Democracy must be fought for and renewed - The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s work for democracy abroad

Graffiti "My vote for the future" ...Creator: Mwangi Kirubi. Creative Commons License LogoThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

Democracy cannot be taken for granted. It has to be fought for, revitalized, and renewed. Supporting and assisting democracy and democratization globally is a central focus of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s international work. Throughout the world, people are standing up for democracy; for political, economic, and cultural rights; and for a democratically organized polity. Surveys show that democracy is the preferred form of government for people all over the world.

A quick look at the political map shows the extent to which baseline conditions can differ among the nations of world. What can the Heinrich Böll Foundation, with its political concerns and values, accomplish as a foreign foundation? Is there enough maneuvering room to work with partners? There is no blueprint to determine this; the selection of cooperating partners and of the instruments and levels of action is always specific to the countries involved. It therefore requires enormous knowledge and political sensitivity in dealing with countries and cultures. Who are the protagonists of change? Who has resources and access to societal forces, to political decision-makers prepared to assist processes of democracy? Who is excluded from the democratic processes of opinion-making and decision-making? As a rule, each intervention by the Heinrich Böll Foundation is preceded a comprehensive analysis of the political and social parameters and thus of the obstacles to and potentials for democratization. For the foundation, this always means a detailed analysis of gender-political realities, for example, and of the different political and economic opportunities available to men and women.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation works in democracies of the North (such as the United States and the countries of Western and Eastern Europe), in democracies of the South (such as India, Brazil, and South Africa), in transitional countries (such as Tunisia and Myanmar), and in authoritarian states (such as Russia and China). The foundation is also present in a series of conflict and post-conflict regions such as Afghanistan and in countries of the Middle East, in order to support the processes of democratization, peace, and reconciliation that have emerged internally within the respective societies.

Concrete democracy assistance

A distinction is made in the relevant literature between direct and indirect democracy assistance. Direct democracy assistance is aimed at political procedures and decision-making processes. These include observing elections, strengthening political parties, professionalizing parliaments, and institutionalizing opportunities for participation by civil society. Democratic decision-making processes, the participation of citizens, and the legitimation of politicians are the centers of focus here.

Indirect democracy assistance seeks to establish parameters for improved government leadership, so-called good governance. This occurs by strengthening capacities, by reforming ministerial bureaucracies, and by building up important institutions (for example, courts of auditors and the police). At the same time, indirect democracy assistance generally aims at improving governmental capacities, at increasing the transparency of state institutions, and at supporting reforms that raise the living conditions of the population, especially marginalized population groups. Many classic programs of development cooperation—such as literacy campaigns—contribute indirectly to democracy assistance because they establish the prerequisites for participation.

In practice, of course, the direct and indirect aspects of democracy assistance often overlap, for instance, when groups in civil society are supported in developing strategies to combat corruption at the state level and in discussing these strategies in public.

The central focus of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s work for democracy is direct democracy assistance. Here the foundation cooperates with very diverse actors, primarily from civil society. In the S@utiMtaani project in Kenya, for example, young citizens have been helped to communicate with their political representatives. The Heinrich Böll Foundation supports the political participation of both genders, especially women, as illustrated by the engagement of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in Pakistan. And it fights for the rights of minorities and people who face discrimination because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, as an example from the South Caucasus shows (“Courageously opposing the majority,” pp. 72).

Human rights, democracy, and sustainability—this is the triad that characterizes the work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation both nationally and internationally. The strengths of the Heinrich Böll Foundation lie in its ability to connect social, gender-political, and ecological concerns to a democratic approach. Participation and rights are the constants here. With issues such as access to resources, land, and water, or sexual and reproductive rights, the foundation’s focus is always on basic democratic principles, on democratic control and accountability, and on an independent judiciary in which rights can be asserted through legal action.

Organizing the democratic participation of civil societies—and wherever possible also working with parliaments—is a goal that runs through the majority of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s programs. In order to promote a strong and independent civil society, partner organizations are also supported institutionally. Occasionally, however, nonpublic spaces are also needed: protected spaces for participants, sites for contemplation as well as for strategizing and networking.

