Democracy as inclusion: the NGO-perspective.
Two years ago, during a duty-trip to Albania, I had a meeting with the executive director of Coplan. Coplan is one of the leading NGO’s in Albania with a high profile based om its work in social urban development. During that meting we talked about the dilemma of NGO-leaders pondering whether to embark on the formal democratic political processes or to influence democratic decision making from the NGO-position. He was questioning himself whether he would have more impact, would make more of a difference in a political position. Half a year later he indeed became special adviser of the new elected president.
You and I, I presume, we can hardly imagine that development NGO’s are not promoting democracy. Development NGO’s, always seen and presenting themselves as the champions of the plight against poverty, as advocates for human rights, as the defenders of the poor and marginalized, are natural allies in the promotion of democracy. The Greek word democratia refers to two words: people and power. Democracy is about the power of the people and the power to the people and development-ngo’s, working for empowerment of people, should embrace democracy from their very nature. But what looks to be obvious from the perspective of nature of development organizations and their concepts, isn’t always that obvious in practice. And where you should expect a harmonious relationship between politicians and ngo’s in a common effort to work for democracy, there is sometimes a gap. There is a great deal of reluctance when you would ask development-NGO’s take part in the democratization process in Iraq. And the other way around there are a lot of development ngo’s who don’t understand why politicians and governments don’t recognize and respect the outcome of the democracy and the democratic elections in Palestine.
In this presentation I will first try to explain how development work and development ngo’s like Cordaid a looking at democracy op the conceptual level. What makes democracy attractive for NGO’s. In the second part I will present four specific aspects of democracy and present you some cases of Cordaid’s experience in the last decades. And at the end I will highlight why the relation between democracy and Ngo’s is not always as flourishing as we would expect.
To explain the relation between democracy and development- NGO’s it is necessary to dig a bit deeper into the concept op democracy that is common to development ngo’s in their work. And it is good to notice that development-ngo’s are quite familiar with questions of democracy. In the developing countries they are facing all types and all stages of democracy and countries where democracy is absent. Cordaid is working in fragile democracies like Afganistan, in countries where democracy is still to de established like Congo, in failed states like Haiti, in countries that have gone to difficult transition processes like Guatemala and in mature democracies like India.
What makes democracy conceptually part of the values, embraced and promoted by NGO’s are three characteristics: the first is that democracy is an system of inclusion, the second is that it is build on process of checks and balances and the third is its concept of citizenship. Where outright dictatorship and also autocratic regimes are build on exclusion, clearly distinguishing between those who are in power and those who are excluded from power, and where one-party systems like communism are a system of pseudo-inclusion, democracy is intrinsically a concept of inclusion. For me that inclusiveness of the concept of democracy has two aspects. The first is that democracy gives everybody, every individual the opportunity to express his or her opinion and preferences. The second aspect is the inclusion of minorities. The principle of democracy is not that of ‘the winner takes it all’. When democracy tends to go into a majority rule in which minorities are marginalized and not recognized with their demands and opinions, democracy is on the way to get into an autocratic of one party system.
The second characteristic that makes democracy part of the NGO-values is the system of checks and balances. NGO’s belong to this system of checks and balances, often functioning as countervailing power to governmental authorities, challenging them and holding the accountable for their political choices and decisions. That NGO’s are often presenting themselves as countervailing powers, criticizing government and politicians, is more a confirmation of their democratic attitude than a deny of that.
The third aspect that I would like to elaborate on is the concept of citizenship. To me democracy is based on a political concept of citizenship. It presumes that each and every citizen in his or her expression of preferences is reflecting its ideas on how society should be organized. A political concept of citizenship assumes that people have ideas of the direction that society should take, on what means a good life on societal level. That seems quite self-evident, but there is an increasing tendency, which is visible during the last ten years in the Netherlands, to define citizenship from a consumerist perspective where the relation between state and citizen is framed on the model of the consumer-provider relation and the state is becoming more and more a delivering machine for the citizen. This consumerist perspective on citizenship is undermining the essence of democracy
So, to conclude, inclusion, the system of checks and balances and the political concept of citizenship make democracy part of the NGO-values and convictions.
