– These days, there has certainly not been a dearth of reports describing the decline of liberal democracy around the world.
With the rise of popularism and conflicting use of social media, we shouldn’t be surprised that a general malaise is taking root in the most advanced liberal democracies.
From the Freedom in the World 2021 report published by Freedom House to the Democracy Index 2020 published by the Economist Intelligence Unit to the IDEA Global State of Democracy Indices, there is growing evidence that liberal and representative democracies are under the constraint.
Could the ongoing debate on a new social contract, a concept launched by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, help revive one of the essential elements of any democratic society, the interest and participation of citizens in the civic life?
If his recent re-election at the head of the United Nations was able to dispel doubts that this new idea was only a fad, what are the chances that this debate around the New Social Contract becomes an opportunity to strengthen the public engagement at the local level without further dividing the divide between classical liberal democracies on the one hand and other nations adopting less democratic and more authoritarian political systems?
Provocatively, could such a debate instead help close such a gap?
To dispel any doubt, inevitably, the New Social Contract does not aim to strengthen democracy in the world.
This would clearly be a utopian proposal for the Secretary-General to adopt, but rather an attempt to rethink and improve, regardless of the political system adopted, the standards between citizens and the state.
Originally invented at the 18th Annual Nelson Mandela Conference in 2020, Guterres advocated for a more just and inclusive society centered on tackling inequality and discrimination because, he said, “people want social and economic systems that work for everyone ”.
“The new social contract, between governments, citizens, civil society, businesses and more, must integrate employment, sustainable development and social protection, on the basis of equal rights and opportunities for all ”.
As vague as it is in terms of borders and ultimate objectives, the New Social Contract can be seen as a framework that can not only revitalize our societies but also build an economy that is fairer, cleaner and able to overcome multiple challenges. created by the pandemic.
The 2030 Agenda and the related Sustainable Development Goals provide the model on which such an idea can be built locally.
Still under construction, the new social contract can not only give impetus to the overhaul of relations between social partners, governments, unions and companies, but it can also be a source to generate more interest among the population for public life.
Making sense, especially from the perspective of young people, can be difficult, but it is essential to do so as we cannot imagine a renewed citizenship without including young people whose vast majority are indifferent and disillusioned with public discourse.
One possible way to generate new passions for civic life among young people would start by helping them to be better informed about what is happening at the local and national levels, something which can evolve into higher forms of deep interests.
The last step in this continuum would be to help them adopt forms of direct engagement.
The commitment is driven by a strong interest in public life and the desire to transform this desire to know more into contributions, into actions on the ground.
Last year, the UNV program proposed a new framework for volunteering that fully captures the different characteristics and characteristics of donating their time, energy and skills for the public good.
Indeed, volunteering with its different forms and dimensions, is one of the best tools to involve people and young people in particular in public life.
That’s why it’s no surprise that UNV’s upcoming State of Volunteering World Report explains how volunteering can be a real catalyst for the new social contract.
More opportunities for public engagement will also generate more trust, an essential feature of any healthy and cohesive society and it is here that continued efforts to localize the SDGs can make a difference in bringing people together for the common good, to achieve core level goals.
Achieving the SDGs at this level is not just about actions, the mobilization of resources of human nature, in kind or financial. It is also a question of deliberation and here, after this long detour, I return to the question of democracy.
Designing a new social contract as a platform for achieving the SDGs locally by involving people on the ground, can be a tool to raise the quality of democratic discourse, generating platforms for a new form. shared decision-making or shared governance.
Interestingly, while political parties, wherever they operate, might become an obstacle to such a change because their role as gatekeepers of public participation would be eroded, this conceptualization of shared governance might become of interest to nations that do not. ‘do not adhere to representative liberal party-dominated systems.
In the field of political science, there is a dynamic movement of social scientists exploring the concept of deliberative democracy which would allow, by different means, including sorting, to have new real, rather than symbolic, forms of involvement. and public participation in decision-making.
It is true that so far most attempts to put deliberative democracy into practice have been carried out in contexts of strong liberal democratic traditions.
Various “experiments” have been carried out, the most successful probably being the Ostbelgian model adapted by the Parliament of the German-speaking Community of Belgium, where there is a permanent Citizen Council which enables an ecosystem of Citizen Assemblies.
In the past, Ireland has successfully used aspects of deliberative democracy to involve the general public in discussions and debates on key constitutional issues, which has also helped to generate consensus on gender equality in same-sex marriage.
This legacy continues with a Citizens’ Assembly that recently submitted a report, after extensive consultation and deliberation, on the issue of gender equality.
Iceland has used a hybrid form of public deliberation, although led by a small number of elected citizens, but with many opportunities for people to take ownership of the country’s constitution.
Other forms, with varying degrees of success and with varying levels of inclusiveness and decision-making power, have been tried in two Canadian provinces, British Columbia and Ontario.
In the growing field of deliberative democracy studies, there is now great interest in the so-called “deliberative micro public” where a limited number of citizens come together to decide on certain issues of common interest.
If you’ve seen The Best of Enemies, a movie depicting a public deliberation exercise on separate learning in Jim Crow’s America in the early ’70s, you’ve got any idea what that might look like.
Many of these lessons learned may also be of interest to policy makers whose political systems have not embraced democracy.
With the discussions still ongoing about how the new social contract should look at the local level and with the localization agenda of the SDGs recognized as essential to achieving the 2030 Agenda, we may have the opportunity to promote more forms. strong public participation in decision-making. locally and everywhere.
This would strengthen the sense of good governance in the world while creating a new space for deliberation in contexts which normally close them.
Perhaps deliberative participation, a term that might be easier to sell globally, if properly applied locally, could become a cornerstone of the new social contract, reinvigorating classical democracy where it exists. already while creating space for other political systems to evolve and be more understood.
The author is the co-founder of ENGAGE, a non-profit organization in Nepal. He writes on volunteering, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as a driving force to improve people’s lives.