Sari Varpama (BA Hons., Cert. Mgmt, MSc) works as Senior Adviser and former Executive Director of Demo Finland, a co-operative organisation of Finnish parliamentary parties. Varpama has co-ordinated an international civil society network associated with the Helsinki Process on Globalisation and Democracy, a multi-stakeholder forum initiated by the Finnish and Tanzanian Foreign Ministries. Returning to her country of origin in 2003, she had spent 11 years in the UK working for various NGOs in international campaigning and advocacy posts.
1. What is for you the added value of Europeans in assisting and supporting others in their democratic transformation and transition processes? What role can they play?
Democracy, as a form of governance, springs from local needs and priorities, and develops its distinctive form depending on local circumstances. The European Union is an example of a desire to build and maintain a peaceful continent through interdependence, jointly agreed rules and mutual respect. The ability to negotiate, compromise and agree to disagree is at the heart of European politics.
The Nordic countries have developed a model of their own based on the welfare state, which aims to secure equality for citizens. Even though each Nordic country has its specific flavours to the system, public services, such as education and health care, are universally accessible regardless of the economic position of the individual. Women are, and have been, central to the Nordic political system. Finland was the first country worldwide to give universal suffrage in 1906, granting full political rights to women. The subsequent impact on social policies has made Finnish women economically and politically independent.
In Europe, there is an understanding and acceptance of local differences, and an ability to co-operate across party lines and national boundaries. Europe, therefore has a lot to give in democracy support.
Europe acknowledges that there is no one model of democracy, and that democracy needs to be home grown for local circumstances and requires universal ownership. It understands that democracy cannot be exported, but it can be supported.
In many European countries coalition government is the rule, which dictates checks and balances, the rotation of power and the need to work together across party lines. Europe, therefore, is a rich source of experience of a diversity of systems at different levels of governance, varying from local to regional levels. Sharing this with countries struggling with their own democratic paths is a good form of peer support, and provides opportunities for mutual learning.
2. As a practitioner, give us an example of how you have been able to make a difference?
Demo Finland provides democracy support by carrying out and facilitating collaborative projects between Finnish parliamentary parties and political movements in its partner countries. Demo pays special attention to supporting women, youth and other under-represented groups in political participation. Demo is by parties for parties, and the focus of its work is peer support and mutual learning.
In Tanzania, for example, Demo has initiated and supported a women’s cross-party platform, which has, for the first time, brought together the women’s wings of parliamentary parties to strengthen their position in political decision-making and engage them in the building of the new constitution. As a result, it looks likely that in Tanzania, there will now emerge an electoral system under which a woman and a man candidate are elected in each constituency. Also, Demo has particularly supported interaction between women at different levels of politics, enabling the grassroots actors to have more access to those at higher levels. This has enabled more input from local level, as well as supported many young women to take part in elections and politics at large.
In Nepal, in a very demanding post-conflict environment, Demo heeded the request by Nepalese political activists to support political youth in the transition. As a result of this, a new political culture of non-violence and co-operation has emerged in the formerly tension riddled cross-party relations between political youth and student organisations. When Demo started working in Nepal in 2007, there was virtually no cooperation between the political youth and student organisations. Their only method of political activism was rioting and demonstrations. No other international actor had worked with them before.