“Int’l NGOs, Western donor agencies have a very simplistic definition of democracy, lose track of the bigger picture,” Prof. Harry Verhoeven


“All too often, reports by international NGOs and Western donor agencies have a very simplistic definition of63 democracy and lose track of the bigger picture!”

So said Dr. Harry Verhoeven, Professor of Governance Georgetown University, in an exclusive E-mail interview with this reporter on elections in general and elections in Africa in particular.

Prof. Harry said that rejecting that not all democracies will resemble the Westminster model does not mean that we should fall into the trap of thinking that some Eastern or African countries are somehow “democratic” – in all these cases, the deeper values of democracy are clearly ignored and trampled upon.

He also said that at the same time, however, it does mean that states where genuine efforts are made to develop a political model that suits local contexts and local complexities must be given the space to do so.

Furthermore, Prof. Harry said that a handful of African states have shown that poverty, unemployment and exclusion do not have to mean not making significant steps forward in the direction of becoming more complete democracies. He as well took examples like the peaceful transitions of power from incumbent to opposition leader in Ghana, Senegal and Zambia; the constructive role of the Supreme Court in South Africa which protects the extraordinary constitution of the country; or the long tradition of peaceful, orderly and fair elections in Botswana.

Tunisia and_Sierra Leone too seem to be on the right path – with vigilant citizens pressing for further openness and tolerance, he noted.

Prof. Harry noted that in too many cases, the fact that the practice of democracy cannot be universal has become an excuse for dictators and authoritarian parties to deprive people of their basic freedoms and the right to give shape to the political institutions that influence their lives.

Prof. Harry further noted: “While the values that constitute democracy are to my mind universal – openness, accountability, tolerance, empathy, respect, self-determination, no citizens can be above the law, the processes and procedures by which one concretises those values are heavily dependent on context – they can differ through time (what applies today may not have worked in 1960) and throughout space (what is suitable for India may not be very suitable for the Sudan).”

He went on to say: “The idea that there is only one type of democracy – elections within the context of a liberal – democratic framework and a free market – is illusory and even dangerous; this myth has done considerable damage, in Africa, in the Middle East and elsewhere, and is to be rejected,” he added.

Crucially, he pointed out that, trying to be a properly democratic society – an ideal all societies, no matter how “developed” according to economic indices, must continue to strive towards – rests on getting a number of balances right.

Regarding organizing elections in developing countries like in Africa, he said that they can hold elections but how free are they really if half of all voters are chronically malnourished and illiterate?

“That does not mean the hungry and illiterate cannot possibly express themselves in a politically meaningful or ‘responsible’ way; it does mean not being blind to the material factors that make whole population groups vulnerable to demagoguery and extremism,” said Prof. Harry.

Moreover, he pointed out that the challenge of democracy in Africa has remained and should remain at the forefront of major political discussions on the continent, 55 years after independence of most countries.

He as well noted that but in too many places, elections are a facade used by authoritarian leaders to actually escape the accountability that any meaningful interpretation of democracy must bring.

Prof. Harry pointed out that in too many places, the right of freedom of association and speech is curtailed in the name of national stability.

Sometimes, he underscored action does need to be undertaken, absolute freedom to say anything can be very risky, as we saw in pre-genocidal Rwanda where hate media fanned the flames of extremism in a very fragile context of democratization.

He underlined that governments and societies must be careful that this does not become a blanket excuse used by certain elites to silence the majority of the population.


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