Q&A: 'If the information isn't good then democracy can't be healthy,' says incoming NDI chief

Derek Mitchell, incoming president of the National Democratic Institute. Photo by: McConnell Center / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — Organizations working to promote open, democratic societies have come under increasing threat as a new wave of authoritarian actors — from Turkey, to Cambodia, to Hungary — seek to crack down on civil society and find enemies in “foreign actors.”

The National Democratic Institute is among those organizations that these governments have targeted. The Cambodian foreign ministry halted NDI’s activities last year and expelled its foreign staff from the country, citing compliance issues that many observers considered a dubious excuse to silence political opposition.

In June NDI, which is chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, announced that its new president will be Derek Mitchell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 2012 to 2016. Devex spoke to Mitchell about how organizations that work on democracy and governance can respond to the current moment, how to push back against civil society crackdowns, and the role of social media in shaping political outcomes.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When you think about leading an organization that is committed to building the institutions of democracy, and you look at the variety of threats to democracy around the world, do you think organizations such as NDI need to be thinking about making fundamental changes to how they operate?

NDI, International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy — they were all founded during the Reagan administration in the 1980s during a particular era — a Cold War era — and then it evolved into a post-Cold War era in the ‘90s.

As the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War was ending and there were fresh opportunities in Europe, and Asia, and Africa, and everywhere else … Certainly 20 years hence it makes sense that you take a fresh look and see what is working, what needs to continue, and how do you adapt to a new environment.

I don't think that NDI needs to fundamentally change what it's doing. NDI has been a remarkably successful organization with an excellent reputation around the world, with first-rate staff … But I think we have to think about the rise of social media and the impact of that on democracy. The impact of those inside democracies to learn — what we call "authoritarian learning."

Folks have learned to use the tools that are normally for democracy that support democracy, such as elections and media, against democratic practices and against democracy — as well as these large powers that are finding ways to also use tools to subvert democracy around the world. It just means there are new challenges.

I haven't come to absolute decisions on how NDI should change. I've just been announced, and I need to be talking to a lot of people, but I do recognize that there is a new moment and that it's different than when I was at NDI in the 1990s. It needs to have a fresh approach. We need to bring back that creativity. Maybe it's always been there, but to inject fresh creativity and thought into this space.

And most importantly, to build on what has been developed, which is a network of small-d democrats around the world, who have been empowered, who have discovered each other ... to now support, defend, and protect the advances, and move past what I think is some regression, but I don't think this necessarily has to be a permanent regression in the world.

One thing we've written quite a bit about is the way that civil society organizations have been principal targets of governments that are moving away from open democracy. Is that a fight that you're gearing up for? And how are you thinking about what NDI can do to both be effective, but also perhaps to resist this closing civil society space?

Certainly civil society, media, there are a lot of targets. There's probably a consistency in the targets that autocrats, or would-be autocrats, have as they try to shut down any kind of oversight and accountability. I think the key to this is, never be complacent, and always be alert to where the next challenge may come and stay ahead of it.

“Civil society are people that decide, "I'm going to organize." It's their job. It's an institution, but it's still an elite of a kind. And that's still not democratic entirely. It comes down to whether citizens themselves feel empowered, feel responsible and educated.”

— Derek Mitchell, announced president of the National Democratic Institute

I have to look into whether NDI has focused on basic civics, the non-elites, the citizens understanding that their role in democracy is what's at stake, and how it affects them, and why it matters.

Civil society are people that decide, "I'm going to organize." It's their job. It's an institution, but it's still an elite of a kind. And that's still not democratic entirely. It comes down to whether citizens themselves feel empowered, feel responsible and educated, and know what's at stake so that they can ... understand what they need to do to safeguard their democracy.

Because it's easy for a government to say, “oh the civil society people are just foreigners. They get money from foreigners, and they're just their elites. They're not really one of us. Who voted for them?" That's usually what's said.

Well, it’ll be up to the citizens to decide what represents them and what doesn't. And whether they want civil society, they want government, they want parliaments to represent them or not. So I wonder about that or whether we're missing a really key component, which is ensuring that citizens are fully engaged in their democracy, because that really is the foundation for a strong society.

Do you have the sense that the resources are available to do the kind of work that you want to do? The U.S. president's budget request obviously includes large cuts to foreign aid. Are your ambitions for leading NDI reasonable given the funding picture that you're aware of at this point?

