Democratic deficits everywhere, says UNDP

Lamenting the democratic shortfalls in many spheres of governance today, the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2002 advocates “deepening democracy in a fragmented world” which, economically, politically and technologically, “has never seemed more free - or more unjust.”

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: There is a “democratic deficit” in the world today - at national levels, in both the developing and the developed world, and internationally in institutions governing the global systems, more so in the economic systems (of money, finance and trade) - and there is a need to deepen democracy all around in a fragmented world.

This is the basic theme of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2002, which is entitled “Deepening democracy in a fragmented world.” The report was officially launched in Manila on 24 July.

Democracy and democratic decision-making at all levels are unexceptionable propositions and, in parallel with other economic and social propositions, may achieve some worthwhile outcomes; but history also shows that none of these by themselves can survive or endure without the others.

According to Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the chief author of the report, at a 24 July press briefing in Geneva to preview the report, the 1980s and early 1990s were periods of great hope and enthusiasm about the spread of democracy, but today “we are much more in a reflective and sombre mood” about the spread of democracy and its quality, and there have been quite a few reversals over the last couple of years.

Also, what is disturbing around the world is the sense that democracy has not delivered, that while people had fought for and won democracy in the hope that it would improve their lives, over the last decade “alongside democratization, you have also had a lot of reversals on the social and economic front.”

In writing and issuing such reports, international organizations face a problem in that these are planned almost a year in advance in terms of the themes and outlines. In normal situations, this process of planning, consulting experts and writing up the report serves the purpose. However, problems arise when, as now, there is a retreat and a crisis of confidence in the world economy and polity, including in the United States itself, whose institutions of the market economy have been promoted down to their minutiae as models of good governance.

In such a situation as now, when there is a serious danger of global deflation and even central bankers begin to dig up Keynes and his General Theory for insights into what could be done, propositions good in themselves such as the UNDP report get jettisoned or are not heeded.

According to the report, the world made dramatic progress in opening up political freedoms in the 1980s and 1990s. Some 81 countries took significant steps towards democracy, and some 140 of the world’s 200 nations held multi-party elections. “But the euphoria of the cold war’s end has given way to the sombre realities of 21st century politics.”

It then goes on to list reversals in Pakistan, Zimbabwe and failed states like Afghanistan and Somalia becoming breeding grounds for extremism and violent conflict - but is silent about some of the West’s allies and clients which have no semblance of democracy and never had any.

“Economically, politically and technologically, the world has never seemed more free - or more unjust,” says the report.

It points out that poverty, as measured by the World Bank-defined $1-a-day level (for subsistence), has actually increased not only in sub-Saharan Africa but in all other regions except East Asia and South Asia. Social indicators show that many countries went backwards even though the 1990s was a boom period. Everywhere there is a sense of growing inequality and inequity.

International inequity

The report says that while countries with democracy have experienced setbacks, those under authoritarian rule have done worse.

However, it brings out that even in the developed countries with functioning democracies, there is alienation and public apathy, with less than 50% of people enrolling and participating in elections in the US (and more recently in continental elections, including in France).

The report also tries to bring out the lack of democratic governance at the international level, more so in the economic institutions (the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO), and the countervailing forces coming up in the form of the civil society movements within countries and globally.

“Though the emergence of a global civil society has created opportunities to deepen democracy at the international level, existing international institutions need reform. Developing countries should be given a stronger voice in their operations. Given their enormous and growing influence, these institutions should also be held more accountable for their policies and actions.”

Referring to the WTO, the report says: “Every member country has a seat and a vote, which is very democratic. But actual decision-making occurs by consensus, heavily influenced by the largest and richest countries.”

This is an understatement. Even simple, and what in other organizations would be considered axiomatic, procedural propositions are not being heeded or adopted. Some of these propositions being opposed or not adopted (on grounds of need for flexibility) include: drawing up and circulating agendas of meetings and ministerial conferences in advance; not using ceremonial openings to adopt agendas etc; introducing negotiating texts only in formal open meetings; circulating drafts on specific issues in advance to all members to enable consideration by the capitals; and chairs of committees and the secretariat to function impartially.

The UNDP report notes that the influence of the US over the IMF and the WTO is due not so much to power as to the “global standing” of the US, and that representative international institutions that are more democratic (like the UN Economic and Social Council and the UN General Assembly) are also considered the least powerful.

“The reality is that powerful countries, critical to the success of any international institutions, tend to gravitate towards institutions that give them most influence. And they take their power with them: whether it is to the WTO’s ‘green room’ meetings or of the IMF executive board. Efforts to enhance the representation of developing countries must take into account these basic realities.”

However, as several non-orthodox US political scientists and commentators have publicly warned, attempts to use this “global standing” to force every significant economy to remodel itself along American lines (both directly and indirectly via policy advice on “good governance” that the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and UN institutions propagate) have already had consequences abroad, and now even the homeland has been affected (vide  the collapse of Enron, WorldCom and a host of other corporations, and the downward spiral of the stock market).

In today’s conditions, it is difficult to see a repeat of the 1929-30 experience, but a long period of stagnation or low growth in the US (ala Japan), with inevitable effects around the world, may have a fallout on the political arena too. (SUNS5167)                                             

From Third World Economics No. 285 (16-31 July 2002)