Blog

Democracy Notes
Published: 24/11/2022
Explainer: What is ‘sportswashing’, and how does it threaten democracy?
We are now five days into one of the most controversial World Cups in footballing history. The controversy lies not in the football that has been played but the way in which the tournament is being used by its host, Qatar, a country with a limited footballing pedigree and a troubling human rights record. The starkness of this case makes it a useful context against which to explore the relationship between sportswashing and democracy. What is sportswashing? Whilst there is no single authoritative definition of sportswashing, there is broad consensus on its core elements: it is a phenomenon in which (1) sports are used (2) by a state or non-state actor (3) to launder the actor’s reputation. The manner in which sports are exploited in this way is theoretically unlimited, but the most common include: hosting sporting events and owning or sponsoring sports teams and competitions. While the term has traditionally been applied to a narrow range of authoritarian state actors outside of the West, neither geography nor regime-type form part of most definitions.           Has sport ever strengthened democracy?   The capacity of sports to engage people’s passions, to generate attention and to bridge cultural and geographic divides, means that it can be a powerful tool for those seeking to promote policy or social change. Over the past two decades, the United Nations and international development agencies have had success in using sports programming to empower women and girls, fight discrimination and build peace. Sport has also played an important role in national reconciliation efforts - President Nelson Mandela’s embrace of South Africa’s national rugby team during the World Cup of 1995, then a symbol of the newly fallen apartheid state, is regarded by many as an outstanding example of this. Indeed, sports governing bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), can  leverage their status and high-profile events to promote human rights. One success story was the IOC’s creation of a Refugee Olympic Team in 2015, which has provided an important platform for refugees and refugee issues. However, the overall track record of these efforts so far is mixed and FIFA’s recent claims that the upcoming World Cup spotlight has prompted welfare and labour reforms in Qatar have been found to be largely overblown.    Can sportswashing damage democracy? As a form of reputation laundering, sportswashing works to enhance the legitimacy of wrongdoers and shield them from the negative consequences of their conduct. In so doing, it can embolden a sportswasher to commit further wrongdoings and help perpetuate weak governance. Of course, as the build-up to the World Cup in Qatar has illustrated, high profile sportswashing often attracts a great deal of critical attention, which raises reasonable questions about the extent of the danger that it presents. However, history suggests that such criticism tends to subside once the sport is underway - although at this early stage, it appears the World Cup in Qatar may buck this trend. Additionally, the existence of criticism does not in and of itself mean that sportswashing is not working – what sportswashers seek is a net reputational gain. In achieving this they can often rely on the support of powerful voices from within sports governing bodies, as was amply demonstrated in the speech given recently by FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino, in which he attacked Qatar’s critics and played down their rights concerns.           It is important to note too that it is not only the democratic performance of the sportswasher’s state that this phenomenon threatens. Recent research on the English cities of Manchester and Newcastle documents how their local democratic institutions have been weakened by the growing influence of the controversial Gulf investment funds that own their football clubs. It details how the halo effect that the owners have achieved in bringing success to these cherished clubs has been sufficiently powerful to deter criticism of their human rights record from the local press and politicians, who fear displeasing fans and advertisers. What can fans do about sportswashing? The immense size of the sports industry and the power of the individuals involved in sportswashing can leave the average fan feeling impotent. However, scholars have recently argued that fan and athlete activism have an important role to play in resisting the phenomenon. They explain that sportswashing’s potency lies in its capacity to use the strong emotions and identities associated with sport to distract from or minimise the sportswasher’s wrongdoings, and that the strategy rests on them being able to separate these wrongdoings from the sports event or team being used for this purpose. When fans and athletes draw attention to abuses, particularly from within the emotionally charged atmosphere of a stadium, they undermine this separation and limit the event’s ability to distract. Perhaps, therefore, as the World Cup progresses, we need to recognise our agency and defy FIFA’s plea to “focus on the football” by continuing our conversations about the plight of Qatar’s migrant labourers and it’s LGBTQIA+ community and by lending our support to the footballers who decide to take action.           
