International Democracy Day: work to do

John Elkington Halina Ward
15 September 2009

An annual event founded only in 2007 is already an established part of the global calendar. This is the International Day of Democracy, created by a resolution of the United Nations general assembly and first marked on 15 September 2008. This second occasion is again a moment both to celebrate democracy and to recall that the need to protect and support democracy is as important as ever.

Halina Ward is director of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD). She previously worked at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), and as a solicitor practising commercial environment law

Both parts of this "mandate" are vital. Democracy's achievements in ensuring peaceful transitions of power, supporting the rule of law, promoting gender equality, guaranteeing civic rights, establishing accountable institutions, and defending free media indeed deserve to be recognised; yet the challenges to democracy, not least from failings and flaws that are incubated within democratic societies, also sharpen awareness of how far there is to go.

These challenges now also inescapably include the many pressing environmental problems of the era, of which climate change is the most potent. For as governments around the world struggle to satisfy their citizens' demands for a better life as well as for more freedom and voice, they find that the existing forms of democracy often struggle to cope. How can the "performance" of democracy in the widest sense (governments, institutions, politicians,  even civil society and media) adapt and improve to match the needs of the time - when current trends are putting the very basis of long-term sustainable life on the planet at risk?

The mutual need

One way to approach an answer is via the idea of sustainable development, which - through the post-1960s cycle of economic upswings and downturns - still offers a critically important benchmark against which to measure the success of democracy as a decision-making system (as well as remaining fairly high on the United Nations agenda). Its essential idea is simple: integrating economic, environmental and social considerations in decision-making to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

A definition that is easy to state, however, is also proving much harder to deliver and in a way that poses hard questions for the relationship between sustainable development and democracy (see John Elkington & John Lotherington, "Can democracy save the planet?", 21 April 2008).

Many links have been forged at international level, as evident in the way that the principles of public participation and of access to information have become deeply embedded in thinking on how to define and deliver sustainable development. Such  intergovernmental meetings as the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002 have been important landmarks in the process.

John Elkington is chair of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD), and founding partner and director of Volans (launched in April 2008). He co-founded the consultancy and think-tank SustainAbility in 1987 and was its chair from 1995-2005. His many books include The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World (Harvard Business School Press, 2008)

Among John Elkington's articles in openDemocracy:

"Brundtland and sustainability: history's balance-sheet" (12 April 2007)

"India's third liberation" (21 August 2007)

"Anita Roddick: outsider rules" (24 September 2007)

"Davos 2008: ends and beginnings" (31 January 2008)

"Can democracy save the planet?" (21 April 2008) - with John Lotherington

"Finance, politics, climate: three crises in one" (14 October 2008) - with Mark Lee

But a number of governments at the WSSD also noted a basic problem: namely, if democracy fails to deliver the kind of social justice that is embedded in most people's conceptions of sustainable development, the result could well be an erosion of democracy. An almost poetic passage in the Johannesburg declaration, agreed by the governments attending the 2002 conference, embodied this insight:

".. unless we act in a manner that fundamentally changes their lives, the poor of the world may lose confidence in their representatives and the democratic systems to which we remain committed, seeing their representatives as nothing more than sounding brass or tinkling cymbals."

The implication is that social justice, environmental protection and economic development - if done well, an important qualification - nurture "government by the people for the people". Sustainable development and democracy, in other words, need each other. This awareness underpins the work of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) - formerly The Environment Foundation. The FDSD launches on 15 September 2009, the second International Day of Democracy.

The harder prospect

Democracy for its own part is currently pressed from many sides - within as well as without. Its resilience and tenacity across many generations is proven, and it made impressive advances in the period after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. But resistance to its appeal is also evident. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy 2008, for example, concludes that (as of September 2008) "(half) of the world's population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only some 14% reside in full democracies" .

The contemporary fashion to name and analyse "failed states" is one indicator of a certain internal loss of confidence; the trend for donor agencies to work on "good governance" rather than trickier "democratisation" per se is another. Several of the contributors to the openDemocracy/International IDEA debate on democracy-support emphasise the damage done to this idea of promoting democracy by the aggressive policies and rhetoric of the George W Bush administration.

