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NDI President Ambassador Derek Mitchell: Solutions Lie in More Democracy, Not Less

He says problems such as underdevelopment and populism do not rise because democracy is strong but because democracy is weak.

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Dar es Salaam. The President of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Derek Mitchell, thinks that the solutions to most world problems, which include underdevelopment and populism, lie in the availability of more and better democracy, not less.

Mr Mitchell made the remarks during an exclusive interview with The Chanzo on August 25, 2023, in the city following his two-day visit to Tanzania as part of his African tour, which also saw him visiting Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire. NDI is a US-based non-profit that strengthens democratic institutions worldwide.

Recent studies have documented how the belief in democracy has been increasingly decreasing worldwide, with more and more young Africans, for instance, seeming to be more tolerant of military coups, as the latest Afrobarometer survey has demonstrated.

Studies indicate that this decreasing support for democracy stems from an imagined failure of the governance model to provide for people’s basic needs, including improving their living conditions. But Mr Mitchel thinks that what has failed is something else, not democracy, as demagogues would want their followers to believe.

“I think they’re associating the problem with democracy when it’s not democracy,” Mr Mitchell says. “[These issues don’t happen] because democracy is strong, [but] because democracy is weak. What’s required is more and better democracy, not less. You need more conversations.”

“Are the institutions strong enough?” he questions. “Is the rule of law strong enough? Is the ability to have open conversations, debates, and peaceful transitions of power strong enough? Are our governments listening to the people and able to deliver those services to people?”

Mr Mitchell says he doesn’t know what can serve as a substitute for democracy. He warns that while autocracy can bring tangible results in a short period, over time, it will lead to nothing but a disaster for the people and their welfare.

The following are excerpts from the interview, and here, Mr Mitchell starts by explaining what brought him to Tanzania and why now:

Derek Mitchell: Well, I’ve wanted to come to Tanzania for many years. There was a [COVID-19] pandemic, unfortunately, for a few years, and I couldn’t travel anywhere. So this has actually been delayed for a bit of time. But I’m very excited. You mentioned the tour I’ve just made of the continent, the African continent.

It’s a very important time for the continent, for Africa. And I think that Tanzania is going to be central to the future of this continent in the 21st century. And I think much of the history of the 21st century is going to be written on this continent because of the demographics and the dynamism that I know about, what I’ve seen firsthand here [in Africa].

We have had an office, NDI, since 2014, here [in Tanzania], but we have been working in partnership on programs with your people on the democratic development of Tanzania for almost 20 years since 2004. And there’s no way that you can understand a country or program without seeing it firsthand.

READ MORE: Stakeholders Gather in Dar to Reflect on State of Democracy Ahead of Civic, General Elections

So I’ve been itching to come to Tanzania for a while. I know the history, the great history of this country. I follow the democratic trajectory, [and] direction. And I feel like now there is an interesting moment of sort of liberalisation, re-liberalisation occurring that NDI, as an institute, wants to be engaged in partnership with your people.

So, if there’s anything that we can do, to continue to do to continue that momentum for democracy here, we would like to be partners, and I felt it was important for me to be here listening and learning for a few days.

The Chanzo: And what has, you know, been the sum of activities that you have been involved in while you were in Tanzania? I mean, if you’ll be willing to share.

Derek Mitchell: Absolutely, and some of [the activities[ have been public, [including] meeting with the leaders of major political parties, with the CCM, CHADEMA, ACT [Wazalendo], meeting with former President [Jakaya] Kikwete, meeting was senior advisors.

I’ll be meeting with civil society organisations right after this meeting [with The Chanzo], as part of the Tushiriki, Participate Tanzania Program Coalition. So it’s been a fascinating cross-section of society, but not enough. It’s only in the [commercial] capitol, [Dar es Salaam].

And I recognise [Tanzania] is a big country, a very diverse country. And I haven’t been to Zanzibar, which is a very important part of our work, unfortunately, given my [schedules]. I really wanted to go [but] given flights …

The Chanzo: Well, that’s very unfortunate that you’re not going to Zanzibar.

Derek Mitchell: Extremely unfortunate. Again, [Zanzibar] is a rich cultural place, [and] a very unique political environment, and we are very deeply engaged in partnership with [Zanzibar President Hussein] Mwinyi. So again, I’ll have to come back. I’ve tried to learn from the outside.

