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To Protect Democracy We Must Catalyze New Partnerships

Nuevas Alianzas para Proteger la Democracia

Protest Megaphone
Annabel Lee Hogg |

As we mark World Democracy Day on September 15th, it’s worth asking the question: Did democracy have a good year? From what you’re reading, watching or listening to, it might seem as though the answer is no—that democracy is failing in many regions. Luckily there are signs that democracy is actually gaining ground in several regions of the world.

In their 2019 Democracy Report, the Varieties of Democracy Institute highlights that 21 countries have made advancements in democracy in the past decade. These include pro-democracy movements that have mobilized thousands of citizens in Algeria, Armenia, Burkina Faso, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Slovakia, Tunisia and Sudan. Additional indicators show that there is much to be hopeful about. For example, the Afrobarometer found that more than 67% of Africans reject nondemocratic forms of government and the Pew Research Center survey found that 66% of those surveyed believe that direct democracy would be the preferable form of government. 

With signs that support for democracy is on the rise it is even more important to take action to ensure democracy is healthy and solid. One clear antidote to rollbacks in democracy is the protection of a vibrant civil society space where citizens are free to speak out and hold institutions to account. That’s why it’s even more important during turbulent times to lean into international partnerships, like OGP, that seek to elevate the voices of citizens and bridge the gap between the government and civil society and other key stakeholders, like the private sector. 

The protection of civic space and civic rights is crucial to both democracy at large and the process to open governments. Nearly half of OGP member countries have made commitments to protect civic space—and they have work to do to strengthen those included in their national and local action plans. 

According to OGP’s Global Report, in 48% of OGP member countries, freedom of assembly remains a problem due to lack of access to funding, tax regulations, and barriers to entry. And 58% of OGP member countries reported issues related to harassment of activists and journalists. To address this trend more systematically, it is crucial for OGP member governments to include specific commitments in their action plans to protect civic space and the basic rights of citizens and ensure these barriers to democracy do not persist.

Civil society isn’t the only actor expressing concern over growing threats to its ability to drive change and democractic freedoms. The business community has begun to speak out on this issue and recognize that a strong civil society and basic civic freedoms are key to a healthy business environment. For business, these threats to civil society and basic rights translate to weakened legislative systems, unstable markets and disruption to critical infrastructure, such as internet access and uncertainty in their social license to operate. Protecting civic rights should also be in the interest of governments and companies concerned with a country’s long-term economic growth outlook. 

Protest in Los Angeles, United States Photo by Alex Radelich/Unsplash

To tackle these tough issues, OGP must forge new partnerships with actors aligned on protecting basic rights. OGP can be a trusted platform for exchange between business, civil society, and governments on protecting civic space and civic rights in addition to issues around anti-corruption, increased transparency, and better governance. 

We have learned at the B Team that companies are increasingly seeking spaces where they can actively engage with civil society on these issues. We’ve worked with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and International Service for Human Rights to develop this space with the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders. This group brings together more than 25 major multinational companies with human rights experts and international agencies for trusted discussion and action. 

As a participant in the Business Network, Microsoft brought its perspective as a multinational to  the Sixth OGP Global Summit held in Ottawa. Microsoft joined the Canadian government and local and international human rights organizations to openly discuss the struggles civil society is facing amidst these crackdowns and the role of business leadership in preventing attacks on civic right and activists. Microsoft and the Canadian government discussed their work together on the Freedom Online Coalition—an effort to support internet freedom with a focus on free expression, association, assembly and privacy online. Examples like this highlight how the private sector could play a thoughtful role in the OGP process as key stakeholders in the success of action plans. 

We are living in the most democratic moment in the last century, with 55% of the world’s countries using some form of democratic governance. Nevertheless, we must safeguard and grow our democratic institutions. To do this we must build new partnerships to ensure the preservation of good governance, open democracies and accountable institutions. 

At its core, democracy is about people. On World Democracy Day and beyond, cross-sector collaboration can help secure their right to be equal participants in shaping their future and forming the foundation needed for sustainable development. 

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