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Fixing democracy: Global efforts to tackle poverty and climate change

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At the end of this week, the U.N General Assembly will vote on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the next decades. The SDGs will replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire at the end of 2015. The SDGs are a set of goals and targets on international development that range from eradicating poverty, building sustainable cities, and combating climate change.

The SDGs will attempt to change international indicators on typically discussed policies like poverty and climate change, but they will also have an unprecedented new goal: to create "responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels." This goal builds on the democratic innovations that have been taking place around the globe over the last decades.

These goals are not just feel-good developmentalism. They may be our best hope to reverse the growing distrust of political institutions all over the globe. Global trust in government institutions is at historic lows. According to Edelman’s 2014 analysis, "Trust in government fell globally 4 points to an historic low (44 percent) making it the least trusted institution for the third consecutive year." In 2014, nineteen countries — including Sweden, India, the U.K., China, Ireland and Mexico — experienced declines in government trust over the last year.

But, in all four corners of the world, something has been bubbling. In particular, a wave of civic innovations has emerged to change the relationship between citizens and the State. People are leveraging digital tools and communal ingenuity to re-engage in their civic lives and work toward models of more participatory governance. Examples range from residents civic crowd funding for public works or taking photos of neighborhood issues and reporting them directly to elected officials. And change may be in the works.

Cities all over the world are leading the way as incubators for ideas to engage citizens in a variety of governance opportunities. A movement to empower citizens at the local level to be effective contributors in policymaking is on the rise, and many of the most promising democratic innovations occurring overseas.

From Brazil to the world

One notable example of democratic innovations is Brazil’s Participatory Budgeting initiative, which combines principles of deliberation and democratic decision-making. It gives citizens direct control over portions of government spending.

The initiative first emerged in the state of Porto Alegre in 1989, where citizens now decide how to spend about 20% of the city’s budget, or an average of $71.5 million every year. It has since spread to more than 2,500 localities. In 2005, at least 50 European local governments had started experimenting with participatory budgeting. In 2014, Paris implemented the largest version of participatory budgeting in Europe: the municipal government has set aside €426 million to be spent between 2014 and 2020 based on the decisions of residents.

Participatory budgeting is also now showing up in U.S. cities – A Chicago alderman turned $1 million dollars of his discretionary menu money in Chicago directly to residents, and asked them what they wanted to do with it. In 2014, New York City allocated $32 million through participatory budgeting. The process continues to grow, with cities from Long Beach, CA to Cambridge, MA adopting it. Even the White House has pledged to support the process. While in many places the funds put into participatory budgeting represent a small fraction of an overall budget, the process itself represents a radical departure from status quo budget decision making.

In the past few years, similar initiatives have emerged both at the global and national levels:

  • In 2011, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States created the Open Government Partnership, calling for more open, transparent and participatory governance over the world. This partnership between civil society and government has grown to include sixty-six members so far.
  • The Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge has recognized cities both domestically and internationally, helping to lift best practices in places as diverse as Athens to Philadelphia.
  • Across the globe, cities are adopting innovation units, as captured last year by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the UK’s Innovation Fund, Nesta:
  • Created in 2012, the Seoul’s Innovation Bureau taps into resident expertise to generate solutions to community problems. For example, it created the Generation Sharing Housing service, which matches elderly people with spare residential space with students in need of rooms who are willing to help out with household tasks such as grocery shopping.
  • Denmark’s MindLab, is an innovation unit to engage business and citizens to develop new public sector solutions to policy challenges in education, employment, and government services.

Governments all over the world are trying to engage citizens, and foster transparency and participation. The goal is to crack open democratic processes that used to happen behind closed doors, and give people a stake in governing.

Looking ahead

It is too soon to tell how the SDGs will play out in the future (some might be skeptic about the guarantee that more participation yields better governance), but there are already exciting signs that including a provision in the SDGs that calls for more participation in governance can have a ripple effect on the local and global scale. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, housed at Columbia University, is already paying attention to that. The group will be convening and working directly with mayors, civil society, and research universities to develop a timetable and playbook for implementation.

But one thing is certain: the SDGs will create a window of opportunity for clear, goal-oriented policies that will strengthen the quality of democratic practices around the globe. This is a chance for leaders to work together in diverse localities from Rio de Janeiro to Boston. By scaling up all these governance opportunities and democratic innovations, diverse stakeholders, from civil society, philanthropy, government, industry, and academia, will have the tools to overcome the various challenges and constraints that influence governance around the world, and foster effective transparency and accountability on a global level.

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