Halina Ward on democracy, sustainability, and a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly

Halina Ward on democracy, sustainability, and a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly

Brian Coughlan, 4. April 2013

Halina Ward

Halina Ward

This interview in our series is with Halina Ward, the director of the London-based Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development which has initiated an international manifesto that was published recently (here's our report: "Manifesto highlights connection of sustainability and democracy 'at all levels'").

Halina has been the director of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) since 2009. Before joining the foundation, Halina was director of the Business and Sustainable Development Programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. She has also worked as a senior fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs; as a Senior Consultant for the consultancy Environmental Resources Management, and as a solicitor practising commercial environment law.

In this interview we explored the somewhat counter-intuitive relationship between democracy and sustainability. We also talked about the proposal for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly and its role in the international manifesto.


Audio transcript of the interview

On Wednesday 20th March, an international manifesto on democracy and sustainability was launched. We are speaking today with Halina Ward, the director of the Foundation on Democracy and Sustainable Development in London from where the idea originated and which was the organisation behind the international consultation process for the manifesto.  Welcome to the UNPA audio blog, Halina!

Thanks very much, Brian. It's good to be here.

Halina, first of all, can you tell us what this manifesto is about? What's the main message?

The manifesto is basically about the idea that sustainability, so healthy environment and fairness for everyone now in the future, needs democracy and it works the other way round as well - democracy needs sustainability - and so it's a manifesto that's about the practical steps that, as people around the world, we can take to make sure that democracy adapts and evolves and works better when it comes to delivering a healthy environment and fairness for everyone - not just now but also in the future - and it's got six principles and every principle has a set of commitments that go with it.

Well, for many people the connection between democracy and sustainability may be counter-intuitive. They might argue that more participation and more democracy actually makes it harder to come to decisions and to take action. How would you typically respond to that type of charge or question?

You do sometimes hear - particularly after a few drinks in various drinking venues around the world - you do sometimes hear environmentalists in particular bemoaning democracy kind of saying ...

... if only we could get rid of the people, if only people would stop insisting on having their say ...

... exactly, if only we were like China, if only we were more authoritarian, we could achieve so much more, so much more quickly!

Because they're [China] doing so well on the environmental front?

Well, there are a number of reasons why I don't think that's a very good argument. But, for starters, if you think about the challenges of sustainability, environmental and social justice, and economic development, and all integrated, and if you think about the kinds of challenges we are now facing - massive demographic shifts, climate change, resource scarcity, you name it - these are not the kind of challenges that any one authroitarian system is ever going to be able to fix. For starters, we really have to harness the creativity and the capacity for innovation of people around the world and democracy is the best system to enable that process of reflection and innovation and ongoing accountability and progress to take shape and to advance sustainability. That's one reason. For another reason, democracy is the only political system in play that really respects the rights of all people as individuals and as equals and it's actually long been established anyway, within the sustainable development movement, which is very closely related to the idea of sustainability that if we're going to get to sustainable development, we need wide rights of public participation and access to information and access to justice and these are really core elements of democracy.

The manifesto sets out a global plan for action, you've got a very specific plan, could you maybe take us through - probably not the whole thing - but some of the key actions that you are suggesting?

The actions are called commitments; because the manifesto is designed to have global reach we couldn't get too specific on the actions - with one exception which I shall come to - so we're asking people to make commitments to take action in the areas that are addressed by the commitments - but I'm digressing a bit I apologize - let me just mention a couple of the principles. So the manifesto begins with the idea which we've already discussed a bit: that sustainability itself needs flourishing democracy and it says democracy must never be a sham, that democracy is much more than elections and voting, and so many people in day-to-day life under the great pressures of daily life and great cynicism around political decision-making too often think that democracy is just about going to the ballot box once every four years - if you bother to go to the ballot box - and putting an X in the box - of course, that isn't democracy and if we see democracy as narrow in that sense ... it's deeply disempowering apart from anything else ... so that's principle one: sustainability needs democracy itself to flourish.

