INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE INQUIRY ON THE IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS ON DEVELOPING COUNTRIES
Evidence from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy
The TORs for the Committee’s inquiry include:
WFD is the UK’s democracy support agency. WFD was established in 1992 and has offices in 32 developing or transition countries and, in total, donor-funded programmes in about 40 countries.
The Covid-19 pandemic comes during a period when democratic freedoms have been in decline. The key points that the Committee might consider are that (i) emergency crisis measures pose threats to democratic practice, especially in countries with weak structures and where there have been existing threats to democracy, (ii) effective crisis responses and resilience depend on exactly the types of things that support for democracy addresses including transparency, accountability and equity, and (iii) interdependence means that helping others be more transparent and accountable is good for every country. Global ODA levels are likely to fall and to focus more heavily on service delivery. It will be vital to maintain investment in the institutions and skills that would underpin long-term recovery. UK support to developing countries affected by the Covid-19 pandemic should therefore include support to democratic institutions that promote transparency, accountability and equity.
The analysis in this note is based on WFD’s experience of supporting democracy in developing and transition countries, and the observations of our staff during the current pandemic.
The spread of democracy stalled even before the 2008 financial crisis and autocratisation appears to have been spreading in recent years. By some of the numerous measures, 2019 marked a milestone in which the majority (54%) of the world’s population lived in autocracies for the first time since 2001. While there are now very few outright dictatorships, there are a large number of “electoral autocracies” in which many of the elements of democracy are present but the political systems are not, in reality, democratic – elections are manipulated, press freedom is curbed, political and civil rights are restricted etc. In these countries and in more established democracies, there has been a fall in trust in political leaders and the institutions that underpin strong democratic culture are weakening. This threatens progress on SDG goals 16.6 and 16.7 in particular.
Against this background, we make three main points.
The extraordinary threat from Covid-19 has required extraordinary public health measures and, in most countries, these have fully justified the use of emergency measures. But there are multiple risks when emergency measures are used:
Those risks exist in every country – British MPs noted the need for scrutiny in relation to the UK Coronavirus Act - but in a significant number of developing or transition countries some or all of these risks have not been addressed. There is evidence from past experience that restrictions first imposed in emergency legislation, or even the emergency legislation itself, can become permanent. It is likely that those countries where political, civil or press freedoms were already being restricted, or those with weak electoral laws, will be at greatest risk. There are examples of the first four of those risks already visible around the world.
There are also risks that the public health measures will exclude certain groups either deliberately or inadvertently. In countries where there is conflict, this can exacerbate tensions. There will certainly be both short and long-term gender impacts. The rise in domestic violence during lockdowns – which appears to be near universal – is one aspect but there is also the disproportionate caring burden of women both at home and in the health system. In practice, women are providing strong leadership at community level. However, this contrasts with the generally disproportionate number of men in official decision-making positions related to the pandemic. In some countries, there have been explicit public statements by politicians about the need for women to focus on caring rather than political leadership. There is widespread concern at the likely rollback of progress on gender equality.
There is also a significant risk to progress on tackling the climate emergency. Preparation for COP26 will need extraordinary political leadership based on open political debate in developing countries. It is therefore vital to support their political systems to manage this process despite restrictions on normal democratic processes, and to consider how best the emergency financial responses to Covid-19 can take into account the possible impact on climate policy.
In every country that allows political debate on the effectiveness of government responses to the pandemic, there has been reference to the importance of transparency, accountability and equity. These issues are all important if a country is to manage a crisis effectively, but they are also a core part of the democracy support agenda. For example:
These themes are closely related to the levels of public trust in governments, which several analysts have argued is a key determinant of the effectiveness of public health responses. This is also a key factor in strengthening democratic institutions – disaffection and distrust make democracies more vulnerable to hostile efforts to undermine democratic freedoms. As the Coronavirus pandemic is brought under control, the international community’s other challenges will come into sharper focus again, including climate, conflict and trade. If our Coronavirus response addresses the long-term strengthening of the institutions and practices of democracy, we will also be helping to tackle those other challenges.
Democratic governance is not just good for an individual country. In the context of public health emergencies, including pandemics, collaboration between national governments will be an important factor in developing and implementing a response. This will in turn be easier between countries whose governments are (i) transparent and have trusted official information and (ii) accountable and therefore incentivised to ensure the most effective responses – this requires both parliamentary oversight and press freedom. Investment in national level democracy is therefore also a contributor to a global public good of an effective rules-based international system.
UK and other donor support for poorer countries during the pandemic rightly focuses on the immediate health and economic impacts, as well as on longer-term capacity to develop vaccines. The economic impact of the crisis means that global ODA levels are likely to fall, and there is a clear risk that the balance of donor programmes will shift even more heavily towards service delivery. However, the effectiveness and sustainability of developing country responses to the pandemic is inevitably linked to the quality of their governance. While support for development of democratic institutions and practice is a long-term investment, there are important actions that can be taken during a crisis to reinforce transparency, accountability and inclusion, including through the type of parliamentary oversight that is present in the UK. An explicit commitment and coherent approach to this as part of DFID/HMG’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic would be valuable.
 WFD is an arms-length body of the FCO but has operational independence – www.wfd.org. This evidence has not been discussed with the FCO.
 See V-Dem Institute 2020 report - https://www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/f0/5d/f05d46d8-626f-4b20-8e4e-53d4b134bfcb/democracy_report_2020_low.pdf
 Cf this analysis of the handling of the forthcoming Polish elections - https://www.robert-schuman.eu/en/doc/divers/FRS_Seen_from_Poland.pdf
 Eg Tom Tugendhat on 19/03/20 – “I’m heading to @UKParliament because we must scrutinise the emergency legislation coming from government. I’m sure they need extra powers but it must be checked” - and Sarah Champion on 23/03/20 – “What we’re doing as Labour is making sure that, whilst it’s two year legislation, it has to come back for scrutiny and analysis every six months so that those unintended consequences can be resolved, dealt with and changed going forwards”.
 See for example this thread by Prof Nic Cheeseman - https://twitter.com/Fromagehomme/status/1243213351502610433
 WFD has contributed to separate evidence being submitted by the Gender and Development Network on these issues.
 See for example Rachel Kleinfeld - https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/03/31/do-authoritarian-or-democratic-countries-handle-pandemics-better-pub-81404