The Chanzo: Please, do. So what impression did you get, [from] meeting all these key players in Tanzania’s democratic process? Like, you said, you met with the leaders of major political parties and maybe probably with other key stakeholders, and what impression did you get, you know, of Tanzania’s democratic trajectory?

Derek Mitchell: Well, [Tanzania] has come out of a very difficult period. I mean, the sort of trauma, that period still lingers. And there’s a general consensus on all that let’s not find herself in that situation again, see if we can move the democracy forward.

I think there are differences in terms of pace and scale of that change between parties, some talking about slower, [some have] quicker desire, quicker change. But a general consensus, I think, is the desirability of or meeting on a more liberalised, hopefully democratic track. I think there was a consensus, for instance, on some of the things that NDI works on, which is the empowerment, the greater political empowerment, and involvement of women in politics and society here of young people, youth, given the demographics here, as well as the countries that I went to in the entire continent.

There is an absolute imperative that young people will be given a voice and given a stake in the system. And then people with disabilities as well, since we heard in all of our meetings the real importance of that and electoral reforms going on.

The Chanzo: So, back to NDI, and you said you’re been here for quite some time now. And you’ve been involved in, well, I’m not sure if it’s the right word, but the struggles and, you know, in efforts to make sure that Tanzania is democratised, and I was just wondering, how do you analyse that role, are you satisfied for example, with the role that, you know, NDI has been implementing and, the achievement for example, are you satisfied or what is your analysis or assessment and you think, for example, there could be more, for example, done by NDI to support democratic processes and institutions in Tanzania?

Derek Mitchell: Well, NDI works the same everywhere, Tanzania and everywhere. We are here in partnership with the people of the country. We are what we call demand-driven. The people in the country, including the government, civil society, or the parties, if they see something we can assist with, we can help; we are willing to provide that assistance.

We get funding often from USAID, from the National Endowment for Democracy [NED]. We don’t have our own sources of funding. But if our donors are also able to underwrite work, we’re willing to do as much in partnership with the people of this country. People want us to be involved.

And I should say something about how we are involved. What we do, really, is bringing international experience here [in Tanzania]. This is not about, providing [an] American model to another country. It’s about sharing models of development, [and] lessons learned from other democracies.

There are many different forms of democracy around the world. We’re bringing those experiences to bear here so that people here can learn about what people have gone through and decide what works for their system. What works for their own development.

READ MORE: Dodoma Resolutions on Democracy Are First Steps for Tanzania to Return to Its Democratic Path

So, absolutely, I feel we could do more. If the people here are willing and donors are willing to support that. One thing that you mentioned because you’ve struggled with the word ‘struggle.’ I want to say to be a democracy, of any sort, is to be a struggling democracy.

Every democracy is a work in progress for various kinds, whether in the United States, I’m sure everybody follows what’s going on in the US, and how our democracy has been weakened. It’s a very difficult time for us in the United States. But all over the world, you know, there are struggles, and the democratic path isn’t the perfect democracy.

So, I think what we’re about is the solidarity among what we call small d democrats, those who believe in these values of accountability, of governance, transparency of governance, and inclusion of all people equally, and [and] representation under the law.

That’s essentially what we’re talking about. With democracy, that building of global solidarity and experience to support one another as we struggle with these questions is what we are.

The Chanzo: Thank you very much. I think we will get back to that. But before we do that, I would like you to highlight, for example, people who are unfamiliar with the activities that NDI is doing here in Tanzania. So, what, in real terms is NDI doing to support democracy in Tanzania?

Derek Mitchell: Well, as you said, we’ve been here almost 20 years. So it’s been a variety of things all again to support citizens, [and] government. Right now, women, young people, and people with disabilities have been a focus of ours to ensure that they are equally able to participate in public affairs and public service in government or in civil society,elections in this country.

So we’ve been focusing particularly on those communities of late. We’ve been working in Zanzibar on their processes of national dialogue,  electoral reform issues working with civil society groups, and their engagement on electoral reform and electoral integrity issues,.

In the past, we worked with political parties. So, it runs the gamut of what we call democratic development. So those are the kinds of things that we have been working on.

