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“What is democracy if it doesn’t lead to development for the people?”

Resisting a “deconsolidation of democracy” requires attendance to the specific needs of individual contexts, taking people out of poverty and centring the underserved majorities of women and the young.

Ella Milburn
18 October 2017
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"No country moves from developing to developed without its youth” – girls in school in South Sudan. Oxfam East Africa. CC-BY-2.0.On 12 and 13 September 2017, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy hosted a conference to mark their 25th year. The organisation, which aims to “strengthen democracy across a growing global network”, took the opportunity to lay out their 2017-2022 strategy. This approach was set out against a backdrop of conversations regarding the value of democratic systems, the changing and increasingly uncertain political landscape in the UK and in other places, and discussions about why and how the UK should involve itself in assisting global democracy.

The new strategic framework – according to WFD Chief Executive Anthony Smith – puts at its centre notions of human rights, partnership, and sensitivity to context. Much of the discussion was driven by the need to promote the inclusion of minorities and the underserved – whether on grounds of religious, ethnic, gender, sexuality. In contrast to earlier years, the strategy outlined plans to expand programming work within civil society focussing on electoral issues, including multi-party work, tailored to local contexts.

Drawing together these strands necessarily means that democracy assistance looks different depending on the needs of each country. I talked to two speakers from beneficiary states at the conference to try to grapple with the unique challenges faced in their specific countries, the particular opportunities democracy, and what this means for democracy assistance.

“No country can achieve its development goals without women in politics”

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Jordanian MP Wafa Bani Mustafa. Photo: Ella Milburn.During the conference, Jordanian MP Wafa Bani Mustafa spoke of the many challenges that women face in Jordan and throughout the Arab world. “Women face discrimination in legislation, work and the electoral process”, she told the conference. That women’s issues should play a central role in any form of democracy assistance to Jordan and the Arab region is evident.

Jordan has seen the repeal of Article 308 of the Penal Code – the bill that pardoned rapists who married their victims.

Wafa works with a coalition of Arab women MPs to combat violence against women, seeking to reform discriminatory legislation, especially in the area of abuse. For three years, they have benefited from the support of the WFD, and say it has played a fundamental role in furthering their successes. As a result of this collaborative effort, Jordan has seen the repeal of Article 308 of the Penal Code – the bill that pardoned rapists who married their victims.

Mustafa has stressed the importance of working with international actors to establish universal standards in human rights, specifically regarding violence against women and girls. The coalition examined international charters and agreements, aided by the WFD, whom Mustafa referred to in the conference as “passionate legislators”. In February, a draft Convention to Combat Violence Against Women was formally submitted to the member states of the Arab League, and will be the first regional treaty aimed at preventing violence against women.

Drawing on past successes, she says,  has taught her that progress in the arena of women’s rights will be primarily achieved through campaigning and networking – nationally, regionally and internationally – with actors such as activists, journalists, MPs, international regional bodies and the WFD. She advocates for capacity building workshops for young people and women in civil society, and has campaigned to increase the women’s quota in Jordanian politics. Encouraging women to be more constructive in politics, she believes, will create a nation with “better vision and values... No country can achieve its development goals without women in politics”.

The results for women’s empowerment, she says, look promising. “[We have] made violence against women a top priority of Arab parliaments,” she told the conference. Indeed, the whole region is in the process of reviewing laws on domestic abuse and violence against women.

“No country moves from developing to developed without its youth”

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Speakers at the WFD conference. Photo: Ella Milburn.With 42.8% of its population under 15, Nigeria’s demographic make up is one of the youngest in the world. So, asked Samson Itodo during the conference, when young people are a demographic majority, why are they a political minority?

In his work as convener of the Not Too Young to Run (#NTYTR) campaign and as executive director of the Young Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement (YIAGA), Samson pictures a future for Nigeria led by the young.

“We must trust young people with leadership,” he told the conference. “Youth development is not a matter of charity, but a matter of rights.” He advocates all manner of approaches to create a space where young people can thrive in politics, from reducing the cost of politics by imposing campaign spending limits to facilitating intergenerational dialogue. Among his notable successes so far has been to secure the lowering of the constitutional age criteria for political candidacy in Nigeria.

How do we structure democracy assistance so that it is not just a new form of colonialism?

Directly probing the potentially imperialistic undertones of the idea of democracy assistance, Itodo asked the conference: “how do we structure democracy assistance so that it is not just a new form of colonialism?” In later correspondence with openDemocracy, he elaborated: “democracy assistance must be tailored towards addressing the needs and gaps identified by the target beneficiaries.” For Itodo, democracy assistance is problematic when it involves a mere “importation of values”, rather than employing a keen sensitivity to context.

Samson’s work with YIAGA in partnership with the WFD takes inclusion and engagement as its core: promoting youth political empowerment, political party engagement and legislative engagement. “With WFD we are working to support political parties in Nigeria in developing youth specific programs and building effective party youth wings... This capacity-building is aimed at enhancing the quality of youth engagement in economic and political discourse”.

“My vision [for Nigeria] is [as] a country that becomes a poster child of democracy in Africa,” Itodo told openDemocracy. “This entails respect for constitutional rights and rule of law, eradication of corruption and primitive accumulation of wealth, and the inclusion of youth, women and persons with disabilities in public governance and decision-making processes. But above all [as] a country established on the principles of equity, justice and accountability”. And young people, Itodo told the conference, are crucial in this development: “no country moves from developing to developed without its youth”.

It is a time when some are warning that a loss of faith in political parties, legislature and the media is thought to be threatening a “deconsolidation of democracy” – a key theme of the conference. While noting widespread disaffection, Itodo interrogated the presumption that democracy necessarily delivers prosperity, citing Rwanda as an example of a democracy where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few. “What is democracy if it doesn’t lead to development for the people?” he asked. “Democracy has to take people out of poverty.”

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