How democracy can offer the 'best system' to achieve development

International IDEA Secretary-General Yves Leterme. Photo by: Julien Daniel / OECD / CC BY-NC-ND

What governance system best facilitates sustainable and inclusive development? Yves Leterme is convinced democracy ticks all the boxes.

Leterme, secretary-general of Stockholm-based intergovernmental group International IDEA, told Devex that, unlike other systems of government, democracy allows transparency, accountability, and civic participation — all crucial for development.

“What we are sure is that democracy is the best system to take into account the will of the population and to translate the will of the population into decision making and policies,” he said on the sidelines of the Annual Democracy Forum held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, last month. “This is the best system to do that … and to cater to and guarantee the implementation of people’s civil rights.”

The former Belgian prime minister said that while other nondemocratic processes “can give the impression to be better,” for example because of the speed of deliberation and execution, these systems fails to provide the inclusivity and engagement crucial to sustainability.

“If we look beyond these quick wins that sometimes exist in booming economies that are not ruled by democracies, in the long-run, only an inclusive decision making process, motivating people to give their opinion [and] to be more involved in society, is capable of bringing stable socio-economic development,” he added.

Below are the highlights of our conversation with International IDEA Secretary-General Yves Leterme.

Can you give a brief assessment on the state of democracy in the Asia-Pacific region? What makes democracies in this region unique?

Asia-Pacific is the region where the majority of the world's citizens live in, and it's a continent of diversity. Where we are right now, Mongolia, is kind of sandwiched between Russia and China. Both are so-called democracies but really more of authoritarian regimes. Second, the region also hosts the biggest democracy in India and the biggest Muslim democracy, [Indonesia].

In terms of democratic practice, Asia-Pacific has the most diverse examples of democratic development. You have South Korea with very successful socio-economic development. But you also have other countries that are still struggling with lots of challenges on their way to becoming full-fledged democracies. It's the continent of progress for democracy, but of course it has to be a democracy that delivers because it's also a continent of enormous inequality in socioeconomic terms. At the end of the day, democracy is a tool to serve people and give them opportunities for a decent life.

If you were to offer any pointers and advice, how can countries  in concrete terms  maintain and sustain democracy?

The culture of my institution is not to present to the world an ideal democracy and to constantly rank democracies to the extent to which they adhere to this approach of an ideal democracy. But I would give five examples of criteria by which I would assess the quality of the sustainability of a democracy.

First, I would say that a peaceful transition and a peaceful exchange of debates and opinions on decision making is really key. We see that strong democratic processes really make a difference. Second is the quality of electoral processes, because it's important for the next one which is the confidence of the people or the legitimacy of democracy and the sustainability of democratic processes. These things rely on the trust of the people that the electoral processes are fair and that their opinion really makes a difference. Transparency, controlling the role of vested interests, of money and politics — these are aspects of the third element.

Fourth is that a good democracy needs a commonly agreed dispute resolution system. For instance, related to electoral practices, both the majority, opposition and civil society should be able to trust that, if there is any dissenting opinion on the result or the result of an election is criticized, there is an available dispute resolution mechanism. Lastly, it is very important for democracies, in order to be sustainable, to have a constitutional framework and a set of basic principles on which there is a consensus on the borders of political parties and the majority of the population.

What role do you see democracy (or democratic principles) playing in countries' pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals, and vice versa?

Most crucial for countries to reach the SDGs is to strengthen the accountability of their political leaders, and of all the people who exercise power on behalf of the population. Holding political leaders accountable on the delivery of public service is a key issue for the successful implementation of the SDGs.

When you empower people not just by giving them a say but also by offering them insights and education and training on what politics is about, you make sure they will hold their leaders, public servants and authorities to account. I think that's the big breakthrough that we have now with the new SDGs compared to the Millennium Development Goals, is that this issue of accountability is not always phrased as precisely as we would like. In the long-run, when you give the power to all the people to come up for their rights, [this] is the best guarantee that political leadership will cater for their interests, not only of vested groups. The best way to organize a sustainable, long-lasting egalitarian socio-economic development is through empowered citizenship is through a democratic government.

With International IDEA, we advocated for democracy to be one of the SDGs but it didn't make it … [because] it would mean that countries that don't really have a democracy like China and others would not agree to the consensus. That made it impossible to have the D-word, as they call it, in the SDGs. But all together, it is crucial now to have accountability and this strengthening of accountability, empowering people to exercise the power they have to hold their leaders accountable.

How can the business community be encouraged to take part in these endeavors and what are the advantages (or disadvantages) in doing so?

Every company, every economic activity, every activity of the private sector also has an impact on community, has an impact on quality of life, and there is a social responsibility for the private sector that should be taken seriously. Companies sometimes have more influence than the country … so it is also important to put some sort of democracy in these dynamics, to give a bit more power to the consumers and to people who are not exactly shareholders of the company but could suffer from the impacts of the activities of the company.

For instance, globalization of markets should be accompanied by globalization of the power of consumers to have their influence in coming up for their rights as consumers. It should go together with giving rights to workers, also on the global level. There is also some substantial funding of empowering programs and democracy promotion programs by foundations for instance of private companies, especially those companies that see the added value of having capable people that are part of societies, that take their role as citizens of society. Lots of companies see the importance of that and already fund programs and invest in activities that promote democracy.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.