Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Report on Democratic Development and Reflections on My Career to Date

I have finished a careful read of all 224 pages of the Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, Advancing Canada's Role in International Support for Democratic Development which was released last month ( This topic, "democratic development," has been the focus of my career for over 25 years, so this Foreign Affairs Committee Report is of compelling interest to me. It also has prompted me to reflect on what I have accomplished in my career in government service, research and teaching. And mostly where my work has fallen short of my aspiration to make the world a better place by doing things that will bring justice to people who have not been fairly treated . Fortunately I am not temperamentally inclined to despair, but there are elements of a Shakespeare "Sonnet 30" kind of moment here:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste;

or putting it more plainly "Thinking it all over, I wish I could point to more evidence that my work had actually made a difference for the people I had been hoping to help and in retrospect wish that I had not had to put so much time into things that in the end did not achieve the desired justice-promoting result."

In my "Rights Across Borders" second-year course for undergrads and in my "Core Seminar in Comparative Politics" course that I teach in Brock's graduate program, I attempt to identify the conditions under which democracy and respect for human rights will flourish. In both classes, I do a lot of "one the one hand . . . and on the other hand" prevaricating. My only clear and unambiguous conclusion is that there is not a lot of "science" in political science. Similarly, in my research work for some years now, I have been struggling with developing scenarios under which North Korea can make a stable transition to democracy. The more political theory I read in search of some analytical framework to structure my metres-thick piles of files on the DPRK, the further I seem to be from completion of this project. But I will persist in it to the end. I reckon it is too important to give it up.

Even though it is now 18 years past, I remember like yesterday watching a TV interview from Tiananmen Square in May 1989. A young student asked about what he understood was meant by "democracy" responding: "I am not exactly sure what it is, but I do know that we need a lot more of it." Actually there is not much consensus among political scientists and other "democracy specialists" beyond this sort of formulation. The Foreign Affairs Committee Report makes note of this fact in several places and urges that we work harder to get the definition of what we are dealing with when we talk about "democratic development" clarified.

My own introduction to democratic deveopment programming was after I was approached in 1992 in my capacity as Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with a request that Canada assist the Chinese Government in examining policy options for democratic political reform. So I set up the "CASS-Royal Society of Canada Democracy Project" which had 18 exchanges and conferences between '93 and '98. The idea was that after we provided the final report, President Jiang Zemin would announce a comprehensive program of political reform in his December 1998 speech to mark the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's opening economic reform program which Deng had launched at the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee in December 1978. But it did not come to pass. The rather watered down and platitudinous speech that Jiang did give did not allow Jiang to retire as "the father of China's post-Mao democracy."

It was disappointing for me, but by this time I was back working in the Political Section of the Canadian Embassy and able to hatch new schemes. I became responsible for coordinating the Bilateral and Plurilateral Human Rights Dialogues with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs --- quiet diplomacy was our new tack. But as I have discussed in earlier postings, it did not fulfil its promise. Staring in the fall of 1998, I oversaw the Civil Society Program for CIDA (changing the name from "Social Initiatives Program" to this more edgy name that means "Citizens'-Society-Program" in Chinese). The purpose of the Civil Society program is to support the development of a non-government public space in China, but the growth of the NGO sector has also proved mostly disappointing ten years on. All in all, lots of good will and trust have been built up, but things have not been going as we had hoped 10 years ago. For example we were pretty excited about the village elections in the early-'90s but there is little progress in extending the electoral process to higher levels of government now over 15 years later and the Village Party Secretary, the most critical local functionary, remains unelected.

The Advancing Canada's Role in International Support for Democratic Development Report which was released last month calls for a review of all the Government of Canada-funded activities to promote respect for democracy and human rights abroad and for the establishment of a new institution to ensure better coordination and effectiveness of future Government-funded democratic development projects. This strikes me as important in light of the above. Especially as the Foreign Affairs Committee could not meet with recipients of governance developmental assistance. They only were able to interview experts in "Democratic Development" and hear reports from representatives of Government agencies and NGOs providing this sort of aid. Moreover with this kind of thing there is a tendency on all sides to report success to protect the income and jobs and career success of the people working in the implementing agencies. So independent disinterested assessment is pretty essential.

The idea is that these "democratic development" activities should empower local agents of change by transfer of knowledge. Actually it is hard to spend large sums of money on this sort of project purpose. But from the bureaucratic point of view of CIDA small projects are not amenable to their administration and reporting requirements. So big projects are proposed. And this leads to the tendency of self-generated sham NGOs to form to attract generous foreign funding. Many of the same NGOs seem to exist on a variety of foreign government and NGO contracts, but democratic engagement evidently only penetrates to a small group and does not sustain once the foreign grant money for foreign travel and other project activities dries up. In China the agencies that have the capacity to successfully apply for foreign funding are actually GONGOS ("Government Organized NGOs") that is to say part of and subject to the direction of the Party/State and not actually in a public space. They are therefore held in check and only give the appearance of representing not civil society. For example, The All-China Women's Federation. the All-China Lawyers Federation, etc., etc.

But still I don't seem able to give this "democratic development" enterprise up. I am scheduled to speak at the Central Party School in Beijing on next month, as part of the Party School's exchange with Rights & Democracy. The project is very controversial. But how could I refuse the invitation of people who ask to know more about "Human Rights and Education in the 21st Century"? I will try my best to not let this be "a dialogue of the deaf." Mainly I do really try to listen. And I will speak openly and honestly. And hope for the best.

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