Promoting democracy in developing countries: a futile effort?

Article, 11.05.2017

An event on the topic of ‘Promoting Democracy in Developing Countries: an Exercise in Futility?’ was held at the University of Zurich on 11 May 2017 as part of the FDFA’s Democracy without Borders initiative launched by Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter. The event, organised together with NCCR Democracy, sparked much interest. A talk by Ambassador Thomas Greminger was followed by a discussion with panellists from the academic community, NGOs and think tanks.

Prof. Daniel Kübler and Ambassador Thomas Greminger talking with two panellists in the auditorium.
Daniel Kübler and Thomas Greminger in conversation with panellists Tina Freyburg (l.) and Julia Leininger. © SDC

No ready-made blueprints

In his talk, Ambassador Thomas Greminger explained how and why Switzerland works to promote democracy.

Switzerland not only has a constitutional mandate to promote democracy, said Ambassador Greminger, but also considers the intrinsic value of democracy to be of paramount importance. People ought to have the right to govern themselves and to take part in making decisions that affect them. Western countries – including Switzerland – cannot promote democracy on the basis of ready-made blueprints. On the contrary, tailor-made solutions must be found to develop democratic institutions based on each country’s particular context. 

In the wake of the Arab Spring, for example, Switzerland supported Tunisia by setting up an electoral infrastructure and by professionalising local radio stations to improve their programming. Promising trends can be seen in these areas in particular, noted Ambassador Greminger. A decisive factor in successful efforts to promote democracy is the political will, either on the part of the government or among the citizenry, to make democracy work. 

“Regime change is not the goal” 

Asked by the panel moderator what Swiss taxpayers can expect to get in return for their government’s efforts to promote democracy abroad, Greminger said:  “We are convinced that democracy produces sustainable development results.” Dr Felix Knüpling of the international governance organisation Forum of Federations stressed that in practice, this requires a long-term and substantial commitment. Prof. Tina Freyburg of the University of St Gallen pointed out that regime change is not the goal. Instead, support is provided to countries that are already in a democratic transformation process. 

No guarantee of success for democratisation efforts 

The audience listened with rapt attention to the talk and panel discussion, and followed up with a number of interesting questions, among other topics about the reasons for the decline of democracy in Turkey. Secular states that banish religion from the public sphere are particularly vulnerable to autocratic recidivism, said Dr Julia Leininger of the German Development Institute. Measures to promote democracy essentially come with no guarantee of success. 

Challenges for democracy in the 21st century 

The event, which marked the conclusion of the NCCR Democracy research programme, was one of a series of lectures on the topic of ‘Globalisation, Mediatisation and Populism: Challenges for Democracy in the 21st Century’. The aim of this lecture cycle is to spark off a well-informed and broad-based public discussion on the challenges posed to democracy by globalisation, mediatisation and populism.