‘Democracy dies when no one works at keeping it alive’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders and their allies about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Annika Savill, Executive Head of the United Nations’ Democracy Fund (UNDEF), which is dedicated to funding projects that empower civil society, promote human rights and encourage the participation of all groups of society in democratic processes.

How do you see democracy - is it simply a system to elect governments, a means to solve other problems, or an end in itself? What are its essential components?

The most successful examples of a functioning democracy are holistic: those encompassing the procedural and the substantive; the rule of law, formal institutions and informal processes; majorities and minorities; government, civil society and independent media; all genders; the political, the economic and the cultural; and at the national and local levels. Democracy works best when people associate it with the advancement of the quality of life for all human beings; this means democracy is key to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. We know that development is more likely to take hold if people are given a genuine say in their own governance, and a chance to share in the fruits of progress. Conversely, democracy has a far better chance to thrive if people associate the democratic process with improvements in their daily lives; faced with bleak prospects and unresponsive governments, people are more likely to act on their own to reclaim their future.

What are the main challenges for democracy around the world today?

Democracy is showing greater strain than at any time in decades. There is a crisis of faith. We’re seeing growing and deepening divides among people, as well as between people and the political establishments that exist to represent them. Globalisation and technological progress have lifted many out of poverty but have also contributed to inequality and instability. Fear is driving too many decisions. This is a danger to democracy.

Democracy dies when no one works at keeping it alive. We need to look beyond responses to today’s news cycle, and instead seek answers for the systemic challenges to democracy. We need to think beyond criticism of individual leaders, and beyond trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. This means tackling inequality, both economic and political. The interests of the very wealthy are often seen as taking precedence over the well-being of the middle class and working families. The poor and minorities feel excluded from decision-making. Governments - working together - need to spread more fairly the benefits of globalisation and ensure more equitable access to the levers of power. This means making our democracies more inclusive, by bringing the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. We should explore true representation and participation in decision-making, including demographically representative citizens’ assemblies, as alternatives to what can be interpreted as a self-serving and self-perpetuating political class disconnected from their electorates. This means making our democracies more innovative and more responsive to new challenges, including through new technologies, while addressing the democratic challenges brought by new technologies themselves.

Many of the world’s democracies are well past middle age, but the digital age is still in its infancy, and questions of ownership and control are evolving. The answers do not lie in technology alone. But some answers do lie in better interaction and understanding between thinkers of technology and thinkers of democracy. Sixty years have passed since CP Snow declared that society was divided into two cultures - humanities and science - separated by a gulf of mutual incomprehension. We need to bridge this. We need futurists to think about a future that leaves no one behind. What impact will migration, climate change, or cybersecurity issues have on democracy in the next generation? How can a reinvigorated democracy help mitigate the challenges these issues create? How are democratic processes impacted on by a transition from an internet to a brain-net, by an on-demand world of biological software upgrades, personalised medicine, and artificial intelligence? A better grasp of how we humans function - how we trust, learn and cooperate, but also how we hate, fight and manipulate - can help public policy-makers and citizens build better governance and better lives.

What is the role of civil society in supporting democratisation and the consolidation of democracy, and how does UNDEF help civil society to play this role?

Ultimately, civil society is the oxygen of democracy. Speaking the truth takes two: one to talk, the other to hear. My work with UNDEF has brought home to me that a lively, open and candid discussion among men and women sitting under a tree can sometimes do more for participatory democracy than all the government summits and cabinet meetings in the world. When grassroots activists, community organisers, labour mobilisers, young people and women leaders come together at their own initiative, all with a stake in the outcome, they will persevere until all sides have a say. This is why it is so important that someone in the capital is listening. A confident nation gives citizens a role in the development of their country; the most effective, stable and successful democracies are in fact those where a strong civil society works in partnership with the state, while holding it accountable at the same time. This is what creates a virtuous circle of rights and opportunity under the rule of law, underpinned by a vibrant civil society and an enterprising private sector, backed by efficient and accountable state institutions. For democracy to thrive, this inclusive discourse must never end.

But civil society faces increasing challenges, as CIVICUS has very clearly highlighted in its 2018 State of Civil Society Report. Over the recent years, an alarming number of governments around the world are increasingly addressing civil society as a threat, not a partner. We need to make it better understood that to have a strong state and strong civil society at the same time is not only possible, but it is also desirable and necessary. What do the stable and prosperous states of the world have in common? A combination of both.

What does UNDEF do in the face of those challenges?

UNDEF is a fund within the UN Secretariat that manages and finances projects implemented by civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world. Since it became operational 12 years ago, it has funded over 750 projects in over 100 countries, totalling over US$175 million. UNDEF works directly and resolutely with civil society, often in delicate collaboration with state and private-sector actors, but always independently of them. We use quiet diplomacy where needed to work in challenging environments. We support projects designed at the grassroots to address democratic deficits and denied freedoms. Our grant process begins and ends at the project site: we are demand-driven, not supply-oriented. We commit to our partners’ success. Our capacity-building works through mentoring and evaluation, and by offering a platform for groups and institutions that otherwise would have no knowledge of one another’s projects to share experience and expertise. Lessons learned from each project become a resource for all - participants, future applicants and other funders - as well as the larger community working to build more responsive and inclusive societies. A self-sufficient and largely autonomous part of the UN system, funded entirely by voluntary contributions, UNDEF is uniquely positioned to build mutual understanding and cooperation between states and civil society at the local, national and global levels. Our strategy is to support local civil society and community leaders in addressing locally identified needs and priorities. This allows us to target scarce resources where they are needed most. It is also an investment in the ability of local people to assert their rights and improve their well-being long after our involvement has ended. We keep our staff and operational budget very small by leveraging the expertise, services and extensive field presence of partners from the broader UN system who provide expert advice and monitoring.

We support a wide range of projects, including initiatives that provide political facilitation, encourage popular participation, support civil society’s role in free and fair elections, foster the development of a culture of democracy, advance political pluralism and build civil society capacity to interact effectively with government at local and national levels. We aim to advance transparency and accountability, promote the rule of law and encourage responsive and inclusive government, while always supporting local ownership and domestic engagement, and explicitly promoting gender equality. UNDEF’s work is financed by voluntary contributions from more than 40 traditional and emerging donors on every continent. As independent third-party evaluators have found, UNDEF is not beholden to the vision, doctrine, or geostrategic interests of any member state, commercial entity, or philanthropic institution. Our evaluation process and lessons learned database advance accountability not only to donors, but also to partners and participants. We answer to project participants and to a governance structure unlike any in the field of democracy support. Our Advisory Board, which provides policy guidance and reviews project proposals, brings together a range of stakeholders, not only from governments - of countries that have made the largest financial contributions to the fund and countries reflecting geographical diversity - but also from individuals and CSOs - including CIVICUS, during the UNDEF Board's 2018-2019 term.

Learn more about UNDEF’s work through its website or Facebook page, or follow @UNDemocracyFund and @SavillAnnika on Twitter.