Latin America has been a pioneering region in several areas of democratic governance, including governance assessments. Many of its countries are celebrating the bicentenary of their independence from European colonial rule, and around twenty years of uninterrupted freedom from authoritarian regimes. But at this time of remembrance of their history of struggle for freedom, the countries of the region may yet have to lead a struggle that could be even more challenging, because less visible: social inequalities there are of the most extreme in the world, and democracies that are fully recognized on paper are being questioned on their actual effectiveness.
Inclusive and participatory country-led governance assessment processes may well be a useful weapon in this new struggle. On 10 and 11 June in Panama, location of UNDP's Regional Centre for Latin America and the Caribbean, ten countries of the region came together through the facilitation of the Oslo Governance Centre, UNDP's Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Escuela Virtual based in Bogota. They looked at the diverse landscape of existing governance assessment initiatives in the region, based on a background paper prepared by Professor Gerardo Munck.
To analyze specific country experiences more deeply, some of them offered a detailed account of their stories in talk-show-like interviews where questions came from the mediator as well as the audience. Beyond the mere description of assessment projects, participants were able to draw lessons learned from past and ongoing projects, so as to reflect on successes but also failures or regrets. Through these lively discussions, they could understand how Paraguay or Nicaragua managed to root a governance assessment initiative within key national executive or legislative institutions, and what challenges were related to this choice; how Chile succeeded in joining together representatives of the whole political spectrum in a critical review of the country’s democracy; why Barbados & the Eastern Caribbean entrusted the University of the West Indies with the elaboration of their governance assessment framework; or why the Mexican think-tank-led initiative decided to exclude perception data from their study.
Having absorbed the principles of UNDP’s approach to country-led governance assessments, through these direct country exchanges but also a presentation of the Global Programme on Democratic Governance Assessments and some of its key publications such as its Practice Note (English – Spanish), the participants put these principles into practice through a group exercise based on a fictional case study. The groups’ debates and outcomes were all the more interesting because participants included not only UNDP staff but also members of national institutions from the ten countries (Argentina, Barbados & Eastern Caribbean, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Paraguay). One of the most delicate and vividly discussed issues was to decide if the leadership of the assessment was to be taken by an independent organization of the country such as a University or a Research Institute, which would ensure the neutrality and legitimacy of the assessment process, but could risk to make its institutionalization difficult, or by a government entity, which, on the opposite, would increase the chances of institutionalization of the assessment but could pose more challenges for the inclusiveness and neutrality of the process.
Participants took this debate home to translate it into key decisions on projects to measure democratic governance in their own countries. What is not debatable is that this regional exchange was enriching for all, and helped stimulate the demand on country-led governance assessments in the region.