“If we continue to work with the imperfections of democracy, it will get better and be more responsive to the aspirations of the people, all people, not a few powerful elites or the rich” – Interview with Dr A.H Monjurul Kabir, UN Senior Policy Adviser

By any measure, we are experiencing a time of great political upheaval. Institutions and established elites are viewed with great scepticism and are often accused of having let down the very people that they are supposed to be serving. Democracy itself, frequently seen as the foundational principle of a fair and just society, seems to be fraying at the edges, with huge social division, exclusions on the one hand, and a disparity of access to political power on the other creating major problems, even in societies such as the UK. In addition, the country set to become the most economically powerful, is not governed by what we would term democratic principles.

In such a world a study of democracy, how it works, how it can be implemented and expanded to benefit the whole of society is essential. Just such a book has been written by a University of Hull graduate.

Dr. A.H. Monjurul Kabir, currently a Senior Rule of Law, and Justice Policy and Programme Adviser at the UN Women HQ in New York, brings a wealth of experience and insight to the subject. His book ‘Development Aid in Stable Democracies and Fragile Statesis based on field experiences, research, and evidence from international support provided to democratic institutions and legislative bodies across the world, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Serbia. It provides a critique of the nature of support given to burgeoning democracies as part of foreign aid. Dr Kabir claims that it has been conceived in narrow terms of technical assistance that fails to appreciate that aid effectiveness calls for a sound understanding of a country’s politics, culture and history.

Dr A.H. Monjurul Kabir,
Senior Programme and Policy Adviser at UN Women HQ in New York
– Photo: Ryan Brown

“Efforts to assess the impact of the development aid have been limited,” he said. “There is little reliable evidence about the effectiveness of donor support to democracy strengthening work. This makes the task of identifying what works, what does not, and learning lessons, in democratic development through external assistance extremely problematic.”

In terms of thinking about what works and what doesn’t, it is difficult to imagine how he could have gained a broader range of experiences, his work with the UN having taken him to so many different countries, and given him access to so many different cultures and ways of organising politically.

“I have spent almost 17 years in Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, North America, Southern Africa working for the United Nations in different professional and management capacities. The UN plays a critical role in developing and shaping global governance structures. It is not perfect, however, it is still the only global institution with comprehensive competency, universal membership, legitimacy, and it is uniquely positioned to deal with these multiple and complex challenges. The member state, sovereign state is reshaped both internally (via citizens and media, including social media) and externally (via global opinion and geopolitical forces). The order is governed by a universal social contract, facilitated by the UN. There is no other way to transform the collection of states into a global society.

“Beyond intergovernmental deadlocks and global politics, my experiences with the UN, particularly its Agencies, Funds and Programmes on the ground, convinced me that while countries are the leaders for their respective national development, we need a global platform to harness the full potentials of knowledge, expertise, innovation, and more importantly international standards and rule of law.”

For Dr Kabir, the rule of law is key not only to delivering improved quality of life, but also in terms of understanding how public institutions do, sometimes, fail people.

“Rule of law is essential to realizing equitable growth, reducing income inequality, inclusive social development and environmental sustainability. However, rule of law work is still predominantly supply driven, state institutions-centric. Often, they do not reflect people’s voice and aspirations. This fails people who need it most for a better, more secured life. We must make rule of law work demand driven, grounded on human rights and equality, more inclusive, and, last but not the least, people-centric.”

So what does this mean in terms of making democracy more inclusive and ensuring that democracy delivers positive outcomes for everyone? For Dr Kabir it comes back to understanding that democratic and rule of law institutions like parliaments do not exist in isolation and that a broader, social and cultural understanding is required.

“Democratic political regimes cannot be built by targeting the political system in isolation of the social and economic context. Parliaments do not exist in isolation: like any other organization they live in a wider institutional environment, which is where many of their most fundamental problems can originate. To focus narrowly on the internal workings of parliament while ignoring the wider picture can be, ineffective, if not counterproductive.

As a process or system, democracy is not automatically inclusive. Many groups – typically, women, minorities, persons with disabilities, Indigenous people, LGBTIQ communities, some special social groups, and the less wealthy – are systematically disadvantaged from access to political power and political institutions, as shown by many measures and assessments.  Making parliaments and other democratic and rule of law institutions more accessible require targeted interventions along with clear political will. Technical fixes, cosmetic reforms, and short-term capacity development training will not work alone: they may enhance personal knowledge of political leaders and staff but will not change the status quo.”

So how should we think about democracy, and how can we go about creating a future democracy that will be fit for purpose in approaching the challenges that lie ahead?

“Democracy is not a panacea. In many countries, democracy turns into electoral democracy or elected/party autocracy, as it lays the power to make decisions in the hands of the majority. This, ironically, places an emphasis on both individual and group power. However, it is, perhaps better than many other systems of governance. If we continue to work with the imperfections of democracy, it will get better and be more responsive to the aspirations of the people, all people, not a few powerful elites or the rich. This might make democracy gradually more inclusive too.

“Encouraging innovation, risk-taking, youth and civic engagements, inclusive approaches backed by robust political economy analysis, and new ways of thinking might help us understand the communities and people we work with better. However, this is not enough to ensure inclusion, freedom, voice, and agency. We must all challenge the way we think and the way we work to create an inclusive environment in which we can all perform being mindful of differentiated abilities, feel valued, respected and motivated.”

You can find more information on Dr Kabir’s book by following the link: Development Aid in Stable Democracies and Fragile States

Please note that all opinions expressed in the interview are personal, and do not reflect the official position of any related institutions or capacities held.

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