Athens, Greece, 15/09/2015 – His Highness the Aga Khan delivered a keynote address to the Athens Democracy Forum, an international gathering of diplomats, business leaders and opinion makers hosted by the International New York Times and the United Nations Democracy Fund.
Today, all across the world, we continue to hear increasingly about “a crisis of confidence” in governments. While the pace of history accelerates, democratic governments often deadlock.
Scholars now count a growing percentage of countries as failed democracies. The Fund for Peace reports that in more than two-thirds of the countries regarded as the world’s most fragile, conditions have actually worsened this year. The enormous refugee crisis that now confronts us is one manifestation of that challenge.
I believe that the progress of democracy in our world is fundamentally linked to improving the quality of human life. The promise of democracy is that the people themselves best know how to achieve such progress. But if that promise is disappointed, then democracy is endangered. A UNDP survey of South American publics some years ago demonstrated that most people preferred an effective authoritarian government to an ineffective democratic one. Quality of life was the prime concern.
But what can we say then, about why democratic systems often fall short in their efforts to improve the quality of their constituents’ lives? Let me suggest four elements that could help strengthen democracy’s effectiveness in meeting this central challenge.
They are: improved constitutional understanding, independent and pluralistic media, the potential of civil society, and a genuine democratic ethic.
… Finally, let me mention a fourth concern that underlies this entire discussion – the central importance of fostering a “democratic ethic.”
At the heart of a democratic ethic is a commitment to genuine dialogue to achieve a better quality of life, even across new barriers of distance and diversity. This means a readiness to give and take, to listen, to bridge the empathy gaps as well as the ignorance gaps that have so often impeded human progress. It implies a pluralistic readiness to welcome diversity and to see our differences not as difficult burdens but as potential blessings.
One ultimate requirement for any effective democracy is the capacity to compromise. Social order rests in the end either on oppression or accommodation. But we can never find that balancing point – where the interests of all parties are recognised – unless competing leaders and their diverse followers alike, are committed to finding common ground.
That common ground, in my view, is the global aspiration for a better quality of life – from the reduction of poverty to quality longevity – built upon opportunities that will provide genuine hope for the future.
Democracy can only survive if it demonstrates – across the years and across the planet – that it is the best way to achieve that goal.
Discover, Explore and Learn by reading the complete Keynote Address at: