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Democratic development in turbulent times

March 14, 2019

Arjan de Haan

Director, Inclusive Economies, IDRC

Poverty, food insecurity, and conflict pose significant challenges to democracy by eroding the social and economic foundations upon which open and just societies can flourish. In recent years, these factors have contributed to the rise of populist movements and produced unprecedented numbers of refugees, both of which threaten to erode democratic institutions in the developing world. Events in Venezuela, Syria, and Myanmar, to name just a few countries, seem to place the very concept of democracy under attack and call for decided action to protect it.

IDRC has a long history of supporting projects and research to address the inequalities that hold back democracy and to mitigate factors that can destabilize fragile states. We believe that positive change can be sustained by helping researchers and policymakers address the barriers to democracy specific to their own countries. In a recent testimony I delivered to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, I emphasized the importance of efforts that fill knowledge gaps and make effective solutions possible.

Battling fake news to safeguard democratic processes

One example is the initiative we support to ensure access to reliable public information. Fake news and misinformation are alarmingly commonplace, while reliable, objective information can be frustratingly difficult to find. Rumours and falsehoods prevent people from making informed decisions; they stoke hostilities, generate suspicion and, at their worst, cause violence and conflict.

In southeastern Kenya in 2012, false rumours and exaggerations about clashes or imminent attacks fueled violent conflicts between two ethnic groups. As many as 170 people were killed and 40,000 were displaced. The following year, IDRC teamed up with The Sentinel Project, a Toronto-based non-governmental organization, to determine how rumours were spread. The lack of reliable information in the region and the amplification of misinformation were primarily to blame.

Based on the findings, the project launched a mobile phone app called Una Hakika to help restore peace. When a rumour makes the rounds, app subscribers can report it to the service for verification. Community volunteers and the local police investigate the rumour and report back via text message, voice calls, and Facebook. 

Within two years an estimated 45,000 people in 17 villages regularly used the free daily service. Word spread and, in 2017, Una Hakika’s services were credited with helping to reduce tensions during Kenya’s general and presidential elections. The service has now reached an additional 250,000 people in the country.

Based on this success, our partners are adapting the service in Myanmar—where a sister project, Peaceful Truth, is dispelling anti-Muslim rumours—and in seven additional countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Stability for vulnerable states with large refugee populations

Stability is another key building block for democracy, but it is difficult to achieve when dealing with a mass influx of refugees. Globally, 25 million people have had to flee their countries to escape hardship and persecution, and 85% are hosted in developing countries that have limited capacity to support and integrate them.

The social and economic burden is heavy and the citizens of host countries often perceive the new arrivals as a threat to their well-being. This stokes tensions and can breed populist movements that threaten to destabilize countries and entire regions.

In Lebanon, where one in six people is a refugee, IDRC is supporting research to understand how best to make use of precious limited resources. Services like healthcare, for example, are already stretched thin, and without quality health data it is difficult to accurately assess needs and provide appropriate services for different populations. The findings are helping to put in place the necessary skills and processes to identify where resources are needed most and how to use them efficiently, effectively, and equitably.

The result will be to ease Lebanon’s healthcare burden, improve care and services for refugees and host communities alike, and keep the country’s democracy healthy as it comes to the aid of its neighbours.

Enabling democratic transition through policy research

Over the course of its near 50-year history, IDRC has collaborated with researchers and policymakers to support democratic transitions in countries like South Africa, Chile, and Vietnam.

In Myanmar today, we are working on a five-year initiative in partnership with Global Affairs Canada. The goal is to support evidence-based decision-making after decades of underinvestment in research and higher education. Through a program of training and mentoring for aspiring leaders, support for independent think tanks, and research grants, we are nurturing a new generation of state and non-state actors who can produce sound policy-relevant knowledge. These actors will engage in open public debate and include the voices of women and other vulnerable groups. With these building blocks in place, a solid foundation for democratic development can be established.

The time is right for a renewed emphasis on democratic development and to renew our long-term commitment. Our experience shows that when we equip local researchers and policymakers with the necessary knowledge and tools, they can generate the evidence needed to build prosperous and democratic societies that can usher in new eras of hope and change.

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