Governance is Key During COVID-19? (w/ Kristen Sample)

World map of Coronavirus (Covid-19)

As much as COVID-19 is a health and economic crisis, at its core, it is also a governance crisis.

NDI President Derek Mitchell and new Director of Democratic Governance Kristen Sample delve into ways governments and the international community have risen (or not) to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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Derek Mitchell: As we all continue to shelter in place and respond to the colossal health and economic crisis that is COVID-19, we must not forget that at its core, pandemics are as much a result of governance failure as any failure of healthcare or health system.

Since working to support democratic processes, institutions and governance around the world is what NDI does for a living, we thought it useful to delve into the role governance has played in the COVID-19 pandemic with NDI's experience in more than 50 countries around the world serving as a guide. Welcome to DemWorks. My name is Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute.

To discuss all this with me in this podcast, I'm joined by NDI's new director of democratic governance, Kristen Sample.

Kristen Sample: Thank you so much Derek.

DM: Kristen just joined us on March 1. She brings more than 20 years of democratic governance experience with her to NBI having advised and evaluated programs at UN Women, UN Democracy Fund, the Open Society Foundation, Global Partners, Governance and International IDEA. Kristen is an expert on countering corruption, legislative strengthening in the nexus of gender and politics and she has led projects focused on the impact of democratic reform on economic development and citizen security. At a moment when the global crisis in governance is at the center of international conversation, at least before the pandemic push pause, we are thrilled to have Kristen aboard to look at that issue with fresh creativity here at NBI. So welcome Kristen to your very first DemWorks podcast.

KS: I'm really pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you today on such important issues.

DM: So we'll speak about the crisis of governance but also the pandemic factor as well. But I do want to start with this global governance crisis that has sort of preceded this. This is a broader overhang. We've seen all over the world popular demonstrations over the past year and more and everywhere from Moscow to Managua, to Hong Kong, to Khartoum, to Algeria, to Istanbul, to Paris. You can go on and on. And what it represents is a frustration with the quality of governance. Democracy somehow is not delivering for people. And I want to hear your thoughts on that. It's a moment of turmoil certainly. People will look at this and say, "Well, democracy is failing," but it's more than democracy that this is happening. It's a general quality of governance question that I think actually provides an opportunity. So let me just ask your thoughts on that first off, Kristen.

KS: Yeah. Thanks so much for that question, Derek. I think that NDI, since we have officers or programs spanning every region of the world basically in more than 50 countries, we're in a very good position to be able to take the pulse of what's happening in the different countries. In fact, we have been conducting surveys every two weeks of our country programs to get a sense of what's happening on the ground and we've received some very interesting signals that I'm really happy to be able to share with you today.

On the one side, we are saying that in many countries governments are responding very seriously, in very concerted ways to the health crisis. I mean in more than two thirds of the countries. The governments in the countries where we work are closing nonessential businesses in over 60%, they are communicating in ways, having very intensive communication campaigns that really are reaching all citizens. But when it comes to the democracy side, when it comes to implementing that response and pursuing a response that's consistent with democratic principles and norms and values and institutions, we are seeing some troubling developments at the same time.

For instance, the number of governments by our account, over 40% of the governments in the countries where we work are declaring emergency powers and it's clear that this is an extraordinary situation that requires extraordinary measures, but in many cases these emergency powers are inconsistent with democratic principles. They are not linked to the crisis. There is no provision for legislative oversight or in many cases, these have no sunset class, so there's no time limit and these are simply open-ended.

And link to that and linked in many cases to these emergency powers, emergency decrees, we're seeing an uptick also in threats to fundamental freedoms. For instance, nearly half of our countries are reporting that there are measures in place where governments are repressing non-state media who are critical of the government's response to the pandemic and that in some cases, again, almost 50% of our countries, there are measures in place where governments are limiting space for civil society to engage in political actions.

Another factor that I'd like to highlight too is while we're all distracted by the pandemic and while people are at home and perhaps with less access to information and less direct contact with government, there are also signals that many governments are using this as an opportunity to diminish anti-corruption controls. So that means that in some cases economic response packages or healthcare delivery is taking place with less transparency and less openness, which as you can imagine is a risk in terms of making sure that those resources are actually getting where they need to be.

