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Equipping Democracy to Deliver Sustainable Development

16 Jun 2012

Equipping Democracy to Deliver Sustainable Development
This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

Environmental and social challenges like climate change are accelerating faster than the ability of current forms of democracy to cope. This think piece raises four challenges faced by democracy in dealing with climate change. First, there is a need for long-term thinking to ensure that actions are taken now to forestall the risk of possibly extreme climate change. Second, politicians tend to prioritize economic growth over societal goals where progress is difficult to measure. Third is the challenge of retaining and nurturing an active commitment to vibrant democracy while allowing expertise—and science—space to offer insights and inform policy. And finally, climate change demands a globally coordinated response. If democracy is to survive and thrive, it will likely have to outperform any currently or potentially competing political system in relation to such challenges.

Halina Ward is Director of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, a research and advocacy charity based in the United Kingdom.

The case for democracy
In June 2012, governments at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio will be talking about institutional frameworks for sustainable development and the green economy. But these efforts will not succeed unless we also pay attention to the health of the world’s dominant political system – democracy. To reiterate Winston Churchill’s much-quoted insight: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.

Democracy is the dominant organizing political system of the early twenty-first century. It is the best—although far from perfect— political system so far devised to enable people to make well-informed and accountable decisions, and to arrive at accommodations among competing values and ideas. And it bears a legitimacy that other systems cannot (currently) compete with.

Some problems with democracy and sustainable development
Democratic engagement through public participation, as well as access to information and access to justice, are among the core principles of sustainable development. But environmental and social challenges like climate change are currently accelerating faster than the ability of current forms of democracy to cope. If democracy is to survive and thrive, it will likely have to outperform any currently or potentially competing political system in relation to those challenges.

At a highly aggregated level, there are four sets of problems or tensions in the relationships between liberal democracy and sustainable development. The challenges of effective climate adaptation and mitigation offer some clear illustrations.

First, short-term electoral cycles and snapshot opinion polls too often dictate political priorities. Yet long-term thinking is precisely what is required to ensure that actions are taken now to forestall the risk of possibly extreme climate change in the future, or to build sufficient societal resilience to ensure responses to it.

The fact that climate change impacts are considerably dispersed in space and time can easily take the urgency out of effective action on either mitigation or adaptation while incentivizing free-riding (or the belief that “someone else will do it”). Climate impacts extend well beyond the relatively short-term electoral timetables of democracies. Political parties proposing radical action now are easily outvoted by those proposing action later or not at all; and the reality of relatively short election cycles means that effective political action on climate change demands sustained cross-party consensus over many decades.

Closely related to the problem of short-termism, liberal democracy can struggle to take proper account of the interests of future generations and other “non-voting” stakeholders. Many (even most) of the people who are likely to be affected by climate change do not have a vote in the spaces or in the moments when preventive action needs to be taken; because they are too young (or not yet born) or because, like the people in the small islands of the Pacific who face the complete annihilation of their home states with rising sea levels, they are too distant in space from the places where political will for effective action must be seeded.

The second set of problems arises out of the tendency of politicians in liberal democracies to prioritize economic growth over those societal goals that challenge self-interest, or where progress is difficult to measure. It can be hard to imagine democracy without the promise of endless improvements in living standards, or even to imagine a form of democracy that has quality of life and sustainable development as its goals.

Political leaders tend to seek the technofixes that can continue to allow consumerism to flourish. But given the significant risk that technology could fail to deliver when it comes to climate change and sustainable development, a people-centred, socially transformative route to climate change adaptation and mitigation potentially offers a far better win-win option than a business and technology-centred approach.

The third problem is that of retaining and nurturing an active commitment to vibrant democracy while allowing expertise—and science—space to offer insights and inform policy.

Participatory and democratic decision making is more difficult – more labour-intensive – where science is uncertain, or where available scientific evidence challenges deeply held cultural values (such as those associated with Western-style consumerism). And the problem is made worse because so many democracies are plagued by stagnation and complacency. Public support can be hard to win when it comes to action to address long-term societal shifts such as an ageing population, or dependence on fossil fuels, or challenges such as climate change where there is considerable scientific uncertainty and nearly everyone is part of “the problem”.

The fourth tension is that of scale; though it stems as much from the idea of sustainable development as from any feature of democracy itself.

On the one hand, there is the problem of global governance: how could a concern for the global South be brought within decision making in the democracies of the rich North? Globalization can make national politics less significant, and does not necessarily bring with it a greater regard for people in other countries.

Climate change, for example, demands a globally coordinated response. But with painfully slow progress in intergovernmentally coordinated negotiations over climate change, emphasis has shifted to nationally and subnationally coordinated innovation. But local-level action without clearly defined mechanisms for managing trade-offs between localities does little to assure integrated approaches to environmental, social and economic considerations. And there must at the very least be doubt that a myriad of locally coordinated actions can effectively respond to the Earth system as a whole. Scientific expertise certainly has a role to play in joining the dots. But so do all of the formal and informal spaces – including intergovernmental institutions – where people have opportunities to learn how best to base action on supranational understanding.

None of these four challenges are inherently limited to democracies as distinct from more autocratic political systems; but they acquire a particular quality when they play out in democratic settings.

Next steps
What emerges next will depend as much on how democracy – understood both as a political system and as a social system – evolves. Certainly, it seems fair to suggest that the longer democracies delay in taking decisive action to mitigate the pressures of unsustainable development, the less likely democracy will remain intact as pressures turn to crises.

Past evidence, from responses to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States to food riots in the global South, is that threats severe enough to generate societal crisis can give rise to measures that bypass normal democratic processes or erode civil liberties. At the same time, it is helpful to make a distinction between temporary or short-term authoritarian measures or technocratic governance in response to specific climate crisis events on the one hand, and developments that might, over the longer term, erode “deep democracy” more generally.

In principle there seems to be a mismatch between the idea of the available time within which democracy will need to adapt and evolve in order to rise to contemporary sustainable development challenges (particularly if we are to escape runaway climate change), and the pace at which democracy has evolved over the last two thousand years.

Some kinds of events, though, could act as triggers for democracy to transform quickly. For example, crisis generally, like war more specifically, can slow time down when it comes to social progress: putting back the clock, rekindling old animosities and tensions that years of social engineering, development assistance or capacity building sought to address. But crisis can also speed time up by bringing people together in a common cause: it can work to accelerate the rate at which social innovation emerges; and the depth and strength of human bonds and social connections.

Policy, legal and (formal) institutional innovations will also be among the key shapers of democracies’ systemic responses to climate change. Hungary’s “green ombudsman”, for example, (now renamed the Deputy Ombudsman for Future Generations) creates space for a conversation that would not otherwise happen.

True, even autocratic leaders need to consider the needs of people who live in their territories (even if only, in the case of truly despotic rulers, to ensure that they are able to continue to rule). But in a relatively stable autocratic setting, policy approaches that hold back economic growth, or that keep scientific evidence and any discussion of it away from the people, are all inherently less liable to face public opposition in the day-to-day course of events.

Towards a manifesto for change
If we value democracy itself, democratic innovation and adaptation must form a key part of societal responses to sustainable development.

That’s why the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development is launching a process to develop the world’s first people’s manifesto for democracy and sustainable development.

The manifesto will set an agenda for tackling problem areas, while at the same time, raising awareness of the increasing risk that unsustainable development could erode democracy.

To read more and add your ideas, in English or Spanish, go to www.fdsd.org/manifesto.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.