Yes, indeed I believe it is and like any flower or living being, it needs to develop strong roots and be nurtured and cared for if it is to thrive and make the world reap any benefits from it. The current COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, and the emergency laws countries have imposed in response, either swiftly or reluctantly, is highlighting, once again, the precious yet often elusive flower democracy is.


As a form of governance where the majority of people decide, democracy demands that for the people to have any influence over the laws and policies to which they are subject, certain basic but fundamental rights must be guaranteed: to be able to express themselves freely; to associate freely with others; to vote for their representatives in free and fair elections; for there to be inclusiveness and equality; the right to life and minority rights. And, to know that anybody can become president, prime minister or any other such leadership position. I know this to be true because I have been a governance practitioner working all over the world for over two decades and believe that democracy matters since it frames the social contract where we all have a role to play.


Let’s take the example of Ethiopia, a country on a steady path of implementing major governance reforms. The Ethiopian Constitution enshrines core democratic principles and freedoms that define how the country is governed and provides for adequate checks and balances on the systems of governance. In accompanying the reforms and the bold development transformation vision that drives this, UNDP has since 2008 been providing support towards strengthening key democratic institutions, systems and mechanisms. This engagement which falls under its Governance and Democratic Participation Programme (GDPP) launched in 2017, works with 11 democratic and oversight institutions as ‘implementing partners’ along with 4 development partners (Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden) with a key focus being improved inclusion, participation, civic engagement, human rights, and anti-corruption.  


But now we have COVID-19 in the equation. Ethiopia, just like over 227 countries globally, is battling to withstand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other issues, governance comes into the spotlight, for better or for worse. The assumption is that with systems and structures in place – a functioning Government, Parliament and Judiciary then things will simply carry on as normal but COVID-19 has changed our perception of what is normal to a new reality where social distancing has to be enforced to try to limit the spread of the virus. This challenges our cultural norms of hugging or shaking hands when we greet one another because those norms don’t comply with the social distancing world. But at the same time, the enforcement or governance of the social distancing rules needs to reflect democratic principles and freedoms otherwise democracy itself become one of COVID-19's victims with erosion of our fundamental rights. 


In the initial days of the pandemic, the focus was directed towards the health implications of COVID-19 but as a governance specialist, I knew that in such emergency/crises, that democratic practices, principles and processes would become even more relevant globally as Governments grappled with the humanitarian impact and challenges of managing the pandemic and seeking to mitigate the negative economic impacts of the crisis.


It is at such times that the systems, structures and institutions that frame responsive and effective governance are designed to be able to withstand the shocks of a crisis - be it a global health pandemic or a financial crisis so that the rule of law, access to justice, human rights, safety and security and provision of public services are all maintained. By having strong and effective democratic institutions attention can be directed towards dealing with the crisis and planning for the recovery phase.  


For us in Ethiopia, April 2020 saw a Proclamation to declare a State of Emergency which set out a range of measures to seek to restrict the spread of the pandemic, its likely socio-economic impact and the importance of maintenance of law and order. Through GDPP, we have been witnessing our key IPs taking demonstrable steps that serve to reinforce their role in safeguarding and maintaining the democratic gains made in Ethiopia. This is important because it shows that the democratic flower is owned and cherished by the Institutions in Ethiopia.


For example, the Ethiopia Federal Judiciary decided to partially close all federal courts from mid-March as a reaction to the pandemic. During this time, new cases could not be filed except those urgent cases that required immediate action including cases that affected life, liberty and public safety or charges of domestic violence. Judges handling such cases work in shifts applying necessary social distancing precautions, this ensures that no one is denied access to justice. 


The Federal Supreme Court decided that it would continue to sit to hear any cases or challenges brought in connection with the enforcement of the SoE provisions. Courts were required to set up benches that hear SoE crime-related violation cases to provide speedy judgements. Without such swift action, this could have resulted in the adage “justice delayed - is justice denied” being the case in Ethiopia which would have adversely impacted ordinary citizens.


