were featured on Georgia’s national news, and you can view their story in the below video (in Georgian).
This guest blog is written by Caroline Gaita, Executive Director of Mzalendo Trust. Mzalendo Trust is Kenya’s pioneer Parliamentary Monitoring Organization, and is NIMD’s partner in Kenya. Caroline is visiting NIMD HQ in The Hague to join Thomas Carothers and Professor Ingrid Van Biezen as a panelist at our event “The Global Spread of Political Polarization“, taking place today in The Hague.
“We ended the Cold War but did not provide an alternative. Nature abhors a vacuum and the level of political polarization we are currently experiencing is a symptom of political systems trying to align themselves.” These were remarks from a friend as we sat in the scorching sun last week, discussing the state of the world generally and our country – as most social gatherings are wont to. His remarks were not far-fetched.
The current trend worldwide
The last few years have seen a shift from globalization and one world to an increasingly inward looking level of nationalism. From Trumpism and threats of impeachment, to Brexit, and to Kenya’s Building Bridges Initiative, democracy and party politics are facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty in an increasingly interconnected world. Inter- and intra-country polarization is on the rise. Previous levels of decorum, especially amongst political actors in the developed countries, have been replaced with bare-knuckle contests and choice words not previously seen in the last half century or so.
The negative effects of polarization cannot be overemphasized. We are increasingly seeing a rise in nationalistic tendencies that are fragmenting nations. The “Us vs Them” rhetoric, coached in party slogans, xenophobic attacks, ethnic clashes, inter- and intra-national conflicts, is all about excluding some segments of the community from the large cake that is national belonging.
New divides are emerging in Kenyan society
In Kenya antagonism between major ethnic groups, fueled by feelings of exclusion and marginalization, were historically the main cause of polarization. However, we face new challenges today such as rising economic costs, a disenfranchised public that is apathetic towards the political class, and a burgeoning youth population that remains excluded from the work force. As I write this, the country is at the brink of another attempt at addressing years of exclusion of different groups through the Building Bridges Initiative. However, this has led to the emergence of new splinters in our society.
Political party stability, necessary for a thriving democracy, has been threatened by the Handshake, with different party members reading from different scripts. The Legislature – that is supposed to oversee the Executive – now seems to be beholden to it and in the process, abdicating its oversight role especially in the absence of a solid opposition. Social and political polarization on the basis of ethnic and economic divisions can only continue to widen as citizens feel more alienated from their government. And this reality is not particular to Kenya; across the continent and the world, similar challenges abound.
Why democrats must act on polarization
As global citizens, polarization should concern us. It is no secret that shrinking civic spaces, increasing attacks on journalists and media houses, and human rights abuses of marginalized communities have increased in parallel with polarization. For example, the 2019 report by the International Federation of Journalists show that 95 journalists were killed in 2018, more than in 2017. Modern cases of xenophobic attacks, migrants dying on voyages in search of greener pastures, and children being detained and separated from their parents are scenes reminiscent of a bygone era. Continued disregard for the rule of law is also fueling a mistrust of legal institutions, a development that spells danger to societal stability.
It is therefore vital that we reduce these newly constructed political, social, economic, and structural cleavages that continue to expose democracy to these vulnerabilities. Civil society organizations, the media, and national caucuses should also advocate for inclusive and participatory processes that leave no one behind in governance spaces. Strong and inclusive political parties, separation and independence of the different arms of government, and adherence to the rule of law will ensure that no single segment of society feels excluded. Globally, national party and legislative caucuses should adopt systems for bipartisan convergence on issues of national importance in their respective countries.
In the words of John Adams, the Second American President, we ought to remember that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” We must not be the generation under whose watch democracy commits suicide. The global future depends on it. We must not give up.
Caroline Gaita is Executive Director of Mzalendo Trust. Mzalendo (‘Patriot’ in Swahili) is a non-partisan project started in 2005 whose mission is to ‘keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament.’ Mzalendo Trust’s site seeks to promote greater public voice and enhance public participation in politics by providing relevant information about the National Assembly and Senate’s activities. Mzalendo is one of NIMD’s partners for our programme in Kenya. Find out more on the Mzalendo Trust website and by following Mzalendo Trust on Twitter.
