No democracy without diversity | Heba El-Kholy

19 Sep 2013

 Libyan women proudly show their inked fingers after voting in the general national congress elections on 7 July 2012. Photo @ Samia Mahgoub / UNDP

Some say history repeats itself. In 2004, UNDP issued what I believe is one of the best of its global Human Development Reports, Managing Cultural Diversity. The report argued that managing cultural diversity is one of the central challenges of our time and that policy choices about recognizing diverse ethnicities, religions, languages and values “are an inescapable feature of the landscape of politics in the 21st century.”

But we still need to debunk powerful myths, including the one that some cultures have inherent democratic values and are more likely to make progress than others.

In 2004, as now, the UNDP HDR report showed there was no evidence to support the trade-off between accommodating certain cultures and promoting democracy. Yet sadly, many people still believe this, arguing that the “Arab Spring” is freezing into an “Islamic winter.”

Over the years, I have seen that democracy cannot exist without diversity. My work with civil society and with the UN has convinced me that addressing diversity in its broadest sense remains one of the core challenges of the democracy and development agenda. This is one lesson from the wave of revolutions in the Arab region that took the world by surprise, toppling authoritarian regimes that had ruled for decades.

I believe that the success of these protests is first and foremost because of their diversity of voices—young and old, men and women, villagers and urban dwellers, poor and rich, Muslims and Christians, Shias and Sunnis, atheists and non-believers.

In fact, the setbacks we see in many countries in the region today are partly because diversity has taken a backseat under new governments. Instead of pursuing true dialogue, unwelcome voices are excluded and demonised. Women, youth and representatives of workers, minorities and grassroots movements are pushed aside.

Inclusive participation requires explicit policies and mechanisms to ensure diverse voices and identities are integrated in political processes and policies. These voices also need to be respected and heard by other groups in society. Policies to ensure both are necessary, such as those supporting legal pluralism; quotas for political participation; and power-sharing arrangements.

On this year’s theme for Democracy Day, Strengthening Voices for Democracy, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that “the ability of people to raise their voices and decide how they are governed lies at the heart of democracy.”

Through the UN’s worldwide MyWorld survey, more than 1 million people expressed the need for accountable, transparent and effective governance as a key priority of the world they want. We need to ensure that peoples’ voices are reflected in policies and decision-making if we are to have true democracy.

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