Dukakis Center hosts international conference on «Civic Engagement and the Practices of Democracy»
«Who needs to change more, the citizen, the elected official, or the political system?»
So asked Professor Gerry Stoke, of the Universities of Southampton and Canberra, in the keynote lecture to the international conference «Civic Engagement and the Practices of Democracy,» held at the Met Hotel on April 18 under the auspices of the Michael and Kitty Dukakis Center for Public and Humanitarian Service of the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), in collaboration with the Public Opinion Research Unit of the University of Macedonia Research Unit.
The conference featured twenty scholars, civil servants, and practitioners in the private sector and in civil society, for a wide-ranging and stimulating debate of problems in contemporary democratic governance – in Greece, in the United Kingdom, in the United States, and, indeed, around the world. The speakers included representatives of the municipalities of Athens and Thessaloniki, who discussed their efforts to increase citizen engagement in resolving urban problems.
Nikos Marantzidis and Georgios Siakas revealed the findings of a nation-wide poll the Dukakis Center commissioned to study the phenomenon of apohi in Greece in recent elections. Their findings echoed research conducted by several other speakers, such as Richard Fox of the Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who has asked why young people do not consider seriously running for public office.
Why not get engage? It would appear that large segments of the population are motivated by fear and anger not to get involved, despite a near-universal sentiment throughout Europe and North America that the system does not work. The pessimism that pervaded many of the presentations at the conference could not mask the fact that efforts are being made in many sectors of society to inspire greater engagement – from specific departments and programs in municipal administrations, to educators in public and private educational institutions – including democratic schools right here in Greece, to the efforts of activists and practitioners in civil society.
The youngest participant at the conference, 24 year old Mayara Soares, a Brazilian national studying politics in Paris, gave a stirring pitch for the organization she represents, Voxe.org, which is actively involved in pro-democracy activities wherever there are democratic elections.
Where Gerry Stoker asked where we need to start to reform our political systems and revive our faith in democracy, Melinda Haring of the American think tank the Atlantic Council issued a note of caution. The United States and many European countries invest heavily in strengthening democratic practices and institutions in many former communist and authoritarian countries. Some, like Azerbaijan, would seem to be lost causes. Despite our hopes and claims, democracy might not be a universal value.