openDemocracy's five years: the editorial story

David Hayes
11 May 2006

After eighteen months of intensive planning – clarifying ideas, fundraising, networking, discussion, administration, recruitment – openDemocracy launched as a live website on 13 May 2001. The very first article we published was a reflection on "elections and democracy", co-written by two colleagues in New Delhi, Rajeev & Tani Bhargava.

The article, entitled "The Indian experience", argued that "(the) moral identity of Indian society has significantly altered because of a very real sense among the people that governments should work for the people and can be made to work for their benefit ….The poor in India know that they have an enduring stake in a sturdy democracy. This is why they come out in hordes to vote."

The authors contrasted the active electoral participation of poor Indians both with their equivalents abroad and their more privileged compatriots, and concluded: "On its own, political democracy is unlikely to improve the economic condition of the poor. But it has given them the self-confidence and the much-needed social space to strive to improve their own life-chances. This could never have happened without their birth as voters."

To look back to openDemocracy's point of editorial origin from the retrospect (at the time of writing) of five years and 3,538 subsequent articles, is to encounter a reality that is at once familiar and unexpected. It is also to rediscover foundational principles and values that have formed a continuous thread throughout a convulsive period of history.

Six aspects of that first article, then, are significant:

  • its content: focused on the essential attributes of a democratic society – equality and empowerment, legitimate institutions, accountability of power, and the potential of ordinary people for self-emancipation
  • its perspective: rooted in understanding of a particular social reality, in this case the accumulated experience of Indian democracy
  • its language: directed at a worldwide readership
  • its voice: independent, thoughtful, engaging and clear
  • its commitment: to the enlargement of life through understanding that respects the rights and agency of individual citizens
  • its context: the opening contribution to a debate involving writers from a variety of backgrounds and opinions.

These principles and values have helped guide openDemocracy's editorial work – planning, commissioning, editing, publishing, presenting – across a turbulent five years that has seen a world degraded by terrorism and war, corroded by cultural and political polarisation, and violated by injustice and unaccountable power.

It has not been an easy or comfortable ride, nor should it have been. We also have lived and been part of these testing times. We have felt their winds blowing through our office and inside each one of us. We have all, as individuals and as a human community, been changed and reshaped by them. But, acutely conscious of our professional responsibilities, we have not allowed them to blow us off our feet.

Rather, we have tried to respond to the world's deepening crises by looking them in the eye and attempting to think through their complex realities. In doing so, we feel that we have laid the foundations of a democratic initiative – both reality and idea – that has the capacity to grow, mature, and flourish.

openDemocracy's editorial work has been at its best when grounded in and responsive to the real world, and prepared to cross frontiers of geography and mind in service of understanding. This was manifested in the long, slow aftermath of 11 September 2001, since when we inaugurated a series of discussions around five broad themes:

  • law, faith and justice in an age of terror
  • globalisation and its discontents
  • American power and the world
  • the human impact of conflicts worldwide
  • the condition and possibilities of democracy itself.

An age of terror

Among the early post-9/11 participants were Murat Belge in Istanbul, the Iranian-German scholar Navid Kermani, the Spanish writer Gema Martin Muñoz, the Palestinian filmmaker Omar al-Qattan, and the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. Several of them challenged the evolving imaginative model of a new "clash of civilisations" while illuminating the plurality of Islamic experience.

It soon became clear that the religious and cultural dimensions of the post-9/11 era were becoming established in the new political landscape, and our range of contributors broadened. A symposium on impending war in Iraq (launched by the English novelist John Le Carré) drew contributions from the Brazilian fabulist Paulo Coelho, the Syrian poet Adonis, the German novelist Günter Grass, the Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, Salman Rushdie, the Thai social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, the South African writer Njabulo S Ndebele, and the Iraqi artist Nuha al-Radi.

From New York to Kabul, Baghdad to Madrid, Bali to London, openDemocracy's focus has remained on this central issue of our time. Paul Rogers, eminent professor of peace studies who is read in military staff colleges and by anti-war activists alike, has been writing a weekly commentary on the "war on terror" since October 2001; other contributors on this theme have included Tani Bhargava on the Bali bombing through Indian eyes, the Lebanese artist Maï Ghoussoub on "11-M" in Madrid, the Jordanian academic Fares A Braizat on Arab public opinion, and the Lebanese journalist Hazem Saghieh on the al-Jazeera phenomenon.

A wide range of Iraqis have shared their multiple perspectives with us; they include:

In responding to major events, the intention of openDemocracy is always to provide context and add understanding as well as giving space to fresh, accurate analysis of events as they unfold. This set of priorities shaped our response to the London bombs of July 2005. In the subsequent three months we published thirty-eight articles which addressed themes of democracy and citizenship, nationality and the future of multiculturalism in Britain, the best ways to counter terrorism, and the internal variety and politics of Britain's Muslim communities.

