"It is better to do a little than to do nothing"
Business 360, a leading business media production house in Nepal, interviewed Dr. Ronald Meinardus, Regional Director South Asia at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) on the sidelines of the recent SAARC Business Leaders Summit in Kathmandu. Excerpts:
What are the FNF’s current projects in South Asia? What do you plan to achieve in the region?
The Foundation has been in operation in South Asia for many years. It started back in the 60s in Sri Lanka. Today the Foundation has offices in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. We’re a comparatively small institute. If you want to be successful, you need a strategy and must focus on niches.
Our main objective is to promote freedom of the individual in society. This might sound abstract, but becomes concrete in our programs. Basically, we’re an institute which promotes educational programs aimed at advancing freedom in various fields – such as human rights, the economy, urban governance and the big topic of digital transformation. These, in a nutshell, are the four focal areas we work in with our partners.
Before you joined the Regional Office in New Delhi in 2014, you served the Foundation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in Cairo, Egypt for many years. How do you evaluate your job in that region? What were you able to achieve and what do you think was left to do?
I was there for almost eight years. In the middle of my term, the Arab Spring happened. Then, everybody was celebrating the new age of freedom and democracy in the Arab world. Our Arab partners who were part of that historic process were very happy in 2011-2012. However, this didn’t last long. After a couple of months the whole situation turned around and collapsed. To be honest, I left with a lot of sadness, frustration and the feeling that it will take a long time for democracy and human rights to come to the Arab world.
After that it was good to come to South Asia; here the situation is very different. All the countries have electoral politics, democratic rule. It’s very different working here compared to where I came from.
The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) stands for liberal politics. Has the definition of liberal politics changed over time? Is liberalism understood differently now than before? Or liberalism has been reduced to become a utopian ideal–unattainable and wishful thinking?
The basic idea of liberalism is that governments and societies should aim at giving more freedom to all the members of society. It is rather easy to detect that some policies are liberal and others are not. On an international level – and here we come to this part of the world – giving more freedom to society also means allowing businessmen and women to trade between countries, to reduce tariffs, make travel easier by reducing visa regulations. These are just some of the elements of liberal policies and also one major reason why FNF is supporting the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI). This is an organization that aims at giving more freedom to businesses and thereby unleashing economic development which is so important to fight poverty.
Of course, liberal challenges have changed in the past few years. One new challenge comes with digital transformation. New dangers loom for the rights of the individual. We do not know who is taking our data, or spying on us while we’re online. For this reason, we support organizations and civil society members who are working with the governments on what should be done to protect the rights of the individual in the evolving digital society.
Are the topics related to liberal politics more difficult to promote considering the complexity in global politics?
Yes and no. I believe that freedom, human rights and liberalism can only be achieved in a sustainable manner if they come from within the society. A few years back, there existed a basic understanding in the Western world about the importance to protect human rights. Human rights and democracy were important on the international political agenda. Undemocratic governments had to take this seriously – more or less. Recently, the international pressure has weakened. It is not good if the leader of the Western world has basically given up to support human rights. This is a set-back in my eyes, but then, if you look at the situation on the ground other factors are more important than what the occupant of the White House says and does.
Asia’s freedom movement will only be successful if it has the support of the people and as long as the majority of the people want the freedom they are fighting for. Support from the outside or from Foundations like mine is not that important. For liberalism to blossom it needs the support of a majority, if this needs to be rooted locally – this, I repeat – is much more important than support from the outside world.
Yes, as I said, the global situation is getting worse. But the implications for the situation on the ground are not that important, surely not in this part of the world.
With its projects, FNF strives for a life of freedom, human dignity and peace for all. How attainable is this?
There are many people who do not live in freedom and dignity. There’s a lot of inequality and injustice. All this, of course, is relative. Our contribution will always be a small one. Ask a doctor whether he can remove all sickness and illness, and he’ll say no. He can heal a certain number of people in a week but he will not be able to solve the health issue in general. I don’t want to compare my work with that of a doctor, but in a way both professions are similar. He is dealing with physical ills whereas we are dealing with social ills and both will always address but a small section.
So the efforts are limited in scope. But it is better to do a little than to do nothing. That’s why I call our efforts strategic. We are targeting policy fields we think are important for the future of society. One example: We believe that if you support economic freedom, you support development. If you are developed, more people will live a life in dignity. Yes, there are many ifs; whether it happens or not, we don’t know – but it is an effort.
Looking at the present world leaders, US, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, do you think FNF’s objectives are easier or more difficult to achieve?
