Bright young stars pursue democracy and development, at home and abroad

In a 1999 article profiling six of “China’s bright young stars,” the New York Times described Junning Liu as “one of China’s most influential liberal political thinkers.” Today, sitting in a delegate-style conference room, Liu wants to add a point to Thomas C. Heller’s discussion of risk assessment and the role of law in doing business. If assets are not protected by legal institutions, Heller argues, foreign direct investment becomes a riskier prospect and economic growth suffers as a result. Except, he points out, in China. The legal system doesn’t manage risk but China is growing extremely fast.

“There are more businesspeople in Chinese prisons than dissidents,” Liu says evenly, with a suggestion of a smile. “So you see … Chinese people mind the situation more than you [the foreign investors] do.”

Liu is one of 26 change-makers from developing democracies who were selected from more than 800 applicants to take part in this year’s Stanford Summer Fellows on Democracy and Development Program, which is offered by FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). His colleagues in the program are presidential advisors and attorneys general, journalists and civic activists, academics and members of the international development community. They traveled to Stanford from 21 countries in transition, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, Egypt, and Nigeria. And like their academic curriculum during the three-week program, which examines linkages among democracy, economic development, and the rule of law, their professional experiences and fields of study center on these three areas, assuring that each fellow brings a seasoned perspective to the program’s discussions.

“For most of the fellows … democracy is seen not as a luxury or an option, but rather as a necessity for achieving broad-based development and a genuine rule of law.”The curriculum for the first week focused on democracy, with leading comparative democracy scholars Michael A. McFaul, Larry Diamond, and Kathryn Stoner team-teaching the morning seminars. Using selected articles and book chapters as starting points for discussion, McFaul, Diamond, and Stoner-Weiss began the weeklong democracy module with an examination of what democracy is and what definition or definitions might apply to distinguish electoral democracy, liberal democracy, and competitive authoritarianism. Another question discussed was whether there was such a thing as Islamic democracy, Asian democracy, Russian democracy, or American democracy.

As the week progressed, fellows and faculty discussed institutions of democracy, electoral systems, horizontal accountability, development of civil society, democratic transitions, and global trends in democracy promotion. Fellows led sessions themselves in the afternoons, comparing experiences and sharing insights into how well political parties and parliaments constrained executive power and how civil society organizations contributed to democratic consolidation and/or democratic transitions.

In addition to discussing their personal experiences with democracy promotion, fellows met with a broad range of practitioners, including USAID deputy director Maria Rendon, IREX president Mark Pomar, founder Joan Blades, Freedom House chairman and International Center on Nonviolent Conflict founding chair Peter Ackerman, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict president Jack DuVall, Otpor cofounder Ivan Marovic, A Force More Powerful documentary filmmaker Steve York, and Advocacy Institute cofounder David Cohen. Guest speakers talked about their fieldwork, offered practical advice, and answered fellows’ questions. This component grounded the classroom discussions in a practical context. “It was important for our visiting fellows to interact with American practitioners, both to learn about innovative techniques for improving democracy practices but also to hear about frustrations and failures that Americans also face in working to make democracy and democracy promotion work more effectively,” explains McFaul. “We Americans do not have all the answers and have much to learn from interaction with those in the trenches working to improve governance in their countries.”

The following two weeks would focus in turn on development and the rule of law, but democracy continued to serve as the intellectual lynchpin of the program, with economies and legal institutions analyzed vis-à-vis their relationship to the development of democratic systems.

“For most of the fellows, who come from national circumstances which once suffered (or still do suffer) prolonged authoritarian rule, democracy is seen not as a luxury or an option, but rather as a necessity for achieving broad-based development and a genuine rule of law,” says Diamond. “Unless people have the ability to turn bad rulers out of office, and to hold rulers accountable in between elections through a free press and civil society, countries stand a poor prospect of controlling corruption, protecting human rights, correcting policy mistakes, and ensuring that government is responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people.”

Among the fellows, this idea of democracy as a “necessity,” a fundamental platform from which to pursue economic and legal reforms, was widely recognized. “It appears that like-minded people were selected to participate,” notes Sani Aliyu, a broadcast journalist and interfaith mediator from Nigeria. “Each of us is interested in the development of humanity, and it appears that we have accepted that democracy seems to be the vehicle through which human development can be accessed reasonably. We share this."

