Democracy dialogue held with youth participants as part of International Civil Society Week, Fiji, 8 December 2017

Participants: around 12 young people from different countries

1. Visions and concepts of democracy

Following discussion, participants agreed on a shared understanding of what democracy means to them. Democracy is understood as both a means and an end. It is a means because it helps people progress towards shared aspirations, including dignity, equality, equity, freedom, inclusion, peace and respect. It is an end because participation, representation, space and voice are important in their own right. A healthy society is one in which people can speak out and be heard. It is therefore clear that democracy is something that goes far beyond voting in elections. Also important is the understanding that democracy is always imperfect, a work in progress and something that has to be striven for.

2. Current issues and challenges with democracy

Participants identified a number of current challenges and issues they are experiencing. These include challenges around limited democratic space, a lack of accountability, inequality of participation and voice, rising extremism and political disaffection, and challenges posed by new technology. Key points raised are as follows:

  • In many contexts, it is becoming increasingly harder to organise protests. Prior permission may be required, and refused or granted selectively, and protests may be subjected to violence. This is part of a broader and increasing repression of activists and human rights defenders. There is also growing restriction of media freedom. People may be fearful and feel intimidated about the consequences of speaking out. Young activists may be particularly targeted or vulnerable to restrictive tactics.
  • Leaders and institutions are largely not seen as accountable, and established political parties not seen as representing people. There is concern about corruption and nepotism, including in governmental and political appointments. National governments may also be seen as unable to deliver real change for their people.
  • As a result, people can feel disconnected from politics and policy debate. People may be disenchanted or feel that their voices will not be heard.
  • Electoral systems - such as first-past-the-post and winner-takes-all systems - can also encourage exclusion and discourage diversity. They may serve to exclude minority voices from institutions.
  • Language and cultural issues can further exclude people. For example, not everyone will understand the terminology being used in a conversation about politics or democracy. People may also be too busy in securing their daily basic needs and struggling in poverty to be able to engage.
  • Patriarchy continues to hold women back from participation and voice.
  • There is also a need to be careful with the use of terms such as ‘citizen’ and ‘citizenship’ and to interrogate what these mean and how inclusive they are in a world increasingly marked by mass displacement and the denial of fundamental rights to people based on narrow, legal notions of citizenship.
  • Key groups, among them young people, are therefore excluded from adequate participation in democracy. At the same time, while young people may care deeply about the issues at stake, they may not be inclined to participate in formal structures, including voting and taking part in political parties.
  • People, and notably young people, may lack awareness of their rights and the means and tools by which governments, institutions and politicians can be held to account. They may lack awareness of the participation platforms and opportunities available.
  • More broadly, there may be a lack of a democratic culture, and an absence of the kind of education that can help develop a democratic culture.
  • In addition, identity-based politics and loyalties - such as ethnic and tribal affiliations - may inhibit the development of more inclusive politics.
  • Young people may be vulnerable to being attracted into extremism. Extremism may seem attractive as a response to disaffection and as rebellion against the establishment, even when extremist forces are marshalled by establishment figures in the defence of privilege. In some cases, extremist movements have been building for years but can now be seen to be coming to fruition.
  • Several contexts have seen a recent surge of right-wing populism. Populist leaders are channelling disaffection to position themselves as working for the people. Populist leaders may borrow emancipatory language, but apply it to pursue sectional interests and promote exclusion. In some cases, people have been persuaded to vote against their own interests.
  • Once elected, populist leaders are using the machinery of government - including by passing repressive laws - to restrict civil society. Leaders, having claimed power through elections, may misuse their power to deny space for oversight and debate.
  • However, while civil society might be expected to respond to disaffection and anger, civil society has largely failed to mount a convincing challenge and offer alternatives to right-wing populism and extremism. Civil society’s narratives and language have largely not resonated with people compared to populist and extremist messages. Civil society organisations can be accused of having becoming elite and removed from the people, and in doing so, having left the space open for right-wing populism and extremism to be propagated.
  • Related to this, there is a danger that people, including in civil society, are becoming trapped in bubbles and social media echo chambers, where people only debate with and hear from those who they already agree with. There are also concerns that people might think online activism is a sufficient way to support a cause, and that an abundance of online choice and possibilities dissipates focus.
  • Other challenges related to technology include data security and privacy issues, with technology becoming more intrusive and online activity being tracked and data being stored and shared, leaving civil society vulnerable to surveillance. There is also some concern about whether the introduction of new voting technologies could make electoral fraud easier.
  • For all engaging on issues of democracy, there is the dilemma of whether to try to improve current practices by working within the system, or stand outside the system to advocate for more fundamental change. This relates to the classic civil society dilemma of whether to be in the conference room seeking incremental reform or on the streets protesting for radical change, and of how to reconcile both responses.

3. Possible solutions and responses

  • While challenges are noted about new technology, as above, the value of social media and online tools is also acknowledged. Social media can, for example, be used to organise tactical voting in elections, or to encourage young people to participate in elections. Social media can be used to offer incentives, rewards and recognition for participation and advocacy. It still offers the ability to scale up efforts and make global connections.
  • The response should, however, not solely be one of using new technology as an additional tool to further civil society’s work. Rather the question should be one of how new technology enables civil society and young people to organise and challenge power in new ways.
  • There is also a need to recognise that there is no either/or choice been online and offline activism. Rather, there needs to be both, and connections and pathways need to be made between online and offline action. There is a need to recognise that people can develop protest competence and confidence online and then be encouraged to carry this into the physical world.
  • To support this, civil society should campaign for the right to internet access and net neutrality as key demands. The internet should be recognised as a global public space that all should be able to access equally. Civil society should also work to create safe spaces for citizen journalism.
  • There is a need to open up new avenues and platforms to get people involved in politics who are not normally interested or who are excluded, including young people. One way of doing this might be to seek constitutional reform to establish quotas for young people and other excluded groups.
  • Civic education should be promoted and reinforced in formal and informal spaces, including political education in schools.
  • Civil society organisations should demonstrate best practice by developing new channels for communication with young people and opening up more space for youth representation in civil society decision-making. Communication platforms should be offered both online through social media and offline through means such as community radio.
  • There should be more emphasis made by civil society on forging coalitions and building consensus.
  • There is a need to recognise that no society can be called democratic unless patriarchy is being challenged.

The key test for any action should be to ask how it is reaching and serving vulnerable and excluded people, and people who are angry about the state of their societies.