Why Do We Discuss Democracy as if it Only Exists in the West?


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In many global company contexts, there is a concerning deference to leadership from the Global North because of the idea that these countries are “more democratic” and therefore more trustworthy, “progressive” or expert. But is this true? As we see in places like the U.S. and the UK, democracy continues to weaken, leaving marginalized populations without protections or rights. By definition, “democracy” means control of a state by the majority of its members. So could we instead shift our understanding of democracy as a “Western” concept, and learn from countries in the Global South who might have strong elements of democracy we can learn from? And who does it serve for us to continue to position the Global North as the bastion of democracy? And how does ignoring the democratic practices of the Global South shape our diversity and equity training?

In the U.S., there has been a steady threat to the legitimacy of electoral processes since Donald Trump’s rejection of several election results, and the January 2021 insurrection of the Capitol that followed. Now with the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court is tipping into the authoritarian territory of nine unelected individuals determining what citizens can or cannot privately do with their bodies. There is a dangerous precedent being set by this unchecked power that leaves many people’s rights at risk. According to the “religious freedom” that demands controlling pregnant people’s bodies, other contraceptive access and marriage equality are liable to be revoked. This is not a question of which party wins an election, but rather what both parties are or aren’t doing to preserve the democratic elements they claim are so inherent to the country. 

Currently, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost the confidence of his party to continue leading the country, and yet he will not resign until September and is appointing cabinet ministers to oversee things like education and housing in the meantime. If this was happening somewhere in South West and North Africa (SWANA), how would their country be painted? Additionally, the government gave most of its “multimillion pound” contracts for COVID-19 protective gear to politically connected firms, five billionaires pushing their political agendas own 80% of the UK media, and the UK’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities appointed internal non-experts to declare that there is no institutional racism in the UK. What do these say about the freedom of the media and the levels of corruption in the UK? 

So who can we look to for guidance in the fight ahead? There are so many examples to choose from globally, but we’ll highlight a few here. In Ecuador, Indigenous leaders recently led an 18-day strike that forced the government to lower gas prices, limit oil exploration and mining, and protect parks and water resources. With the public demanding its needs and the government eventually complying, we see what it looks like for large public dissent to change the course of politics when its elected officials do not respect their rights. In Honduras too, the public elected Xiomara Castro as its first female socialist President, ending the violent legacy of a 2009 U.S.-backed coup. While she faces many challenges, Castro has promised to end the silence around femicide, stop death squads and drug trafficking, and overturn the existing ban on abortion and emergency contraceptives. These are just a few places to start shifting which countries we default as “democratic”, and hopefully spend more time correcting how “Western democracies” cause so much harm. 

No country or region has everything ‘right’ BUT: we must question our assumptions regarding where inclusive progressive values are most prevalent and why this is. Ultimately, this is where we can practice decolonizing our knowledge base and values and widening the net of where we take inspiration and learn from.

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