Another example that indicates the growing strength that democratic institutions in Ethiopia come from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Following the SoE Proclamation, the EHRC issued a statement to reinforce the importance of the Constitutional fundamental human rights provisions and obligations. The EHRC statement stressed that the Proclamation and Regulation, must be guided by human rights and constitutional principles including respect and protection of rights; and for all concerned to fulfil their functions in a highly accountable and professional manner. 


The Commission confirmed that it will monitor the implementation of the SoE systematically. GDPP, through its support, is also helping the EHRC to enhance its cooperation and collaboration with civil society. The Commission intends to organize a consultation workshop with CSOs, including those working with women and vulnerable groups to jointly identify issues of concern and the different areas of collaboration during the pandemic.


Most recently GDPP's work with the Ethiopian Institution of the Ombudsman (EIO) shows another example of adjustment to respond to COVID-19, ensuring continuity of critical functions. As per the Constitution, EIO’s mandate is to tackle maladministration by promoting good governance ensuring that it is high quality, efficient and transparent and is based on the rule of law, thus ensuring that citizens' rights and benefits provided for by law are respected by organs of the Executive. EIO is creating an e-based case management system to replace the current paper-based systems. This will improve EIOs efficiency because they will be able to log, manage and track individual citizen cases more easily. And to create greater awareness of the role of the EIO, they are simultaneously working with Ethio-Telecom to re-establish an EIO hotline that will enable citizens to directly contact the EIO for advice and support.  


The Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (FEACC) one of the GDPP Implementing Partners, have recently issued a guidance note highlighting the increased risks associated with corruption and offered recommendations about how to mitigate those risks. FEACC provided information about the risk of corruption during the current emergency, the areas that are susceptible to corruption and their mitigation strategies. FEACC identified that corruption risks during the current pandemic can emerge in three areas: the health system; in sectors that are highly susceptible to corruption: and during resource mobilization and distribution activities. The guidance note made recommendations including the need to ensure timely access to up-to-date and accurate information through open, clear communication and outreach channels between the public and the Government; the need to introduce new guidelines or update the existing ones to ensure that they reflect the current situation and highlight prevention of corruption; to enhance effective cooperation between relevant Government agencies to address various corruption-related risks emerging during the pandemic for a whole-of-government response to COVID-19, and to boost transparency and accountability work with civil society organizations to disseminate important information related to the pandemic response, and lastly to facilitate effective monitoring by the media who can play an important role when it comes to exposing corruption. All of these reflect the core values that a key democratic institution seeks to promote.

GDPP has been providing support to the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI). The role of the CCI is to provide professional legal assistance to the House of Federation. Following the recent decision by the House of Peoples Representatives (HoPR) to seek a Constitutional interpretation about the election postponement the CCI role has become more prominent in the media. So CCI as part of its interpretation of the Constitutional provisions will gather opinions from Members of the Council, judges, researchers and legal experts. There will also be events with key stakeholders through virtual meetings all with the explicit objective to gather views to help inform the CCI work. This type of approach to information gathering demonstrates some of the core principles in good governance – transparency and accountability which helps give confidence in democracies. 

Overall, as these examples demonstrate, through GDPP, UNDP continues to strengthen the IPs and even amid the COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing greater resilience within the democratic institutions who are anxious to adopt new ways of working and can perform their key roles. Governments have the responsibility to lead the country and devise homegrown solutions and represent the voices of the people. But having more voices engaged in a democracy helps to not only ensure that the policies, laws and strategies reflect the needs of the people but also ensure that the delivery of public services to the people respects transparency and accountability.


So, COVID19 may be in our way, but instead of stumbling over it, we could use this opportunity to leap forward, working better together to continue to nurture the precious flower since democracy remains very relevant to successful development outcomes.


*Donna Bugby-Smith is a Senior Governance Adviser at UNDP Ethiopia. She has over 20 years of professional experience and understands the need to build strong and effective working relationships and also the importance of making sure that the support provided is contextualized to meet the needs of the specific country.

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