Quietly moving to democracy

July 02, 1999|By Zephirin Diabre

THE FORMERLY obscure province of Kosovo is now etched in the public's mind. So is Bosnia. As are Rwanda, Iraq and Iran. All have received extraordinary attention, and for good reason. Strife, both internal and external, attracts diplomatic and media attention. Conflict generates news. Peaceful progress does not.

The fact that nations such as Mongolia or Mali or Malawi have not received such recognition should surprise no one. Yet a remarkable "good news" story exists in these and a small number of similarly often-overlooked nations: Against all odds, they are building a quiet record of democratic progress. While the long-term prognosis is far from certain, one thing is: "Globalization" is no guarantee of continued democratization. These countries merit our respect and our help.

This week, leaders from these and other smaller, struggling nations are gathering in Yemen. Sponsored by the U.N. Development Program, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the United States and other nations and international organizations, the conference will provide a forum for political, civic and economic leaders of these countries to delve into the many daunting obstacles to development and democratic reform.

An initial perusal of the names of some of the 17 nations that are meeting in Yemen might surprise some observers: Benin, El Salvador, Guyana, Nepal, Yemen, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. These countries together will take a close look at the politics of hard choices -- the challenges of making economically painful decisions while simultaneously maintaining public confidence and providing for the most vulnerable members of their societies. They will look at how to reaffirm and maintain their commitment to the development of multiparty structures, free and fair elections and public participation, including the integration of women into all levels of political and economic decision-making. Economic restructuring, rooting out corruption and ensuring freedom of speech and of the press will all be examined.

It will not be an easy agenda. Democracy, as we are learning daily, exists in more than one form and does not happen spontaneously.

Should any of this matter to the rest of us? Absolutely. In a world characterized by economic globalization and instantaneous communication, the presence of turbulent social, political and economic environments can have a cross-border ripple effect. The economic and political problems of Asia, for example, have global repercussions that extend far beyond national borders. By the same token, successful moves toward democracy and reform have the potential to transcend borders and to have a positive effect on more volatile neighbors.

For example, the democratically elected government in Skopje, provided a much-needed firewall against the spread of violence from neighboring Serbia into the Balkans and South Europe. At the same time, the influx of refugees has taxed the country's efforts at continued economic and political reform. Can a country subjected to such stress retain its democratic character and its commitment to openness while dealing with these controversial and costly efforts? It remains an open question, as does the issue of what the international community should and could do to help democracies in these situations stabilize.

This forum may not be a high-profile "summit," but how these countries fare could have long-range consequences for their neighbors and the world.

Zephirin Diabre is associate administrator of the U.N. Development Program. He wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.

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