As the World Forum for Democracy kicks off in Strasbourg this week, NIMD Knowledge Advisor Dalila Brosto shares her insights on whether social media really threatens democracy, and what can be done about it.
A year ago, right before NIMD’s Innovation Conference, I wrote a blog post about participatory technology and its ability to empower citizens and strengthen democracies. I argued that in a world of growing dissatisfaction among individuals, digital tools could provide us not only with better access to the political sphere but also help citizens become more engaged in the topics that affect their lives.
However, it would be naïve not to consider the other side of the coin, the one that deals with the threats that technology poses to our democracies. What happens when these tools – those that helped to bring young people into the political debate, after years of growing apathy – are co-opted by authoritarian regimes? When these regimes intrude in the realm of the internet, hiring hackers and trolls, information technology becomes an instrument of control, thwarting free expression and emancipation.
How regimes are weaponizing social media in elections
Information technology is used to rig elections, promote fake news and overall contribute to the lack of trust of citizens in the integrity of the electoral system. Allegations of Russia using social media to influence electoral outcomes in Ukraine and the last American presidential election have been all over the news, as well as Russia’s own complaints about the West interfering in the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine.
While meddling in elections is certainly not new, the reach that the internet and social media provide are definitely unseen in the manipulation of public opinion. Social media is responsible for exacerbating the ends of the political spectrum and relentlessly publishing unchecked content, providing an anonymous veil on fake news, hate speech and extremist opinions.
Can better algorithms and monitoring tools counteract these tendencies?
Twitter and Google are increasingly willing to cooperate to find ways of preventing the abuse of information and the spread of fake news – Google has committed to tackling fake news; Twitter, meanwhile is banning all political advertising from its service. As useful as these measures are, social media requires stronger regulations that can prevent the spread of hate speech, terrorist appeals, and any sort of harassment. Facebook, perhaps the biggest player in the field, still has not made a compromise to fact-check politicians’ ads, making it easy to publish fake news as long as the resources are available.
Where does this leave us?
Democracies need debate and engaging in complex issues from different sides of the political spectrum should not be discouraged. Technology provides a space to connect and share views and to engage in conversations like never before in our lifetime. We should therefore not discard the tool when it is not used appropriately. Instead, we should focus on using these tools responsibly and push for regulations that can ensure a healthy space for individuals to interact.
Without reform and effective oversight, there are a chance today’s problems could morph into something that threatens democracy. In the meantime, democracy will rely on its citizens’ critical thinking, in their ability to check sources and their eagerness to debate respectfully with people that are not on the same side of the debate.
We are talking today about the gap between words and actions, and specifically on the question of how we can accelerate action on SDG16’s ultimate target: peaceful, just and inclusive societies. In the four years since the adoption of the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals, there have been many initiatives and debates around the implementation of SDG16. This includes the acknowledgement of the catalytic nature of Goal 16, captured in the SDG16+ tag – the idea that the rest of the SDGs are only achievable if we have met the aims of goal 16. For example environmental justice (SDG13), gender equality (SDG5), and the other crucial goals within the SDGs will remain out of reach unless we secure the objectives of SDG16 – namely peace, justice, and strong institutions – in order to facilitate them.
Nevertheless, progress around the different sustainability targets within the 2030 Agenda, and specifically Goal 16, has been limited. This is partly due to the perhaps intangible aspects of peace, the rule of law, and inclusive institutions. At the same time policymakers and activists alike recognize that these intangible aspects are essential for enacting the whole agenda.
The political choice behind sustainability
As we know, and by intended design, there is no one political system specified as the best for delivering the 2030 Agenda. There is no mention of democracy, nor is there acknowledgement that democratic processes are recognized as our best chance to ensure an equitable division of resources and sustainable development, respect for human rights, and the inclusion of minority voices in decision-making. Yet the democratic elements of the rule of law, accountability and inclusive decision making are ingrained into the whole SDG agenda.
