The Freedom to Change – great power requires greater responsibility

by | Jun 17, 2020

This article is part of our Freedom and Justice Week series – as Global Dashboard provides a platform for a diversity of voices to explore how we respond to the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Read all the articles in the series here.

Global society is in a moment that history books will recount well into the future. We have entered an era that was foreseen, but also emerged with the intensity of a slap to the face. The time for serious change has arrived.

Contrary to previous breakdowns in social and economic systems, today we are more connected than ever before. With few exceptions, people can access goods from around the globe or travel from one side of the world to the other within 24 hours. We have managed to reduce time and space barriers thanks to technology advancements, magnifying the links between people and nations.

The coronavirus is the perfect example; in less than 6 months, SARS-CoV-2 spread to more than 200 countries infecting around 10% of the world population. But this spread and these aggregate figures represent just the tip of the iceberg. The pandemic opened a Pandora’s box, while lockdowns brought to the surface the best and worst of our societies. Those most affected by the virus are also the most vulnerable in society – vulnerabilities that have existed for years. In all too many cases, these vulnerabilities were taken for granted. Societies came to live with them.

But the emergency also brought hope to all of us, as millions of people mobilised to take care of each other. From the ‘thank you’ clap for the health staff, to sharing meals so those in need do not go hungry, to the scientists accelerating their research to find a cure as quickly as possible, and even governments deploying social assistance programmes as never before, helping each other has not turned out to be that hard. People do not need to die of hunger, the pharmaceutical industry can expedite collaboration to cure diseases, governments can redistribute budgets more inclusively, and the world economic system can be more humane.

This should trigger a conversation about the embedded politics of citizen participation. We live in a global system ruled by free market economics mixed with democratic values that are rooted in the relationship between the people and their representatives. Six months after the coronavirus appeared, we see that these systems can be transformed. The virus has proven we can make changes that seemed to be impossible before.

“Enough is enough. People around the world agree that a deep change is required”

Now, millions of people all over the world are raising their voice against a virus even deadlier than COVID-19. George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in Minneapolis was another reminder that discrimination, marginalisation, exclusion, and racism continue their infectious spread with daily consequences for far too many. Enough is enough. People around the world agree that a deep change is required.

Democracy is about citizens conceding the power of representation. The state materialises in the figure of government. The people relate – formally and informally – in the shape of citizen participation through different democratic mechanisms, such as voting, taxes, and yes, protests too. Citizens expect their democratically elected governments to be efficient in the use of public resources, effective in delivering public goods, responsive to people, and capable of standing up against threats to a country’s sovereignty and interests. But what happens when the authorities that should be deliver these functions are the ones that are failing?

Many of the demands expressed by people to government today are rooted in response to expressions of violence that are perpetrated repeatedly: police brutality against black people in the US and elsewhere, children forced to be soldiers, refugees losing their homes for a war that is not theirs, ten women killed in Mexico every day while cartels control the country. Bearing such violence in mind, the legitimacy of the protest cannot be under debate. When you have lost that much – when those who were supposed to take care of you have taken everything away – burning down the house can be a logical response.

“When you have lost that much – when those who were supposed to take care of you have taken everything away – burning down the house can be a logical response”

Measuring whether a country is ‘well-governed’ is a controversial task. Whatever metrics one applies, the protests signal a widespread view that governments are not fulfilling their duties. Health systems are not responsive. The climate emergency is deepening. People lack access to basic goods such as water and food, and to economic opportunities. Police brutality, widescale discrimination and poverty, and unimaginable levels of violence against women, cause profound suffering. Either because they lack money, capacity, or will, governments fail to represent citizens and deliver what they demand.

With systems are at a breaking point, and while democracy gives us the freedom to have a voice, heads of government too often expect us to remain silent. But silence in democracies does not work. Effective governments need politically committed citizens; this enables democracy to function and bring social adaptability to changing contexts. But they also need citizens who express in their lives the ideals they want to see reflected by their governments. We cannot ask for justice if we commit injustice against others. We cannot call for the end of discrimination if we discriminate. We cannot demand respect if we do not respect others.

We must not remain silent, but neither should we become what we criticise. To take power, we must take responsibility. As better citizens we have the authority to demand more from our governments and the power to help shape our societies. We do not wait for elected representatives to act and sit back as governments fail, but actively participate in securing the transformation we want to see. People invented the systems and the rules that we live under, and people have the power to change them.

We Can Do Better Protest Sign Cardboard: Photo: Jason Hargrove, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


  • Dolores Hernández is head of the International Relations Department at the Mayor’s Office of Guadalajara in Mexico. She is also founding partner of Uno Integra Consultores a consultancy firm specialized in internationalization processes and strategic projects management. She has experience in topics such as governance and development, safer cities, creative economy, mobility and climate change.

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