Written by Blair Glencorse

Last week, the US government hosted the Summit for Democracy (S4D)- the beginning of a process to focus on the challenges and opportunities facing democracies around the world. The official Summit itself was a two-day series of high-level conversations, speeches and events (with other official side events over the past few weeks) that have kicked off what the Biden Administration is calling a “Year of Action” (YoA) during which participating countries will then work towards commitments made as part of these efforts.

Around the Summit itself there are many unofficial ongoing side efforts to support the three Summit themes: defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights. We at Accountability Lab stood up the unofficial Summit for Democracy website in mid-November on behalf of civil society to help coordinate these inputs- including details of side events, resources, news, blogs and more. So now that the 1st two-day Summit has come to a close, in an anecdotal way, what does engagement through this website so far tell us about the Summit for Democracy? And how can we improve civil society engagement going forwards during the Year of Action?:

First, civil society is seriously motivated around these issues. For those of us working in this field- or who are concerned about the state of democracy- this is no surprise. This work has never been more important. But engagement around the S4D was impressive. The unofficial website alone hosted more than 120+ events related to the three themes, led by almost 100 organizations, including participants from more than 500 different groups. International Idea hosted an entire day of 41 side-events called the Global Democracy Coalition Forum. We saw 35,000+ page views- with many from countries that were not invited to the Summit- indicating that interest was broad and deep. And we saw an overwhelming number of resources, blogs and other content sent to the website- which we are still working through. There is no doubt that bolstering democracy feels urgent.

Second, the diversity of these conversations has improved dramatically. Almost all of the 120+ events hosted through the website included participants from the Global South (in total 40% of panelists were from outside of the G7); manels seem thankfully to be a thing of the past (in fact the data from these side events indicates an almost equal number of female and male speakers); and a huge number of the sessions focused specifically on diversity and inclusion as central elements of democratic processes (including issues related to minorities, the LGBTIQI+ community, women, youth and other groups). At the same time, civil society engagement around the Summit was still Global North heavy- there were very few sessions (less than 25%) organized in the Global South by organizations in those places and in local languages for example; the majority of users of the website were in the Global North; and there is still much more we can do to ensure inclusivity (most events did not allow for translation, for instance). Moving forwards as part of the YoA, we need to bring in different and diverse audiences in these conversations- in practice as well as process. 

Third, it is clear- at least from this data- that there are some recurring sub-themes that seem to be important. For example, a simple analysis of the titles of the sessions on the site (check out a word cloud here) indicates that civil society prioritized the intersection of democracy and inclusion (women, youth, marginalized groups, Global South participation) as well as democratic and citizen safeguarding. And there is clear consensus emerging around areas where there are meaningful reforms being made currently- on beneficial ownership within the anti-corruption domain, for example; and human trafficking within the human rights field. The resources submitted to the site also indicate a clear focus among stakeholders on natural resource management and the role of parliaments and legislatures. 

Fourth, beyond the content of the events and resources themselves, the S4D process has begun to connect dots and build connections– of the kind that are essential to democratic pluralism. Over the week of the Summit we saw librarians listening to peace-builders; activists speaking to policymakers; artists coordinating with data geeks; and family planning advocates linking up with lawyers. We also saw donors come together to push shared ideas; and youth organizations mobilize to carry out in-depth research around issues of civic engagement, among many other collaborations. It is clear that simply at this level, the political leadership and impetus the US can provide- in addition to the specific commitments and tools the US and other participating governments might bring to address democratic deficits- is incredibly useful if used carefully.  

Finally, there is more we can learn from sentiment analysis, keyword affinity and the geolocation data of people that engaged in the Summit- using, for example the hashtags #summitfordemocracy and #summit4democracy. We have tweeted visualizations of this here– which reinforce the idea that we need to push for greater engagement from the Global South in this process- it was only in Uganda that civil society truly mobilized online around the Summit. The website data backs this up- more than 56% of users are from the US. In addition, we need to make sure young people are front and center of our efforts during the YoA- more than 60% of social media content creators during the Summit were under 34 years old. This is the constituency that can change narratives online in support of democracy.

This analysis is unscientific, of course- it is based only on the data we can see through certain platforms- but it does perhaps indicate some ideas we should all bear in mind as the YoA begins. The Summit for Democracy has created some important momentum around democratic reform- during the Year of Action we should focus on growing and expanding this energy, ensuring inclusivity in the process, connecting dots across key themes, and building on nascent collaborations.

Check out the synthesis of all the data around the S4D side-events so far here; and e-mail us at: [email protected] with comments, feedback and ideas. We’d love to hear from you. More on the Lab is @accountlab.