This is the opportunity we need to seize and build on. We need to acknowledge the political reality of the SDGs, and engage with the political sphere to achieve them.
With no guidance on political processes in the agenda, we lack the framework to address the fundamental issues of peaceful, just and inclusive societies. We seem to have a situation where we all agree on the end-goal, but do not acknowledge enough the political and democratic necessities to get there. So far, within SDG16 for instance, a lot of attention and energy has been spent on agreeing better sets of measurements and indicators for these more intangible aspects comprising SDG16 such as peace and the rule of law. This was very useful, but also distracted from more concerted efforts to acknowledge the acutely political nature of all the SDGs.
So how to face the political reality of the SDGs?
Without good – dare I say democratic – governance, we might achieve the more technical targets, but definitely not the critical environmental, socio-economic, and political aspects of the 2030 Agenda. We have to address this flaw before the decade of delivery begins next year. And all 193 governments should be accountable to their people for the promises they made in 2015.
Much work is ongoing around the SDG16+ banner by governments and civil society organizations alike, and we now have recognized ‘grand challenges’ on halving violence, justice for all, renewing institutions, and acting on inequality and exclusion. What I observe, however, is the often chosen technocratic approach to tackle these challenges. Training civil servants, legal assistance programmes, security sector reforms, etc. And these are essential! But not enough.
From my perspective, two key elements need to be highlighted and integrated within these challenges and the whole SDG Agenda. Firstly, we need to come to terms with the political nature of any development planning process. That means specifically recognizing that political actors are essential partners in translating or mainstreaming all the SDGs in national planning processes, via their manifestos, reform plans, and legislative processes. Secondly, there is the role of political actors themselves to ensure the achievement of targets – for instance, the role of parties and parliaments in making institutions and decision-making more inclusive.
I’d like to finish here by paraphrasing Rutger Bregman: we are at a firefighters’ conference again, but now we actually speak a lot about water; the integrated and catalytic nature of water; and the call for more attention for water when putting out fires. But over the last four years, we have only discussed the training of firefighters, the different types of fire, how to measure the temperature of the fire, and the effects of fire in different contexts.
Let us now build on these preparations to actually start using water to extinguish the fire!
This year, NIMD has teamed up with Mzalendo, a Kenyan organization whose mission is to ‘keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament’. Mzalendo is a key partner for NIMD as we work to bridge the gap between the public and their representatives in politics in Kenya.
Today, Jessica Musila, Senior Advisor at Mzalendo, is speaking at the International Day of Democracy Conference in Brussels, entitled No Democracy without Accountability. Here’s what she has to share about accountability to Kenyan democracy and the importance of the work of Mzalendo, our new partner, there.
Kenya started its democratic journey over 55 years ago but its initial commitment to the good governance principle of “government for the people by the people” barely lasted six years before a push for amendments started.
The Executive and Legislature slowly hijacked control of the country from the people and focused Kenya’s development on their own needs rather than addressing the publics’ needs.
While the push for a responsive governance structure in Kenya bore fruit with the promulgation of a new Constitution in August 2010, entrenching a culture of accountability among elected leaders and the civil service remains a tall order. Mistrust of government and political establishments is at an-all-time high. Threats to human rights and the rule of law persist. Civic space keeps shrinking and attacks on media freedom are entrenched. Ensuring that leaders remain accessible to the public after their election is a challenge too.
Kenya faces all these political accountability challenges at a time when the country has a huge youth bulge comprising over 72% of the population.
Alive to the above mentioned realities, Mzalendo Trust, a Kenyan civil society organization and NIMD’s newest partner in Kenya, has leveraged on technology to open up information on parliamentary business to an ever younger population.
Information which is usually hard to access and understand is packaged into weekly blogs, newsletters and live tweets about the plenary business of both chambers. In election years, the organization’s repertoire includes information about election laws,voter registration, party primaries, candidate profiles and polling day checklists.
During parliamentary sessions, Mzalendo also makes the bills that are up for discussion more accessible to the public. The organization also educates the public about the law-making process and opportunities to engage individual MPs and house committees to ensure the public interests are taken into consideration.