Cordaid as a catholic NGO, who derives its values from the Catholic Social Teaching embraces democracy because there is a great deal of compatibility between both of them. Catholic Social Teaching stresses three main principle, that of the common good, of subsidiarity and of solidarity. And a full participative democracy is a community in which people can benefit from the common god, can act on their own level with their own responsibility and live in solidarity.
Let me now go to the second part of my presentation, referring to four different cases of democracy where Cordaid was or is involved.
1. Transformation to democracy
Democracy is not the natural state of countries and governments. The study of freedom house, ‘How freedom is won’ underpins the idea that democracy has to be fought for and has to be conquered over dictatorship, one party rule or pseudo-democracy. In the eighties Cordaid was intensively involved in the process of restoring democracy in Chili. It made the analysis that restoring democracy required a stroing alliance of Christian democrats and social democrats. Cordaid, backed by the Dutch government, channelled millions of dollars to support these parties in their campaign for democracy. Cordaid used its catholic network and the exempt position of the catholic church with Cardinal Raul Silva to bypass the regime of Pinochet.
The same happened in South Africa where Cordaid and its local counterparts played a role in the change to democracy and especially in the way it happened: broad-based, democratic and non-violent. And it happened in Georgia, where ngo’s played a role in the rose-revolution.
2. Elections as the visible litmus-test of democracy
Elections as the moment, where people can express there will on the future of their country, where power of the people is materialized, are moment of ngo’s involvement. Cordaid supported its counterparts in Congo to implement voters educations programs, to work on civic education processes. And it send observers-missions to the elections of last July and will do the same by the end of the coming month.
3. Democracy and inclusion of minorities
Democracy as inclusion is more than a formal political process. It derives its legitimacy from its ability to include people when it comes to social-economic and cultural participation. India is always presented as an example of a mature and stable democracy. What is true in its formal political sense. But when we look al the 300 million Indians who are excluded because they are belonging to the scheduled casts and not allow to fetch water from the same taps as others, than there is a lot to do in realising democracy at a deeper level. Law forbid discrimination, law gives Dalits equal rights, but enforcement of law is lacking. Therefore Cordaid supports in India and at the international level the Dalit-coalition, to raise the issue and put it on the agenda of the UN human rughts commission.
Some remarks to conclude
NGO’s are demanding and challenging regarding democracy. They are not easy satisfied with formal democracy and elections. They aim for the deeper and fundamental inclusiveness of democracy, in which each and every man and woman gets the opportunity for full participation in society. In their love for democracy, ngo’s are critical. I’m convinced that democracy is hollowing out its own credibility and legitimacy if it is not able to realize its pretension of inclusion beyond the formal political process of parties and elections. Democracy at the political level has to be followed by inclusion in the social-economic and the etno-cultural domain. The most important conflicts – with a lot of casualties – in the world are conflicts rooted in exclusion: the Darfur conflict in Sudan, the LRA in Northern Uganda, The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. All of them have their origin in regional, ethnic or religious exclusion. The democratic challenge of the next decade is to realise this inclusion. Democracy need support of people who realize that it is in their interest. Marginalization and exclusion in social-economic and etno-cultural realities will undermine its legitimacy.
In the beginning I referred to Albania and the cross-over of the executive director of Coplan to politics. That is not an exemption. Time and again we see that the process of democratization leads to a decapitation of the ngo-sector. That happened massively in Chili, after Pinochet, in South Africa with the Mandela Government and in Georgia when the rose-revolution took place. Leaders of NGO’s became member of parliament, cabinet-minister, high ranking civil servants. NGO’s and democratic institutions appeared to be communicating vessels, but left de civil society with a serious leadership-problem. It took time for civil society to regain a strong position as countervailing power, criticizing if necessary their former leaders. Although we can and do regret these processes of loss, they also proof how strong civil society and democracy are interlinked, how they need each-other, but there is no real love without quarrel.