Global forced migration has reached unprecedented levels, with 68.5 million people uprooted by conflict, persecution or human rights violations at the end of 2017. And while the geographical origin of forced migration flows ranges from South America to the Middle East, each crisis shares a common origin—the absence or collapse of democratic governance.
This poses a daunting challenge for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, which pledges to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
Why are democratic institutions so pivotal to creating the conditions for peace and stability, and how do weak institutions create situations like forced migration? Core institutions like the rule of law, free press and representative government enable citizens to communicate their needs to governments charged with serving the people—not the other way around. Well-functioning, transparent and accountable institutions create the conditions for better economic opportunity by introducing stable dynamics in which to engage in commerce, and enable the peaceful settlement of conflict within societies—all of which reduce the incentives for citizens to leave their countries of origin.
In contrast, deficiencies in service delivery, poor or nonexistent democratic representation, endemic corruption, conflict and violent crime, oppression and socioeconomic hardship proliferate in countries with weak institutions, driving people to flee in search of better lives. Such problems are usually rooted in governance shortcomings, dysfunctional accountability mechanisms and weak security institutions.
If we are to have any hope of addressing this issue, political leaders must be prepared to address the challenge not just as a humanitarian or security issue, but also as a governance problem. In order to do this, it is crucial to approach the issue not just through a technical lens, but also as a political problem requiring political solutions—particularly at the grassroots level, where governments interact most directly with citizens and are most directly engaged on issues such as service delivery and security.
The international development community has rightly placed more of a priority on thinking and working politically in order to address the root causes of development challenges in a more holistic manner. For example, many countries have laws on the books designed to inculcate democratic institutions—for instance, through legislation requiring governments to adhere to freedom of information rules—but falter in the task of implementing such legislation. It is in the implementation where politics comes into play.
Civil society organizations, businesses, media and ordinary citizens need to hold their governments accountable for the implementation of SDG 16. They can do this first and foremost by working with key political players to translate SDG 16 into concrete and achievable action, and by maintaining pressure on their governments to fulfill these measures.
Politically sensitive technical assistance from development organizations with expertise in local governance and politics is also crucial to this endeavor. In my own work with the International Republican Institute (IRI), I have seen how supporting citizen-centered government by understanding the political dynamics and customizing interventions around the key local issues can help improve conditions in countries experiencing high migration flows.
The migrant crisis is one of the clearest examples of the damage that can be wrought by weak or nonexistent governance. While there are many interventions that must be undertaken to address this crisis, a political approach is among the most crucial, as it is in the political realm that institutions are ultimately built or demolished.
About the author: Rima Kawas is the Director of Governance and Collaborative Learning at the International Republican Institute (IRI) overseeing the global governance portfolio focused on working with governments to implement transparent and accountable governing practices while promoting citizen-centered government decision-making. In this capacity, Rima focuses on creating innovative program interventions, piloting new approaches, and leveraging and building technical expertise.