Friday, 7 August 2009

An Alliance to Promote Democracy

Why should we worry about promoting democracy? What is it that democracy brings about that we so desperately need? Knowing that is actually half the battle as all too many people think of democracy as little more than a multi-party voting system, and cannot see anything lacking so long as some such system is in place.

The real value of democracy lies in its aim to secure reciprocity amongst people who live and work together. The ethical golden rule of behaving towards others as one would have others behave towards one, can only be sustained if no one could in practice get away with behaving regardless of the consequences for other people. For all the moral entreaty to be kind and considerate, if power in society is so distributed that some can routinely get away with ignoring the views and concerns of those affected by their actions – across the country, in the workplace, at home – then those less powerful would indeed have to rely on the mercy of the strong.

The problem goes even deeper because without the discipline of having to check what one intends to do against the reasons and experiences of other people, one is liable to overlook ideas for improvement, and prone to persist with one’s errors. No voting system can by itself guarantee that those with the power to make decisions affecting others will properly take into account what others think before making their decisions. Indeed some systems even make it possible for groups with only minority support to continue to rule over the majority year in, year out. Such systems are anything but democratic.

It is therefore imperative to promote democracy so that everyone – irrespective of their race, gender, income, age – can have the ability and opportunities to have a meaningful say about decisions that affect their lives. None should be marginalised and all must be given equal respect before the law. This will necessitate, above all, a relentless drive to ensure that gaps in power inequalities are cut back; those entrusted with the exercise of power are really made answerable for their actions; people can develop informed views and make them count; and those with the least power are given the confidence and support to get their voices heard.

Despite resistance from the sceptical and apathy of the complacent, support for strengthening our democratic culture and practices has been gathering momentum. With initiatives such as the rolling out of the national Take Part programme to help citizens become involved in public policy decisions, the introduction of a Duty to Promote Democracy for all local authorities, the implementation of the Sustainable Communities Act to enable communities to redirect government spending, and the establishment of LINks (Local Involvement Networks) across the country, it is an opportune moment for civil society organisations to join forces to help widen and deepen democracy. The challenge is to move from ad hoc project partnerships to form a broad base alliance which will keep democratic development centre-stage.

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