Can the UN do better with democracy?


Credit: United Nations
  • Opinion by Simone Galimberti (Kathmandu, Nepal)
  • Inter Press Service

It is a subject that makes many uneasy, as democracy continues to be a contentious issue within the UN due to opposition from some of its member states that have not adopted standard democratic practices in their way of governing.

Still, the UN is worth trying to play a bigger role in promoting it, as democracy itself is too important an issue to ignore, despite the high sensitivity surrounding it.

If you think about it, it’s almost a miracle that the UN celebrates International Day of Democracy, which falls on September 15 every year.

It is without a doubt one of the most fearless and less prominent celebrations endorsed by the UN and the day’s lack of visibility is perhaps no coincidence. Finding ways and tools to take democracy to the next level at the UN is a conundrum that is difficult to unravel.

For example, how can the UN Democracy Fund, also known as UNDEF, become more effective and inclusive?

UNDEF is one of the most flexible programs promoted by the UN and probably one of the best, if not the most appropriate, to reach members of civil society who often work in appalling conditions in a appalling legislative and regulatory environment and consequently hungry for funding.

From gender empowerment in politics to freedom of the press to dialogues on democracy and the fight against corruption, we have a program that can do wonders if expanded and improved.

UNDEF recently closed its annual application round (the 17th since its inception) and again, as every year, it received some spotlight before returning to the shadow of international development.

While the application process is relatively simple because it is a UN program, the review process is overly complicated and relies on multiple layers of vetting that, at least apparently, seem to be overlapping and unnecessary.

But even when a project is selected, the hardest part comes when, as UNDAF’s website explains, “shortlisted applicants are now required to complete the final stage of the selection process: negotiating a formal project document with UNDEF. Only after successful completion of this process will the project be approved for funding”.

This last procedure is simply useless and certainly does not make life easier for an organization that is selected.

Perhaps such a complex governance structure illustrates the exceptionality of the UNDAF which, it is important to note, is neither embedded in official programs nor directed by a UN agency, but rather something in its own right.

Its autonomy is not a negative factor in itself, in fact it can bring more effectiveness by using its agility, but only if this approach is accompanied by the intention and an overall goal to make it more agile and independent.

Instead, I am afraid that the way UNDAF is run is the result of a difficult environment, a kind of tool that makes it possible to ‘manage’ something strategically meaningful, but at the same time is also something that is viewed critically by those members of the UN who have not embraced democracy as their system of government.

The fact that the fund and the money it manages is just a drop in the ocean might confirm that last option. According to its website, UNDEF “receives an average of about 2,000-3,000 proposals per year and only about 50 are selected”.

It is not surprising that only 7 full employees manage the entire fund with the valuable support of an equal number of interns.

Moreover, the UN should also not shy away from supporting innovative practices in the field of democracy. For example, it should embrace deliberative democracy or other forms of bottom-up policing aimed at giving citizens a voice and, most importantly, agency.

It is certainly somewhat less controversial than the liberal democracy questioned by countries like China.

In fact, even a country like China with its one-party system has historically (particularly in the era of pre-President Xi) embraced at least partial bottom-up participation through deliberation.

One way for the UN to play a bigger role in supporting democratic practices is to defend them from a good governance point of view and deliberative practices can be very helpful in this regard. In the past, this was the main task of the UNDP.

What does this program, one of the largest and most resourceful, do? the time to promote democracy? What are her plans for the future?

In its effort to enable transformative change across all SDGs, something that, as the UNDP also points out, requires structural transformations, there is a risk of losing the focus on good governance, once a strong point of the programme.

In the new Strategic Plan 2022-2025, governance is one of six so-called “Signature Solutions” and is central to government’s holistic, integrated “systems approach” to drive structural change.

Still. if you read the definition of governance in the plan, you may wonder how important democracy and human rights are.

“Helping countries address emerging complexities by making governance systems ‘future-proof’ through anticipatory approaches and better risk management”.

This is a definition that could come from the blueprint of a top global consultancy that needs to do business with autocratic regimes rather than the “formula” to promote real democratic change.

It is therefore not surprising that the word “democracy” does not appear in the entire document. Unsurprisingly, UNDP almost never governs civil society or democracy, so funding directly benefits grassroots local organizations.

Perhaps only the UNDP Administrative Center in Oslo, currently seeking a new strategic direction, can help its “mother organization” rediscover interest in democracy.

Another important factor within the UN system for promoting democracy through the strengthening of human rights is, of course, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The new High Commissioner, Volker Türk, a UN veteran and Austrian national, was initially regarded as the humble candidate who would not cause much ado in the international community.

Instead of his initial statements, Türk takes charge of some of the most controversial and sensitive yet very important files.

Perhaps OHCHR, as the organization is called, could play a very important role by working more directly with civil society to promote human rights and thus democracy.

UNDAF’s role and mandate could be enhanced and supported through a strategic partnership with OHCHR or even through multiple funding arrangements from other agencies and programs within the UN system.

Let us not forget that it was then UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan who came up with the idea in 2005 of a special thematic fund to promote democracy.

The fund remains within the mandate of the current Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who heads the UNDAF Advisory Board.

Guterres should explore all options to strengthen UNDAF as it is currently structured, a general United Nations trust fund but with much broader resources or as a standalone entity, something that can hardly be achieved.

Paragraphs 135 and 136 of UNGA resolution 60/1. 2005 “World Summit Outcome” welcomes the establishment of UNDAF, strengthens its rationale:

“Democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.”

UNDAF should certainly complement and strengthen the work of UNDP and OHCHR, as explained in their TOR.

What may ultimately make the difference may be Guterres’ willpower and commitment to include democracy in his ambitious United Nations reform agenda.

The writer is a co-founder of ENGAGE, a non-profit NGO in Nepal. He writes about volunteering, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people’s lives.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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