Then the manifesto goes on to - what for me personally is perhaps at the heart of the current problems with the practice of democracy, not the ideal but the practice of democracy - which is that that insistence or perception that democracy is about electing representatives once every four or five years by putting your X in the box or thumbprint on the paper, that sense, that limited sense of democracy has a tendency to drive a kind of a short-termism: where elected representatives are thinking about where they are in the election cycle; how long it is to go; what they need to give away or what it is they need to do to get re-elected and it's not just elected representatives! I don't mean to say that they are at the root of all of our problems, far from it, there's also a short-termism in the cultural values in many parts of the world as well where we think that we are very often electing representatives to do the right thing by us as individuals or for our immediate family rather than to make tough decisions about what is for the good of fairness, if you like, and a healthy environment for the people now and in the future so that's a couple of the key principles and it all needs to be underpinned by education.

Then another one of those great thorny points of tension between democracy and sustainability is this tendency for liberal democracy to go hand in hand with, if you like, mainstream economic liberalism ...

... that basically capitalism, to use an old fashioned word, rampant capitalism has bestrode the scene for the last 30 years and that was facilitated through democracy but of course it can also be reined in by democracy, it's a question of the will of the people ...

... those are your words rather than mine and they're very powerful words. So there is this sense that politicians very often think it is their job to simply deliver more, that democracy is about delivering more, and more in terms of prosperity and possessions and consumption and of course we live on a planet with finite resources and can't go one constantly delivering more where the more that's delivered is a measured by economic growth ...

... GDP or ...

... exactly and so there is a principle which ended up being the principal about making sustainability a central goal of governments where the problem that the principle is getting at is partly - or in large measure - that problem the governments all too often put narrow indicators on prosperity and success above the things that matter to people in the round. Happiness and so on.

Exactly and not just looking at GDP but not looking at the GDP distributed across the population to see how that distributes. It's brilliant if you have a great GDP but if all that GDP bunches at the top of the pyramid then no one else is even benefiting from it.

Absolutely and sustainability has inherent within it this idea of equity - fairness - between people who are alive today as well as towards future generations and just one thing that is perhaps worth stressing: I don't see that there are inherent trade-offs between fairness as between people who are already alive today versus fairness towards people who have yet to be born and you can put it very crudely and simply: if we don't tackle inequality in the present it will simply be replicated down the generations so we have to tackle inequality in the present as a means to achieve fairness towards future generations as well.

Right, so democracy, a very engaged and active type of democracy is at the heart of the manifesto. Do you see yourself as supportive of the idea of something like a parliamentary assembly at the United Nations level which is perhaps a slightly more staid kind of institution compared to the kind of thing you are promoting?

Well, the manifesto itself falls back on an old tried and tested definition of democracy as "rule of the people, by the people, for the people" and that I think is still a powerful and good starting point and within it, yes, it emphasizes deliberation, particularly the principle that knowledge must be inclusive. It emphasises participation and accountability, but it doesn't, I don't think it in any way undermines the role of representation. That said, at the same time, there is a principle of "nothing about us without us" that is a final principle which recognizes that in our globalized and interconnected world decisions taken in one place can have an impact on people in other countries and other places and in that way our globalized world demands that democracy spills out of its national borders.

So we've basically got a situation now where we have national parliaments, we have some supra-national regional parliaments emerging, and then there's this talk about a parliamentary assembly at the at the global level and that all hangs together and makes sense within the perspective of what you guys are promoting?

So the manifesto has got principles and then it's got commitments which go with the principles and one of the commitments that goes with the principle of "nothing about us without us" is "we support the creation of a parliamentary assembly at the U.N." and what it says it is "as the first step toward a system of global democracy" - now you can argue with that the language "as the first step" because you need the helluva lot of movement before you can get to a parliamentary assembly!