However, Mzalendo recognizes that true accountability means that all voices should be heard in the political process. This means also reaching communities who do not have internet access. Mzalendo shares questions via text message with these communities, who often include women and youth. The texts summarize bills which are up for debate in Parliament.
To ensure that the public has information on what their MPs are doing in office, Mzalendo also publishes MPs’ profiles. These are shared in an open Hansard showcasing each individual member’s contribution to plenary debate in either the National Assembly or Senate. The data captured, is published annually as an MP performance report card, which highlights the highest and lowest performers. The MP performance report card usually dominates national news once released and pushes weak legislators to engage more in parliamentary business. In addition, the score card helps constituents to identify weak legislators to vote out during the next election in their region. We believe that, as American author Steve Covey once said: “Accountability breeds response-ability” of politicians and the public.
Despite all the work we are undertaking, Mzalendo recognizes that electing leaders of integrity in Kenya remains a challenge. This problem is exacerbated for women and youth, who tend to face more economic challenges and are not perceived as leaders in most Kenyan tribes. To highlight the parliamentary accomplishments of young MPs and women MPs, Mzalendo periodically undertakes and publishes research based on their Hansard entries. This is used to inform the public, Parliament, political parties, Electoral Commission, civil society and other actors about their work. The research helps to make a case for more of more members of these often marginalized groups in the political space, especially party nominations.
To echo Nelson Mandela: “An educated, enlightened and informed population is one of the surest ways of promoting the health of a democracy.”
This blog is by Amal Abu Jiries, Project Leader for the EU support to Jordanian Democratic Institutions & Development (EU-JDID) project, following the EU-JDID National Conference which took place in Amman last week.
Despite the fact that Jordanian women have emerged as leaders and visionaries – not only at all levels of government, but also in business, media, and civil society – there is still a lot to be done to achieve actual gender equality in Jordan. This week we hosted the EU-JDID National Conference in partnership with the Ministry of Political and Parliamentary Affairs, where men and women from across political society have joined international experts to discuss opportunities for the better inclusion of women in Jordan’s political life. The one-day conference was followed by a 2-day training session focusing on women’s role and inclusion in political parties.
This is how both national and international actors can support Jordanian women towards equality and to becoming better communicators with the public. Rami Adwan, NIMD’s Country Representative in Jordan, opened the conference by saying: “To support the right of political participation as a basic human right that leads to stability and prosperity, NIMD has been achieving its vision through supporting political parties who are actively participating in political life without discrimination on the basis of gender or belief, and with impartiality that respects local context.”
The conference took place in Amman, Jordan, held under the patronage of The Minister of Political and Parliamentary Affairs, Eng. Musa Maaytah, with the participation of the Minister of State for Media Affairs, Government Spokesperson, and Chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee for Women’s Empowerment, Ms. Jumana Ghunaimat.
In his opening speech, Mr. Maaytah stressed the importance of joint cooperation to win support on issues pertaining to women and raise awareness in the most marginalized areas, and the dire need to make greater efforts in reaching those groups. He also said we must continue focusing on those that are not convinced of the role of women in the Jordanian society until we reach the real empowerment of Jordanian women and enhance their participation in political and public life.
In her keynote speech, Ms. Ghunaimat stressed that the government recognizes the challenges that stand in the way of promoting women’s economic and political empowerment, saying “creating the appropriate environment for the empowerment of women requires participatory work and networking with the legislature and civil society institutions. The Ministerial Committee for Women’s Empowerment is developing a national strategy for Jordanian women, which will contribute to enhancing the status of women and their economic empowerment.”
Women’s Historic Role in Jordanian Politics
Jordanian women’s participation in political parties dates back to 1950s. However, political activism came to a halt in the period between 1957 and 1992. In 1992, the new Political Parties Law granted women the right to participate in political parties. Since then, women have become founding and active members of political parties, but their participation remained largely cosmetic and symbolic. Women have not sought to join parties, and parties have not done enough to recruit women. As a result, women are still largely unrepresented in senior positions of many parties. In addition, women’s issues are still neglected in their policy platforms, and the number of women involved in these parties remains low.