Democracy Notes
Published: 23/11/2022
Explainer: Social Contracts
International IDEA’s upcoming Global State of Democracy 2022 report focuses on the role of social contracts in revitalizing democratic institutions. But what is a social contract and why is it important for democracy?  What is a social contract?  A social contract is an implicit agreement between the people and their government about what each side provides to the other. The terms of the agreement can vary widely. While notions of the social contract have historically tended to focus on things like security, employment opportunities and some form of social welfare to help address people’s needs over the course of their lives, social contracts can also include agreements on how communal relations are managed, women’s rights, and many other issues. In return for these rights, people pay taxes and consent to the authority of the state. Arguably, the government’s public legitimacy is rooted in the terms of the social contract.  Certain terms of the social contract are implicit and difficult to definitively codify; they may be understood as social mores in a given society. In many cases, though, the agreements are given effect through constitutions and laws. For example, Canadians benefit from universal healthcare; their taxes ensure that they do not have to pay out-of-pocket for most healthcare services. In Costa Rica, the government made a conscious decision to spend heavily on education and healthcare instead of on the military.    A long line of scholars and experts have studied social contracts, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant and John Locke. Beatrice Webb is also credited with advancing social contract theory. Some experts have traced the concept as far back as ancient Greece in the 5th century BC. In more recent times, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and LSE Director Minouche Shafik have shone a new spotlight on the issue.   What does a social contract have to do with democracy?  If we think of democracy as public control over decision-makers and decision-making and equality in the exercise of that control, it follows that social contracts are at the heart of democracy. Social contracts define the issues that decision-makers must work on, and they stipulate how people can hold those decision-makers accountable for upholding (or not) their ends of the deal. If people feel that the terms of the contract are not fair or are not being respected by the government, the latter risks losing legitimacy.   Democracies are arguably better placed to keep social contracts updated, largely by virtue of the mechanisms in place to promote responsiveness and accountability. In addition to the fact that leaders can be voted out of office for failing to effectively deliver for their constituents, protests, petitions, and other avenues for communication allow people to let their leaders know what they must do to retain legitimacy.  Why do we need to update social contracts?  First, people’s needs are changing in response to a quickly evolving context. In addition to the myriad ways in which digitalization and the internet have impacted the way we live our daily lives, there are new expectations about more mobile lifestyles and things like remote working arrangements. People also want more responsive action to address the effects of climate change, the renewed threat of nuclear war and – more recently – a global cost of living crisis. Second, people may change their minds over time. The rise of more right-wing governments in Sweden and Italy suggest, for example, that publics may have more restrictive views than before about issues like immigration, especially as longstanding economic grievances remain unaddressed. In Indonesia, there is also increasing support for conservativism. Third, social contracts require renegotiation when governments fail to deliver as promised.  When Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government defaulted on its debt, leaving the public without basic supplies, the public took to the streets and forced the president to resign. Subsequent discussion has widened to demand an overhaul of the social contract.   What are some examples of social contract renewal?  There are several contemporary examples of the renewal of social contracts. Around the world, youth are demanding an increased say in politics. In Belgium, for instance, the government lowered the voting age from 18 to 16 for all EU citizens living in the country who wish to cast ballots in the European Parliament elections, held every five years. The change was a direct response to the Conference for the Future of Europe, which included innovative citizens’ panels, empowered to make recommendations. In 2019, Malaysia also lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, partly in response to a youth-led campaign on this issue.  Another example can be seen via the multiple examples of a push for stronger reproductive rights around the world. Examples from Finland, India, Sierra Leone, Colombia, and Malta – just to name a few - demonstrate how women (and men) expect their governments to do more to protect women’s autonomy over their own bodies.  A final example noted here is in Chile, the site of one of the most inclusive constitutional drafting processes in the world. Although the text failed a public referendum, President Boric announced his support for a continuation of the process, something that 74 percent of Chileans also support.  What happens when social contracts are not renewed?  If people’s expressed needs are not addressed over a significant amount of time, it can risk the government legitimacy. A particularly striking example is in The Gambia, where Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled as president for 22 years, was defeated by Adama Barrow in a stunning 2016 victory. The new government has promised a raft of reforms, many of which promise to address people’s longstanding, unresolved grievances from the Jammeh era. People’s ability to seek justice for what happened in the past will be key to Barrow’s continued legitimacy and his government’s focus on these issues is a key example of how critical it is to be aware of the need to regularly renew social contracts.              
