Can non-Western democracy help to foster political transformation?

Richard Youngs at Open Democracy: “…many non-Western countries are showing signs of a newly-vibrant civic politics, organized in ways that are not centered on NGOs but on more loosely structured social movements in participatory forms of democracy where active citizenship is crucial—not just structured or formal, representative democratic institutions. Bolivia is a good example.

Many Western governments were skeptical about President Evo Morales’ political project, fearing that he would prove to be just as authoritarian as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. But some Western donors (including Germany and the European Union) have already increased their support to indigenous social movements in Bolivia because they’ve become a vital channel of influence and accountability between government and society.

Secondly, it’s clear that the political dimensions of democracy will be undermined if economic conditions and inequalities are getting worse, so democracy promotion efforts need to be delinked from pressures to adopt neo-liberal economic policies. Western interests need to do more to prove that they are not supporting democracy primarily as a means to further their economic interest in ‘free markets.’ That’s why the European Union is supporting a growing number of projects designed to build up social insurance schemes during the early phases of democratic transitions. European diplomats, at least, say that they see themselves as supporters of social and economic democracy.

Donors are becoming more willing to support the role of labor unions in pro-democracy coalition-building; and to protect labor standards as a crucial part of political transitions in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Georgia, China, Egypt and Ecuador. But they should do more to assess how the embedded structures of economic power can undermine the quality of democratic processes. Support for civil society organizations that are keen on exploring heterodox economic models should also be stepped up.

Thirdly, non-Western structures and traditions can help to reduce violent conflict successfully. Tribal chiefs, traditional decision-making circles and customary dispute resolution mechanisms are commonplace in Africa and Asia, and have much to teach their counterparts in the West. In Afghanistan, for example, international organizations realized that the standard institutions of Western liberal democracy were gaining little traction, and were probably deepening rather than healing pre-existing divisions, so they’ve started to support local-level deliberative forums instead.

Something similar is happening in the Balkans, where the United States and the European Union are giving priority to locally tailored, consensual power-sharing arrangements. The United Nations is working with customary justice systems in Somalia. And in South Sudan and Kenya, donors have worked with tribal chiefs and supported traditional authorities to promote a better understanding of human rights and gender justice issues. These forms of power-sharing and ‘consensual communitarianism’ can be quite effective in protecting minorities while also encouraging dialogue and deliberation.

As these brief examples show, different countries can both offer and receive ideas about democratic transformation regardless of geography, though this is never straightforward. It involves finding a balance between defending genuinely-universal norms on the one hand, and encouraging democratic experimentation on the other. This is a thin line to walk, and it requires, for example, recognition that the basic precepts of liberal democracy are not synonymous with what can be seen as an amoral individualism, particularly in highly religious communities.

Pro-democracy reformers and civic groups in non-Western countries often take international organizations to task for pushing too hard on questions of ‘Western liberal rights’ rather than supporting variations to the standard, individualist template, even where tribal structures and traditional conflict-resolution mechanisms work reasonably well. This has led to resistance against international support in places as diverse as Libya, Mali and Pakistan…..

Academic critical theorists argue that Western democracy promoters fail to take alternative models of democracy on board because they would endanger their own geostrategic and economic interests….(More)”