There are a number of challenges that hinder women’s participation in public life in Jordan, such as social restrictions resulting from the traditional structure of Jordanian society, which rejects the notion of equality between men and women. In a male-dominated patriarchal system, women are expected to devote their time and efforts towards their families and households. In addition, not only are women excluded from politics, but they are also very often denied their right to an equal social status, education and income, which in turn affects women’s political participation.
The decreasing participation of women in economic affairs creates a dependence on men, who as a resultant control economic resources. This lack of independence restricts women from making their own decisions with regard to their roles in the society and politics. There is also the consideration of constitutional and legal frameworks in a country, which can either help or hinder women’s participation in politics.
Just under 120 people came to the conference, representing men and women from all corners of Jordan’s political culture. Following introductory speeches by NIMD’s Country Representative in Jordan, Rami Adwan, Dutch gender expert Petra Stienen, and ministers from Jordan’s government, the academic programme for the day began. Experts from NGOs, universities, and other institutions came to address subjects such as women and the media, how legislation impacts participation, and their predictions for future developments in gender equality in politics.
As well as the barriers to women I mentioned above, there are also the differences between urban and rural lifestyles that make it easier or harder for women to participate. After she sat on the first panel, titled ‘The Reality of Women’s Participation in the Three Powers and the Civil Society’, I spoke to Dr. Iman Al-Hussein, Associate Professor at Al-Balqa Applied University. She told me that it is crucial to get out of the capital and head to women in suburbs who are thirsty for learning, change and reform, saying “these women do not find good opportunities. It is important for women as well to build coalitions with men in order to advocate for their messages and increase their participation.”
The conference sessions contributed to the discussion on how women can collaborate to further their representation, the role of media in promoting women’s participation in public and political life, and the impact of women’s political participation and representation, as well as how legislation can help or hinder the cause of political equality between men and women. Participants presented mechanisms and recommendations to increase women’s participation, representation and leadership.
With the opening conference concluded, there were then two days of specialized training for attendees, all focused on how the political environment can encourage the participation and empowerment of women. The participants were highly engaged in the training session and were involved in several activities on campaign training, messaging and sharing professional stories and relevant experiences.
The EU-JDID National Conference, titled The Reality of Women’s Political Participation: Opportunities and Challenges, provided almost 100 female MPs and party members with expert advice and training in areas such as political communication, enhancing gender equality, and campaigning methods. You can stay up to date on what happens and what else our programme is doing for women’s empowerment in Jordan by following NIMD and EU-JDID on twitter.
In 2015, the UN’s 193 Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. By signing this working document towards a new development paradigm, each state committed to focusing on rights, people, equality, inclusion and environmental sustainability. This new focus will be the key to reaching the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out in the 2030 Agenda.
What makes the SDGs unique is their cross-cutting nature. Achieving them will require dedication and active participation from groups across society. One of the many actors that must actively participate for societies to achieve these goals is political parties.
What role for political parties in the SDGs?
As a basic institution of all modern democracies, political parties have a fundamental role in empowering citizens and ensuring inclusion and equality in societies around the world. Indeed, it is parties who are responsible for aggregating social demands and transforming them into political decisions.
In this sense, political parties act as a chain of transmission, translating the popular will to those that hold power and take decisions.
That’s why political parties are essential to achieving the SDGs. They guide the actions of government institutions and civil society organizations, aiming to establish effective measures to overcome structural inequality, which is what holds us back – in many cases – from more progress on the SDGs.
What’s more, parties act as a resonating box for those who have historically been excluded. This is key to the SDGs’ promise to “leave no-one behind”.
What happens when it goes wrong?
Despite the crucial role they have to play, political parties are often overlooked as relevant actors in pursuing the SDGs. This is because in some cases, they have been instruments for perpetuating exclusionary practices.