And all of this, all of the stresses, the frustration and these concerns of course also have impacts when it comes to citizen trust, interpersonal trust citizen trust of the government and also we're seeing greater potential for civic unrest and a deteriorating security environment.

So all together, I hate to start with such a pessimistic view, but I think it is important again, through the networks that we have, the relationships that we have with political and civic actors on the ground, to convey the seriousness of the situation and to make sure that we're always communicating that well, this response requires really drastic measures. These measures need to be consonant of course, with the principles of democratic governance.

DM: Right. It fits into this broader competition of narratives that occurred even before the pandemic began, where China or Russia saying, "Look, authoritarian governments are more efficient in providing services. We do this stuff better. Democracy is messy." And they're able, as you say, to take advantage of this moment when people are looking for strong central control to make that case and to both do that rhetorically but also through provision of services.

And then it's not just those major countries. You'll have folks whether it's Hungary or Poland or you just go around the world, they're postponing elections. They are shutting down civil society, they're settling scores with adversaries. They're constraining public debate, saying that those things are luxuries during a time of crisis and that gives them an opportunity then as you said, for not just power grabs, but resource grabs and money grabs and they say, "Look, these are extraordinary times. They require extraordinary measures." And the concern is that these extraordinary measures will be permanent, that they'll say you need us to be surveilling people.

So this is a challenge for certainly those who do democracy work and for folks inside these countries. But I think the broader question of security, we'll talk about that maybe a little bit later, but it's interesting what we're seeing on the ground as you say.

You do a lot of work in the legislative sphere, you have a lot of background on that. How legislatures are particularly important. Civil society is too, but just focusing on legislature's role as a check and balance against executive overreach, can you talk about from the NDI experience or your other observation, how legislatures are being challenged, how they're dealing with this moment, how they're adapting to deal with the COVID-19 moment.

KS: Yeah, absolutely. So I'm so glad you brought this point up. The first challenge that I'd highlight is this risk that the legislative branch is getting sidelined. In a crisis like this, the executive branch is generally front and center. Their role is clearly understood by citizens. Head of state might be the one out there doing daily press briefings or a health minister communicating medical reports. And there's this sense of emergency that as I sort of alluding to before, it seems to empower the executive branch. And unfortunately that seems to be, in many cases, at the expense of the legislative power.

And additionally, another challenge and another reason that legislatures are perhaps getting crowded out or sidelined is simply that, the coronavirus, by it's dynamic, it's not socially compatible. And since parliaments are these multi-member bodies that have more diffuse operations, more diffuse leadership and that involve hundreds of different people, it's simply just a challenge to assemble a large group of people together, bring them together and keep them front and center in this crisis.

So if that first challenge is making sure that people just keep in mind that legislatures matter and the legislatures are able to exert their rights and their authority, I'd say that the second challenge of course is just how do parliaments, legislatures operate in a virtual world. Politicians are by nature, they like to shake hands, they like to get out on the street, they need to be in touch with their constituents. And there are so many challenge involved in this current world that we have where we should all be social distancing.

So looking across the world where we work, their parliaments are adopting different measures. Some of them are using social distancing restrictions like reducing the number of MPs in sessions. Others are moving to remote voting, remote deliberations. And then others are not meeting at all, which of course is quite terrible. And in those cases where legislatures have been dissolved or have been suspended for long periods of time.

We are working too, as you were saying, as NDI closely with parliaments in a number of countries to try to do those adaptations to the rules of procedures so that they're able to continue meeting in session and continue deliberating and continuing exercising oversight. For instance, we have connected parliamentarians in Colombia with parliamentarians in Ecuador. We have virtual sessions to learn from Ecuador's experience in adopting a regulation for the implementation of virtual session and teleworking.

So we are trying to connect parliamentarians across countries to understand how some parliaments have been moving forward in terms of remote procedures and how that's going for them. And two more challenges. One I'd highlight is that oversight role that we've been talking about. And from the same survey that we conducted with our country programs, we found that in 59% of the countries, checks and balances have been weakened, have deteriorated under the pandemic.

And this is happening at such an unfortunate time when there's so many policy measures that need to be approved and put in place. If we just take the issue of debt policy for instance, I saw a statistic from the Westminster Foundation that more than 80 countries have already requested emergency aid from the IMF. I mean these countries are struggling of course to meet different types of fiscal obligations and they are desperate for cash in order to ramp up health services and put in place economic measures.

