This year, as we celebrate International Day of Democracy, a global crisis has shaken governments around the globe. Confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, some governments have taken sweeping measures in the name of safety, while others have struggled to communicate with citizens and implement essential protocols. Meanwhile, the public square has gone virtual and technology is shaping civic participation more than ever.
Ashoka Romania spoke with several entrepreneurs working to promote democracy, deepen dialogue, and reshape politics for good in our pandemic reality. During the conversation, we heard from Ashoka Fellows Greta Rios from Mexico, Elena Calistru from Romania and Mike Sani from the UK on the trends they’re seeing in the middle of it all. Here’s what we learned.
Accountable leadership comes first
“We really don’t know the right strategy to tackle the pandemic,” Greta reminds us. In situations where there isn’t a clear right answer, accountability and a strong communications strategy make the difference between a good government solution and a bad one, she says.
According to Greta, a lack of communication in some countries is “killing the confidence people had in government. That’s going to take a lot of effort and time to gain back. If we don’t understand we need accountable leadership in times of emergencies, we’re going backwards instead of forward.”
Ashoka Fellows in conversation with Ana Murray from Ashoka Romania.
Pay attention to rights and freedoms
Concerned with how governments are dealing with citizens’ rights, many activists and analysts are pushing for a post-pandemic discussion about “how strong these institutions should be and checks and balances in times like this,” Elena says. “I think it’s a wake-up call for many people.” As an example, she cites the Hungarian government’s decree expanding the prime minister’s power.
We need to examine governments’ emergency actions and prevent extreme measures from taking hold in the long-term. “As much as democracy is imperfect, I do believe it’s the best system we’ve come up with as a species,” Greta says. “Right now it’s under a big threat.” To succeed in emergencies, she says, democracies require a compelling case for their course of action and the structures in place that ensure everyone will abide by it.
Citizens also need a high level of consciousness during crisis, Mike adds. “What’s the counter when these laws and policies are pushed through? How do the citizens challenge it? Where is our stand?”
Dialogue is the answer to disillusionment
Many people have found themselves repeatedly disappointed by their government: they’re frustrated by a lack of information, feel left out, or believe their opinion and actions don’t matter. Elena and her organization found that these disappointments are common to many generations, not just young people. “Both the older generation and newer generation feel we could do a better job, and that’s the point where we converge,” Greta says. Dialogue is the most important step we can take as a society.
To inspire more people to participate in the conversation, find an issue they’re passionate about, Mike says — “that’s the hook.” Public discussions, catalyzed by technology, can help shape policymakers’ decision making. We need spaces for dialogue where people can focus on solutions and leave behind their prejudices — and those spaces shouldn’t exclude people in powerful positions, Mike says. “If we alienate those in power, we just create a lot of continued fragmentation.”
Young people drive big-picture change
As Elena and her organization “Funky Citizens” host webinars equipping high school students to fight fake news, she’s been surprised by “how sophisticated they are in grasping all the different aspects of [the issue].” She’s observed a trend among younger generations: they care about the big picture. “That’s why we see young people more interested in climate change, or rights and freedoms that weren’t necessarily of interest to my generation,” she explains.
When it comes to civic participation, Elena believes that the pandemic is accelerating these already-existing trends, like the younger generation’s commitment to changing “business as usual” in politics and economics.
Sometimes progress is hard to see
We’re constantly reshaping politics, Mike reminds us. But because we’re in it it’s hard to see it changing. We see the change more clearly only when we look at history, and so we just need to come to terms with how long it takes.
More people have been looking to the authorities to provide guidance in an uncertain and dangerous time. Next time there’s a crisis, he’s hopeful that we will have taken lessons to heart, resulting in “more eyes on what’s next, what have we learned, what accountability do we want. How do we mobilize as a community?”
We don’t want back to normal
“I really hope we do not go back to normal because normal was not okay. Normal was a world where there were a lot of horrible things happening to a lot of people every day,” Greta says. “I really hope the new reality we shape together is based on staying connected, having more meaningful interactions than we used to have.”
This conversation took place on May 18, the third anniversary of Ashoka Romania, during an “online marathon” with 4 webinars, 9 Ashoka Fellows from 4 continents and a celebration event. Watch the full dialogue on Democracy here. You can also view the webinars on climate change, digitalization, and empathy