Among the contributors to these debates have been voices from several currents of Muslim opinion and from writers of different backgrounds addressing questions raised by the bombings. They included:

These projects were succeeded by a discussion of the nature of al-Qaida with Faisal Devji, author of the innovative study Landscapes of the Jihad, and James Howarth, translator of Osama bin Laden's "messages to the world". In the aftermath of the cartoon controversy which exploded in February 2006, openDemocracy writers from a dozen countries – among them Tariq Modood, Sami Zubaida, Ulf Hedetoft, S Sayyid, Doug Ireland, Fauzia Ahmad, Neal Ascherson, and Tahir Abbas – joined an intense, clarifying online symposium.

Globalisation and its discontents

The problems and potentials of an increasingly economically interdependent world were at the heart of openDemocracy's major debate in early 2002 between the scholars David Held and Paul Hirst over globalisation. This theme, passionately argued at the level of ideas, diversified into a series of dialogues on the site: participants included Peter Sutherland, WTO founder, Ann Pettifor of the Jubilee 2000 debt campaign, Michele Wucker of the World Policy Institute, Alex de Waal of Justice Africa, Nadeem Ul Haque of the IMF, and Victor Youmbi, a civil-society activist in Cameroon.

There have been three particular focuses in our globalisation dialogues. The first is international trade issues, where prominent arguments have included the issue of "sweatshops" in Bangladesh; here, Body Shop founder and campaigner Anita Roddick was challenged by the Bangladeshi economists Naila Kabeer and Farida Khan over the lives of women garment workers. Meanwhile, analysts from Oxfam's Kevin Watkins and Amy Barry, the IMD business school's Jean-Pierre Lehmann, the LSE economist Robert Hunter Wade, to Seema Desai of the Foreign Policy Centre have contested questions of trade, development and global inequality.

The second focus is the politics of climate change, the subject of a kaleidoscopic debate which encompassed creative literary perspectives (including Ian McEwan and Bill McKibben), glaciologists and other scientists (Stephan Harrison, David King, Carol Turley), development specialists and campaigners (Camilla Toulmin, John Ashton, Tom Burke) – and much more!

The third focus is global governance, including reform of major world institutions like the G8 and the United Nations.

The former has included perspectives on Africa from Chukwu Emeke-Chikezie, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe and David Styan.

The latter has been the subject of strong discussion from UN critics like Frank Vibert and John Hulsman, critical friends like Johanna Mendelson Forman of the United Nations Foundation and Dan Plesch, and thoughtful insiders like Edward Mortimer and Shashi Tharoor.

David Held's powerful statement of a "social democratic", post-neo-liberal model of globalisation involving a reformed institutional architecture initiated a strong debate whose respondees included the South African scholar-activist Patrick Bond and Maria Livanos Cattaui of the International Chambers of Commerce. The resulting series is published in an essay-collection Debating Globalization co-produced with the respected publishers Polity.

American power and the world

The projection of United States power to Afghanistan, Iraq, central Asia and the Caucasus has been a defining feature of the post-9/11 world. openDemocracy's attempt to understand and measure this reality has ranged widely. It includes:

As American policy has impacted on virtually every country and region, openDemocracy writers have charted its effects: the Uzbek journalist Anora Mahmudova and the International Crisis Group's Sabine Freizer in central Asia, the Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy in south Asia, the Moroccan-French writer Nelcya Delanoe in north Africa, and the Georgian political scientist Alexander Rondeli in the southern Caucasus.

The 2004 presidential year was the centrepiece of a series of dialogues under the rubric "Letters to Americans", whose distinguished interlocutors on the United States side (including the philosopher Richard Rorty, the Pulitzer prizewinner Steve Coll, Princeton University dean Anne-Marie Slaughter and MIT professor John Dower) answered letters from writers worldwide, among them the Pakistani human-rights lawyer and UN representative Asma Jahangir, the Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Chinese dissident and initiator of "Democracy Wall" Wei Jingsheng, the Nigerian activist Ken Wiwa, and the Somali journalist Harun Hassan.

The human impacts of conflict

openDemocracy has always tried to view wider issues of power, politics and social change as they relate to the experience of minorities, marginal social groups, and individuals. The column of Gil Loescher and Arthur Helton (tragically curtailed by the bombing of the United Nations in Baghdad in August 2003, in which Arthur was killed and Gil seriously wounded) was centred on the humanitarian aspects of global refugee policy. Caroline Moorehead's column, "Voices from exile", charted the everyday epic journeys of asylum-seekers from Burundi, Kosovo, Uganda, Turkey and elsewhere to a chilly welcome in the west.

This theme was continued in our innovative "people flow" debate about migration and movement in the age of globalisation, whose participants included the Bosnian ex-asylum seeker Zrinka Bralo, the Liberian ex-child soldier Osman Bah, the Turkish-German politician Cem Özdemir, and the Dutch policy thinker Theo Veenkamp.

