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Rethinking democracy promotion beyond the West - book review

17 December 2015

After the EU adopted its 2016-18 “Action Plan for Democracy and Human Rights” the Carnegie Democracy Group met in Brussels to discuss it.

Richard Youngs, The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy, Carnegie Europe, 2015

“More and better tools are required for effective democracy support and they should be based on the needs of the societies we work with," stressed EED’s director Jerzy Pomianowski. “Donors should reflect this in their programming and ensure that implementing partners are given the necessary flexibility to meet the local needs.”, he added.

“There is a need to explain better the concept of democracy to our partners and take into consideration the plurality of democracy models” – he added. “Furthermore, it is important to work with a broad range of societal actors – sometimes those taking on political roles - rather than solely working with the governments.”

At the same meeting, Richard Youngs presented his new book on Non-Western democracies. EED is happy to recommend it. We briefly review it below.

A book review: Richard Youngs, The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy, Carnegie Europe, 2015

Western liberal democracy is not a one-model-fits-all device. US and European attempts to promote their versions of democracy in other parts of the world have very rarely brought the desired results. To make things harder for democracy supporters, such endeavours meet with growing resentment as increasingly self-confident non-Western countries and societies refuse to mimic Western templates. Instead, they look for inspiration into their own traditions; often authoritarian rulers use this trend to justify their despotic rule. The West, too, gradually loses confidence in the validity of its norms, values and institutions, and is increasingly unsure whether they should be promoted among societies characterised by different political, cultural and economic backgrounds.

If so, what does it mean for the West's policy of promoting democracy abroad? Does it mean it should be shelved? Or perhaps should we foster other forms of democracy which better fit local realities? But then how much can we compromise on our values? Is there a way not to? If you feel puzzled by these questions, grab the new book by Richard Youngs, which we highly recommend.

In his excellent mind-stretching work, Youngs makes a case for a thorough rethink of the West's democratisation policies, and – more importantly – he shows ways of doing this. No, it is not just another manual on making Iraq a second Denmark. Rather than asking how to promote democracy abroad, he asks what form of democracy the West should promote in the first place.

Youngs argues that non-Western attempts to find their own models of democracy - rooted in indigenous traditions and adjusted to local socio-economic contexts - are fully justified and should be supported by the West. Yet, it should not lead us to accept outright authoritarian rule veiled in 'local traditions'. He writes that when promoting political transformations abroad we should not dilute the essence of liberal democracy. Instead, we need to expand its meaning and allow it to be enriched by non-Western values and institutions.

Youngs points to five 'axes' along which liberal democracy can be recast - depending on local (even very divergent) - circumstances without losing its essence. These 'axes' are 1) individual rights, 2) economic justice, 3) power quotas & consensus, 4) participation and representation, and 5) non-western justice systems. Framing liberal democracy in these terms opens up almost limitless possibilities for explorations of innovative non-Western political systems, consistent both with principles of liberal democracy, and with non-Western traditions, realities and needs. Youngs recommends that the West's democratisation agenda should be based on precisely this: to support such explorations on state, social and individual levels. At the same time we need to refrain from forcing our moulds onto others. At the same time, we should not let oppressive regimes fool us with 'this is our culture' argument. Hence, again, empowering local actors to take part in the debate is key.

Youngs does not pretend to offer us a silver bullet. He is well aware of the tremendous obstacles to democratisation in an increasingly unstable world. He admits many non-Westerners could be reluctant to accept his way of thinking. Yet, even so, his approach does move the debate on democratisation towards areas where non-Western states can have more home-grown input into reflections about democracy. Even if his approach may not provide the perfect solutions or completely resolve tensions that beset many countries – say in the Middle East or in North Africa – at least it could temper current levels of polarisation. That would not be a small achievement.

Youngs' arguments do not come out of thin air. They are based on an impressive and thorough study of the evolution of political systems on all populated continents of the globe. Many readers will find it useful that even very recent events have been examined (including as recent as June 2015). The author also gives us a comprehensive critical review of past and current academic debates on democratisation (don’t panic, practitioners, it’s concise). All this results in innovative conclusions which can help those of us struggling through the puzzling issues of non-Western democracy. Hopefully they will find their way to offices of democracy promoters.

At EED we share many of Youngs' views. We do not seek to promote one rigid model of democracy in EU's neighbourhood. Instead, we seek to address local needs by supporting local actors only if they ask us for it. We are always open to innovative projects aimed at democratisation which draw on local traditions, preferences and know-how. Our partners design and implement their projects on their own, as they wish, without EED's interference. Likewise, we do not try to duplicate Western models of civil society in countries where we operate. We do not expect our partners to be structured along the lines of Western NGOs or even to be formally registered. We are keen on working with a broad range of local actors who are committed to advancing their democracy in their country.

Szymon Ananicz, EED

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