Whether there is a new King in Saudi Arabia or a different government in Israel, for us that is not important. We are working with local partners and executing programs we have agreed upon in a process of mutual understanding. However, it is hard to oversee, also in this part of the world, governments are increasingly critical of the involvement of certain international civil society organizations. For instance, we have seen a tendency to reduce the space of operation of international human rights organizations. It does affect us if a government criticizes human rights organizations and prevents them from traveling to the country. This is a topic that has lead to the term “shrinking spaces” for international civil society work. And, as a member of the international civil society, we also are affected by this.
What role do the world leaders play in helping FNF achieve its objectives?
Fortunately, we don’t need the help of the world leaders. I would not speak about other Foundations, but FNF is fortunate enough to get funds from the German Parliament. In my country there exists a general understanding that Foundations like ours play an important role in strengthening democracy and assisting development. So, from our side or from the European side, we aren’t affected. It might be an issue if a country that we are operating in tells us to leave. Importantly, our Foundation only operates with a legal agreement and upon invitation from our partners. If our partners – for whatever reasons – say: we cannot continue, we will not hesitate to say good-bye and leave.
Has your understanding of the world, politics and humans become better with your exposure internationally?
I am lucky. In my early sixties, I have spent 40 years outside of Germany. I would say I have a better understanding of the world. If you live outside your own country for a long time, you understand the situation of other countries. In the next step, you start to explain the situation of other countries to your own people. As the Regional Director of the Foundation it is one of my duties to talk to our partners about liberalism and explain how we think a society should and could develop. At the same time, back home in Germany I explain what lessons or values we learn from our partner countries. In a sense we act as a bridge between nations. This effort promotes understanding and I think it is particularly relevant today where things seem to drift apart.
How has your background in journalism served you?
Most of my work is about communication. Whether speaking to partners, giving public lectures or interviews, like this one – in the end, it is all about communication. A professional journalist should be a good communicator. The art of journalism is to say things in a clear manner. This, I find an important qualification. It is something you can learn. I believe professional journalism is an important ingredient for a democratic society. The problem today is that much of what we call journalism is actually not professional journalism.
There’s this horrible phenomenon of fake news, of alternative realities. Journalism is threatened by political interest, corruption. It is imperative that journalists stick to the value of truthfulness. Personally, I like to write about what I observe. This helps me do my work in both directions: to inform and possibly also educate my South Asian friends and partners and to talk to German audiences and in Europe about the story of this part of the world.
What role can the media play in today’s world politics?
The media is a medium so that the people may better understand what is happening around them, to put it broadly. One problem is the fragmentation of media. There is the so called traditional media where – in the best case – professional journalists work with editorial responsibilities, where a journalist writes an article and the editor makes sure that the article is correct and reaches the standard of journalistic quality. On the other hand, we have an ever increasing group of non-traditional media or social media. This media has become a threat to our system of communications as it is uncontrolled, full of special interests, at times even guided by foreign governments spreading wrong and potentially dangerous information. A recent example, in this part of the world is Sri Lanka where social media was an element of instigating communal unrest. We can also see this in India. So, what are the solutions? This is one of the areas I was referring to earlier - our work in the focal area of digital transformation. In our programs, we work with groups in India and Pakistan, with the aim of finding methods to effectively counter hate speech online. One possible solution is to teach citizens to be more responsible using social media.
Friedrich Naumann, the patron of your Foundation, believed a functioning democracy needs politically informed and educated citizens. In an age when news and information are distorted and sources are unreliable or unidentifiable, how can citizens be politically informed?
There are many media productions that respect journalistic ethics. It’s not that all media are fake. One advice would be to choose credible media, another not to rely on one single media only. I myself listen to three or four radio stations every day. I also read at least two newspapers and follow different sources online. On Twitter, I have different people I trust for information. You need to diversify your sources; that for me is the best recipe to stay informed properly.
What role does youth play in the demand and longevity of liberalism and democracy?
This is a question the youth should answer. I have a 17 year old son. He’s liberal and, I guess, just as interested in freedom as I was because he grew up next to his dad and we taught him to respect the others around him irrespective of the creed, religion or ethnicity. Young people today have more opportunities to develop liberal virtues than before, they have far more chances to look beyond their own horizons. A youth in Nepal or any country typically owns a smartphone and may learn what is happening in other parts of the world. Digitization has empowered the young generation. This is good for the young people and ultimately also the societies they will sooner or later govern themselves.