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Democracy as a Long-Term Project

Is being a democratic country always a work in progress?

August 9, 2004

Is being a democratic country always a work in progress?

Countries around the world have turned from authoritarianism to democracy — and are finding out it is an uphill battle. The administrator of the UN Development Program, Mark Malloch Brown, examines the challenges budding democracies have to contend with. Tough as it is, that fight is never over.

How quickly has democracy spread to new countries?

“The last two decades have seen a historic shift in the global spread of democracy, where some 81 countries took steps towards democratization — often by overthrowing an authoritarian one-party regime and introducing multi-party elections.”

Is there a downside to all this success?

“Democracy’s triumph makes it the incumbent: not the anti-establishment vision for change, but the clumsy status quo that often cannot deliver healthcare, schools or jobs — let alone make the trains run on time.”

Once a country is democratic, should people return to business as usual?

“The benefits of democracy cannot be taken for granted — they have to be worked for. And the work is never done.”

What is the first step to preserving democracy?

“We have to escape the initial exuberance of democratic revolutions — which is the equivalent of Biblical creationists believing democracy, like the world, can be created in seven days — and instead recognize that democracy is a long project.”

Do developing nations always benefit economically by becoming democracies?

“The vote and free markets are not automatic partners.”

What are some additional challenges?

“Poverty and inequality are as much a threat to democracy as intolerance and lack of freedom.”

What about minorities in a democracy?

“Democracy has to be more than simple majority rule. Almost a billion people in the world consider themselves minorities in their country. It has got to be built around the principle of individual choice.”

Has the fight for freedom taken a backseat to the fight against terrorism?

“In the 21st century, the fight against terrorism is too often allowed to prevail over the fight for freedom — and freedom’s political champions have proved all too human as economic managers.”

Are both goals being pursued equally?

“Perversely, the war on terrorism and freedom are posed as opposing — not complementary — objectives.”

Can democracy start on a small scale?

“Too often, gender, class and wealth still prevail over decency and respect. We have to model our own lives the way we would like our countries to conduct theirs.”

How important are the actions of individuals in creating democracy?

“Democracy is won a single act of decency at a time — in how we treat our neighbors, as much as in how our leaders treat us.”

What about citizens' responsibility as voters?

“Democracy is not just a five-year duty, but our daily work and values.”

Why should young democracies not be discouraged?

“Democracy is a long project. It takes time to build democratic systems such as courts, an independent media, civil society, an impartial civil service — and, above all, a democratic culture.”

How long is the process?

“Democracy takes time — certainly years, probably decades, but not centuries.”

This feature is adapted from Mr. Malloch Brown's commencement address to graduates of the Central European University on June 17, 2004. For the full text of Mr. Malloch Brown's speech, click here.