Democracy Notes
Published: 22/11/2022
After a Mediocre Deal, COP27 Needs a Dose of Democracy
It was a sign of the times that just as the COP27 delegates began to fill the air-conditioned tents on the Sinai desert coast, concerns arose that the Egyptian host government could use the conference app to spy on attendees. Fear over authoritarianism had made its mark on what was meant to be an open forum for 200 countries negotiating commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Many delegates were uneasy about Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s regime, with its record on human rights abuses and jailing opponents, holding COP27 in the first place. But no one seemed in the mood to exclude countries from COP27 (perhaps with Russia as the exception). If you boycott Egypt, then the question arises, why not exclude one of the world’s biggest emitters, China? That would essentially stall global climate talks. The issue went to the heart of the climate change crisis and the role of democracy. If governments are going to be one of the motors for climate change solutions, how do you fit in the fact that many of them spy on and jail their own citizens? Should democracies be bothered at all with pressing for civil rights in the great power politics of climate negotiations? Should the values of democracy play second fiddle to solutions to the climate crisis, or are democratic values key to the solutions to the climate crisis? In this regard, COP27 could seem like Alice in Wonderland, a topsy turvy world upending conventional common sense. It was indeed Egypt that criticized wealthy nations for ‘backsliding’—but not in terms of International IDEA’s own Global State of Democracy indices. Rather Egypt accused the West of backsliding on promises to provide the billions of dollars needed for poorer nations to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Egypt’s view was echoed by many nations from the Global South. Talk of democracy is empty, they argued, if the basic human rights of the world’s population—the right to the likes of clean water and livable temperatures—are not met. In the eyes of many activists at COP27, the democratic and wealthy West was indeed ‘backsliding’. As some had predicted, initial concerns about Egypt’s human rights were eventually overshadowed by the last-minute drama in the final, second week of the Summit, when countries agreed to a ‘loss and damages’ fund to pay for climate-related damage to developing nations , but backed down on greater cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions and an end to fossil fuel use. Essentially, as Mexico's chief climate negotiator Camila Zepeda admitted, governments may have sacrificed any meaningful progress on cutting carbon emissions to win an agreement on financial help to poor nations. Financial help for poor nations is laudable, but as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, ‘it's not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map- or turns an entire African country to desert.’ The COP27 Summit showed that, rather than any sense of democratic nations uniting at COP27, the real battle lines drawn were increasingly between poorer countries and richer ones, between international business-as-usual relations and the recognition of human rights for poorer nations. Aside from the accord over the ‘loss and damage’, another sign of this trend was the South Pacific Island of Vanuatu’s proposed petition to the world’s top court—the UN’s International Court of Justice—to take a stance on protecting people from climate change. It gained support from nearly half of COP27 countries. A final court ruling could give a non-binding judgement over financial obligations countries have on climate change and define it as a human rights issue. The Vanuatu proposal was, thanks to lobbying from group of Pacific Island law students, a sign of how open democratic processes can introduce innovative, bottom-up policy. The energy that came with the announcement—in a packed auditorium of cheering delegates—contrasted with the dreary plenary, where most of the time world leaders gave drab speeches, if anything playing up to their domestic audiences rather than anyone in the room. Indeed, taking a packed bus to the conference center every morning was a microcosm of this wider energy of civil society. One morning, I sat by a Scottish engineer chatting to a Fiji delegate about sea level rises in Malaysia. Two Zimbabwean delegates joined in the conversation, while a Bhutanese woman stood nearby. Quickly the bus became an open, fresh discussion on climate policy. It showed that if democratic values were on hand at this UN Summit, it was with civil society, from IT entrepreneurs to Indigenous groups. If democratic governments are to remain relevant in climate-change policy, the official suited delegates should take heed from the likes of Vanuatu’s students.