In the last few decades, the polity has witnessed a sea change. There are innumerable instances across the world, of the opening up of political systems and increased rights and power to the people. The world can be labelled as much more democratic, but there are several underlying problems to be dealt with. A report outlines that 140 countries hold multi-party elections, out of which only 81 have taken significant steps towards democracy.
The democratic system of voting in the elections has added crucial element of governance from the human development standpoint, because elections symbolize enforceable accountability. When a government fails to live up to the needs and desires of the people, they can simply vote it out of the office the next time.
There can be no stricter form of accountability, no more egalitarian form of participation. The right to vote itself gives every individual a choice. However, it would be a grim mistake if one equated democracy with the ritual of regular elections. A vibrant democracy requires functioning institutions-for instance a legislature that does not do a specific individuals bidding, a judiciary that is independent and understands the importance of equal treatment of all through the eyes of the law; a free, independent and unbiased media and security forces that carry out their duties without specific political allegiances. It also requires an active and alert civil society that can ensure that the government works in the general public interest, and also keeps giving its inputs wherever required. An independent judiciary provides the necessary checks and balances between the democratic institutions of governance. Accountability is central to democratic governance. It ensures that holders of public trust are acting effectively and fairly.
In the presence of a free press and an active civil society, people can have several ways of participating in the policy decisions and debates. There is the example of participatory budgeting and gender-responsive budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Here, the citizen participation in preparing the municipal budgets has helped in economizing in several areas, to divert funds to human development activities. During the first seven years of this activity, the houses having access to water services increased from 80 per cent to 98 per cent. Also, those with access to sanitation increased dramatically from 46 per cent to 85 per cent.
Democracy is not only instrumental in expanding political freedom, but also goes a long way in fostering growth. Democracies are better at managing conflicts than the authoritarian regimes because of the political space and the institutions that create the opportunity for open contests, vindicating the fact that change is possible without tearing down the system. Socio-political unrest and handover of the reins of power occurs more often in democracies than in authoritarian regimes and, most remarkably, without coming in the way of development.
Democracies also are better at avoiding catastrophes and at managing sudden downturns that threaten human survival itself. Free speech makes more effective the efforts at spreading the word about critical health issues, about the benefits of family planning and containing the population, simple ways for reduction in infant mortality, and spread of the HIV/AIDS. Promoting democratic politics also means giving the much-required thrust to education. It is important for nations to realise that their biggest asset is the human capital. It would be wrong to regard the populace as merely the beneficiaries of economic and social progress, who, in fact, are the facilitators of the same. It is for this very reason that health and education (the two factors boosting the productivity of an individual) are the major focus areas.
Human development carries much more import than just growth in the national incomes. Political freedom and people's participation are vital, as they are means of advancing human development. In the recent years, people around the world have fought for, and paved way for a democratic set-up, in the hope of getting political freedom and, consequently, better socio-economic conditions, as well as opportunities. However, it is increasingly being felt that this form of government has also not delivered. Even the longer established democracies have not been able to stay uncorrupted.
Altering the constitutions, making the ministers and the judiciary mere puppets, openly defying the norms of clean and fair elections are some practices hindering the progress of the societies, as well as individuals. It is only when democracy does not respond to the needs of the people that they get drawn towards the authoritarianism. Building democratic institutions, along with achieving equitable socio-economic development, poses a lot of problems. If a system confers political equality on all people, it does not imply that the individuals would have similar desire to participate in the processes, or that they would be in equal control of the results that follow. It has been seen very often that inequity of resources and political clout undermine the very purpose of the institution of democracy.
One factor that more often than not plays foul is money. It subverts the democracies with its influence on determining who gets elected. A rise in the campaign cost does not augur well, for it indicates only to the degree of the politicians' expected inclination towards business interests.
A successful and efficient democracy requires an independent and fair media. In order to be plural and independent, the media must be free, not just from the State control, but also be immune from corporate and political pressures. The State ownership of media has gone down tremendously owing to the market reforms and the economic integration. However, the trend visible currently is not too encouraging as the ownership rests increasingly with private concerns. The report outlines a range of mechanisms that can promote the non-partisan media without having to take recourse to government controls. These include self-regulation through independent bodies, professional code of ethics and using official ombudsmen, coupled with training the journalists and media persons and increasing their awareness levels.
Whenever there is a discussion about human development, democracy must come into picture. Though the awareness about how to promote equitable development that benefits poor people, including measures like widening access to credit, reforming land ownership, investing in basic social services for all, following the macroeconomic policies, promoting the informal sector etc., remain relegated to the theory books only, for they do not in any way help the interests of the elite.
The need for making people participate in the decisions affecting their lives, and to hold the authorities accountable, no longer remains a problem at the national level. In the breeze of globalisation, there are bigger decisions being taken at the international level that are likely to have a greater affect. No wonder, it creates a feeling of optimism about the future in some, while others see globalisation as a threat. This fact is evident from the anti-globalisation protests in the industrialized as well as the developing countries. The reasons for protests and the agendas of the protesters may differ, but their angst is indicative of one demand-the people acting at the global level should be more responsive and inclusive of the poorer people.
Though the emergence of a global integration movement has created vistas for widening the scope of democracy at the international, level the institutions working at that level require certain reforms. They seem to be toeing the line of the rich and the powerful countries, as reflected in their decisions. For instance, each member in the World Trade Organization has a seat and a vote-a practice that appears very democratic in itself, but the decisions are arrived at by consensus, which is influenced more than a little by the richer countries.
There have been a large number of studies conducted, which suggest that a poor system of governance is responsible for a long-standing poverty problem and lagging development. The crisis of governance is evident through a widespread corruption pervading through the important offices, inefficient public services and a number of other snags in the system. But, it is true that democracy requires a long process of political evolution and development. It needs the setting up of the basic institutions, formal and informal, within the State and outside it.
The spread of democracy is a tough job, unless it is backed by a strong influx of the democratic culture-of values and principles that determine the conduct of individuals and groups. The challenges to democracy may not only spring from political parties, incited by their interests, but from the other factors like extremism, intolerance and discrimination finding its roots in lack for respect for human rights and human dignity.
Democratic governance means that:
- People's human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected, allowing them to live with dignity.
- People have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
- People can hold decision-makers accountable. Inclusive and fair rules, institutions and practices govern social interactions.
- Women are equal partners with men in private and public spheres of life and decision-making.
- People are free from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, class, gender or any other attribute.
- The needs of future generations are reflected in current policies.
- Economic and social policies are responsive to peoples needs and aspirations.
- Economic and social policies aim at eradicating poverty and expanding the choices that all people have in their lives.