Building a Global Agenda for Democracy

Authors: Otto Saki and Scott Warren*

The Biden Administration recently held its second “Summit for Democracy,” bringing together governments, civil society leaders, and the private sector in late March in an attempt to demonstrate how democratic governance can deliver for citizens across the world. Alongside co-hosts of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia, the United States attempted to broaden the first iteration of the Summit, held in December 2021, by elevating country-specific commitments, and subsequent progress, on issues like election integrity and combatting transparency. The Summit also aimed to foster collaboration with civil society through thematic cohorts on issues like youth political engagement and combating the closure of civic space.

At a time  in which the concept of democracy around the world is at a precipice moment, the energy behind the initiative is welcomed. At the same time, the Summit received some criticism for its lack of focus and the challenge of determining which countries were actually invited, with concerns of potentially dubious invitations

As a grantmaker and practitioner in the democracy space, our objective in this piece is not to add to the criticism of the Summit itself, which has arguably provided needed momentum and energy into the democracy field. We believe, at a moment in time in which alternative government forms are gaining traction, that the Summit has served as a useful, necessary catalyst in spurring a conversation on the importance of democracy as a system of government that is best at guaranteeing freedom and rights for individuals. At the same time, itt goes without saying that general summits, whether they be the UN General Assembly Meetings or other global convenings, as stand-alone events are insufficient to stem the democratic regression tide.  Too much energy should not be spent from governments and civil society alike, on a singular event.

Instead of focusing on the importance of a Summit itself, there is value, and perhaps necessity, in promoting a broader Agenda for Democracy. This Agenda should focus on furthering an global l movement focused on democratic renewal through simultaneously strengthening grassroots activism and providing support and accountability to governments who claim to support democracy.

This is a moment for democracy. After almost two decades of persistent gloomy news on global democratic trends, we are seeing potential signs of hope. The most recent Freedom House report indicates that the gap between the number of countries where freedom has improved, and where it has declined is at its narrowest point in 17 years. In the last year, freedom declined in 35 countries, like Peru and Thailand, while it improved in 34 countries, like Kenya and Brazil. This compares to 73 countries that saw declines in 2020, with only 28 seeing improvement. At the same time, we have still seen 17 straight years of democratic decline, and the emergence of non-democratic governance models that portend to deliver economic benefits, like in China and Singapore, provide a grave threat- to say nothing of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

The promise and precariousness of this moment for democracy requires an ambitious agenda. But what does an Agenda for Democracy, what does it actually look like?  How can it avoid falling into the same traps as the Summit for Democracy? How can an Agenda be forward looking and ambitious without being overly driven by the United States and the broader Western world? How can it be more than just talking points or broad commitments?

We do not have all the solutions, and hope that the concept of defining an Agenda can be a collective exercise led by friends of democracy throughout the world. We also believe that it is critical to acknowledge that democracy is not a perfect system of government, and that countries in the Global South are and should be focused on economic development as a top developmental priority. To that end, it is critical to make the case that democracy is the best form of government at both guaranteeing individual rights, and pursuing equitable economic outcomes. We do have a few ideas on how to start formulating this Agenda for Democracy.

Firstly, it is incumbent to create a more positive vision for democracy. Democracy can, and must, be aspirational, rather than simply a cudgel against countries like China and Russia. Across the world, citizens in countries like Peru, Zimbabwe, and Ukraine, are literally putting their lives on the line for the very concept of having a say in their own self-governance. We need to tell their stories, and why democracy means so much to these people. These individuals, more so than governmental leaders, or funders and academics like us, are the best purveyors of the power of democracy.

Secondly, we need to embrace innovation in democracy. Across the world, individuals are increasingly distrustful of formal institutions that they do not feel deliver results. Faltering confidence in democracy itself provides the opportunity and perhaps obligation, for entrepreneurial solutions. Ideas like citizen assemblies, in which randomized individuals make political decisions, and participatory budgeting, where community members allocate funding to agreed upon priorities, are worth experiments that provide autonomy and agency to people who feel like their voices have been neglected. There are no silver bullet solutions to better democratic results around the world, so an approach based on experimentation is necessary in an attempt to reimagine democracy itself.

And finally, we need to prove that democracy can still work. There is a reason that so many throughout the world are questioning the governance concept- historic economic inequality and a global elite that seemingly focuses more on consolidating power than expanding rights provokes frustration and doubt. Building on the work of the Summit, research institutions can demonstrate which types of commitments lead to concrete and durable democratic gains. And special attention should be made to examine the intersection of participatory democracy and equitable economic gains.

The Summit for Democracy has led to a burgeoning and needed conversation on the importance of the democratic governance concept around the world. Let’s not keep focusing on an individual event. An aspirational, innovative, research-backed Agenda for Democracy is needed to help build, and consolidate, the democratic gains of the moment.

*Scott Warren is a Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, focusing on building pro-democracy coalitions in the US, and around the world.

Otto Saki
Otto Saki
Otto Saki, is a global program officer with the Ford Foundation focusing on civic engagement and government, and writes in his individual capacity.