And so these governments are taking on debt obligations, debt burns that are going to have far reaching impacts and long lasting impacts that should really be approved by the legislative branch and include monitoring and reporting. And that's not always the case in most of these instances.

DM: So you just say it's a very dangerous time and folks are adapting procedurally, but there are really implications to this longterm, including for security. And I think we'll get to that after the break.

For more than 35 years, NDI has been honored to work with courageous and committed pro-democracy activists and leaders around the world to help countries develop the institutions, practices and skills necessary for democracy's success.

KS: Welcome back. Derek, I've heard you speak to the issue of authoritarian systems and how they're operating in this crisis and that the authoritarian nature in itself makes health crises more likely. And you've also said in some of your speeches and some of the conversations we've had that it's not a coincidence that the pandemic started in China and I'd really like to hear from your expertise, your deep background on China specifically. Can you explain to listeners why that is? Why there is that connection?

DM: Well, as I said at the top, this is not just a health crisis, it's a governance crisis. It's a factor of governance both in the prevention of the pandemic and the response to it. We talked so far mostly about the response, how we're responding to the pandemic, but the core of the pandemic is a failure of governance. The difference between a local health crisis that is contained and a pandemic lies in the ability of a political system to respond to that early challenge quickly and effectively. And that requires both government and civic action. And if you're going to deal with this crisis early, it requires both. To do that, you have to act swiftly. You have to have widespread testing and contact tracing. You need critical support from citizens. In order to do all that and to ensure that that happens, you have to have basic civic trust.

Closed societies routinely fail that test of having that civic trust and that rapid action for some very practical reasons. When a government suppresses a free flow of information, when it fails to empower independent civic institutions, when it's too insecure to convey bad news candidly, doesn't feel that it has a political legitimacy, therefore, it's insecure to convey bad news. When its data can't be trusted because it's opaque, when its officials are afraid to speak truth to power or communicate inconvenient truths to their superiors or act decisively, absent waiting for some strict orders from the very center and they can't move quickly, the result can be deadly.

It turns what is a local health issue into a pandemic so it crosses borders. It becomes not just a problem for one country but for all others. So democratic governance is very, very practical and once again in this regard, transparent, accountable, inclusive, responsive, open governments is essential to crisis response but it's also essential to prevent the crisis from emerging to begin with.

And it is a matter of national security. This highlights frankly what many of us have known all along, that this is not just nice but has very practical national security effects. And as we just talked earlier, the irony is that just as the world needs more open democratic societies to prevent future crises and deal with the current one, there are opportunistic politicians who are closing political and civic space. That I think is a very practical reason why that closed societies cause these pandemics.

KS: I think that all of those points that you've been raising in terms of the threats and the vulnerabilities are so important for us to keep front and center. At the same time, here in NDI, as you know, is we're very keen to make sure that there are also opportunities to elevate the many examples around the world where governments are acting democratically and effectively in response to the crisis and they're framing and working with citizens in ways that are absolutely consistent with democratic values and principles. And so I do want to showcase some of those.

I think it's received a lot of press around the world how New Zealand, for instance has reacted, and I read this week that New Zealand is perhaps one of the very first countries to have been able to successfully eliminate COVID. They have no new COVID cases. And it's a case that really stands out for the way that the prime minister has been able to deliver information in a very clear, compassionate, inclusive way, a way that's very grounded in science of course, and transparent.

And at the same time where the legislature has had an important role developing a parliamentary select committee that's providing scrutiny of the government's response. The government has also been very affirmative there I think, in terms of issues of freedom of information and media freedom and has said that they would not slow down, for instance, their commitment to responding to requests for information during the crisis. So there's certainly the case of New Zealand, which is so interesting and it's shown such early success, but there are other places around the world too where specific measures taken by the government I think have been so positive and far reaching.

Uruguay comes to mind for instance. We see so many cases where authoritarian leaders are using this crisis to be able to settle scores as you were saying, or to act in a very partisan fashion. But in Uruguay, the president convened all of the former presidential candidates to give a joint press conference to send a powerful message of unity and to show that across the party divide, they were working together to develop responses.

