Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Guest Column: Democracy is a Shared Global Project--Not an Export

by Matt Leighinger, Executive Director, Deliberative Democracy Consortium

“Democracy is a gift from the industrialized countries of the Global North to the lesser-developed nations of the Global South.”

This seems to be one of the key assumptions behind the foreign policies of the United States and many other Northern countries, despite that in most of these places, voter turnout and other traditional measures of democratic participation continue to fall. Undeterred, the North keeps trying to give, export, or dictate by force a particular, outdated form of democracy in other parts of the world.

Countries of the Global South are starting to question the “gift assumption” more and more, pointing not only to the attitudes of Northern citizens, but to the new accomplishments and – in some cases – the longstanding democratic traditions of Southern nations. Scholars and democracy activists are studying and promoting the work of ward committees in South Africa, citizen-driven land use planning exercises in India, participatory budgeting in Brazil, and “co-production” by citizens and government in the construction of water systems in the Philippines.

At the same time, the rapid growth of civic experimentation in the North is causing many leaders in those countries to reconsider the changing state of their own democracies. All over the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, local, state, and federal leaders are organizing projects that involve citizens in more meaningful ways. These efforts are still a drop in the bucket when compared to more traditional forms of politics, but they illustrate and embody a larger shift in the relationship between citizens and government. A broader definition of democracy is emerging, one that that emphasizes the capacity of citizens as problem-solvers and decision-makers, not just voters and volunteers.

Local leaders have been dealing with these shifts in the citizen-government relationship for a while; now federal governments are starting to address them. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced a major new commitment to citizen engagement; in the U.S., a similar initiative by the Centers for Disease Control has received far less attention, but is no less meaningful.

It's time we recognized that the continuing development of democracy is a shared global project. Democracy is not something that has been perfected in the North, and bestowed upon (or rejected by) countries in the Global South. Instead, its continuing evolution is affected by unique local and regional factors, by universal conditions and principles, and by constant innovation and experimentation.

The Southern countries have much to learn from their Northern counterparts, but they also have much to teach. Their struggles, successes, and failures can provide lessons for democracy-builders everywhere. As John Gaventa, the chair of Oxfam Great Britain, has put it, the rising democracies of the South can help us understand how to revitalize the “diminished democracies” of the North.

Therefore, the nurturing and improvement of democracy will benefit most from a comparative, collaborative approach, rather than an exportation model. Different countries, regions, and the Global North and South need maximum opportunities to learn from each other and support one another. No one nation has figured out how citizens can govern themselves fairly, efficiently, and powerfully; we need to rethink how every nation can play a meaningful role in this shared global challenge.

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