What do you mean when you say democracy?

By democracy we mean a political system that protects the inalienable freedoms and the human rights of its citizens; where regular free and fair elections are the way to elect citizens representatives and the government; where transparency and social accountability play a major role in the way institutions respond to citizens demands; where the rule of law and the separation of powers enshrine the principle of limited government and counterbalance abuses of power; and where participation and civic engagement are a fundamental element of daily governance and decision-making.

Having said this however, there is not a unique model of democracy in the world. The way the elements of democracy are arranged, varies in time and space, in response to the specific social and political contexts in which these democratic principles are developed. It exists as a result of a historic path but also as a result of the different visions of society according to local cultural and social values.

By the same token, it can be said that democracies are in constant flux, in a permanent process of redefinition and change. It is precisely, in the dialectic relationship between universal values and local diversity, in the contradictions between the ideals and the practice of governance that democracies must find the drive to reinvigorate their social and political institutions so that they can respond effectively to (old and new) social and economic challenges.

Shouldn’t democratic change be left entirely to the people of the respective country?

Yes and no. Local ownership is the decisive factor for the success of democratic reforms. However, as Vaclav Havel, Former President of the Czech Republic and one of the key figures of the democratic dissidence against the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia once said: “from my own experience, I know how enormously important it is for those who in one way or another are fighting for human rights or against authoritarian regimes to receive assistance from the democratic world. This is not just about material aid, although that is certainly also important, but assistance of an intellectual nature and the exchange of experiences as well as subsequent political and media support”.

Citizens and the domestic political and social actors must be the drivers of democratic change for democracy to prosper. However, the path to democratisation is far from straightforward. Instead, it is a difficult process full of setbacks and complex political and social tradeoffs, where institutional and political reforms interact with a changing social and economic environment and where rapid change can come to a sudden halt or inspiring reforms can be drastically reversed if not supported by domestic actors.

The international community can be an important partner in supporting democratic change by aligning their supporting measures to locally driven agendas, through:

  • supporting domestic actors and enhancing their capacity to operate their reforms plans;
  • facilitating access to knowledge and international best practice;
  • offering incentives that can contribute to consensus building and advancing the legitimacy of new institutions;
  • increasing the consistency between our actions in the international realm and the morals we, and those who fight for democracy, espouse.

What does democracy support look like in practice?

Democracy support is implemented through a wide range of instruments and covers an equally wide range of issues. For example:

    • party to party cooperation has been conducive to the capacity of political parties in new democracies to accomplish their constitutional duties;
    • support for parliaments has proven an important element in strengthening accountability and representation of interests;
    • support for multiparty dialogue has resulted in consensual reform agendas and greater sustainability of reform processes;
    • support for civil society organisations and capacity development has furthered CSOs’ role as partners for governance, but also as a fundamental driver for political and policy change and the defence of fundamental rights and civil liberties;
    • support for professional media and journalists has contributed to enhancing public accountability in restricted environments and to connecting and empowering the voices of those fighting for Human Rights and civil liberties;
    • institutional support and capacity development has improved the capacity of domestic institutions to deliver public goods;
    • electoral support and electoral observation has contributed to the credibility and transparency of the electoral processes in young democracies;
    • international and diplomatic dialogue has in many cases encouraged key political and institutional changes.

Thus, while we can agree that the toolbox of democracy support is diverse, making the best use of it so as to support a lasting and responsive relationship between public institutions and society remains an open question.

This challenge is very much at the core of EPD’s mandate. Our approach is rooted in the need for fostering greater complementarity and dialogue between different stakeholders in Europe and elsewhere as well as in a clear understanding of the need for increasing the alignment of the efforts of all the European actors to domestically owned political processes.

What does an EPD project look like?

Much of the EPD’s work on the ground is based on the idea of complementarity and added value. The EPD project cycle starts with the identification of the countries where EPD intends to work. There are multiple factors influencing this decision, for example: a new political window of opportunity; pre-existing ties with local actors; the demands of domestic actors and local organisations; or the demand from donors and international bodies. The EPD Board of Directors has established a series of criteria for the selection of countries and areas of intervention.

Once a country has been selected, the next stage is an assessment of potential avenues for an EPD interventionWhereas much of EPD work has concentrated in supporting domestic Civil Society Organisations in transitional contexts, this kind of support can take many different shapes depending on the political and the institutional context of the country, the nature of the political processes at stake, the capacity of local actors, their expressed needs and demands and the work of donors and stakeholders operating on the ground. In order to gain a deeper background on these questions, EPD conduct consultations with CSOs in the selected country, international donors and stakeholders both on the ground and at the Head Quarters level as well as experts and associated organisations from the EPD network.

A typical EPD intervention is a multilayered process. The first layer consists of channeling the support of international donors towards local civil society organisations in difficult contexts. In all the countries where EPD is currently operating, EPD has acted at an arms-length distance from international donors enabling the interactions between them and domestic actors in complex political and institutional settings that had impeded more direct interactions.

Secondly, an EPD action usually includes a component of capacity development for local organisations. For example, in the case of our work in Armenia EPD has supported the work of the NGO Centre in developing effective advocacy strategies for NGOS vis-à-vis local governments in various regions outside Yerevan. In Burma EPD was supporting local partners in capacity development for Human Rights and Democracy activists.

A third element of an EPD intervention is knowledge sharing and peer-to-peer exchanges of good practice. For example in the cases of Moldova and Armenia EPD has facilitated contacts with Civil Society Organisations in Central Eastern Europe and the Post Soviet Region and stimulated peer-to-peer learning and cooperation.

Last but not least, an EPD intervention includes a strong component of dissemination and advocacy in Brussels and other European capitals, both opening a window of opportunity for local actors to influence policy making but also channeling knowledge and experience from the ground towards the decision makers and other stakeholders in Europe.

If you want to learn more about our past and on-going operations check out the programmes tab at the top of this page.

How does EPD’s advocacy work in Brussels complement its activities on the ground?

An important part of EPD activities are oriented towards contributing to the more general stances of the policy debate in Europe. The last few years have witnessed the opening of an important debate on the role of the EU in worldwide democracy support. EPD has been involved in this debate as a proactive partner, working in close cooperation with the EU institutions and Member States as well as with other stakeholders and organisations. EPD aims to channel theory and practice from various EU Member States and thereby contribute to debate in Brussels, participating in various forums and platforms, as well as organising conferences and knowledge-sharing events.

Why is it important to support democracy?

It is not our belief that Democracy is perfect, but it is certainly preferable to autocratic rule. It promotes equality and transparency as well as allowing for change and renewal without violence.

A responsive democracy is crucial to the way a society and its individuals can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms. As stated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights, democracy is a universal value since democratic systems open the possibility for people to shape their lives according to their own aspirations and opportunities and ensure that they can develop their own political, economic, social and cultural systems.

Development co-operation and humanitarian assistance remain essential in a world that has not been able to put an end to the most excruciating forms of poverty, deprivation and inequality. Nevertheless, pouring money into such endeavours must be coordinated with support for good governance, transparency and accountability. Without recognising the problems of corruption and power imbalances, aid is swimming against the tide. Citizens must take an active part in shaping the development of their communities and the institutions responsible for delivering public goods. Democracy represents the best way we know of doing this.