For the past two decades democracy has begun to spread all over the world. In its annual Human Development Report of 2002, the UN focused on democracy and its role in improving people’s lives. By the year 2000, 140 of the world’s nearly 200 countries held multi-party elections. In practice, only 82 countries, with 57% of the world’s people, are fully democratic. Compared to 1985, when only 44 countries were truly democratic, with only 38% of the world’s people, this is real progress.
What does the term democracy mean?
Full democracy guarantees human rights, with a free press and an independent judiciary. Democracies are certainly not utopias of peace and tranquility, nor do they necessarily achieve the elimination of poverty. Many of the partially democratic countries with incomplete democratic institutions are fragile, and are often subverted by corruption and moneyed interests. Democracy is not the magic bullet providing more jobs, schools and health care for ordinary people. In the past, in reaction to public disappointment and unrest, military takeovers have turned to authoritarianism. Yet this response seems to be ending. South America has given up on the junta solution. Politicians have used disillusion with democracy to justify curtailment of human rights. But history and research have provided no evidence that authoritarian regimes are more successful at promoting economic and social justice. The UN, the world’s main source of objective social data, demonstrates in its report that democracy is no obstacle to high income, and low income is not an obstacle to democracy. Costa Rica, Brazil since 1985, and India are all poor countries, and more or less democratic.
Why is democracy so important? Democracy is based on the idea that all people have the right, and should have the means, to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and power to hold governments accountable. The justification for democracy also depends on the core idea of equality, which results from the acknowledgement of a common humanity. Every human being is recognized as worthy without regard to intelligence, skills, talents, rank, property, beliefs and gender. This is a vision both of Ethical Culture and humanism. It is also a basic assumption in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the UN Charter and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
While democracy has an intrinsic moral value, there are also pragmatic reasons to support democracy, democracies are more successful at avoiding crises such as famine, and are less likely to suffer civil wars, because they offer political space where conflicts can be discussed and resolved. In India, pockets of slaughter were confined to local areas because a free press exposed the political manipulations promoting the carnage. Civil war did not spread to neighboring towns because Muslims and Hindus shared power in political institutions.
Since 1995, an estimated 2 million people, a staggering 10% of the population of North Korea, have died of famine. In 1958-61, nearly 30 million people died of famine in China. Yet since achieving independence and democracy in 1947, India has not had a single famine, even in the face of severe crop failure. In Maharashtra, in the 1973 drought, elected politicians responded with public works programs for 5 million people and averted famine. Currently politicians in Ethiopia are coping with severe drought, although in the past, military rulers kept the famine a secret and millions died.
Another fascinating example of democracy at work is the use of participatory budgeting at the local level. In Porto Allegro, Brazil, citizen participation is preparing municipal budgets that have reallocated spending, raising the share of households with access to water services from 80% to 98%, and nearly doubling access to sanitation from 46% to 85% Similar experiments in gender-responsive budgeting are being pursued in at least 40 countries.
The UN also focuses on international institutions to make them more open and accountable. It notes that nearly half of the voting power in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund rests with 7 countries. Although all countries have a seat and vote in the World Trade Organization (WTO) decisions are made in small group meetings heavily influenced by Canada, the European Union, Japan and the United States. In 2000, 15 African countries did not have a single trade representative stationed at WTO. This imbalance is also reflected in male dominance. The Board of Directors of the IMF is 100% male, and in the World Bank, 92%.
The strong trend towards democracy is proceeding in an uneven and sometimes turbulent way. In Europe and the United States progress was slow and difficult. It took the United States 86 years to abolish slavery, 144 years to enfranchise women, and 189 years to assure African-Americans the vote. We believe that the demand for participation and democracy is here to stay. Let us hope that in spite of the pain of transition, this is a trend that is leading to a better world.
Sylvain and Phyllis Ehrenfeld,
IHEU Representatives to the UN & The AEU’s National Service Conference.