If I can explain the genesis of this a bit? There were a number of responses in the consultation process which pointed towards the Campaign for the UN Parliamentary Assembly. There were a number of proposals from the UK for the reform of the House of Lords but if you're drafting a manifesto with a global reach you can't put commitments within it that are so heavily tied to a particular set of jurisdictions, those of the United Kingdom. At the global level it's a little bit different and we had a number of consultation responses that pointed towards the existence of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly. I suspect it's probably because the UNPA/KDUN [Committee for a Democratic U.N.] supporters were very active in submitting responses to the consultation process and in a sense those consultation responses informed that commitment. So it's not in the principle, it's in the commitment, and what we ask when people sign on is that they endorse the general direction of change in the manifesto and commit to take at least one action in order to implement one of the commitments. So the manifesto isn't saying "you have to agree with the idea of a UN Parliamentary Assembly to sign up to this" at all; but it's there in the menu of commitments that we invite people to consider implementing ...

... ah, that's fantastic, excellent ...

... and it's attached to a principle which says the scale and effects of sustainability challenges demand that democracy burst out of its national borders.

And that can take many shapes. Obviously the particular shape that the UNPA-Campaign is promoting is this idea of a global parliament at the global level but to some degree that's a very concrete manifestation. There is also a lot of interconnecting tissue that is then made up of people engaging and making their views heard and exchanging ideas ...

... and there are so many other ways in which to democratizing international decision-making as well. For starters, if we had much more inclusive, deliberative processes at the national level, about the positions that our governments take to the international level that would be a very positive step along the way ...

Absolutely, of course there is a big disconnect there right now.

... and there are lots of other ways of connecting people across the borders of sovereign states - if you like - to start to engage with one another directly the global civil society movement is one way. I find there is something quite symbolically attractive - I'm speaking now as an individual who happens to have signed onto the manifesto - there is something symbolically rather attractive in the idea of having a group of representatives of the people rather than governments shadowing UN decision-making processes.

Oh yeah, obviously I'm an enthusiastic supporter so I'd hardly be saying something different, but the thing that I love about the idea of the UNPA is its moral authority. Here would be an institution that would have representatives elected by all the people of the world where the people of the world have had their say. Whether it had actual power or not, if it made a pronouncement, if it said "we really think you should go this way, rather than that way.", that carries tremendous moral weight even if it doesn't have actual legal weight at a given point in history.

And for me, one of the key things, is that it should be made up of people whose job it is to behave as people. With all of their differing values and all of their human characteristics - if you like - rather than "I am the elected representative for Southeast Europe" or "I am the elected representative for Central America" and so on.

Absolutely, so they behave as humans not as a regional clones.

And in the manifesto it says that for decision-making at the international level, democracy, rather than the self-interest of individual governments or groups of governments, should be the basis for an engagement.

Well, then you're definitely on the same page as the UNPA-Campaign to a very significant degree. Halina, listen, we've run overtime, this is a very pleasant chat I could definitely go on here for hours but I think we'd better rein it in and and wrap it up if that's alright?

So the manifesto is sitting on a web site that has lots and lots of other resources and the URL is www.democracyandsustainability.org and we're inviting people to visit the website, read the manifesto - which is available in seven languages, I hope people will be up for translating it into more than that - and if you agree as an organisation, as an individual, as a network or an alliance with the general direction of change in the manifesto, and if you're up for making a commitment to take at least one action, to try to implement one of its commitments, then join that democracy and sustainability platform. The the proof of the pudding, in a sense, is when we start collecting together peoples experiences experimenting with the manifesto and implementing it. The manifesto is supposed to be a living document it's not the end, it's it's the start of a process, and I'm quite sure that the text will change over time. We're really trying to bring a very diverse group of people together to share and embark on a process of experimentation.

Halina that sounds amazing! Thank you very much Halina, it was a pleasure chatting to you, it really was.

Thanks a lot, cheers Brian!