Take the example of my country. The topic of representation has been fundamental for the political and historic development of Colombia. Not everyone feels represented, not all voices are heard, and some are even intentionally excluded to keep the country’s political power in a few hands. This situation was recognized by analysts, government representatives, former rebels and citizens in general as one of the root causes of the internal conflict that lasted over 60 years. To overcome the inequality produced by historical political exclusion the Peace Agreement included a mandate to open up the political system and the electoral arena as a way to strengthen democracy.
In Colombia, the second most unequal in Latin America, with over 200,000 lethal casualties due to the armed conflict and a political system that excluded many demographic segments, reaching the SDGs isn’t just a commitment towards the international community, but also a very important step in overcoming exclusion and reaching higher levels of equality and participation.
What can we do?
In my country and others, it is so important that parties play their role. They must have the skills and culture to act in the interest of the people they serve, and amplify the voices of the marginalized.
It is for this reason that GPMD’s 18 members are working to strengthen parties around the world, making them conscious of their fundamental role in pursuing equality and increasing participation levels. NIMD is proud to be a GPMD member.
We want to make the most of our power as a network and make sure our work contributes to building democracies in which all citizens feel represented, and where parties provide a voice to those who don’t have one.
Last week, NIMD’s Will Derks was in Tunis attending #RightsCon2019. As Innovation Advisor, he went to discover the latest ideas and inventions that can help us use technology to further democracy. Every day, he shared the lessons learned and the stories of people he’s met while in Tunis. Read the rest of the series here.
Some 3000 people from around 120 countries – representatives of countries, international organizations, the corporate world and civil society – gathered last week in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, to discuss human rights in our digital age. Similar to democracy, that has truly come under siege during the past two decades or so, human rights are not faring well.
People pay with their freedom, their health, and their lives for something I often take for granted. There are millions out there who are not free, who cannot speak their minds, who are incarcerated without trial, abused, humiliated, and tortured if they dare to express dissenting views. The questions is whether, and how, digital technology can help turn the tide.
Why RightsCon matters
The conference theme “Human Rights in the Digital Age” is more pressing now than ever. We’re playing catch up if I’m honest. The proliferation of the Internet has outpaced our understanding of its wider effects, and we’ve not done enough to use it to support our rights. Digital means have helped galvanize modern protests, but not enough has been done to prevent nefarious activities in cyberspace. That’s led us to today’s predicament, where opaque advertising, foreign meddling, and blanket surveillance are just a few of the fears we have about technology and our basic democratic freedoms. The Cambridge Analytica scandal could have been the watershed moment; however we’ve carried on just as we did before.
One thing RightsCon has shown me is that we are well aware of the problems, but haven’t yet invested enough into the solutions. Time will tell as to whether we meet this challenge. While many of us like to think that oppressive governments are in decline and democracy will eventually prevail, there are still reminders that regimes can and will turn against citizens for trying to exercise their democratic rights.
Closer to home
I have become aware of this most concretely, and painfully, when recently an Egyptian friend was arrested in Cairo for exercising his democratic rights. All he did was express his view on the streets of the capital about the change to the Egyptian Constitution, proposed by the government, to be validated through a most likely rigged referendum. I had the privilege to collaborate with Ahmed Badawi in setting up of NIMD Democracy Schools in Egypt after the days of hope in the spring of 2011. He was a central figure in the ‘Egyptian Democracy Academy’ (EDA), one of NIMD’s partners in Egypt, which has been instrumental in developing and furthering the NIMD programme there.
I understand that Ahmed Badawi is now in solitary confinement, he is forbidden to have visits and he is suffering from malnutrition. What can we do? Convene in Tunis, yes, but also spread the word about this Egyptian hero who is suffering, also for us. God bless Ahmed Badawi. This is what this conference in Tunis is all about.
It just goes to show
Cases like Ahmed Badawi’s are why NIMD’s projects matter, if we hope to save future generations from such hardship. Working with parties, institutions, and activists to push the balance in favour of democrats is a chance to make a lasting impact. Yet whether at home in Europe or on the other side of the world, there are anti-democratic forces actively working against our rights for a say in how things are run. These forces can act with brutality, and standing up to them can have dire consequences. The sooner we can ensure our rights are protected, both in the digital world and the real world, the better. RightsCon showed me that there is hope, and that we must take action now if we’re serious in our intentions.