Taiwan also really stands out for its cross party coordination, the transparent communications they've had, the very creative efforts that the government has put in place there, I think they've called it humor, not rumor. A campaign to share facts in real time to counter disinformation, to manage fear. So there aren't many cases out there as I was saying, of governments that are responding effectively and in ways that are building that citizen trust that you were mentioning.

DM: Yes. And then a further one, another democracy that's a leading democracy, probably the first out of the gate is South Korea. They did exactly what was necessary. People are looking at that example, a democratic example. They didn't sacrifice rights at all. They obviously had very strong controls at times of the society, but it took very swift action. They did widespread testing, contact tracing and they worked with civil society and is shown over and over that civil society is probably one of the most important factors. It's not simply a government driven thing that makes a response success. Civil society serves as a very efficient force multiplier for government. We saw that in Katrina, hurricane Katrina. We see it's proved over and over that it really is effective in getting the word out and messaging.

Ensuring is like in Taiwan through their civic tech community, they're sort of hackers. They're young citizens, who themselves in a voluntary fashion, formed a community. They were viewed as allies and partners not alienated from the government. And that partnership has been a success in Taiwan, has been a success in South Korea and is essential for a success. And that means that governments need to be open, need to be transparent, they need to see society as partners. So this is absolutely critical.

KS: Yeah. And I just want to add on the South Korea example. I'm so glad you brought that up because South Korea held elections during the pandemic on April 15, they had national assembly lessons and they were actually able to organize those elections in a way that was seen as very transparent, that was very consistent with electoral integrity and they had higher levels of turnout than in previous elections, which is pretty amazing. And there's so many countries around the world that are facing elections in 2020. I think the way that South Korea was able to do it with a very intensive communication campaign as you were speaking again to their transparency of communication, they had expanded early voting measures in place. They had home voting, they had very comprehensive safeguards for people to be able to vote in person. So even organizing an election in a time that seems so difficult and so challenging, I think that as you were saying, democracies like South Korea are showing that there is a way forward.

DM: Right. And I think we can learn some lessons from that as well. There are groups, including NDI has been at the center of this, of putting together documents that say here are the election integrity guidelines for this moment, that democracy should not be sacrificed at the alter of crisis response, that elections need to move forward if they can be done in the right way and if they need to be postponed, it's postponed within a certain timeframe and only during a period of high crisis. So there are principles here where democracy can continue to move forward. It makes the society stronger, it builds that civic trust that's important for crisis response. But we need to... You can walk and chew gum at the same time at this moment. So I'm glad we were able to talk about some of these democratic examples.

KS: Absolutely. And I will be right back after this quick message.

You can hear more from other democracy heroes by listening to our DemWorks podcast available on iTunes and SoundCloud.

DM: Welcome back with Kristen Sample. Of course you're new to NDI, but you know NDI very well and it's a fundamental principle everywhere that nations will only succeed when societies are fully inclusive, where they don't leave anybody behind. They enable all to contribute equally. That means women, that means young people, that means traditionally marginalized groups, LGBT communities, et cetera. It's just plain logic that if you leave anybody behind, that you're not going to get the most out of your citizen when you're going to hold your country back, and yet we are witnessing negative impacts toward these populations during this COVID-19 moment. Kristen, can you speak to this, explain what's going on here and why it matters?

KS: Sure, absolutely. I mean obviously this crisis isn't occurring in a vacuum. It's occurring in a context where across the world, across all countries, there are already this array of existing intersecting inequalities where some people were coming into this crisis already in a disadvantaged place. And then the pandemic itself has differentiated impacts that affect women and other marginalized groups disproportionately. I'll just give a few examples.

I mean lockdown for women who are living in relationships of power imbalance and of abuse perhaps, lockdown for them means locked in, with an abusive partner. And for instance our survey of country offices that I was referring to previously, in 66% of our countries, there seems to be an increase in sexual and gender based violence since the pandemic. In 15% of those countries, it's a significant increase. Of course these women might be locked in in vulnerable situations and then at the same time have less access to government resources, government support. So that's one example.

Others, people with disabilities for instance, who have always struggled to access health services, transportation in an equitable fashion, you can imagine that that lack of access and the differentiated impact of the pandemic on them is life threatening in some cases.

