The Athens Democracy Forum Reminds Us That Democracy Is Not Meant To Be Easy
ATHENS—From the roof of the Acropolis Museum, the mayor of Athens, Georgios Kaminis awarded the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, the third annual Democracy Award for his success in establishing a prosperous democracy after a sixteen-year civil war. Previous recipients of the award include Spain’s former Prime Minister, Felipe González, for his role in stabilizing European democracy and executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, for his life-long commitment to democracy through his fight for human rights.
The award was presented as a part of the Athens Democracy Forum. It was organized by The New York Times, the City of Athens, and the United Nations Democracy Fund. The three-day forum brought together academics, diplomats, business leaders, NGOs, and policy experts. For the second time in 2018, a select group of students from around the world were also invited to help ensure that the voice of the youth was represented in debating the status of global democracy.
International forums are valuable democratic institutions as key opportunities for deliberation and constructive conversation. However, these forums are only effective in achieving measurable growth in proportion with the level of robustness of the representation of their delegates. In other words, these global forums must avoid appearing elitist by inviting a vast spectrum of attendees. Hosting young professionals and students, seasoned field workers, and making an effort to have as many countries and regions represented as possible is an important step in broadening the discussion. Liberal democracies that rule through majority are only as free as their minority recognition thrives.
The Athens Democracy Forum aims to set itself apart from other global forums by creating opportunities to identify solutions to the problems that are being made aware of through the conference sessions. The New York Times joined forces with the UN Development Program to create a strategic partnership in progress reporting the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). This unique interactive reporting heard first hand from the various actors—private corporations, financial services, nonprofit sectors, governments—that are involved in the process of strengthening democratic values and institutions through aligning their actions with the SDGs.
“The concept is simple,” explains Natasha Pentagioti, the manager of UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN) Greece, “identify what simple, actionable items can we pursue in our individual roles to ensure democratic values are strengthened, and the SDGs met.”
UNSDSN Greece collaborated with the student delegate to compile a series of white papers delivered to the UN for each of the goals discussed at the conference. The goals mentioned were, Good Health and Wellbeing, Quality Education, Reducing Inequalities, and Climate Action. As a form of needs assessment applied research, the UN can identify the gaps in the implementation of the goals and provide the correct tools necessary to the various industries that wish to commit to taking action.
Attendees were also encouraged to bring back what they’ve learned to their home countries to extend the values discussed. CEO’s present could propose new business strategies to their boards, while foreign policy experts can report back to their state officials the current state of affairs. The students return to their campuses with a renewed sense of passion for their studies.
Hosted in the ancient capital associated with the birth of democracy, forum attendees were reminded of the long journey democratic values had endured throughout history. From the top of the Acropolis, the view of Athens is scattered with unmatched historical significance. The urbanized scrawl of the city resembles the growth of a vine, extending its branches as it curls around thousand-year-old ruin sites. This city has been conquered and freed various times throughout history. Whether it be the Ottoman Empire or financial crises, the spirit of the people remains unscathed.
Antigone Lyberaki, the general manager of Solidarity Now, the leading NGO in Greece managing the refugee influx, revealed how the locals have responded to the crisis on their islands:
“The youth are the most engaged. They want to volunteer and be active in finding solutions to problems; they are done waiting on the older officials to make up their minds. There is no racism or any forms of discrimination in the youth against the refugees. They (the youth) have experienced hardship through the financial crisis and it has created a form of solidarity in their suffering.”
It seems that the youth had reason to doubt the government’s ability to manage the refugee crisis, as they are now under investigation for the mismanagement of €570 millions of European funds. Accountability of power through independent institutions strengthens democracies, and with the Supreme Court’s investigation, the Greek democracy is putting in the work.
The Pnyx Hill is clearly visible from the entrance of the Pantheon. Ancient Athenian citizens would gather on this hill to participate in their democracy and deliberate on current affairs, serving as the Twitter of the time. Capable of hosting up to 6,000 people, only free males born to Athenian parents in Athens were invited to the hill as citizens. These men would decide on political matters relevant to the entire population, a group that they only made up 20% of.
Modern democracies are quick to criticize Athens for its lack of proportional representation. However, most democracies today are lacking in equal representation in some form. African democracies across the continent are plagued with an age gap between the representatives of their populations. Along with that, there is also a severe lack of representation of women in key positions of office, although they constitute half of the global population.
Beyond the Pnyx Hill, the Athenians had a strategic view of the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. The historically powerful port city of Piraeus was the connection of the Athenians to the rest of the world. Ancient Greek warriors departed from this city to go off to war, its accessibility through its deep waters allowed larger boats to frequent, and its direct course to the Suez Canal allowed commerce to thrive throughout centuries.
Today, the Port of Piraeus is entirely operated by the Chinese state. What began as a few strategic stake purchases in European ports, China has now added the finishing touches on their Silk Road. This maritime monopoly of European and international ports has allowed them to export their products with ease to anywhere in the world. Due to an agreement signed with Greek officials, China will have authority over the port until 2052.
Since the takeover, the port has boomed, becoming the world’s fastest-growing port. However, there is some hesitation in the privatization of it. Additionally, the Greek government doesn’t have the best track record in public finance management and efforts to prevent future mismanagement of the profits from the port are not reassuring to the Greek people.
Ai Weiwei was an honored guest at the Athens Democracy Forum, speaking about his experience from when he was imprisoned by the Chinese government. The artist turned activist has warned that there are greater Chinese threats to consider than the investments the country is executing around the World.
The pragmatic success of the Chinese state has made direct attacks on the core values of democracy. This has left many wondering why countries try so hard to implement democratic values that could result in elections of likes of Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán when China’s model’s promise of stability and economic excellence seems more attractive.
To this point, Weiwei reminds us that the individual is capable of dramatic change through one simple action: “be kind.” This one principle holds more democratic power that we give it credit for.