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Christian Friis Bach: Democracy is Dialogue

Christian Friis Bach, Milja Kurki and Thomas Carothers

“Democracy is dialogue” the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation, Christian Friis Bach, stressed when he 28 November 2012 met with international experts and practitioners to discuss how best to approach political democracy support.  Friis Bach therefore urged actors involved in the field to look for best fit rather than best practice.


The seminar was arranged by DIPD, the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and Aberystwyth University, and brought together leading international experts as Thomas Carothers from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Milja Kurki, lead researcher on the European Research Council funded project ‘Political Economies of Democratisation’ alongside experienced practitioners as Roel von Meijenfeldt, Chairman of the European Partnership for Democracy, Andrea Ostheimer from the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Steen Christensen from the Danish Social Democrats.

Development Assistance is Political

“We are not afraid to deal with political parties today”, the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation, Christian Friis Bach,stressed, pointing to the way in which Danish Development Assistance has transformed in recent years: from a strictly apolitical approach to dealing with sensitive issues such as political party support. An example of this development is the establishment of DIPD in 2010 specifically mandated by the Danish Parliament to support political parties and party systems in the developing world.

Hereby Denmark joined the quest to strengthen political parties together with actors as the German and Swedish party foundations, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, International IDEA based in Sweden and US based National Endowment for Democracy.

Milja Kurki, Thomas Carothers and Christian Friis Bach discussing democracy

Milja Kurki, Thomas Carothers and Christian Friis Bach discussing democracy

Thomas Carothers argued that while democracy support is increasing, there is still an unfortunate tendency to view support to socio-economic development as apolitical and thereby view classical development assistance and democracy support as clearly separated areas.

Consequently, development assistance is divided into two areas perceived as fundamentally different: a socio-economic area and an area focused on politics and governance. Politics and governance is further divided into support to political parties etc. versus support to governance, and finally the political field is divided into partisan versus non-partisan support.

According to Carothers, these divisions are, however, unfortunate as they disregard the profoundly political nature of e.g. most socio-economic support, and leave a lack of coordination and communication between actors involved in socio-economic support and support to e.g. political parties.

See also: Carothers: Context is key to successful democracy support to political parties

What do we mean by Democracy?

Milja Kurki, lead researcher on the European Research Council funded project ‘Political Economies of Democratisation’, brought attention to the ways in which the concept as democracy has become increasingly depolitized after entering the world of development assistance.

In Academia, democracy is an inherently contested concept and battle ground for different definitions. Political parties and actors also hold different views on what constitute democracy. The dialogue on democratic avenues is part of democracy itself, but in development assistance there is a tendency to technocratize and avoid value discussions.

Kurki therefore urged practitioners to see democracy support as a political dialogue process rather than technical exercise and open up to other perceptions as economic democracy and social democracy.

As a response to the presentations by Carothers and Kurki, Christian Friis Bach emphasised that the rights based approach to development pursued in Danish development assistance emphasised both political and civil as well as social and economic rights. Not as separate areas, but as indivisible and interlinked rights and areas of intervention.

The Minister stressed the need to see democracy as dialogue:  a continuous discussion of “best fit” in a given context rather than a one size fits all model of democracy. A dialogue which include both  governments, political parties, civil society and citizens.

Democracy Support – not Promotion

“Everyone aspires to become democratic” Roel von Meijenfeldt argued.  According to von Meijenfeldt, Chairman of the European Partnership for Democracy and former Director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), political party support is therefore not a question of democracy promotion, but one of how to assist the already existing demands for democracy.

In doing so, it is vital to not only focus on laws and institutions, but also to address the political culture. The initiatives by NIMD and DIPD to facilitate dialogue between political parties, noticeable by setting up Centres for Multiparty dialogue in several countries, are according to von Meijenfeldt attempts to do just that: to create a forum for parties to address how to improve the political system and create democratic rules of the game.

 Steen Christensen, Roel von Meijenfeldt and Andrea Ostheimer

Steen Christensen, Roel von Meijenfeldt and Andrea Ostheimer

Andrea Ostheimer from the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) explained how democracy support had tended to focus on elections, while disregarding that many political parties lack the capacity and resources to participate, causing a lack of political alternatives.

According to Ostheimer, especially three tendencies challenge meaningful political competition in many developing countries today: Fragmented party systems, especially seen in the form of lack of coalition building among the (often high number of) opposition parties; a “big man syndrome”, patronage and lack of democratic procedures within parties; and finally a lack of ideology and clear policy alternatives.

Democracy support to political parties therefore needs to address both the relationship between parties and citizens, cooperation and dialogue between parties as well as the democratic procedures and capacity within individual parties.

Steen Christensen from the Danish Social Democrats finalized the session by giving an insight into the international outlook of the party.

For the Social Democrats, Christensen explained, the partnerships with parties such as the National Democratic Congress in Ghana and the Social Democratic Party in Egypt are based not only on international solidarity, but also on the realisation that we live in an internationalised world, where the developments in one country could easily affect the situation in e.g. Denmark.

Christensen agreed with Kurki on the importance of discussing the many varieties of democracy, and explained how dialogue on the concept of social democracy is a key element of the partnership between the Social Democrats and NDC in Ghana.

Finally, Steen Christensen stressed that the cooperation was not a question of “exporting democracy”, but rather a platform for discussion and mutual learning among peers.

See also: Party-to-party partnership: The Danish Social Democrats and Ghana´s National Democratic Congress

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