The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.
News and Views
Commentary from experts on the directions and challenges of democracy assistance programs.
|November 18, 2012||
Evgeny Morozov’s op-ed piece in the New York Times argues that though Silicon Valley touts itself as a “bastion of openness and counterculture,” this digital culture imposes “outdated norms” with its one-dimensional algorithms “that automatically determine the limits of what is culturally acceptable.” Silicon Valley is, in an almost imperceptible way, shaping social norms through algorithms that censor and influence things like online users’ search terms and even the content that they post.
Morozov says that “algorithmic gatekeeping is exacting a high toll on our public life,” but because “many of these gatekeepers remain invisible,” oversight is difficult to implement. He cites an example of a Silicon Valley company that helps other websites identify “‘harmful content’” and police reader comments in real time. However, Morozov points out that there is no oversight in how this company censors reader comments. These gatekeepers might not even realize the effect they have, if they are simply “eager to deploy algorithms for fun and profit.”
Silicon Valley should share its proprietary algorithms with outside auditors, says Morozov, to monitor the “design, development and modifications” of algorithms that define searches and influence cultural norms.
“Obviously, Silicon Valley won’t develop or embrace similar norms overnight. However, instead of accepting this new reality as a fait accompli, we must ensure that, in pursuing greater profits, our new algorithmic gatekeepers are forced to accept the idea that their culture-defining function comes with great responsibility.”Read More
|November 15, 2012||
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, secretary of energy and governor of New Mexico, and Mickey Bergman, senior advisor to the Richardson Center for Global Engagement and executive director of the Aspen Institute Global Alliances Program, reflect on the opportunity for democratic reform in Burma. With opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in public office, and President Thein Sein ushering in new political and economic reforms, many U.S. sanctions have been suspended, and the time seems ripe for a successful democratic transition in the country.
However, Richardson and Bergman write that “the jury is still out on whether the reform effort will succeed,” noting that “this is not a revolution like we’ve seen in Middle East countries during the last two years. This is a calculated and contained process — a reform movement from within.”
They note that, among other aspects—such as helping the government learn basic standards and procedures for good governance, and making sure that the country’s people feel the full “benefits of democracy and reform”—“full engagement and investment from abroad” will have a large impact on whether a democratic transition is successful.
Richardson and Bergman point out that if “the Chinese outflank U.S. interests,” economic opportunities as well as influence on Burma’s democratization progress could be lost.
“There is much to be said about America’s ability to demonstrate to other countries currently under U.S. sanctions, such as North Korea, what the benefits of reform and collaboration can look like. We can make Myanmar the positive case.”Read More
|November 10, 2012||
Though men have dominated the Arab Spring countries, women are increasingly asserting themselves in political life. Mabrouka M’barek, for example, is a 32-year-old mother who was recently elected to the National Constituent Assembly in Tunisia, and is helping to write the country’s constitution. Male leaders in some countries have acknowledged the need for more women’s representation, and countries like Tunisia and Libya have elected an increasing number of women as members of parliament. However, women have still been “been excluded from much of the serious decision-making.”
“Still, the Arab Spring has allowed Muslim girls and women to dream big dreams. But enshrining rights in a constitution and making sure they are carried out are big challenges.”Read More
|November 7, 2012||
Melissa Block, host of NPR’s All Things Considered, reflected on President Obama’s description of America’s democracy in his acceptance speech, in which he said “democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated.” These words reminded Block of E.B. White’s 1943 editorial for the New Yorker in which he responded to a letter from the Writer's War Board, "a domestic propaganda machine during World War II.”
In his editorial, E.B. White summarized democracy as, “the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of the morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”Read More
|November 5, 2012||
The Washington Post editorial board considers the future of China under its two newest leaders—Xi Jinping, who was installed as the general secretary of the Communist Party, and Li Keqiang, his new deputy. Their plans for the country are unknown, as is the reason they were appointed by the Communist Party. However, they will inherit a political system that is “under growing pressure.”
Leaders within the Communist Party, as well as the country’s growing middle class population, “consider the status quo unsustainable.” With protests occurring on a daily basis, and government censorship struggling to control expression on the Internet, the new leaders have an opportunity to “modernize the system,” though reformers agree that they can’t “expect the country to become a democracy overnight.”
While Mr. Xi has not given an indication of how he plans to lead, speculation of his political leanings persists. “Either way, the next decade in China will be more turbulent and unpredictable than the last,” but the U.S. will “have an opportunity to nudge Mr. Xi in the direction of democratic change.”Read More
|November 2, 2012||
Steven Fish and Katherine E. Michel contend that despite some challenges, “Tunisia has made remarkable progress toward democracy.” Results from their empirical study indicated that “Tunisia's decision to create a system with a strong parliament and a constrained president is a recipe for robust democracy.”