Well, that's the official funding picture. The U.S. government funding picture, and that certainly needs to be addressed. We need to be talking to the Hill. There are a lot of allies on the Hill who understand the importance of what we do.

But we certainly understand the budget context. There's no doubt that fundraising through other sources will be an important part of ensuring that the vision that we want to realize can be realized. So fundraising will be important. I'm not just assuming that the U.S. government will fund us adequately for the task.

Fundraising will be an important part of my job, to try to resource a more flexible, a more creative approach in the face of, for instance, the Chinese, who seem to be spending billions of dollars on their public diplomacy efforts around the world. The Russians, I don't know how much they spend ... they're more about subversion quietly through the computer ... But the Chinese are spending it, and we don't want to cede the field to that. It doesn't require huge amounts of money, but it requires resourcing in order for us to be smart and creative enough to meet the challenge.

Do you see NDI's work as an aspect of U.S. public diplomacy, or is there a distance that you try to maintain?

There should be a distance. I don't want to see NDI as a U.S.-dominated organization. Clearly, we're based in the U.S., and I'm an American and I've been in the U.S. government. I think it does advance American interest.

My view of what an American interest is, is that if other societies are just, stable, and secure that makes the international environment just, stable, and secure — It makes us just, stable, and secure. So I do see it as consistent with U.S. foreign policy, but I don't see that as simply for the U.S. alone.

In fact, how I would like to do things at NDI is very much in terms of network, that this is not a U.S.-China thing, or an anti-China thing, or anti-anything. This is a pro-something. This is affirming human dignity, affirming the human voice, affirming justice, freedom, openness that we think is good for the United States but good for everyone else. And the alternative is a much more self-centered and corrupt world that will be less secure.

I want to identify the networks we have. I want to find our allies — not big government allies, but activist allies, small-d democrats around the world to demonstrate that this is the will of the majority, and that the ones who are threatened by this are the ones who are are not interested in the well-being of the vast majority of people.

We're not going to traffic in propaganda in the negative sense of the term. It's information in the positive sense of the term. People see through lies. People see through fakeness, and I think our product is about them.

It's not about America telling them what to be. It's them having a say in their own affairs. It's about the process, and then the American government will have to deal with it, whatever comes out — good, bad — and oftentimes we have more difficulty with democracies than we do with autocrats ... But that's not sustainable, and ultimately that's not the U.S. interest.

I've seen that all around the world. When people feel that they have a say in their own affairs, even if they have a different view than the United States, that that's a stable society that serves our interests and serves a broader global interest.

“Democracy won't function effectively if people don't have good information on which to make decisions. It's based on individuals' decisions — voting, support for government — that come from the information they can get. The information has to be good. If the information isn't good then democracy can't be healthy. So this is critical, absolutely critical.”

How do you, as an organization, deal with the distortion of information? NDI is one of these organizations that has had its share of being labeled as some form of subterfuge, or working for some kind of hidden agenda — that's the information landscape that you're playing in. You've spoken about how it's important to reach people. That's hard to do if they don't know what to believe, or if they've been made to believe something else. Do you have any ideas about how to cut through that difficult information environment?

That's the big question everybody is facing and trying to figure out. Democracy won't function effectively if people don't have good information on which to make decisions. It's based on individuals' decisions — voting, support for government — that come from the information they can get. The information has to be good. If the information isn't good then democracy can't be healthy. So this is critical, absolutely critical.

I think a lot of the Silicon Valley companies recognize this is. They're starting to wake up to their responsibilities — late — but they're waking up to them. NDI has an office in Silicon Valley, which I think is great, which I'm very excited about, and I want to get out there as soon as possible. I did this when I was ambassador in Myanmar. I went to Silicon Valley and got to know some of these folks. I think a lot of them established these companies with an idealistic perspective, and now they're realizing the ill uses they can be used for, and they need to take some responsibility.

So, we need to think about, how do you have digital literacy? How do you ensure that people know what they're seeing? Understand what they're reading? How do they identify hate speech, or negative speech, or rumors? And then it's the responsibility of these companies to cull that.

Now, I don't like censorship. But if it crosses a certain line you have to figure out where that line is. But if it's inciting speech, if it's bots coming from a third country, those companies have a responsibility to cull that. But then it comes on both sides. They have that responsibility, but then the education of the consumer is an extremely important part — so the consumer knows what they're reading. I think that's probably even more important, in a sense, and that's very hard. To get people to recognize — or at least see the signs of — fake news, misinformation, incitement, and the like.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.