These, moreover, are the outcomes of a period when the resource and environmental contexts have been relatively benign. Now, however, the existing pressures are being reinforced by formidable environmental and natural-resource crises fuelled by population pressures, the depletion of energy and other natural resources - and by disruptive climate change.

The increasingly clear and present danger is that democracy will prove vulnerable in the face of runaway climate change; that those members of the global community who today live under some form of democracy will find their democratic rights and freedoms undermined; and that the opportunities for those marginalised and excluded from democracy will become even further disadvantaged. If political representatives adopt a "too little, too late" approach, these fearful outcomes will almost be guaranteed.

There are no easy answers on any side. Even to invoke simple and apparently plausible "democracy versus authoritarianism" comparisons as a gauge of which system might more quickly and efficiently tackle climate change, for example, can easily mislead (see David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure", 7 November 2007). What can be said is that independently of its capacity to deliver the social advances, political fairness, and civic rights and freedoms referred to above, no alternative system to democracy has yet been proven better to deliver on environmental issues - but that the problems for democracy in this regard are about to get a lot harder.

The adaptive system

It is becoming painfully apparent that responding to the climate challenge cannot merely be a question of policy measures and institutions: democracy itself will have to adapt. In this, it faces four core difficulties.

First, the fact that elected representatives are and feel tied to election cycles contribute to democracies' failure in thinking long-term.

Second, democratic governments have tended consistently to prioritise economic growth over environmental protection or social justice, often glibly (and wrongly) assuming that the growth guarantees the resources to achieve the other goals.

Third, there is a danger that in recessionary times, electorates may well swing behind growth-at-any-cost politics.

Fourth, there are problems of intergovernmental democracy within the United Nations system (and global-governance system more generally), where in principle one nation has one vote and there is nothing approaching a global parliament. Chandra Bhushan, associate director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, makes a crucial point in this respect: "If we want to tackle climate change, we will need more democracy not less. Not only within countries, but also between countries".

What is to be done in face of these problems? Many diverse and positive initiatives are arising both within and between governments, and across the range of environmental, social and political activism - for just as democracy demands active citizen engagement, so climate policy demands much more than simply action by governments.

The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development is making its own contribution by seeing the democracy-sustainable development nexus as the pivotal issue. In an open letter to United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, published on 15 September 2009, we call on the UN to encourage its members to reflect deeply on how they can make democracy work to deliver effective action on climate change. The approach of the climate-change conference in Copenhagen on 7-18 December is concentrating the minds and energies of governments; but this is a long-term issue that highlights what the letter describes as "at once one of the most significant failures of democracy to date, and one of the greatest challenges that the world's democracies have ever faced together".

The International Day of Democracy, in sum, will gain traction insofar as it balances recognition of democracy's continuing achievements with a renewed commitment to democracy's willingness to adapt and improve at every level. There is no other way if democracy is to deliver for humanity and for the planet - and to ensure its own survival.


openDemocracy writers explore the politics of climate change, including the debate of that name (edited by Caspar Henderson) in 2004-05:

Stephan Harrison, "Kazakhstan: glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007)

David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007)

Tom Burke, "The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)

Saleemul Huq, Oliver Tickell, David Steven, Camilla Toulmin, Andrew Dobson & Alun Anderson, "Was Bali a success?" (18 Dec 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate security: the new determinism" (20 December 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Amid the financial storm: redirecting climate change" (30 October 2008)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change futures: postcard from Poznan" (11 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Climate change: rock the state, save the planet" (21 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Climate change: a failure of leadership" (8 May 2009)

Simon Maxwell, "The politics of climate change" (15 June 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A new security paradigm: the military-climate link" (30 July 2009)

External Relations Authority, "Report on World 87" (20 August 2009)

Øyvind Paasche, "After glaciers: a new climate world" (27 August 2009)

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