“We take democracy for granted, and that’s when you risk losing it most”

The DIPD is an NGO working to promote democracy abroad, but its new director warns us not to ignore what’s going on here at home.

This is a tough time for democracy. Governments in a number of European countries are looking to undermine their judicial systems. Populism is on the march worldwide. Populations in North Korea, Saudi Arabia and other countries are under the thumbs of autocrats. All the while, academics turn out books with hand-wringing titles like The End of Democracy and How Democracies Die.

Ten years ago, with the backing of a solid majority of the Folketing, the DIPD, the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, was established in order to foster the growth of political parties and the democratic process in developing countries.

Lisbeth Pilegaard, who has headed the DIPD since November, admits that promoting democracy today is not as straightforward as was envisioned a decade ago.

“It’s much different than we could have imagined then,” she says. “We’ve seen an Arab Spring that really just turned out to be a long winter, growing polarisation, politicisation and the emergence of populist lawmakers and movements that have left their mark on all aspects of society.

Despite the grim turn of events, Pilegaard remains up-beat about democracy’s prospects.

“If I didn’t think there was something that could be done, I wouldn’t have taken the job,” she says. “I believe we can make a difference, and I believe that we have an obligation to ourselves and to those around us to talk up democracy, which, in spite of it all, is the most stable system there is.”

International to the core

Pilegaard joined the DIPD after its previous director, Rasmus Helveg Petersen was elected to the European Parliament representing the Soc Libs. Her worldview, she says, is as international as they come.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career that has taken place in an international milieu. That’s my Geschäft, and that’s what interests me.”

Pilegaard’s first taste of living abroad came when she was seven. Her father was an army officer and had been assigned to the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus. It was to be the first of several countries she would come to live in.

“I had to learn to adjust, to fit in, to be the only Dane in my class at an international school. I was seven and had to speak English, a language I hadn’t learned yet. That’s what has formed me.”

Democracy: a work in progress

After completing gymnasium, Pilegaard was chosen by the Red Cross to visit Uganda as a youth delegate. She attended Copenhagen University during the 1990s, eventually earning a master’s in rhetoric. From there, she began a career that has seen her help organise humanitarian aid in the Balkans, negotiate with the Taleban as a representative for the Norwegian Refugee Council and set up aid programmes in Somalia, Syria and Zimbabwe. Prior to coming to the DPID, she was an advisor to the UN, and she currently holds a position on the board of the European Endowment for Democracy.

“When I meet the people who apply for funding from the endowment, they tell me they see Europe and Denmark as examples of what it means to live free and democratic lives,” Pilegaard says. “That’s something we ought to keep in mind. We take democracy for granted, and that’s when you risk losing it most.”

Developed countries, Pilegaard warns, should be as concerned with tending their own democracies as they are with helping it take root in authoritarian regimes.

“It’s tough times for Danish political parties, too. Young people aren’t interested in joining. We have the same problems at home as we see abroad. Democracy is something we need to keep improving on, no matter what country you come from.”

Danish institute for Parties and Democracy

Established in 2010 with the goal of fostering the growth of political parties and democracy in Myanmar, Nepal, Colombia and other developing countries

Uses a “party-to-party” approach, in which Danish lawmakers travel abroad to teach foreign lawmakers about the democratic process

Most recently involved in bringing Danish Soc Dem and Soc Lib lawmakers to Myanmar to teach female lawmakers there how to organise political campaigns.

Lisbeth Pilegaard

2019 - Present Director, Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy
2012 - Present Member of the board, European Endowment for Democracy
2018 - 2019 Director, Project Outside
2005 - 2011 Head of Technical Support, Norwegian Refugee Council
1995 - 1998 Programme Manager, Danish Refugee Council
1995 Master's Degree, Rhetoric, Copenhagen University

This article is published by Djøfbladet. It originally appeared in Danish online at djoefbladet.dk.