Center for Governance and Sustainability

at the University of Massachusetts Boston

Democracy and Equity

The democratic deficit in developed and developing countries is one key element in the loss of  legitimacy by governments and the intergovernmental system. Rectifying the democratic deficit on the international level is particularly difficult. The strongest democratic procedures and principles at the international level are the one-country-one-vote principle and the procedural rule books that protect the rights of smaller states in the UN. 1   

GRI makes only a passing reference to the concept of ‘democracy' . 2   This omission may well be due to the fact that democracy is not part of the Davos culture. As the self-published history of WEF observed:

[Since the second Davos], the Forum continued to be selective, inviting only the CEOs of major companies. Invitations were personal and not transferable. Maintaining exclusivity would remain a steadfast practice of the Forum and a hallmark of all its meetings. 3

In this context, it is consistent that WEF looks toward an elite global leadership body, the G20, to develop global aspirations, goals, and standards. WEF and the GRI do not look toward a people-centered ethics, toward a nature-sensitive ethics, toward a peace-centered ethics, nor toward a worker-centered ethic. Democracy and equality are not key aspirations in WEF’s view of the next global governance system.

The concepts of development and sustainable development do appear in recommendations from the task forces, but are not guiding principles in the core introductory papers.

‘Democracy’ and ‘equity’ mean different things in different national contexts. Intrinsic to both concepts is that there will be significant local variations within the institutional structures, the principles for representation, the fundamental legal regime and working ground rules for an equitable democracy. Some of these variations can be based on different cultural practices, on different historical experiences or on different ethical norms; some of the variations are political compromises derived from the balances of economic and social forces at the birth of the democracy; and others are the results of subsequent power demands to increase the degree of democracy or to diminish it. 

At the international level, too, ‘democracy’ and ‘equity’ can mean different things to different Actors. Unlike the commitment to democracy and equality in some national constitutions, however, there is no formal commitment in international treaties establishing the current institutions of governance as democratic. Some domestic democracy practices have provided templates for democracy on the international level. The domestic concept of one-person-one-vote can be seen as the forerunner at the international level to the one-country-one-vote practice. The concept of freedom-of-information at the national level can be seen in expectation that documents and meetings at the international level should be open and accessible. 4

For GRI however, the tenor of the word is quite different and quite distinct. The word ‘equity’ appears more frequently in references to 'equity markets' than to 'economic equity'.

Enhancing ‘democracy’ as an organizing principle for international relations is a difficult subject. GRI does not raise to the challenge. The GRI only democratic proposals are  that election monitoring can be done via crowdsourcing and that a parliamentary delegation should complement a foreign affairs delegation at the United Nations.

In order to redress the democracy deficit as part of reforming the existing global decision-making system, one would have to reform the current lopsided concentration of state and MNC power; handle subsidiarity in a more complex fashion than the EU has yet attempted; recognize that some versions of ‘international elections’ may well be part of the next generation of democracy; and broach elements of the “world government” debate that have been effectively off the table for generations.

This absence of explicit commitment to democracy in global agreements has resulted in a disjunction between what is considered a politically acceptable process in a national democracy and what is practiced at the international level. Movement on the democratizing globalization is probably a prerequisite for enhanced legitimacy of the international system. Ignoring or marginalizing the issue weakens significantly the re-establishment of a stable global system.   


Related Ideas: 1994 process; Missing sense of ownership; Reconciliation; Participation

The Readers' Guide welcomes comments with alternative examples or counter examples and commentary – critical or otherwise – of the above interpretation of GRI’s perspective.

  • 1. ^ Even this minimal democratic goal is undermined by the P5 veto in the Security Council and the use in most other intergovernmental bodies of unanimous decision-making, rather than majority or super-majority voting.
  • 2. ^ While GRI borrowed a good number of ideas from the Helsinki Process, its emphasis on democracy in international relations was not one of them. In fact, the Helsinki Process had a very clear focus on democratic ideals. Ii. “The Helsinki Process on Globalisation and Democracy… was a response to the call for a forum to facilitate multistakeholder dialogue on the possibilities offered and challenges posed by the process of globalisation. . . . The high-level Helsinki Group was challenged with considering recommendations for priority action for improved and more democratic global governance.” Helsinki, pg 5.
  • 3. ^ The First Forty Years, page 13.
  • 4. ^ Concepts of freedom of information and procedural justice within the European Region have been formalized in the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. See
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