The Chanzo: Thank you very much. Mr Mitchell, you mentioned earlier that democracy worldwide is facing challenges. So for example, on the one hand, in Europe, for example, or in America, we’re seeing this wave of populist leaders that come into power and in Africa, for example, we do have populist leaders coming to power, but we have another very unique phenomenon, with military coups, for example. And recent studies or researches show that there has been increasing support for military coups in Tanzania; for example, a recent study by Afrobarometer found that many African youths their belief in democracy is declining, while their belief in military coups is increasing, and we have seen this playing out in the recent Niger coup where we have these people coming to the streets in support of the military juntas. My question is, as a democrat, as someone who is leading an organisation that preaches democracy, working on the ground to strengthen democratic institutions, do you really believe that democracy can deliver the necessary changes that African youth, the youth of the whole world, but I just want to narrow it down to African youth because we are in Africa, we are in Tanzania, do you believe that democracy can deliver the changes that the Tanzanian youth for example, or African youth aspire to? Can you defend democracy?

Derek Mitchell: Yes, absolutely. I do believe that democracy delivers. There’s no doubt. Every study suggests that over a period of time, over decades, over a 25-year period, countries developed 20 percent more if they’re democratic than if they are not. And there’s a logic to it. If we break down what we mean by democracy, I think this is where people get unclear; we’re getting confused.

People are frustrated by the way democracy is functioning or the way that elections are not leading to the change that they want to see. And they may equate democracy with simply elections. Now, elections are not full of what democracy is all about. It’s an event. It is an important moment, but it is not the meaning of democracy.

I imagine young people are frustrated. They want a voice. They want a say. They want to see that their government is responsive to them and is delivering on their needs. That is providing jobs providing great practical things for their their lives. And there’s they’re seeing the government’s are not even when they go and elect people. It doesn’t lead to results, so they get frustrated.

READ MORE: Niger Coup Underlines Challenge to Democracy Across West Africa

They look for somebody, a populist, somebody who pounds their chest and says, “This is messy. This democracy is corrupt. Give me all the power I will deliver for you.” That never worked. It simply does not work. It may work for a very short period of time. They will draw down on the capital of the country.

But for instance, you talk about the coups in the Sahel. The military says we need to jump in because of the security of the country; we need it for the national security. In Mali and Burkina Faso, If you look at the details, those countries have become less secure. There’s more violence, more killing, less security…

The Chanzo: After the military coups?

Derek Mitchell: Since the coups, the development has gone down. So, and the justice has gone down. But the actual stability and military violence from extremists in those countries have gone up. But it sounds good because people are frustrated with the messiness of democracy.

Now, young people are saying, they’re screaming, they’re saying, “We want a voice. We want to have a say.” That’s what democracy is about. It’s not simply an election event. It’s a culture in a society of conversation, consultation and inclusion, and forcing the government to be responsive to people’s needs. They have to listen. They have to be held accountable.

And by being accountable, will respond to the needs of people, and you’ll see progress. So it’s not easy. It’s not simple. It requires some time. It requires some cultural change. You’re going to have an election tomorrow when the culture and mindsets take longer [to change], but it is essential that they start and continue to progress.

Otherwise, you will have this false narrative, the false siren song of military people; people take the country back by saying, “Give me all the power,” and they won’t deliver.

The Chanzo: Yeah, but then from a democratic perspective, because you’re a democrat, so what explains these military coups, and not just the military, but also the populist movements around the world? I mean, as a democrat, what is your theory as to why we have these phenomena?

Derek Mitchell: That’s a great question. It’s a very complicated question but a very good one. And we struggle with this in the United States, as I tried to explain what is happening at home and what we see in many places around the world.

Some of it has to do with the sense of a lot of tension and resources of going to cities, and rural areas are being left behind. So there’s a resentment. There’s a cultural challenge with conservative cultural norms versus more progressive or liberal norms.

And people may be uncomfortable with that change. Some people are old; some people are, some are not.

READ MORE: Former African Leaders Explain Motivations to Support Drive for Democracy

Cities are more comfortable with more progressive liberal reform. In the countryside, maybe a little bit more conservative. Disparities of wealth can lead to that. Again, frustration, I think, the digital [revolution]. I mean, you [The Chanzo] are online. It is a great thing to get information out to more people more widely than you ever could with a single newspaper.

But as we all know, that space can be poisoned. It can lead to disinformation, lies, hate, and division can spread more widely. And more deeply, more persistently, than ever in, frankly, the American companies, these platforms are encouraging the extreme voices, theatre algorithms, so the way they’re structured, which also I think poison minds, [and] creates more division.

And we all need to be doing more to try to moderate and facilitate a conversation. There’s no substitute for this. If we did this fear screen, there’s a different connection and being face to face, having conversations and discussions, connecting as human beings versus talking at each other. What you don’t understand, you’ll fear. And I think societies are pulled apart. There’s more polarisation.