There are digital divide concerns, people in rural areas or women, other marginalized groups who may have less access to information, to resources. There are real concerns also and cases around the world where this pandemic is being exploited by anti migrant hate groups for instance, who try to link movement and migration to the origin of the virus. Or in some cases, for instance in Africa and some of the countries where we work, media outlets are perpetuating stereotypes against people with albinism for instance, and placing the blame for the virus on them.

So there are so many challenges around making sure that people have access to resources, people are safe and that we are able to convey and support a message of social cohesion and solidarity instead of the divisions that we're seeing pop up around the world. I think that in our case, for instance in Indiana, what we're trying to do is reinforce the need for inclusive decision-making, making sure for instance, that women are involved in decision making and other marginalized groups are involved in decision making and representation and in these deliberation bodies, making sure that the policymaking is taking into account these vulnerabilities and these different differentiated needs. And also the government messaging is inclusive, getting to everybody and it's supporting the social cohesion messaging and solidarity messages.

DM: And again, this is critical for the crisis response, pandemic response. I mean COVID-19 doesn't discriminate. Whoever has it, whoever is vulnerable or subject will get it and it will spread to the society writ large. So if you're not inclusive, if you're excluding folks, if politicians then see that there is an opportunity here as some politicians will to divide and conquer, to play on fear. Or spoilers from the outside may see that there are opportunities if they're divided societies, to create tensions that then require or enable them to negotiate the deal that you want to make or promote corruption within the society.

There are all kinds of ways this makes societies less stable, less secure, and affects the development and certainly the response to crises. So this is not just a nice thing, it's not just a human rights thing. This is fundamentally important to national security, international security and to everything that we're seeking to achieve through democracy.

KS: Absolutely. And I think along the things I'd really like to hear from you too, Derek, in terms of how you see along the lines of this being an international crisis that includes the whole world, that joins us all although we are in very different places. How you see role NDI's role in supporting that cross border cooperation and solidarity and having the international community come together?

DM: Given that authoritarians are claiming their model is unique for this moment, we have to be out there making our case. But in terms of our specific adaptations that we are doing, we are working in places like Ethiopia to ensure that the public opinion surveys are necessary invents of their postponed elections or continue forward, but can be done virtually. That we can adapt legislative rules of procedure in places that need it to allow for remote voting and continue the legislative process to ensure that election integrity is maintained.

As I mentioned earlier, there are certain principles and established accepted international principles for when and how to postpone elections, how to hold them during moments of crisis. And we put together crisis response kits that can be used. It's called the practical toolkit for politicians during a pandemic that can help political parties figure out how to do crisis management or help the government put together crisis communication.

So a lot of things that can be done internally and done across different countries that ensure the solidarity is still there, the momentum for democracy is still there. The expectation that democratic norms are sustained in this moment so that the headlines are not simply roll back authoritarian opportunism, that massive surveillance, all the things that people may succumb to because of fear during crisis, that there is an alternative voice and it says it doesn't have to be like that. Or if it does have to be like that now, it doesn't have to continue to be like that indefinitely and that there are some standards by which these things are being imposed.

So that international norm setting at this moment, it's probably more important than ever to do and we are trying to do at national level. We're trying to do it across different countries to ensure that there is not a vacuum to which the authoritarian voice moves and has free open season for its own values. It goes across, I think, a lot of different countries. And Kristen, I'd be interested in your thoughts from your perspective of governance, how that's working.

KS: I think that there's a real role for the international community to play. And I wanted to highlight that too in what you're saying because these challenges are so vast that clearly we have to work together on people to people exchanges and supporting lesson sharing. And so I do think that there's an absolute role for the international community playing in terms of getting out the messages of that democracy is not a luxury, it's not something that could be put into a coma or put on hold while we're all sheltering, that it's something that has to be reaffirmed on a daily basis.

And so I do think that countries also have to, in addition to standing firm, standing on their own ground on democratic principles, they also have to be willing to promote and expand those democratic principles across borders, especially to counter those liberal influences that you were referring to earlier, that in some cases are, really transmitted and increased through disinformation campaigns or phony PR campaigns that need to be called out of course by all actors.

DM: Thanks again, Kristen for joining me in conversation about how democracies can best meet the challenges of COVID and how NDI with its global partners are meeting the moment.

KS: Thank you, Derek.

DM: I'd also like to say thank you to our listeners. To learn more about NDI or to listen to other DemWorks podcasts, please visit our website at Thanks very much.