The crisis of democracy may result in turbulent times, which is why democracy must be defended more strongly than before

According to Senior Adviser on Development Policy Johanna Jokinen-Gavidia, democratic systems do not hold together by themselves. Talking about the promotion of democracy is not enough. Three questions about development cooperation is a series of interviews with specialists from the Department for Development Policy.

Johanna Jokinen-Gavidia.
Photo: Tanja Rajamäki

1. Why do you want to promote democracy development?

I believe that societies where every individual can influence decisions concerning their own life are better places to live. A democratic society is the privilege of few. Therefore we “few” must roll up our sleeves and act on behalf of a world where every voice is valuable.

For me, democracy is not only a question about development. I consider it as a global theme that connects development policy to the hard core of foreign policy. Promoting democracy is far from anything trivial, it is important work for which there is high demand.

Having worked in war zones and elsewhere in the field, I’ve learned to be fairly realistic when it comes to the best timing to defend democracy.  There are countries that will probably never see democracy – however, this doesn’t mean that they wouldn't develop fairly democratic decision-making processes.  Democracy development rarely follows a similar pattern experienced by Finland but, because of our own history, we can be strong proponents of democracy.

Finland’s foreign policy underlines the importance of peace and the prevention of conflicts. The most cost-effective way to prevent conflicts is to strengthen democracy and good governance when there is not yet a conflict at hand.

Democracy development forms the foundation of other foreign and development policy objectives. Some of our partner countries in the developing world are governed by authoritarian leaders, and I find it hard to believe that we could train a well-educated youth, strengthen opposition or defend women’s right of participation in such operational environments.

2. What accomplishment in the promotion of education has made you happy? What discourages you?

Maybe the most powerful experiences of success are from the media world in Afghanistan, where both female and male reporters put their lives at risk for a greater freedom in the communication of information. Finland has participated in the provision of training for female journalists in Afghanistan.

We all could learn from the shura (consultation) models used in the Middle East and from tribal traditions upheld in African communities, where decisions are often made closer to the individuals concerned than in any institutional model of the strong democracies. If we want to operate not only in Europe but also elsewhere, it is essential to understand that results cannot be reached overnight. We need long-term commitments and presence but also awareness and appreciation of the fact that we can make use of traditional practices that include democratic elements.

I feel disappointed when I see people who are pessimistic and expect quick fixes. Democratisation is a process that can take decades. When I was deputy head of mission at our Embassy in Kabul, two elections were held in Afghanistan. They were far from perfect but international media declared the election results a failure even before people had gone to the ballot box.

Anyone with even scant knowledge of Afghanistan knows that change is slow and sometimes seems like an eternity but, contrary to common belief, the country has not fallen into the abyss.  This applies to almost all fragile states.

In the past few years, democracy has been in decline, and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this trend. However, luckily enough, it seems that strong democracies have managed to respond to the pandemic well.  On the other hand, the crisis of democracy has crept into Europe and such developed countries and the United States.

It is alarming that also in Finland there are people who don’t expect responsible citizen engagement but orders from the Government. We have seen this during the pandemic situation. 

3. What would you like to say to those who think that democracy is not for all societies?

This is a question I’ve rarely heard. What I often hear, though, is that economic wellbeing doesn’t require democracy, and it is true that examples of this exist. But how sustainable are societies where people have very limited opportunities, if any, to influence decisions concerning themselves?

I believe in ‘homo universalis’, which is why I assume that we all are willing to have a say in our own lives. In developing countries, it is true that people's basic needs must be addressed first; a hungry person does not think about influencing.

People have the right to criticise military interventions used as a means to restore democracy. A forced and rapidly adopted model of democracy in which elections are organised without delay and voting is compulsory, wouldn’t obviously work. Therefore, we have a vast array of different means to strengthen the road to democracy.

In my opinion, the key elements consist of safeguarding the space for civil society, supporting free media, and introducing a new democracy combined with the rule of law instrument. At the heart of this is Demo Finland, a cooperative organisation of all the parliamentary parties of Finland.

I have found that civil society organisations and civic activism are the most significant promoters of democracy in both Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and many African countries, not to speak about countries in Latin America. The most important work for democracy is done near people.