‘Yes, We Need to Do Better’: World Leaders Talk Democracy

At the Athens Democracy Forum, a conference convened by The New York Times in Athens, from Sept. 13 to 17, global leaders talked about the state of democracy and its challenges around the world. The following are edited excerpts from several of the participants, who discussed the relevancy of international organizations like the United Nations how to better engage young people in the democratic process, policy strategies can help bring democracy to the developing world and what are some new models to consider.

Amina Mohamed, Minister of foreign affairs and international trade, Kenya.

I know there’s no way we would have resolved in the Horn of Africa the issue of piracy if the international community did not come together. There’s no way we’d deal with the issues in Somalia of terrorism if the international community did not come together. Look at the bird flu. If the World Health Organization did not rise to the occasion, I think we would have a pandemic of major proportions that would have engulfed all of the earth. Ebola, if the European Union and the United Nations did not come together as an international community and send in the many thousands of young health workers, I don’t think that would have been resolved. Yes, we need to do better, but I do not think that we should rule multilateralism and international cooperation out. It’s created the space that we need for dialogue, for discussions, for effective decision-making.

Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia and president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

The global political leadership is so utterly consumed in holding together the simple fabric of their local democracies and local economies, that their capacity, their attention span, their ability to sustain the existing institutions of global governance, from the United Nations, from the Bretton Woods Institutions and the rest, is itself going down. The net effectiveness of global institutions is being challenged because they are not delivering the goods. Look at the U.N. What’s the hallmark achievement of the U.N. in the last couple of years? You could say the Paris agreement on climate change. The other big achievement is the Sustainable Development Goals — Agenda 2030. I do not see any hope of the current U.N. machinery in the way it’s structured, or the way in which nation states are providing it with political and financial support, to deliver on Agenda 2030. It is a ticking time bomb for the legitimacy of the U.N. system if the Sustainable Development Goals are not delivered. States increasingly perceive the U.N. as ineffective. What I worry about is death by a thousand cuts to the U.N. Unless we radically turn this around, you will see it slowly drift to occupying the margins of global irrelevance.

Brian Smith, President of the Coca-Cola Company’s Europe, Middle East and Africa group.

The social contract, whatever that ends up becoming, whatever those important issues are for the communities the businesses work in, if it does not become a part of what corporations do and what we invest in, then consumers will eventually drop us. It’s almost part of survival into the next generation. If we don’t do it ourselves, then there should probably be ways in which we are forced to do that through entities and constituencies that would push us in that direction.

Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

When I started working in human rights in the early 1980s, all of Latin America was under right-wing military dictatorships. Today, there’s not one that’s left standing. All of Eastern Europe was under Communism. And today, there’s not a Communist government left. South Africa was under the height of apartheid, and South Africa has had a series of freely elected governments elected by a majority of its people. Women’s rights was not on the international agenda. Today, the women’s rights convention has been ratified by 183 countries. All those changes happened not because governments wanted them to, but because small groups of determined people harnessed the dream of freedom and made it come true. That’s what changes the world.

Irina Bokova, Director-General of Unesco.

There is a big social movement. The young generation is part of this and strongly pushing against inequalities and injustice. But we should hold governments accountable. I think governments should be there in the debate. I think education is the key to many issues. It’s about skills, jobs, values and human rights education. It’s about democracy at the end of the day. You can’t have a democracy if you don’t have informed citizens — citizens who have critical thinking. It is critical to have this young generation as global citizens.

Roby Senderowitsch, Practice manager, Governance Global Practice, World Bank.

Countries have evolved in a way that they try to take the best from the different models that they can find. When it comes to competitiveness and industrialization, maybe they look at China. When they look at innovation and how new technologies can help foster growth in their countries, they look at India or Ireland today. It’s a combination of different models. There are some people who say a dictatorship is much better than a democratic system to get there. This is a false premise, and there is not enough evidence to sustain it. It’s much better to live in an imperfect democracy than a perfect dictatorship. Even in a perfect dictatorship you need to be very lucky, to choose the right dictator, which is a paradox by itself because you don’t choose your dictators.

Sergei Guriev, Chief economist, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Part of the electoral setbacks in the West in 2016 were about people who felt they were being left behind. And it’s not just about inequality. Working in Central and Western Europe, we know that some equality can be unfair. It is unfair if I work harder, like in the Soviet system, and I don’t get compensated for that. But there is unfair inequality where we have inequality of opportunity, lack of shared prosperity, lack of inclusion. And this is where Nordic countries are delivering much better than some other Western countries. And that makes their political systems more sustainable and robust.

Keboitse Machangana, Director of Global Programs, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

More and more people are voting than before. We have more and more countries that are characterized as democracies. What is being challenged right now is not whether democracy is right or wrong. I think we have passed that debate. I think what we are seeing in the world is now people wanting better quality democracy. They would like to see that democracy being practiced exactly the way they believe it should be. When leaders are coming up with policies for problems, do they take into account the views of the people into those issues? What we are seeing around the world, the social movements, the student protests, is people saying they want to be engaged whether there’s an election or not. Democracy needs to go back to basics: the rule of the people.

He Jiahong, Director of the Center for Anti-Corruption and Rule of Law, the School of Law, Renmin University of China.

At the end of the 1970s, China didn’t know the term “rule of law.” We just tried to restore the legal system. We thought we could learn something from Western countries about democracy, but democracy cannot be exported. We have to find our own way. We should push forward rule of law first as a basis for development of democracy. And for development of democracy, we should have gradual changes. I don’t like the word “revolution” anymore. I like the word “evolution,” so people may have the right to know first, and then the right to speak, and then the right to vote.

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