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Carothers on ‘Democracy’s Uncertain State’ at Inaugural Vogt Lecture

May 25, 2016

The challenge of democracy and rule of law is to convey the complexity of the current turbulence and positive potential within both concepts, said Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace during the inaugural Margaret Vogt Lecture.

Speaking on ‘Democracy’s Uncertain State’, Carothers spoke about the instabilities in democracies globally, established and new alike. While there is cause for great concern in nearly every region of the world, with political fragmentation, feeble state capacity, closing of civil society space, rising intolerance, and institutional gridlock rampant, there are many stories of progress that do not get as much coverage by the press. These include Myanmar’s ongoing democratization process, Sri Lanka’s stability, free and fair elections in Tunisia and the transition in Burkina Faso.

Carothers enjoined the packed conference room at UN Headquarters to view democracy’s struggles as growing pains rather than insurmountable challenges. It should be applauded that citizens who feel disempowered throughout the world are expressing discontent at institutions lacking in accountability or failing to deliver services. It is the job of international democracy support organizations to create innovative channels of citizens’ empowerment to meet the demands being made of democracies.

While non-democracies have mounted campaigns of assertive geopolitical maneuvering and propagating authoritarian development ‘models’ to counter ones that include democratic norms and values, such plaudits are to be viewed with reservation. While international confidence may provide a gloss of strong institutions at home, it more often than not points rather to poor domestic governance and weak economic and political institutions, said Carothers.

Then why have challenges to democracy taken such a strong hold of citizens and governments in the world today? It is because the failure of alternatives in the ’80s and ’90s—left-wing totalitarian and right-wing authoritarian states—was assumed to mean that countries and citizens would automatically embrace liberal democracy. Carothers noted three trends that led to the current situation:

  • Too many assumed that free and fair successive elections would ‘wipe out’ the authoritarian actors in transitioning governments;
  • Too little emphasis was placed on the necessity of the rule of law and political pluralism to ensure the responsiveness of democratic institutions; and
  • Too much focus was on ideals and not practical balance between the main political forces as democracy became entrenched in a given context.

However, Carothers emphasized that cynicism must not prevail, especially for international democracy assistance organizations. While some now point to various cases of democracy promotion failures in the Middle East, these should be viewed as exceptions, and the slow processes that do not make headlines should be touted as the real possibilities of democracy promotion. Women’s political empowerment through inter-governmental and solidarity campaigns has grown in Ukraine, Pakistan and throughout the African continent. Sustainable Development Goal 16 is a testament to the international community’s acknowledgement of the importance of accountability and inclusive institutions in development work. These are the areas upon which democracy assistance organizations can build.

Carothers ended by saying that the future of democracy assistance will look like a horizontal community of learning across governments, societies and institutional sectors. The space for established democracies to direct new ones does not exist anymore; real enhancement of democracy globally will come from two-way flows of best practices.

The event was organized by the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s (S-G) Executive Committee on Peace and Security’s (ECPS) Working Group on Democracy. International IDEA, along with more than half dozen UN agencies, programs and funds, comprise the Working Group, which created this lecture series in commemoration of the tireless work of Margaret Vogt, the former UN Special Representative for the S-G in Central African Republic and Somalia. Vogt spent decades within the UN community advocating for democracy, peace and security throughout the African continent before her death in 2014.

The Vogt Lecture series will continue on 26 May, with a lecture by Leonardo Morlino of Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali ‘Guido Carli’. He will speak about the impacts of the recent economic crisis on democracy in Europe. Watch Carothers’ recorded lecture.

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