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Supporting democracy is about more than 'open societies'. Democracy also needs to deliver

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal


This blog is the second in a two-part series on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s ‘open societies’ mission. Explore part-one by Sam Sharp. 

Democracy today is in a precarious state, across countries and regions all over the world. As polarisation and the rise of populism attest, there is growing disenchantment with political systems that, while ostensibly democratic, are perceived to be dysfunctional and unable to deliver on crucial services and expectations.

People are angry, and they want to be included – in terms not only of whose voices are heard (vital as that is), but also how prosperity is shared.

Clearly, there is an urgent need to revitalise democracy. But this question is not simply about supporting 'open societies' anchored in democracy and human rights, which UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has identified as a priority on the global stage.

It is also about how democracies can be supported so that they can respond to and address critical needs and demands of their populations in more equitable ways.

The dual challenge of open societies and more inclusive development

Democracies are by no means the only political systems that can fulfil core state functions and provide services – and there is nothing intrinsic about democracy that automatically makes it more effective in this respect.

But if democracy is to prove resilient over time, it has to deliver.

This puts democracies under particular strain. There are tremendous expectations about what democratic systems can and should achieve in terms of ensuring well-being and a fair and equitable distribution of benefits across different groups in society that may well have competing interests and demands. 

As we know from history, fostering more open societies and more inclusive development together is an extraordinarily complex challenge. The process is bound to be messy and contested – and it will often involve difficult dilemmas and trade-offs.

The struggle against inequality and exclusion is illustrative. Historically, some of the greatest strides in levelling unequal power structures have been made not through democracy, but through much more perverse means, such as authoritarian coercion, mass violence and war, and pandemics.

Limitations of democracy support efforts

To date, international democracy assistance (including support to elections, civil society, parliaments, political parties, etc.) has remained technocratic and overly focused on formal institutions. It is often based on idealised blueprints of change that have little anchoring in how things work on the ground.

Donors have also not paid sufficient attention to how efforts to foster more open societies may interact with and impact other important governance dynamics, particularly state capacity, which is so essential for democracy to deliver. They have instead too easily assumed that these 'good things' go together seamlessly.

Thinking and Working Politically

As Sam Sharp has also highlighted, democracy support needs to be politically smart if it is to be effective. This kind of approach — Thinking and Working Politically (PDF) — entails among other things:

1. Recognising that supporting democracy and supporting democracies that deliver is not one and the same thing

Both are essential though, and that is precisely where the challenge lies. Much current thinking within the international development community assumes that processes to promote open societies take place on the foundations of fully capable states.But many democracies across the developing world are also attempting to build functioning states to begin with.

So there is a need to work on these simultaneously, by for instance supporting electoral processes or civil society mobilisation, but also the capacity of the state to provide core functions like equal access to education and health. This is the kind of approach of initatives like the FCDO-funded Partnership to Engage, Reform, and Learn (PERL).

The focus here should be on gradual rather than sequenced approaches to change, while recognising that there will always be tensions and trade-offs.

2. Designing interventions tailored to contextual realities

Interventions should be tailored on the basis of analysis that can help to identify locally-driven pressures for greater openness and inclusion, as well as barriers to reform, throughout the life of a project or programme. The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy’s Dialogue for Stability (DfS) programme is a compelling example of this at work.

3. Working in ways that enable adaptation and learning

This includes testing prevailing assumptions of how change happens and adapting accordingly, while remaining mindful of unintended consequences.

4. Thinking about results differently

This means focusing not simply on results that are quickly achieved and easily quantifiable (e.g. number of workshops or trainings held), but also on essential and less tangible process-oriented measures of progress (e.g. trust and relationship building). It also calls for greater reflection about how pressures to deliver results (e.g. through payment by results modalities) may impact more flexible and adaptive ways of working.

5. Developing greater risk tolerance

This includes experimenting with new approaches, even when it is unclear whether they will bear fruit; as well as providing appropriate backing and incentives to staff and implementing partners. The DfS pgroamme again provides a good example. With no guarantee of success, the programme invested in a multi-year effort to create and preserve a political space for dialogue in Burundi, which, by 2019, proved one of the few — if not the only — remaining platform for engagement across political parties.

The need for leadership from the FCDO on TWP

Over the past two decades, the UK government has been at the forefront of efforts to think and work politically. However, despite considerable progress on the thinking side, especially in terms of more fine-grained context analysis, working differently remains a challenge that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will need to address.

Fostering an environment that enables both donors and partners to work in ways that are flexible and adaptive, place learning at the centre, and embrace risk and uncertainty is critical. This is precisely what the FCDO (and formerly the Department for International Development) has sought to do through initiatives like LearnAdapt.

Yet, organisational incentives inherent in, for example, procurement systems, or pressures to disburse funds, show quick results or demonstrate value for money, are often not fully aligned with TWP principles, and these have proven quite difficult to overcome.

The TWP approach is also resource-intensive. It requires skilled and committed staff, capacity, autonomy and time. Yet, as the recently announced cuts in the UK foreign aid budget help to highlight, the domestic environment within the UK has not always been conducive to this kind of investment.

If the UK government is to remain a global leader on this agenda, it must provide the vision, leadership and resourcing required to support democracies to actually deliver. The future of open societies depends on it.