Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Building the World Movement for Democracy
Report on the Inaugural Assembly,
New Delhi, India
February 14-17, 1999
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Policy Research Institutes & Democracy
Workshop Leaders: Marc Plattner, Larry Diamond and Ashis Nandy Condensed from report by Yogendra Yadav
One theme that captured the intense discussion at this well-attended workshop on "Policy Research Institutes and Democracy," was that of the "politics of knowledge." If democracy is one of the essentially contested concepts of modern social theory, the enterprise of making sense of democracy--of thinking, writing or doing research on democracy--cannot but be political. We addressed three questions in this workshop:

First, what kind of research agenda is relevant to strengthening democracies and what sort of questions should we be asking?

Second, what should be the goal of this research, and can it and should it influence policy?

Third, can international collaboration, cooperation and assistance help us achieve the results we want?
While the workshop raised fundamental questions, it also served as a pool of shared wisdom and a forum for exchange of practical information. Mark Robinson set the ball rolling by pointing out that so much of policy research on democracy tends to be a replication of the received wisdom. Won't we serve both democracy and human knowledge of it much better, he asked, if we promote a critique of the given models and paradigms of democracy and democratization.
Contemporary models of democracy are based on a narrow experience, both in space and time. It is far from obvious if the percolation of these models all over the globe represents either a benign extension of human reason or a triumph of truth. Many speakers shared their fear that the agenda of research on democracy was being hijacked. They also asked how universal and useful the western experience was in understanding contemporary democracies all over the world. Ivan Krastev was blunt in describing what ails policy research institutions: he said they tend to become institutions of Washington knowledge instead of striving to become institutions of local knowledge.

The discussion moved to a more practical plane as the workshop addressed how policy research could influence actual policy making. There were many success stories around the table: a guild of political consultants in Russia, cross-party consensus building in Nepal, shaping of the constitution process in Israel, transparency of economic decision making in the Philippines. Larry Diamond suggested that there were some common strategies underlying these success stories: one, an image of non-partisanship; two, creation of a broad arena for debate; and three, solid research to back it up.

But here again questions of politics of knowledge surfaced in the form of self-doubts and notes of caution articulated first by Chris Landsberg: what or whom are we trying to influence? In whose favor? How close must we come to what we are trying to influence? What are the ethics of influence in a highly fragile and hyper-sensitive situation? How do we measure our influence? Arye Carmon added to this list: should we stay away from the eye of the storm or participate more actively? How do we respond to questions like "Who has appointed you?" Kayode Fayemi wondered if there was a point in being non-partisan when the issue was the very existence of democracy.

The third sub-theme, that of the role of international cooperation in policy research on democracy, saw much less disagreement. Everyone agreed that international cooperation could be positive but there were crucial differences on what kind of support could be useful, for which reasons and in which ways. Arye Carmon made a strong universalistic plea: in this globalizing era, some fundamental problems and values are shared by both developed and developing countries; we may not be able to copy, but we can learn a lot from one another. Everyone else, however, had a more limited kind of collaboration in mind, and for more specific reasons. Regional collaboration seemed to be the favorite form, for the regional voice can be more important than that from a single country. It helps every neighbor place its problems in context; furthermore, as Ghia Nodia put it, "the success and failure of democracy is contagious."

Sergio Aguayo directly confronted the issue of the politics of funding, which can involve the hiring of cheap intellectual labor to implement the research agenda set in another part of the globe

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