Organisations that try to measure the quality of democracy tell us it has declined consistently for around 20 years. From blatantly manipulated elections in countries like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe to human rights abuses in eSwatini and Uganda and military coups in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali, Niger and Sudan, democratic institutions are being undermined while the authoritarian rule is being strengthened.
The effect of these trends has been dramatic regarding the constraints on civil society and the media. Three of Africa’s most respected journalists and pro-democracy activists were killed in just three days in January. The number of countries that have passed ‘anti-NGO’ legislation constraining civil society continues to grow, while autocratic leaders – from countries like Russia to former beacons of democracy such as India – are entrenching their hold on power.
This matters for all of us, not just those living in repressive states. As they become emboldened at home, authoritarian leaders are networking across borders to support their counterparts in other countries, pushing back against democratic standards.
When the new military junta in Niger was worried about possible military intervention from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore democracy, it signed a mutual security pact with the military regimes in Burkina Faso and Mali.
The challenge that this rising authoritarian order presents to democratic states is clear. Extrapolating from data from the Democracy Index, by 2033, less than 5% of all people could be living in full democracies, entrenching authoritarian norms across the globe – and creating new allies, opportunities and funding streams for autocrats everywhere.
The figures are even starker in sub-Saharan Africa, where only Mauritius currently counts as a full democracy according to the Economist’s Democracy Index.
What are democratic governments doing in response? A new report, ‘How (not) to engage with authoritarian states’, finds that democracies fail to step up and, in some cases, actively contribute to current trends. Moreover, many democracies are undermining their influence by not having a concerted strategy to promote democratic resilience and engaging with authoritarian governments in ways that strengthen their hold on power.
A new approach is needed – and it’s needed now.
What is the problem?
There is growing evidence that democracies both in the West and in regions such as Africa lack a coherent approach to reversing the trend towards authoritarianism.
According to an OECD report covering most of the 2010–2020 decade, there is little evidence that donors give much weight to political trends when making foreign aid decisions. Similarly, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact found that the UK “lacks a strategy to operationalise… democracy and human rights commitments”.
This lack of a clear strategy has led to six significant pitfalls in how democracies engage abroad. These include acting inconsistently and often selfishly, which leads to accusations of hypocrisy and focusing on ‘big bang’ autocratic changes such as coups.
It overlooks the gradual erosion of democracy, such as electoral manipulation and the removal of presidential term limits – something that has been the case with African regional bodies such as ECOWAS and the African Union.
This reflects a broader problem: the tendency for democratic governments to overlook how the totality of their engagement impacts the quality of democracy and human rights abroad.
Most obviously, democratic states operate based on multiple motivations, and while democracy aid has been shown to have a positive if modest effect, it is often dwarfed by financial and diplomatic investments in other – often problematic – areas.
Perhaps the classic example is when democratic considerations are sacrificed for stability, national security, or political alliances. In Pakistan, significant investments in the security forces have played a role in strengthening their position concerning democratic forces. In Africa, alliances between democratic ruling parties and their authoritarian counterparts have frequently undermined the willingness of democratic leaders to resist autocratisation in the region.
In the recently concluded general elections in Zimbabwe, for example, election observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) embarrassed the ZANU-PF government by explicitly exposing election rigging.
But rather than stand behind the report written by their team, SADC leaders quickly moved to protect ZANU-PF and its leader, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, by congratulating him on his victory.
As Innocent Batsani-Ncube has argued, one reason is that most of these ruling parties see themselves as allies due to their history as liberation movements. They have even established a formal organisation – the Former Liberation Movements in Southern Africa (FLMSA) – to support one another to retain power.
It should, therefore, come as little surprise that the leaders of the continent’s most democratic states, such as Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, were some of the first to congratulate Mnangagwa on his “victory”.
Taken together, the combination of mixed motivations and inadvertent engagement in processes that strengthen authoritarian rule means that, all too often, democratic governments do more harm than good.
A new vision
Not engaging with authoritarian states is not an option for democratic governments today. International cooperation and coordination are required to deal with many of today’s biggest challenges. But while they may not have a choice about whether to engage, democracies can choose how to engage.
This is where a new vision is urgently needed.
Democratic governments need to accurately stocktake on their impact on other countries. This includes realistically evaluating the negative impact of their routine engagement, as well as the impact of providing diplomatic and military support to repressive regimes. It also means placing ‘do no harm’ at the centre of all foreign policy engagement.
This isn’t putting democracy ahead of self-interest. Instead, democratic governments need to understand that preventing the growth of authoritarianism worldwide is in their self-interest. A more authoritarian world threatens everyone, not least because authoritarian governments are more likely to sponsor disinformation and destabilise their neighbours.
This new approach must go hand-in-hand with demonstrating the value of democracy. Democrats are at risk of losing the global argument about the best political system for ordinary citizens, even though democracies tend to achieve higher levels of economic growth and suffer lower levels of conflict. Democrats need to regain their voice and fast.
To be successful, however, this democratic vision must be very different to those presented in the past by Western powers.
This vision needs to be humbler in recognition of these countries’ democratic shortcomings, more honest in terms of recognising the mistakes of the past, and more inclusive because it will only work if it is led by more democratic countries in every region, from Argentina and Brazil through to Ghana and South Africa.
It also needs to recognise that external actors can never impose democracy – they can only help to create the conditions under which domestic democratic forces are more likely to win their struggles.
If pro-democracy governments fail to take these steps, democracy and the prospects of democratic states will be the losers.