When there’s more fear, and there’s more division, and politicians sometimes will play on. They want to get votes, and they want it sometimes prey on division and fear and demagogues, populists, it’s all about polarisation.

The Chanzo: But some will say, “Well, we have that because democracy has failed to deliver.” I mean, at least democracy the way we know it.

Derek Mitchell: That some would think democracy hasn’t delivered? Well, I can’t define democracy for you, what is delivering and what is not. So, I think Tanzanians have to conclude [what delivers and what doesn’t].

The Chanzo: No, but I mean, because it’s a universal thing. Well, I know it’s contextualised that Tanzanians have their own issues, but I asked the question in the context of the global phenomenon of populism in Africa; we have military coups, and some would say that we have this because democracy, at least the way we know it and the way we have been told that it will deliver development. It hasn’t worked. For example, in Africa, 60 years of independence, many people are not satisfied with the state of their development and said because democracy doesn’t work.

Derek Mitchell: Right. I think they’re associating the problem with democracy when it’s not democracy. [These issues don’t happen] because democracy is strong, [but] because democracy is weak. What’s required is more and better democracy, not less. You need more conversations.

The Chanzo: I’ll go with that.

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Derek Mitchell: Are the institutions strong enough? Is the rule of law strong enough? Is the ability to have open conversations and debate and peaceful transitions of power strong enough? Are our governments listening to the people and able to deliver those services to people rather than.

You know, I think what occurred oftentimes in developing countries since the 1990s, we thought it would be natural, open up have elections, have multiple parties in a parliament, and somehow it will naturally deliver. But as I mentioned, it’s a mindset. It’s a culture.

And it can’t simply be an event. It has to be-. If you don’t, the corruption that occurred and the mindsets are old ways. And so I think what’s happened is the same old people doing the same thing with different rules and calling it democracy. They say, well, we have elections are the elections truly representative?

Are parliaments truly doing their jobs and overseeing and taking the popular will constituent will deliver legislation for people? So if that’s the case, is not that democracy is the problem is that democracy is not strong enough.

The Chanzo: So what I gather from what you say, what has failed to deliver is something else, not democracy. Well, we have to name that; what is that?

Derek Mitchell: Also, another thing to say democracy is messy. It is difficult, and it’s not simply going to lead to next year everybody’s going to have a job who is going to be perfect. There’s a famous line in Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, once said that democracy is the worst form of government ever created by man, except for all the others.

So the question is, what alternative is there that delivers better? Some will say they will point to some autocratic state and say well, look how they deliver. But if you actually pierce what that model is, you could find it is not what it seems. It comes at a major cost.

Some countries are quite unique in their situation. And you take a snapshot, and looks like they deliver, but over time, the cost becomes more and more apparent, whether it’s debt or corruption or suppression of human rights, human dignity, and I think what democracy is also very much about it’s about human dignity.

It’s about every individual having a voice, having a say in their communities or their own affairs, and that’s the essence of it. The rest is process; the rest is details. But essentially, democracy is about the ability of people to have a say on their own affairs to be sovereign and to hold their governments accountable for them, rather than having to trust the government to somehow, you know, to hold them accountable.

READ MORE: What Does the Future Hold for TZ Democracy?

The theory is that human beings, you can’t trust human beings on their own. And as was said by our Founding Fathers, if men were angels, we wouldn’t need government. But we’re not. We need oversight in the separation of powers. And you need some accountability and oversight. That’s the foundation of democracy. If you don’t have that, more than likely, you have corruption, [and] injustice.

The Chanzo: Here’s another thing, I mean, because we explain this emergency of military coups, you know, I narrow it down to Africa and Tanzania, particularly. So we have had, you know, this assumption that you know, the assumption that some of our politicians, for example, in Africa, in Tanzania, have been selling for the people that democracy action is not an African thing. Yeah, it’s a foreign thing. It’s a Western thing. And you are a democrat. You lead this organisation that spreads democracy around the world. How would you convince an African person or a Tanzania person that, no, actually, democracy is not a foreign thing? I mean, sorry, a Western thing, how would you convince them?

Derek Mitchell: I’d ask them, do you want to have a say in your own affairs? Do you want a voice in the governance? Do you want to make sure that your government is accountable to you, you have a say, and you have some transparency and insight into what your government is doing in your name with your resources?

Would you like to have representatives to represent your constituencies and your interests as the government makes its decisions, or would you like to have a rule of law so that you are not thrown in prison tomorrow, for no reason except to criticise somebody in power, or somebody doesn’t like you?

