Governments must improve quality of life for democracies to succeed, says Aga Khan

Athens – 16 October 2015 (PR) His Highness the Aga Khan today said improving the quality of life was the most important component of a successful democracy.

“I believe that the progress of democracy in our world is fundamentally linked to improving the quality of human life,” he said. He cited the ability to understand constitutional systems, independent and pluralistic media, strong civil society and commitment to diversity and social dialogue as key elements in achieving the goal of improved quality of life.

“Democracy can only survive if it demonstrates, across the years and across the planet, that it is the best way to achieve that goal,” he said.

The Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network made the remarks in 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.

The Aga Khan said political concepts and constitutional systems were often poorly understood to the detriment of democracy.

“One problem is a poor understanding of comparative government systems.  That subject is not part of most educational curricula, and, in the countries I know best, the media rarely explain the logic, or the options, of constitutional change,” he said.

The Aga Khan also argued that at a time when many citizens are losing faith in all forms of government, finding common ground around the global aspiration for a better quality of life is essential in providing genuine hope for the future.

While emphasising the need for pluralistic and independent media, he cautioned that quantitative advances in communication technology have not necessarily produced qualitative progress in mutual understanding.

“To be sure, each improvement in communications technology has triggered new waves of political optimism,” he said. “But sadly, if information can be shared more easily as technology advances, so can misinformation and disinformation.  If truth can spread more quickly and more widely, then so can error and falsehood.  Throughout history, the same tools – the printing press, the telegraph, the microphone, the television camera, the cell phone, the internet  – that promised to bring us together, have also been used to drive us apart,” he said.

The Aga Khan called for a renewed emphasis on civil society organisations, a sector that he felt was deeply undervalued and yet essential to democracy. He argued that key elements of civil society ranging from education, to healthcare, to the environment cannot thrive and grow unless governments themselves support a healthy enabling environment.

Speaking at a time when society is witnessing increased polarisation, the Aga Khan underlined the importance of fostering a democratic ethic, at the heart of which is a commitment to genuine dialogue about the means of achieving a better quality of life.

“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,” he said. “It implies a pluralistic readiness to welcome diversity – and to see our differences not as difficult burdens but as potential blessings.”

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