So thank you RightsCon for giving me so much to think about, and thank you for showing me that cyberspace can be a vibrant and inclusive place for future generations of democrats.
This week, NIMD’s Will Derks is in Tunis attending #RightsCon2019. As Innovation Advisor, he’s there to discover the latest ideas and inventions that can help us use technology to further democracy. Every day, he will be sharing the lessons learned and the stories of people he’s met while in Tunis. This is part 3 of his conference diary. Click here to read part 1 and part 2.
A good friend of mine – who shall not be named — found conferences often quite boring and he once defined hell as ‘a never-ending conference’. I suppose he was right; conferences can be boring and imagining oneself being at a mind-numbing conference for all eternity is a scary prospect indeed. But then, there are good conferences and bad ones. This is a good one. With the occasional tedious workshop, perhaps. But, as I suggested earlier, the RightsCon offers so much to choose from that there’s always something inspiring going on.
Or heartening, as was the case with VoTek. I picked that session not only because it was one of the few that seemed purely Tunisian – NIMD has a successful programme in this country, partnering with the Centre des Etudes Méditerranéennes et Internationales (CEMI) – but also because I have been interested for a long time now in digital platforms for participant-driven proposition development and decision making. VoTek is such a platform, amazingly enough developed by a group of young Tunisians in their early twenties. Their vision of tech for participatory democracy – especially on the municipal level in Tunisia – was refreshing, while their cheerful, enthusiastic presentation of the platform was contagious. Not surprisingly, however, I couldn’t resist the, well… fatherly inclination to admonish them and point out a number of pitfalls and dangers. But I am quite sure that their eager engagement with the fate of their country will help them to overcome most of these and make their endeavor successful. I wish them all the luck they deserve.
Every now and then one needs such glimpses of hope in what otherwise sometimes seems to be a gloomy battle between, on the one hand, a huge number of smaller and smaller NGOs scattered all over the world, and, on the other hand, a handful of gigantic companies in California. The conference is about human rights in the digital age, remember, and, at least since the Arab Spring in 2011, we have been cured for good from our techno-utopianism. Digital technology, we now know, is not just benevolent, it can also be very dangerous and able to fundamentally undermine our rights, our democracies, our societies.
Many sessions at the RightsCon dealt in some way with this tension and I was especially interested in those with run-of-the-mill titles such as ‘Political Ads on Social Networks: Tearing the Curtain of Opacity’, or, ‘It’s the Business Model, Stupid! Targeted Advertising and Human Rights’. What was discussed during such workshops is basically the enormous impact on everything and everybody of non-consensual data collection on a massive scale. The sessions go on to explore the subsequent micro-targeting, which influences our behavior from shopping to voting – a power that is sold to anybody who is willing to pay. In more narrow political terms: even though we know what happened, for instance, with Cambridge Analytica, digital political advertising is still largely unregulated. And even if there are laws in place, dodgy things can go on in cyberspace and politicians can play dirty online and still easily get away with it.
One of the main conclusions, therefore, was that protecting privacy is essential if we want to protect other human rights, and that is exactly what a number of these NGO-warriors focus on. Take for instance FuzzifyMe – the name says it all! – or the 2019 Corporate Accountability Index by Ranking Digital Rights, which evaluates 24 of the world’s most powerful internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies on their disclosed commitments and policies affecting freedom of expression and privacy. This index shows that there’s still a long way to go, for companies and for governments, who have to get their act together and start passing 21st century laws to protect their citizens, their citizens’ rights and democracy, as well as making sure these laws are adhered to.
Of course, I have had to simplify here what is, in fact, very complex. If you want to dive deeper into this important topic, read the article ‘Targeted Advertising Is Ruining the Internet and Breaking the World’ by Nathalie Maréchal, senior research analyst at Ranking Digital Right, who was the shining star in these really scintillating sessions.