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Citizen democracy for renewed multilateralism

Gabriel Murillo

Inadequate performance by governments across the Americas calls for formal political structures at the regional level to become more inclusive and responsive to popular demands for equity and human sustainable development to impel citizen democracy in the region. Public opinion polling can be an innovative mechanism of multilateral diplomacy to reinforce the democratic impact of the most important hemispheric forum: the Summit of the Americas
(SOA).

The gap that separates governments from the governed must be reduced. Legitimate and trustful political leaders require constant exchange of information with their constituents without which there can be no democracy. Empowered participatory citizenship can only make states stronger; this is also valid for multilateral forums. Yet, democratic legitimacy is harder to claim in multilateral and intergovernmental contexts such as the SOA. But public opinion could be used as a tool to reflect public needs and expectations and to weigh peoples’ approval of the multilateral agenda.

There is accumulated evidence of the weakening of democracy in the Americas. The growth of poverty and the fact that the region has the most unequal income distribution in the world, growing unemployment and corruption are all problems that feed into a growing sense of unsatisfactory performance of ruling actors and institutions in many countries. Economic and political exclusion contribute importantly to this trend as many citizens do not see their needs and expectations met with the implementation of social policy agendas.

The regional agenda could innovate to reverse this situation and move toward citizen democracy. The SOA process would benefit from the use of public opinion polling as obtaining the most updated and comparable information will help preserve the necessary cohesion and credibility of the inter-American system.

Along these lines, a collaborative project with the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) and the Colombian Fundación para la Educación Superior y el Desarrollo (Fedesarrollo) is being implemented to enhance the hemispheric effort to ensure a successful Sixth Summit of the Americas to take place in 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia. This project, the Think-Tank Initiative, has already conducted two meetings to identify ways to increase the democratic relevance of the summits. The central purpose is to contribute to the achievement of higher standards of efficiency and legitimacy in this multilateral diplomatic process. The initiative aims to provide suggestions for the improvement of the civil society consultation process by incorporating the technical capacities of public opinion polling firms working in the region.

Appraisal of democracy as much as decision-making for public policy implementation remains state-centered. In general terms, policies for citizen participation and civic education in countries of the region remain marginal and the legitimacy and accountability so crucial to democratic governance are low. Trusted political institutions can only be built through greater citizen involvement in public affairs. People need to be made true agents of social change. But the need to foster a civic culture to address legitimacy and accountability gaps is just starting to be recognized as a central element of national and supranational policies for sustainable human development. Beyond fostering social equity and democracy, involving citizens in decision-making is key to successful social policy implementation processes.

Nevertheless, the wide range of social and cultural realities and the economic limitations facing countries in the region call for a more rigorous and flexible approach to diagnose and propose solutions to the main shared problems in regional forums. There is a need to innovate in order to gather objective and updated information that can help implement sound regional policies and projects attending to the needs and expectations of the governed. This should also help demonstrate governmental responsiveness and social inclusion in deliberation for public problem-solving. Resorting to public opinion polling could also become an invaluable resource to reinforce solidarity and sense of belonging. This process can also increase political institutional credibility and bring back and expand democratic governance as a necessary condition to counteract the emerging threats to the democratic cohesiveness, legitimacy and validity of the inter-American system.

Given the volatile situation in the Americas, ensuring the future of political and socio-economic regional integration demands more co-ordination on information gathering and critical analysis to improve multilateral political decisions and policies for sustained human development.

The growing inequalities in the region pose a challenge to the existence and consolidation of democracy in the Americas. There is growing awareness of the urgent need to create and implement informed and innovative national and supranational approaches to engage citizens in public policy formulation and decision-making for social and economic problem-solving.

Governments and multilateral entities should accept that marginalized citizens must be recognized as important stakeholders and possessors of crucial information and knowledge to be used as key inputs for more equitable and efficient solutions to public problems. They should also move beyond the state-centered decision-making tradition to overcome mistrust about their use of public resources for the formulation and implementation of social policies.

Public officials should give more recognition to the value of collecting region-wide information provided by different civil society stakeholders and implement new forms of public opinion polling to improve and rationalize this task.

The state sphere will remain the main source of initiatives to improve communication and encourage conscious and responsible citizenry to find solutions to transform and improve the social order and reinforce citizen democracy.

It is at the supranational level where the challenges, uncertainties and need for resources for policy design and problem-solving are more pressing; yet it is at this level where synergies are possible and where multilateral policies can bring value-added options for the region.blue square

Gabriel Murillo is a Colombian scholar who spent much of his academic career at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He has been involved in several research projects and has many publications related to strengthening democracy. He has also been a consultant for different multilateral organizations and NGOs. He is currently a consultant for the UNDP-International IDEA project that works to increase women’s political representation and inclusion in Colombia.


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