As the program’s curriculum shifted to development issues for week two, the all-volunteer assemblage of Stanford faculty expanded to include professors and professional research staff from Stanford Law School, the Graduate School of Business, and the Department of Economics. Avner Greif established the context for the development module with an overview of institutional foundations of politics and markets, followed by discussions of growth restructuring in transitional economies with GSB professor Peter B. Henry and Stanford Center for International Development deputy director Nicholas Hope. Terry L. Karl analyzed corruption in developing economies and the “resource curse,” and Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, joined Diamond, McFaul, and Karl in discussing how the spectrum of democratic to autocratic systems of government affected a country’s development.

Another salient component of the development module centered on the role of media in promoting democracy and development. The field trip to San Francisco, which included a session with KQED Forum host Michael Krasny, a briefing on international reporting at the San Francisco Chronicle, and a discussion of media strategies at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, provided particularly rich practical content, as did the fellows’ roundtable on maintaining media independence in semi-autocracies.

At KQED Radio, Cuban-born Raul Ramirez, the executive producer of Forum, talked with fellows about the concept of “civic journalism” and KQED’s goal of creating space for civic discussion. Forum host Michael Krasny and Ramirez, who runs workshops on civic journalism at the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht, then fielded a barrage of questions from fellows: How does KQED maintain independence from government and commercial funding? If Rush Limbaugh attacked you, would you respond in your program? Is it possible to have neutral, nonpartisan public radio? How do you manage to deal with political issues, particularly when you start to affect the power structures with your programming? Are there any words, like “terrorist,” that you are banned from using on the air?

“Discussion of this kind is of great importance to both media professionals and the audience,” notes Anna Sevortian, a journalist and research coordinator at the Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow. “It helps you to clarify how a particular newspaper, TV, or radio station is dealing with matters of public policy or of political controversy.”

The third week’s curriculum layered rule-of-law issues onto the conceptual modules of democracy promotion and economic development, drawing on the teaching caliber of constitutional scholar and Stanford president emeritus Gerhard Casper, Erik Jensen, Helen Stacy, Allen S. Weiner, Tom Heller, and Richard Burt. After establishing a theoretical framework through discussions of the role of law, constitutionalism, human rights, transitional justice, the role of law in business and economic development, and strategies for promoting the rule of law, fellows compared experiences defending human rights, met with American immigration and civil liberties lawyers, and had a session with Circuit Court Judge Pamela Rymer on judging in federal courts. Field trips to Silicon Valley-based Google and eBay again put into practical context the free market, rule-of-law components discussed theoretically in the classroom.

Despite the intellectual rigor of the coursework and discussion, and the exploration of practical applicability with guest speakers and field trips, the Stanford Summer Fellows on Democracy and Development Program was designed as much to stimulate connections among field practitioners and to provide a forum in which to exchange ideas. Weekend dinners, stretching late into the evening at the homes of Diamond and Stoner-Weiss, helped to gel the collegiality developing in the classroom. Led by Violet Gonda, a Zimbabwean journalist living in exile in London, and Talan Aouny, director of a major Iraqi civil society development program, the fellows organized a multicultural party, a potluck-style affair in which guests made a dish from their home country to share with their colleagues and friends of the program.

Program directors McFaul and Stoner-Weiss hope this social network will endure well into the weeks and months after the program. “We envision the creation of an international network of emerging political and civic leaders in countries in transition who can share experiences and solutions to the very similar problems they and their countries face,” says Stoner-Weiss. To ensure they fulfill their goal of building a small but robust global network of civic activist and policymakers in developing countries, CDDRL recently launched its Summer Fellows Program Alumni Newsletter. The newsletter is based on an interactive website that will allow the center to strengthen its network of leaders and civic activists and facilitate more groundbreaking policy analysis across academic fields and geographic regions, the results of which will be promptly fed back to its activist alumni in a virtual loop of scholarship and policymaking.

Earlier this year, CDDRL also moved to professionalize the Stanford Summer Fellows on Democracy and Development Program by hiring a program manager, Laura Cosovanu, an attorney with experience in foundations and other nonprofit organizations, to oversee its advancement. The logistical acrobatics Cosovanu performed throughout the three weeks quickly became the object of good-natured teasing for some of the fellows, all of whom seemed to realize and appreciate the work required to get fellows and faculty into the same room.

As Kenza Aqertit, a National Democratic Institute for International Affairs field representative from Morocco, told program faculty at the graduation dinner, “You’ve done a great job and you should be proud of all your efforts. Plus you’ve won so many friends in so many autocracies and semi-autocracies.