Inclusion and Participation as Democracy's Foundations: UNDEF event marks the International Day of Democracy

The UN Democracy Fund joined forces with International IDEA and the Inter-Parliamentary Union on 16 September 2019 to mark the International Day of Democracy with an event at UN Headquarters focused on participation and inclusion. The observance addressed the upheavals that have taken place since the United Nations first observed the International Day of Democracy on 15 September 2008, as well as the crucial relationship between democratic participation and the Sustainable Development Goals.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message to the event that democracy “is built on inclusion, equal treatment and participation — and it is a fundamental building block for peace, sustainable development and human rights”. Yet this “International Day of Democracy takes place at a time when trust is low and anxiety is high. People are frustrated by growing inequalities and unsettled by sweeping changes from globalization and technology. They see conflicts going unresolved, a climate emergency going unanswered, injustice going unaddressed, and civic space shrinking.”  Watch and read the Secretary-General’s full message here.

UNDEF Executive Head Annika Savill highlighted the need for participation at all stages of decision-making, amidst the challenges of ethnic nationalism, shrinking civic space, threats to freedom of expression, attacks on elected representatives. “This Day is more than an observance,” she emphasized. “It is an opportunity to remind governments of the right to participation and inclusion in all phases of decision-making -- before, during and after.” Before decision-making, this meant a role in shaping the agenda of decision-making processes.  During decision-making, this meant participation from an early stage, when all options were still open and on the table; for example, public authorities should refrain from taking any irreversible decisions or investments before the start of the process. After decision-making, it meant timely, comprehensive and transparent dissemination of information and channels that ensure all are heard.  But, she added, less than four years after the adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 16 on inclusive and participatory societies and institutions, some of its key principles were being challenged and undermined.  “And in many countries, we are light years away from the kind of participation and inclusion I just described," she warned.  "Again, that means bringing decision-making closer to the people. Updating our model of democracy through participation and inclusion.  Listening carefully to the concerns of communities that feel threatened by change or left behind. Taking young people very seriously. Exploring new avenues beyond elections, such as citizen assemblies.” Read Annika Savill’s full remarks here.

A panel discussion with experts, parliamentarians and activists was moderated by Massimo Tommasoli, International IDEA’s Permanent Observer to the UN.  He echoed the view that as democracy was an increasingly contested concept, it was all the more urgent to advance inclusion and participation through improved democratic processes and institutions.

Armend Bekaj, Senior Programme Officer for International IDEA, said the findings of International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy indices indicated that public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms were under threat across all regions; that progress on Goal 16 was either in stagnation or in decline, especially in North America and Europe, both of which initially had a high score. View Armend Bekaj’s presentation here.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, one of the youngest Members of Canada’s House of Commons, pointed to a rise of populism as a result of many feeling left out of economic progress and partisanship of elected officials. The way forward lay partly in educating people in how democracy works for them rather than the other way around, and encouraging young people to engage. “Not taking part in the world doesn’t mean that it is going to stop happening, but that it would still happen without our say in it,” he stressed.

Luisa Córdoba, Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships, for TECHO, said that as a Latin American regional organization, TECHO worked in urban settlements and slums with a mission for “fair society and inclusive cities that are free of poverty, where every person can exercise their duties, claim their rights, and seek opportunities to develop their capacities.” She added that “UNDEF provided TECHO with support for a program to create a space for democratic community-level participation for slum dwellers in Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador, and Peru.  And we are grateful for their commitment because we know that as inequality continues to rise, people living in slums will face stauncher social, political, and economic exclusion. Thanks to UNDEF´s key support, today we run similar participation fora across 60 cities in 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. This important UNDEF seed support allowed us to grow so that today we strengthen democratic and community-level participation not only of slum dwellers but of young citizens, young volunteers who are integral to our program, as well as of key stakeholders, for example, the private sector.” To fight for equity and against corruption, TECHO would “continue to advocate for policy change and to promote community development aimed at strengthening grassroots leadership abilities and foster their understanding and active participation in civic duties.” Read Luisa Córdoba’s remarks here.

Rebecca Aaberg, Inclusion Specialist at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, stressed the need for participation and inclusion of people with disabilities: “Fifteen per cent of the world’s population has a disability and 60 percent of those are women. More so, 80 per cent of persons with disabilities live in low-income countries where they do not even have the chance to participate in elections and for whom democracy is sometimes an unknown concept.” View Rebecca Aaberg’s presentation here.

Paddy Torsney, the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Permanent Observer to the UN, warned that “there is less participation across the world of people with a lower socioeconomic status or without any education, so we need to make sure we are getting the value of their opinions and participation not only for their own interest but for all of ours - they have good ideas and solutions too.”

Questions and points from the floor focused on election obstruction, internet shutdowns, attacks on elected officials, electoral assistance, fragile states, data disaggregation needs on LGBTI, and inclusion of displaced populations, whether political or economic migrants.