The newly released report, Defending and Strengthening Diverse Democracies by Keseb, a nonpartisan, pro-democracy nonprofit organization, highlights five drivers of recent deterioration of democratic ideals, culture, and systems across Brazil, India, South Africa, and the United States. These drivers are: (1) economic change and persistent or deepening inequality; (2) rapid demographic changes; (3) dysfunctional and unregulated information ecosystems; (4) cooperation between opportunistic populist leaders and political elites; and (5) cross-border learning and solidarity by authoritarian movements and leaders.
Over the next several years, innovation will be vital to the success of pro-democracy civil society organizations in resisting democratic regression and enabling their countries to realize the full promise and potential of truly inclusive and diverse democracies. This requires civil society organizations to access a range of support, including robust financial and human capital, leadership development, and national and transnational platforms to exchange knowledge and tactics, and peer learning and support networks.
While the number and nature of pro-democracy civil society organizations differs across the four countries due to factors including differing legal frameworks, degrees of political freedom, and funding environments, Keseb’s analysis has surfaced four immediate opportunities for philanthropy and practitioners in Brazil, India, South Africa, and the United States:
1. Immediately bolstering multi-year investment in targeted efforts to:
a. Promote free, fair, and trusted elections;
b. Build a leadership pipeline for representative government;
c. Combat mis- and disinformation; and
d. Cultivate informed, empowered, and engaged citizens and voters.
2. Embracing issue intersectionality and re-envisioning what it means to be a “democracy organization.” Many organizations, often grassroots ones, are employing issue-based, intersectional organizing strategies in areas such as climate justice, racial equity, and economic empowerment that are in reality moving the needle in strengthening democracy, but often are not considered “democracy” organizations. There is a unique opportunity for philanthropy to break down the siloing of issues and help civil society organizations reinforce their issue-based work where it intersects with democracy.
3. Shifting insufficient and reactive philanthropy that perpetuates fragmentation among practitioners. The impact of pro-democracy civil society organizations is hampered by two mutually reinforcing dynamics:
a. Election-anchored philanthropic capital flow that creates a “boom and bust” effect. For example, overall U.S. democracy funding to civil society organizations dropped by 50% from 2020 (US $2.5 billion) to 2021 (US $1.3 billion); and
b. Fragmented and narrowly specialized pro-democracy organizations, often creating a divide between national and local groups and grassroots and grasstops efforts.
4. Building an inspiring collective narrative for sustaining democracy to combat the appeal of authoritarianism, particularly among disillusioned citizens for whom democracy has failed to deliver its promise of economic security.
In today’s reality, threatened by a transnational authoritarian movement, it is no longer sufficient to support national pro-democracy efforts in isolation. This is particularly important for Americans to recognize – we have as much to learn from the world as we have to contribute to it. We have to develop transnational pro-democracy ecosystems that can significantly accelerate learning, collaboration, and innovation by civil society organizations and leaders.
The mega experiment of diverse democracy is under threat. This is the moment to galvanize and build solidarity across borders to give rise to an inspiring, inclusive, and resilient 21st century democracy in the U.S. and globally.