Tunisians vested “formidable power” in their legislature by allowing the elected constitutional assembly to serve as the basis for establishing a new government and creating a parliamentary system. By focusing on institution building, rather than “on a strong wise ruler,” Tunisians are making a far sighted decision to tackle “the problem of overweening executive power head-on.”
In their study, Fish and Michel investigated “the effect of the power of the legislature vis-à-vis the executive on the fate of democratization around the world.” The study focused on two questions for each country. First, is the legislature free of executive appointees? And second, does the legislature alone make laws, or can the executive also make laws?
The results showed that “creating an all-elected legislature that will not have to share lawmaking power with the president transforms the picture,” and increases prospects for a full, “free” democracy. The drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution “indicates strongly that Tunisia is on track to adopt precisely such a strong-parliament model,” where “an all-elected legislature will not have to share lawmaking power.” Tunisia is “uprooting dictatorship, not merely expelling the dictator.”
Fish and Michel conclude that “the rules that define the power of the legislature are of greatest significance.” During the “routine business of constitution-writing,” the Arab world must create “vigorous representative assemblies, rather than indulge the temptation to seek salvation in dominant executives….”Read More
|November 1, 2012||
This Associated Press article describes the mission of the Info Ladies Project, which provides “tens of thousands of people — especially women” with laptops and Internet connections to help citizens “get everything from government services to chats with distant loved ones.”
This project, “created in 2008 by local development group D.Net and other community organizations,” recruits and trains women on how to use computers, the Internet, printers and cameras. Once trained, these women bike into remote villages and provide Internet connections, laptops and “a slew of social services” to locals.
Apart from technology access, the Info Ladies lead community discussions about a range of relevant issues including best agrarian practices and public health issues, like contraception and HIV/AIDS prevention. Ananya Raihan, D.Net’s executive director, remarks “‘the Info Ladies are both entrepreneurs and public service providers.’”
“In July, Bangladesh’s central bank agreed to offer interest-free loans to Info Ladies.” Sathi Akhtar, an Info Lady who works in Begum’s and Dipa’s villages, notes that she earns more money than she would as a school teacher. Reflecting on her work, she noted “‘we are not only earning money, we are also contributing in empowering our women with information. That makes us happy.’”Read More
|October 25, 2012||
Billionaire political novice Bidzina Ivanishvili became Georgia's prime minister on Oct. 25 after a bitter national election “relegated President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party to the minority.” During a meeting with lawmakers in Kutaisi’s brand new parliament building, Ivanisvhili asserted that “‘our team's priority is the aspiration to join the European Union, Euroatlantic orientation and integration into NATO.’’’
Ivanishvili also said he will initiate dialogue with Russia and would also try reviving commerce with them while expanding trade with the West. The prime minister’s internal priorities “include backing for small and medium-sized business and development of agriculture.” Ivanisvhilli also “promised to relax government control of business, eliminate monopolies and make benefits fairer.”
While Saakashvili’s United National Movement quickly accepted defeat during the elections and allowed for a peaceful transfer of power, “he and Ivanishvili face months of uneasy cohabitation before the 2013 presidential vote, for which no date has been set.”Read More
|October 23, 2012||
On October 19, Egyptian protestors “took to the streets” for what many believe is “the first specifically anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration.” The protestors had many grievances including “the performance of the current government, the ‘brotherhoodizaton’ of state institutions,” and a draft constitution with heavy “Islamic references.” Mostly, the demonstration was in response to the Brotherhood’s previous attempt to “foil a secularist demonstration against President Mohamed Morsi’s policies.”
While President Morsi and the Brotherhood “are still trying to figure out how to be in power,” Friday’s protest “consecrated the group as the new regime and the secularists as the new opposition.” The secularists do not have a “common strategy.” They differ on both economic and foreign policy, particularly on relations with the U.S. and the question of “reach[ing] out to members of the Mubarak regime.” The secularist opposition is “united in only one thing: their hatred of the Brotherhood.”
“One key question that will be worked out over the next year is what kind of opposition these and other parties intend to be.” They will have to determine whether they will “negotiate,” or boycott the Brotherhood, or, even, as some hope for, “a deus ex machina that will topple it.”
Egypt’s future and “its stability, is not just a matter of how the Brotherhood governs. It is also a matter of how the opposition opposes it.”Read More
|October 22, 2012||
In early October, 200 men and women from around the world joined in Pristina, Kosovo to take part in the International Women’s Summit—Partnership for Change: Empowering Women—hosted by Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga, with support from USAID and assistance from NDI. Government officials, business women, civil society leaders and media representatives, among others, participated in two days of dialogue that resulted in the Pristina Principles—a set of concrete suggestions to address barriers to women’s empowerment around the globe. “The caliber, talent, and enthusiasm that the event attracted are a testament to the importance of gender equality and empowerment.”
President Jahjaga, and former U.S. Secretary of State and NDI Chairman Madeleine Albright both participated in the event.Read More