If you want that, that’s democracy. So, I think democracy has sort of been made into an ideology. But it’s a very practical way of interacting as a society. That’s what democracy is and happens to be manifested in elections; that’s one way of holding accountable governance, or you break it down to what I just said.

READ MORE: ‘Democracy Should Go Beyond Elections’

If you want those things, then you are a democrat. So once you say it’s a foreign concept, tend to be the ruling parties. They’re the ones who want to stay in power. They have every interest in saying, No, we don’t we can’t afford to have any accountability or, or elections, or that’s an American thing, we can play on the non-Western or anti-colonial thing, or other countries in order to deserve their own power, will say this is a Western thing.

But be careful. You know, I will just say those who listen to that and think about that, to understand what we mean when we talk about democracy, that it is, I believe that every human being wants to get, I don’t care if you’re African, Asian, or Latin or European or American.

Everybody wants equal dignity. Everybody wants a voice. And I think that that is the essence of what democracy is all about. Autocracy says only the elites get voices, only the one party gets voices, and you don’t have a say; we know what’s best for you. If you want to trust that, you can trust that, but it doesn’t deliver over time, it’ll only cause hardship and pain for the most. It’s inefficient. It hurts the country’s security and development over time.

The Chanzo: Do you think democracy is a condition or a result of development?

Derek Mitchell: Both, I think it’s both. They go together. I think development you can have development, you know, without democracy for a period of time. You can review from a low base why just put lots of investment in building factories grows.

Countries need that, and that’s that’s perfectly fine. But over time, if you want to deliver on health care or education, or widespread development, you know, in communities and such, governments need again, it’s natural. I was in government, I want to know what people think, you know, what elections are about is taking the pulse of people to get a sense of what you’re not hearing when you’re sitting in the capital [Dar es Salaam].

I’ve been in the capital for two days. I can tell you, I don’t know Tanzania. I don’t. I know the elite perspective of Tanzania. I could know Tanzania unless I stayed here for a long time, travelling around and understanding the voices of individuals.

READ MORE: Samia: Process to Build Multi-party Democracy in Tanzania Far From Over

And that, that’s true about governance. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to deliver on the national interest; it allows you to get feedback. As president of an organisation, I need feedback from my people in the organisation. Otherwise, I’ll stay up above the clouds and have a great time as the president, but I won’t deal with the problems.

The Chanzo: Let’s come back to Tanzania. You’re here in Tanzania at a very opportune time. So many things are happening. You know, the President has rolled out reforms in politics and in many other areas. And there have been calls that these reforms must go a step further in strengthening the institutions of democracy. People mentioned, for example, the National Electoral Commission, and I just want to get your brief analysis on why you think it’s important for these democratic institutions to be strengthened. And to, you know, to be empowered?

Derek Mitchell: Generally, or for the electoral commission?

The Chanzo: Generally, yes, democratic institutions, like the press and the electoral commission.

Derek Mitchell: Yes. And let me just say congratulations to [The Chanzo]; this vehicle itself is wonderful, what The Chanzo is doing, and congratulations on your success.

The Chanzo: Thank you.

Derek Mitchell: And no, honestly, this is what’s important, this kind of dialogue and discussion, and challenging and questioning and all the rest of what you’re doing is, it’s fantastic. You need a free media.

If you don’t have free media to get information to people to hold those people accountable, and the government and ask hard questions and people who are doing things in your country like NDI, what are you doing? Why are you doing it? You should know. Your citizens should know. You should be questioning everyone and everything. So you need that free media. You need some civil society, for all the reasons I’ve said.

The Chanzo: And what is the role, as NDI, to achieve that here in Tanzania?

Derek Mitchell: Here is to be supportive of those institutions to help them build their capacity to ensure that they are fully inclusive, to bring international experience to others and from the outside of how they’ve worked on these things in environments like in Tanzania with similar points of development so you can feel solidarity, you can feel support, and you can build that capacity.

And again, that’s those are the building blocks of democracy. So I keep saying it’s not elections, it’s all the rest of the stuff that makes it democracy and make it strong and functional and make it deliver, and if you don’t have a strong media, you don’t have strong civil society, you only have a part of it, and it doesn’t deliver, [you’ll hear these voices that] democracy doesn’t deliver.

No, it all has to work together in order for there to be some progress, and again, it’s not going to be overnight. People need to manage their expectations. But at least that’s the best form of society and governance we’ve found yet to work.

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