The human perspective has been central too in many of the reflections we have published on global political questions. They include:

The articles and debates discussed in this overview form just a small selection of our content from 13 May 2001 to 12 May 2006. There is no room in an inevitably truncated digest to acknowledge everyone who has written for and contributed to openDemocracy in these five years; so a special thanks to just some of our long-time contributors, associates and colleagues whose energy and ideas have been indispensable to openDemocracy's development:

Roger Scruton, philosopher

Maruf Khwaja, Pakistani journalist

Mary Kaldor, security and civil-society expert

Douglas Murray, writer and polemicist

Kirsty Hughes, European expert

Paul Kingsnorth, journalist and activist

Bill Thompson, new media and technology guru

Ian Christie, policy-maker and polymath

Hugh Brody, anthropologist

Wendell Steavenson, journalist and author

Democracy in search of itself

These four themes represent only a part of openDemocracy's work over the first four years of our life. openDemocracy writers have pursued the adventures of democracy, and the complexities of the encounter between different political systems, across the globe. Some of them are:

We have also attended in a more concentrated way to the predicament of democracy in individual countries, regions, and continents:

We also salute openDemocracy colleagues:

Rosemary Bechler, roving intellectual

Candida Clark, novelist

Caspar Henderson, blogger, bike-lover, editor and writer

Paul Hilder, policy analyst and architect of ideas

Dominic Hilton, satirist and writer

Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist

Susan Richards, writer and Russophile

To those mentioned here and those who have contributed in whatever form, we extend our thanks and respect to you all; we are truly grateful for your support in our shared journey

  • in Turkey, Murat Belge linked his free-speech trial to the fissures in Turkish governance, Hrant Dink wrote of his judicial and journalistic experience as an Armenian in Istanbul; Gunes Murat Tezcur and Fadi Hakura examined Turkey's future in or out of the European Union
  • in the Caucasus: this region of national and geopolitical tension was explicated by Thomas de Waal of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Alexander Rondeli, Neal Ascherson, Brenda Shaffer, George Hewitt of SOAS, Wendell Steavenson, and Nino Nanava
  • in France: Patrice de Beer's mordant columns on the multiple crises of the French model, along with Henri Astier's measured reflections and KA Dilday's engaged and humane viewpoint
  • in east-central Europe: Alexander Motyl and Taras Kuzio illuminated the contours of the "orange revolution" and its messy aftermath in Ukraine; Margot Letain and Amy de Wit made sense of Belarus's long march under Alexander Lukashenko; Gabriel Partos and Miklos Haraszti traced the contours of post-communist Hungary; the Bulgarian scholar Ivan Krastev's incisively analysed populism in east-central Europe; and Krzysztof Bobinski, Adam Szostkiewicz, and Neal Ascherson put Poland's national and regional complexities at the heart of European discussion
  • in Russia: the saga of the vast country under Putin was debated by a range of observers inside and outside the country – including Mischa Gabowitsch, Nikolai Petro, Zygmunt Dziecolowski, Susan Richards and Artemi Troitski
  • in Germany: Michael Naumann of Die Zeit tracked the Gerhard Schröder years, Tilman Spengler was there as they drew to a close; while Antje Vollmer took time out from her duties as Green politician and vice-president of the Bundestag to contribute to our debate on Immanuel Kant and the Iraq war, joining the respected scholar Herfried Műnckler
  • in Japan: Takashi Inoguchi explored the theme of the country becoming "normal" in relation to its involvement in Iraq and in its domestic and foreign politics; the economist Noriko Hama commented on Japan's problematic relationship with the proposed East Asian Community; and one of the foremost historians of modern Japan, John Dower, exchanged letters with the country's former United States ambassador Yoshio Okawara about the past and future relations between the two countries
  • in Italy: Geoff Andrews's election series offered fresh insight into Italian politics and the state of its democracy under Silvio Berlusconi; Pierleone Ottolenghi called on the world (and even President Bush) to recognise the scale of the damage; Marco Niada and Sarah Pozzoli brought cool heads to the assessment of years of controversy and scandal
  • in Britain: as the Blair era shifted from dawning to crepuscular, openDemocracy hosted debates on the condition of a troubled democracy consumed by crises over the media, the Iraq war, and the centralisation of power. Among the contributors were Stuart Weir of Democratic Audit, Tom Bentley of Demos, Melanie McFadyean of City University, David Marquand, Ferdinand Mount and Adam Lent of the Power inquiry, David Elstein, and John Lloyd.

A route to life

For openDemocracy, arts and cultures are central to healthy human life and we have always sought to contain multitudes. These have included photo-essays, audio interviews, short stories, poetry, film reviews and reflections, book recommendations, translations and reflections on translation.

It is impossible to do more than suggest the richness of our work in these areas with a few samples:

Perhaps here, in registering our most affirmative area of work, is the appropriate place to recollect some of the losses of these years – of those whose support, advice and writing became and remains indispensable to openDemocracy's definition: Arthur Helton, Reinhard Hesse, Paul Hirst and Anthony Sampson among them.


There is much in openDemocracy's last and first five years that can be little more than mentioned here:

The road from 13 May 2001 seems from within openDemocracy at once a major journey and a short step. The quiet challenge laid down then by Rajeev & Tani Bhargava – the importance of "ordinary people" beginning to feel "that (their) rulers can be made accountable" – is more relevant than ever to our work.

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