Delegates from the worlds of politics, business, media, civil society, and academia considered burning issues on the universality of democracy, challenges of poverty, religious extremism and the digital age. The “West” accounts for only 12 per cent of the world but consumes 60 per cent of resources and seeks to export its value-systems against increasingly vociferous alternatives.
So is democracy, in its different shades, the best guarantor of human rights, government accountability, the rule of law and economic progress?
Most of us in the West would assume so. Yet some argue that political systems must be judged by their track record.
Venture capitalist Eric X. Li this week claimed that democracies are just as susceptible to ills like corruption – the corrupt Suharto regime in Indonesia was succeeded by a democracy which generated a thousand corrupt Suhartos – and should be judged by how they improve people’s lives.
China has been lifting 50,000 people per day out of poverty over the last 30 years when Europe is struggling to cope with a few hundred thousand incoming refugees and trying to combat poverty within its own borders.
Isis reject the very premise of putting people’s sovereignty above god’s, disputing the very values of life, culture, and freedom.
In the face of minority extremist views, a seductive narrative for disenchanted Muslims, professor Kishore Mahbubani, echoed by the Aga Khan, this week argued that the democratic world must be more respectful and understanding towards the majority, peace-loving Islamic world.
But former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove also stressed the responsibility of democracies to ensure security from threats to the fabric of democratic societies and values, while not exaggerating the climate of fear and threat.
Ultimately democracy is about the will of the people and this means participation, more potent but also more easily undermined in the digital age, prosperity, security, and dignity. Russia advocates vertical, more authoritarian styles of democracy, as better suited to meeting the needs of the people. After all, considering Greece’s successive pointless elections, referenda and worsening conditions, what is the value of a constant elect-to-regret cycle?
Nobel-laureate economist Paul Krugman highlighted that the recent global financial crisis has clearly done nothing to end the worship of the markets or to engender more equality, on the contrary, austerity fosters inequality, disempowers the middle classes and smashes the kinds of national democratic institutions which protected people. Although no country has ever turned its back on democracy because of going through a bad patch, the widening gap between rich and poor rocks its foundations.
Democracies must be flexible and evolutionary, less complacent, and prove that their systems of governance are indeed better and more effective if they are to ‘sell them’ to the rest of the world.