Q&A: Inclusive Democracy with Regional Director of Asia & Europe Ivo Balinov
In this Q&A, the Parliamentary Centre’s Regional Director of Asia and Europe, Ivo Balinov, discusses how support for parliaments, and other democratic actors can help counter democratic backsliding to make societies more inclusive.
Ivo Balinov leads the Centre’s work across Asia and Europe. Ivo has worked for over 18 years in parliamentary strengthening in more than 25 countries. He brings to our team a track record of successful programs, award winning innovations, extensive partnership networks, and an intimate understanding of the working cultures across Asia and Europe. Educated in diplomacy and political science, Ivo holds graduate degrees in European Studies and International Relations.
Q: Why do you believe it is important to work in the field of democracy and parliamentary support?
Balinov: Inclusive democratic governance is a prerequisite for development that leads to a better livelihood for all. Without an investment into democratic governance, humanitarian and economic development assistance does not lead to sustainable results. Better governance is the thread that holds everything together.
Parliaments are the pluralistic institutions at the heart of democracy. A well-functioning parliament is a place where the diversity of society is represented through the unique views, needs, and interests of the public. Within parliament these views can be constructively and peacefully reconciled. It is essential that marginalized groups get elected to parliament. Women, youth, and other marginalized groups need to be equipped with the skills, and tools to contribute to the decision-making process that affects their lives. Through the Parliamentary Centre’s programs, I have witnessed this in action. An example I will never forget is a parliamentarian using her newly acquired research skills to request that her local government allocate resources for a new bridge. This bridge allowed a remote community to be no longer isolated during flood season.
Democracies are based on the fundamental idea of the division of powers between the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. Yet support to elected assemblies represent only a fraction (less than 2%) of development assistance in this area. This imbalance can jeopardize the sustainability of reform efforts. Supporting elected assemblies is difficult as it takes time to build consensus between different parties, and individuals with different points of view. This effort is essential. If donor support is concentrated mainly on supporting the executive branch, it can sideline reform for a multi-party consensus.
Q: What is most important in order to be successful in this type of work?
Balinov: It takes a plethora of skills to be successful in this type of work. If I were to highlight a couple, it would be diplomatic skills, and the ability to remain non-partisan. One must be able to engage with interlocutors from various parties, and governance actors to pass the message on that better governance is in the common interest of society.
By compiling direct exchanges between parliamentarians, and other democratic actors we are capable of incorporating peer to peer exchanges where we work with their Canadian counterparts. This support is irreplaceable. At the Parliamentary Centre we are fortunate that our federal parliamentarians, provincial parliamentarians and parliamentary staff are always ready to take an active part in our programs.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges facing inclusive democracy in Europe and Asia today?
Balinov: Europe is very diverse. Established democracies like Germany, and the Nordic states are at the forefront of making democracy more inclusive. Yet even Europe’s advanced democracies share the same problem as Canada with an increasing challenge of disinformation, and attacks by authoritarian actors. There are other challenges for these states as well, such as domestic political apathy, extremism, growing incomes gaps, growing distrust, and dissatisfaction with institutions of governance. The challenges are severe in countries like Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia that have chosen a path to building sustainable democracy. Well-coordinated support by Western partners is essential for the success of their efforts.
The challenges in Asia are very serious. In recent years we have witnessed significant democratic backsliding across the continent’s Southeast. This has become more prevalent in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Democracy, human rights, gender equality, and the rule of law are heavily challenged. This trend has only gotten worse under the strenuous conditions of the ongoing pandemic. Asia has its own mavericks, like Taiwan, or the array of actors standing up to the military junta that are working to restore democracy in Myanmar. Elected members, civil society actors, and individual citizens are working hard to promote democratic values in the face of grave adversity. They need, and appreciate our support.
Asian societies drive a significant share of the global economy. Economic development will not translate to improved opportunities for all without inclusive democracy. Traditionally marginalized groups will not improve until these problems can be properly addressed. Without the cooperation of major Asian economies, addressing the global challenges of climate change, and environmental pollution is not possible. In a dynamic world, our support to emerging democracies in Asia, and Europe need to be faster, more flexible, innovative, and better coordinated. This is a challenge for all Western partners that want to create tangible change.
Q: How are the Parliamentary Centre’s programs supporting stronger democracies in Europe and Asia? What are some of the key areas you anticipate working on in this new role?
Balinov: Since the early nineties, our programming has been as diverse as Asia and Europe themselves. We have worked in over 20 countries on a range of issues. Through evidence-based research in support of the legislative process we have been able to give marginalized communities new voices. Women’s participation in decision making has been a key focus.
Our current programming in Ukraine promotes peace and stability by supporting the Verkhovna Rada to play its central role in formulating, implementing, monitoring, and reforming security policy in a way that takes into account the needs of both women, and men.
In Armenia, our partnership with the National Assembly has produced a first of its kind Corporate Strategic Plan. This foundational tool lays the building blocks for developing an effective, efficient, modern, and responsive parliamentary service. It will help the institution on its path to become a model public employer with enhanced opportunities for women, youth, and people with disabilities.
Together with other partners, the Parliamentary Centre continues to support democratic actors in Myanmar who are working under challenging circumstances to restore democracy after the military coup. We are engaged in dialogues with Taiwan and Moldova on how we can collaborate in improving, and promoting inclusive democratic governance. We will also be pursuing more of these dialogues across Asia.
To see that our government is placing an emphasis on supporting democracy across the Indo-Pacific, and in parts of Europe is very encouraging. We look forward to expanding our work in this part of the world.