Amidst a once-in-a-generation pandemic, another global threat has intensified and permeated across borders and boundaries: one of sustaining a liberal world order against illiberal influences. This trend is evidenced by consecutive years of decline in global freedom. According to Varieties of Democracy, a majority of the world’s population is ruled by autocratic governments. Freedom House’s annual report found that democratic conditions deteriorated in 60 countries during the course of 2021.
Incidents of transnational influence or outright aggression by illiberal actors have increased in scope and frequency. They span a broad spectrum of actions ranging from opaque debt in Zambia; disinformation campaigns intended to undermine Taiwan’s general elections and pandemic response; the diversion of an international flight to imprison a Belarussian dissident; and Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of a sovereign and democratic Ukraine. According to data by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an estimated 6.5 million Ukrainian people are now internally displaced, mostly women and children – the human faces of the battle between democracy and autocracy.
Against this high stakes backdrop, trust in democratic institutions is declining, fueling even more democratic backsliding. People do not have confidence that government can address their concerns inclusively or credibly. Transparency, however, is emerging as one of the most potent tools for combating the threat to democratic principles and fundamental freedoms. An open government approach with legislatures, and engagement with civil society organizations, is imperative to building a more accountable, participatory, and inclusive form of governance.
On March 17, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) convened a virtual discussion on leveraging transparency to counter foreign illiberal influence and the role of legislatures as part of the AGORA Parliamentary Development Community of Practice. Participants from more than 25 countries engaged in conversations focused on information operations, opaque debt and malign foreign funding of political parties.
During the expert-led plenary session, Jessica Brandt, Policy Director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution, referenced the efforts of illiberal powers to drive polarization and distrust in democratic systems. They are investing in propaganda networks to cast democratic systems as “weak” and “ineffective” with the goal of maintaining power at home. Brandt noted it is important for legislatures to make transparency and accountability the norm when regulating social media platforms in contrast to the authoritarian approach rooted in censorship and surveillance. Bradley Murg, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of International Relations at Paragon International University, highlighted that shifts in the lending landscape have impacted debt renegotiation prospects, including the collateralization of strategic reserves. Murg argued that legislatures need to take proactive steps and make the full scope of a country’s debt transparent for lenders in order to avoid illiberal actors’ debt traps. Joshua Ruldolph, Senior Policy Fellow on the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Anti-Corruption Task Force, addressed the overlap between foreign political financing and corruption, which can undermine the integrity of elections, reinforce power imbalances and increase barriers for women and marginalized groups to participate in political processes. Ruldolph stressed the role of legislatures in promoting transparency mechanisms such as: campaign finance rules, assets disclosures and government oversight.
Participants raised the following themes in a series of breakout sessions:
- Legislature should reinforce and develop legal frameworks to protect independent media, freedom of speech and freedom of expression – all integral to an open and reliable information space. It is also important to fact-check to counter disinformation narratives and strengthen digital literacy skills.
- Citizen engagement is critical to a more transparent government. Government officials should also increase public knowledge of a country’s financial status and fiscal policy through coordinated social media campaigns.
- Legislatures that are working with diverse activists, civil society and media to expose foreign financing and raise awareness of such cases can positively contribute to mitigating corruption.
In May, OGP will dedicate a week to open government initiatives – bringing together international leaders, civil society and democracy defenders to collaborate on reforms in response to citizens’ needs. In a few months, NDI and OGP will publish solutions-oriented policy briefs on the three central themes from the March event.
The rise in autocratization is undoubtedly a concerning trend; however, workshop participants representing legislatures, government, academia, civil society and civic technology reaffirmed their commitment to transparency in the defense of core democratic values and institutions. Addressing the imperfections of democracy is a perpetual work in progress. As former Secretary of State and NDI’s Board Chair Madeleine Albright once said on the coming democratic revival, “it is easier to move upward from a valley than from a peak.”
NDI's engagement on democratic governance is implemented with support from the National Endowment for Democracy.
Author: DoYun Kim, Program Officer, Democratic Governance
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.