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An Equal Stake in the Democratic Process
January 30, 2015

Woman in polling booth (AP Images)
A Zambian voter casts a ballot in the January 2015 elections.

Thirteen sub-Saharan African nations hold elections in 2015; Comoros, Lesotho and Nigeria all choose new officials in February alone. These votes will be cast at a time when some international observers express concern that the progress of democracy is slipping in sub-Saharan Africa, that gains over the last 20 years are slowing or reversing.

YALI.state.gov will devote content to the twin topics of democracy and good governance in February, bringing the YALI Network insights into the current international benchmarks for what democracies do and how they should operate.

Members of the YALI Network also will be sharing their stories with the community, demonstrating how they are acting in their communities to improve democracy, voter participation, good governance and equal opportunity.

Smiling man, seated, with “Polling Station” sign (AP Images)
A smiling poll worker greeted Zambian voters in January.

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, made this description of democracy famous at a crucial time in the nation’s history. This definition is still widely quoted today, more than 150 years later.

Though democracy has a long history in the West, recent decades put democracy on the fast track. Fewer than half of the world’s nations were democracies in 1991. By 2006, 64 percent were democracies, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Just a decade and a half ago, democracy was considered largely a Western model. Fifteen years later, it is the predominant form of government globally, and internationally perceived as the source from which a government must draw its legitimacy.

Advancing Democracy The U.S. government supports the growth of freedom, democracy and human dignity in other nations through these objectives:
1) Promote participatory, representative political processes.
2) Foster greater institutional, legal accountability.
3) Protect human rights.
Read more about the DRG strategy

The United Nations has set standards for what a democracy is meant to deliver — freedoms of expression, assembly, association, vote and participation in public affairs.

Defining democracy is one thing, but making it work — day-to-day, for one and all — is a moving target.

In fact, distinguished Yale University political scientist Robert A. Dahl has suggested five criteria that a nation should achieve if a government wants to be known as a democracy:

  1. Effective participation: Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference, place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other.

  2. Voting equality at the decisive stage: Each citizen must be assured his or her judgments will be counted as equal in weight to the judgments of others.

  1. Enlightened understanding: Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests.

  1. Control of the agenda: People must have the opportunity to decide what political matters actually are of importance to them, and what should be brought up for deliberation.

  1. Inclusiveness: Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has a legitimate stake within the political process.

In a 2014 obituary, the New York Times described Robert A. Dahl as “his profession’s most distinguished student of democratic government.” His most notable works are the books Who Governs, How Democratic is the American Constitution, and Democracy and Its Critics.

How strong are democracies in your region? The nongovernmental organization Freedom House conducts an annual survey, Freedom in the World.

Further resources on the topic are here.