Scholars, pro-democracy activists from around globe search for common truths

Rod Searcey Holta Kotherja of Albania speaks at a CDDRL Summer Fellows seminar

Holta Kotherja of Albania, left, speaks at a CDDRL Summer Fellows seminar as Stanford’s Michael McFaul looks on. Kotherja was one of 26 fellows from 21 countries who attended the three-week seminar.

Shahmahmood Miakhel was polite but adamant after listening to Hoover Senior Fellow Larry Diamond define democracy at the opening session on July 31 of a three-week seminar on democracy and development at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

"You have separated the political dimension from the social dimension," said Miakhel, a former deputy minister of interior in Afghanistan and a fellow at the seminar organized by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at FSI. "In my view, if a democratic society doesn't serve the people, what is the use of it?"

Diamond, an expert in comparative democratic development, agreed that democratic societies should support social criteria but said his definition focused on the minimum political threshold—instituting free and fair elections. "Democracy doesn't ensure that every wrong will be righted," Diamond said. "But democracy gives us the best bet."

Such discussions contrasting political theory with practice are key to Stanford's summer fellowship program, which integrates the study of democratization, economic development and the rule of law. The program's objective is to study how democratic institutions and bodies that foster economic development can be strengthened in different parts of the world. The center invites lawyers, journalists, politicians and civic and economic leaders from countries in transition to study at Stanford and share their experiences working on the front lines of promoting democracy. "It's a moving experience for us to be with people who are risking a lot and sacrificing a lot, as many of you are," Diamond said. Michael McFaul, deputy director of FSI and director of CDDRL, said the faculty gain as much from the program as the fellows. "We are dealing with these issues comparatively, abstractly or theoretically," he said. "You are in the real world every day. We should be able to learn from each other."

More than 750 people worldwide applied for the fellowship program, now in its second year. This summer, 26 fellows came from 21 countries including Iraq, China, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Congo, Ukraine, Thailand, Vietnam and Belarus. Several participants are former political prisoners and others live in exile. Violet Gonda works in London for SW Radio Africa, which broadcasts to South Africa and Zimbabwe. Both Gonda and the radio station are banned in Zimbabwe.

During the program's opening session, Nigerian journalist Sani Aliyu remarked that the concept of peaceful opposition is not well understood by political elites in much of Africa. "Opposition equals enmity, and enmity has to be crushed," he said. "In the West it's different." Diamond replied that democracy requires tolerance and an ability to distinguish between political difficulty and illegitimate condemnation. "In Africa, the problem is not the society but the political leaders who murder and abuse the opposition out of a desire to maintain office," he said.

In addition to Diamond and McFaul, faculty involved in the program include economics Professor Avner Greif, law lecturer Erik Jensen, President Emeritus Gerhard Casper and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, associate director of research at the center. Outside speakers such as Joan Blades, founder of MoveOn.org, and Hoover Fellows Tod Lindberg and Peter Berkowitz, also are invited to share their experiences. Stoner-Weiss said the program helps academics involved in policy-based research gauge the effectiveness of U.S. policies in practice. "Stanford doesn't have a public policy school, so one thing that CDDRL and FSI tries to do is make sure that our research matters and that it has application in countries we care about," she said.

The program also helps foster a global community among participants. "Fellows benefit tremendously from the camaraderie and meeting others who face similar problems in their work," Stoner-Weiss said. "The program gives them new ways of looking at problems. Last year's fellows said they went back with a renewed sense of purpose. The idea is to build up a community, class by class, of people who do this work."

The fellows shared a range of opinions about the success of democracy in their countries. Talan Aouny from Kurdistan in Iraq, who directs a U.S. government-funded Iraq civil society program, acknowledged the challenges in her country but was upbeat. "I'm optimistic that in the near future Iraq will be democratic," she said. In contrast, Ulvi Akhundly said civil society is depressed in Azerbaijan. "One hundred percent of NGOs are donor dependent, and therefore services are driven by donor interests, not by the needs of the citizens," he said. "Projects designed in beautiful offices in Washington and Brussels are a bit out of focus on the ground. There is a question in my society whether democracy is a fig leaf. Much work needs to be done."

Aliyu from Nigeria noted that despite individual differences among fellows, the group as a whole has much in common. "It appears that like-minded people were selected to participate," he said. "Each one 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."