Partners and addressees

For the Heinrich Böll Foundation, cooperation with its partners is a central element of successful and effective long-term engagement. When the foundation is a guest in a country, it follows the principle of working through and with local democratic forces on social reforms and political discourses. Knowledge, access, influence, networks, and funds, but also solidarity are shared. This legitimizes the work and establishes political sustainability—in contrast to the paternalistic approaches of other external players. Partners are essential for the work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. It needs their analyses of the political situation and their anchoring in the society. Thus partnership, the basis of all cooperation by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, is a fundamental principle.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation works primarily with reform-oriented individuals and groups from civil society. These include small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—for example, Nahnoo in Lebanon—that fight for public space as an important element of democratic societies, organizations such as The Inner Circle in Cape Town, which supports homosexual Muslims in their quest to harmonize their sexual orientation and gender identity with their faith, social movements such as MODATIMA (Movimiento de Defensa por el Acceso al Agua, la Tierra y la Protección del Medio Ambiente) in Chile, which works for water rights, as well as internet activists such as the Social Media Champions from the Follow the Money campaign in Nigeria. And of course this also includes institutions such as think tanks, research institutes, and legal organizations. Other political actors—parliamentarians, political parties, commissions, and public administrations—also play a role in the foundation’s work, whenever this fits with a particular objective. It is can be difficult to find pro-democracy elites at the various levels of political action, for instance, in parliament; the Heinrich Böll Foundation also frequently tries to identify nonpartisan parliamentarians who share a thematic concern, such as fighting violence against women or promoting renewable, decentralized energy sources. In several cases, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has also worked as an independent player, developing its own formats as well as programs for dialogue and networking. This also includes analyzing contemporary political developments and reporting about them back in Germany.

As a foundation with close ties to a political party, the Green Party, the Heinrich Böll Foundation supports other political parties and cooperates with them. Functional and competitive political parties are key components of democracies and crucial institutions of democratization. Through them, citizens are able to participate in political decision-making. At the same time, however, it is extremely difficult to establish stable parties and party systems that actually promote the development and consolidation of democracy. In any event and for good reasons, political foundations are not allowed to directly finance political parties, to provide funds to functionaries, or to actively participate in election campaigns. There are, nevertheless, legitimate ways to strengthen political parties and party systems, for instance, by supporting a political party with similar ideological positions through advising and support (the partisan approach), by cooperating with several political parties (the multiparty approach), or by supporting the civil society milieu surrounding a political party (the civil society approach).

Analyzing democratic relations and the institutions and people that influence them is a continuous task for the Heinrich Böll Foundation. As a foundation closely allied with a political party, it has to place itself repeatedly in the (ambivalent) role that parties play in establishing and securing democracies—and must choose which strategies and approaches the foundation can and wants to pursue in assisting and cooperating with political parties. In reality the possibilities available to the Heinrich Böll Foundation are often limited. For example, assistance according to the so-called partisan approach presupposes the existence of a “sister party” that is socially anchored, democratically organized, and shares the foundation’s socio-political ideas and values. This is rarely the case—especially outside of Europe. Possibilities, however, emerge in other places. Strengthening Green movements and parties in Central and Eastern Europe and networking with them, for example, is a central focus of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s office in Prague. In cooperation with the Green European Foundation (GEF) and the Czech Green Academy (Zelená akademie), joint events and seminars have been organized that increase the visibility of Green actors and issues in the region. In Pakistan, the Heinrich Böll Foundation supports the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, an informal group of female parliamentarians who seek a consensus on gender-relevant issues beyond party lines and positions and who work to increase women’s participation in legal and political decision-making. Wherever the Heinrich Böll Foundation cooperates selectively with political parties and parliamentarians, various points in common can be identified.

As a political foundation, the Heinrich Böll Foundation often helps to cross boundaries and create links between civil society, political parties, and parliament. It is able to work in areas where the government has little or no presence. And, conversely, the foundation can also serve as a bridge from society into politics and can help create political space. That is something highly valued by its cooperating partners.

Difficulties on the ground

Political processes at the local, national, and international levels are now more interconnected than ever and produce interdependencies. Climate change is also local, and international climate policy has local effects. International trade agreements can have a negative influence on local markets. International legal frameworks such the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) collide with national legislations and realities. And not infrequently in young democracies, the national and capital-city oriented politics diverges widely from that of rural regions.

The art is to create connections among these levels, taking into consideration the interdependencies of political processes. This is precisely what the Heinrich Böll Foundation does, as well as—wherever politically reasonable and feasible—seeking to promote exchanges and alliances among the players. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has been quite successful in this, especially regarding resource and climate politics and gender politics (on this, see “Without borders: The global participation of civil society,” pp. 96). In the many cases where the Heinrich Böll Foundation works more on local and national levels than on the international level—either because no international policy area exists or because certain international processes, such as peace negotiations, are not really accessible and cannot be influenced—the foundation focuses on the relevant international processes and developments and establishes connections with the national and local levels.

The political parameters are crucial, always and everywhere. They affect maneuvering room and, more than ever, the partners and target groups. In a number of countries this is a balancing act. The foundation’s work for democracy and democratization is an intervention into and a questioning of political power relations. The Heinrich Böll Foundation and its partners are aware of this and always coordinate their actions. It is precisely here that many governments seek to delegitimize these partners and the foundation’s work. This is especially—though not exclusively—the case in countries with authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. The art here is to carefully develop the democratic process without endangering the partners and colleagues in the country.


A article from the publication "For Democracy -The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Engagement in the World".

Creative Commons Lizenzvertrag This article is licensed under Creative Commons License.

Add new comment