At Batten, Wollack Shares Lessons From Frontlines of Democracy Building

February 20, 2014

Democracy looks a little different in every country, and therein lies the challenge in promoting democracy around the world: There is no single democratic model that can guide any nation.

But there are some core principles that support democracy in its many forms, explained Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, to 150 University of Virginia students gathered Wednesday in Garrett Hall.

Around the world, NDI works to increase people’s participation in the political process, to make institutions more transparent and to hold institutions accountable to the people and mission they serve, Wollack explained to the students, who were enrolled in one of two Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy classes taught by professor Gerry Warburg: an undergraduate class, “Public Policy Challenges of the 21st Century,” and a graduate seminar, “Leadership and Advocacy in International Policymaking.”

A worldwide consensus on the importance of supporting democracies has arisen in the past two decades as the development community has recognized that emerging nations have had different levels of development success not because they faced different fundamental problems, but because of differences in how they handled those problems.

“Rural dislocation, environmental degradation and agricultural policies that led to famine could be traced to political systems in which victims have no political voice, in which government institutions feel no obligation to answer to the people and in which special interests feel free to exploit resources without fear of oversight or the need to account,” said Wollack, who has led the institute since 1993.

The NDI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization, created in 1983 as one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, established by Congress to fund private organizations for the purpose of promoting democracy abroad.  The NDI now has 1,200 employees based in 60 field offices, and works in more than 100 countries in every region of the world.

NDI has been involved in many of the historic transitions to democracy that have occurred in the past three decades, including in South Africa, Chile, the Philippines, Georgia and Serbia.

While the benefits of democracy are perhaps more clearly understood and appreciated than ever before, how best to support democracy is still a thorny issue, Warburg said in introducing Wollack. 

“There is no NGO leader in the United States, and I’m not certain there is an NGO leader on the planet who has more experience in figuring out how to meet that challenge,” said Warburg, who noted he has been friends with Wollack for more than 40 years. 

“It’s not walking in and saying, ‘We have an answer,’ or, ‘We have a model,’” Wollack said.

Often the best way to support pro-democracy efforts and groups, Wollack said, is to connect them with people in other countries who have had practical experience with a similar problem or stage of democracy-building.

In an interview following his public remarks, Wollack said that during the negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement that helped create peace between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, NDI helped bring all the Northern Ireland negotiators to South Africa for a week to meet with Nelson Mandela and many of the negotiators there who had worked on ending apartheid. The relationships became so deep, Wollack said, that the Northern Irelanders asked some of the South African negotiators to visit prisons in Northern Ireland to convince jailed members of the Irish Republican Army to endorse the Good Friday Agreement.

As another example, after the 1994 elections that ended apartheid in South Africa, the nation needed to adopt new anti-corruption laws. NDI brought the leadership of South Africa’s seven political parties on a global tour of anti-corruption reforms in different countries around the world. During the trip, the seven parties reached a consensus on what South Africa integrity reform should look like.

Guided by those core principles – participation, transparency and accountability – NDI and similar organizations are helping to create global norms and standards that create a roadmap for democratic development in any country, Wollack said.

For instance, one key pillar of democracy is the domestic capacity to monitor elections. NDI has helped create a Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors that connects more than 140 monitoring organizations in more than 60 countries, representing 3 million citizen election monitors. 

While NDI cannot work in an active conflict zone like Syria, the organization is always looking for opportunities to step in to help tip a situation toward democracy, Wollack said.

President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast came to power in 2011 after disputed elections, months of sporadic violence and intervention by the international community. Ouattara now faces opposition forces that are threatening to boycott the next elections unless there are major electoral reforms. Boycotted elections would create a national crisis and might plunge the country into civil war, Wollack said. Ouattara has asked NDI to send in a team of international experts to try to bridge the divide on election reform and convince the opposition to participate in the election.

NDI’s experts, including a former prime minister of Canada and regional figures like the former head of the national election commission in Benin, will issue a report with recommendations that hopefully can bring the two sides together.

NDI often works with ruling parties as well as the opposition to create the reforms that ensure opposition can emerge, and to push back against a “winner-take-all” mentality among those in power, Wollack said.

That has been a key issue in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, he noted. “It’s easier to be a democratic booster when you are the opposition than when you are in power.”

In Egypt and Tunisia, the long-established Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized political force that could take advantage of the democratic opening created when the long-entrenched ruling regime in each nation was toppled. In Tunisia, the new ruling coalition that includes the Muslim Brotherhood has governed inclusively, recognizing the need to serve many competing interests.

In contrast, in Egypt, the Brotherhood acted quickly to consolidate power and tried to govern exclusively. “That was huge mistake,” Wollack said. Soon the opposition was back in the streets demanding help from the Egyptian Army, which was also a miscalculation, Wollack said. The opposition would have been better off organizing and agitating for early elections, rather than seeking help from military.

“The military is usually not the means by which you get to democratic reform,” he noted. “With a military intervention, you’re inviting one nondemocratic force to replace another.”

Lots of military coups were popular at the time, but led only to anther undemocratic regime.

“The world is seeing the mass empowerment of peoples,” Wollack said. “Change will be messy. But it is far preferable to the false security of one-man, one-party states.”

He cited an adage from Lech Walesa, who helped lead Poland’s transition to democracy: “Democracy does not necessarily go from one triumph to another, and can actually undermine the promise of the democratic system.”

Wollack continued: “The next generation of challenges we face is to help these nascent and fledgling democracies around the world deliver on the promise of democracy, to connect these new institutions to the people, so the democratic advances are sustainable over the long term, not simply after the first, second or third elections.”

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H. Brevy Cannon

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