Voices of Change: Making the Case for Democracy and Markets

Event Recap

“In the United States, Americans talk about democracy in a certain way: we talk about democracy at home; we talk about democracy around the world; we talk about it a certain way with our own lexicon, our own beliefs, our own spin on things. But other people talk about democracy differently, which is why this issue about how we talk about democracy is so important. Because there is a persistent need for persuasive democratic narratives.”

– John Morrell, during the “Reframing Democracy” panel discussion


In an increasingly complex global landscape, in which the struggle to uphold and spread democratic values and free markets has never been more critical, how can we break down barriers in the pursuit of progress? To address this question, this year’s Free Enterprise and Democracy Network Conference brought together private sector leaders, scholars, and advocates from around the world to explore key challenges and potential solutions. Held on September 27th and 28th under the theme “Voices of Change: Making the Case for Democracy and Markets,” the virtual convening of roughly 300 participants sparked insightful discussions centered on the core topics of the conference – the symbiotic relationship between democratic and economic freedom, the pivotal role of youth in shaping the future, how grassroots initiatives can shape global progress, and the power of effective messaging for global advocacy

“When civic spaces retract, it is not merely an issue of suppressed voices and curtailed freedoms. It signifies a throttling of economic potential at its very roots.” – Lysa John Berna, during the “Keynote Address”

The conference’s keynote speaker, CIVICUS Secretary General Lysa John Berna, addressed the audience with a profound sense of purpose and urgency, emphasizing the intricate relationship between democracy, economic opportunity, and individual freedoms. Most notably, Berna addressed the alarming trend of shrinking civic spaces worldwide, outlining its multifaceted and deeply consequential repercussions on economic potential, public discourse, and societal harmony. She maintained that “a closed civic space often leads to an environment where economic policies tend to serve the interests of a select few. This not only exacerbates inequality but also sows the seeds of societal discord.”

Berna also reminded the audience that the conference theme, “Voices of Change,” represented a clarion call, emphasizing the necessity of preserving civic spaces for the sake of democratic integrity, inclusive economic growth, and innovation. She advocated for a grassroots-to-global approach to ensure that solutions are grounded in real-world conditions, valuing and integrating voices from every corner of society into global discussions.

Freedom and Prosperity: A Symbiotic Relationship 

“The trend to me is obvious– prosperity is extremely linked to freedom, to all freedoms.”  – Jorge Botti, during the “Setting the Stage” panel discussion

The opening panel of the conference, “Setting the Stage: A Global Conversation on Democracy and Markets,” featured insightful commentary from Dan Negrea, Jorge Botti, and Aarya Nijat through moderation by CIPE Director of Policy & Program Learning Kim Bettcher. Each speaker delved into the intricate relationships between freedom, prosperity, and democracy, providing a holistic view of the current global scenario.

Dan Negrea, Director of the Freedom and Prosperity Center at the Atlantic Council, kicked off the conversation by citing the Freedom and Prosperity Index – a comprehensive measurement encompassing legal, economic, and political metrics. He highlighted a significant correlation between countries that score high on the Index and their prosperity levels, measured through six key metrics including education and income. Negrea also noted the challenge posed by the promotion of the autocratic development models. He stressed the need to persuade ‘swing countries’ to choose the path of freedom. To this end, Negrea pointed out the trend of foreign direct investments gravitating towards countries with stronger democratic affinity, bolstering the case for fostering freedom to achieve prosperity.

FEDN Steering Committee Member Jorge Botti shed light on the ongoing ‘democracy recession’, noting a concerning backslide in democratic values since the mid-2000s. Noting specific examples across the Latin American region, he attributed this trend to the exploitation of looser regulations, leading to a loss in public confidence and further economic decline. Botti emphasized the importance of creating conducive business environments, advocating for the role of civic institutions like business associations and NGOs in strengthening democracy.

Aarya Nijat, CIPE Program Director for South Asia, discussed how certain pro-market policies have inadvertently fueled perceptions of increasing inequality. She cited examples like Sri Lanka, where leaders exploited democratic processes for undemocratic ends, resulting in weak business environments and, ultimately, crises. Nijat highlighted the necessity of responsible and initiative-driven leadership, emphasizing CIPE’s approach of empowering local leadership. She also underscored the importance of adapting to the rapid changes in the democratic landscape, emphasizing the need for an interdisciplinary approach to understand and respond to democratic backsliding.

Empowering Youth for Democratic Engagement 

“If we are not able to reach out to this group of people at the present, then there will be no one in the future to defend free enterprise and democracy. Because people generally tend to shape up what they want to do, what they want to become, by the time they are young adults.” – Robin Sitoula, during the “Bridging the Gap” panel discussion

During the “Bridging the Gap: Intergenerational Collaboration for Development” panel, featured speakers focused on the intricate relationship between the world’s youth, constituting 1.2 billion or 16% of the global population, and the state of democracy. A prevailing theme was the increasing dissatisfaction among young individuals aged 16-24 towards democratic institutions, marked by a discernable disengagement from political life. The allure of populist leaders among these young minds was also acknowledged, highlighting a critical area of concern.

Prompted by the panel’s moderator, CIPE Senior Manager for Global Program Ritika Singh, the conversation shifted towards the private sector’s pivotal role in invigorating democracy, with a particular emphasis on youth entrepreneurship. Panelists concurred that entrepreneurship frequently stands as the sole gateway for young people to partake in economic activities. A case in point was the entrepreneurship training initiative led by FEDN Member Robin Sitoula in Nepal. This program not only equipped young minds with hands-on entrepreneurial experience but also resulted in the establishment of enterprises and entrepreneurship clubs across schools. Such grassroots level engagement was recognized as crucial in nurturing a proactive attitude towards democracy.

Focusing on specific regional contexts, Blossom Egbude, a CIPE youth leader, shed light on Nigeria, home to one of the world’s largest youth populations with a staggering 40% unemployment rate among them. Despite 93 million registered voters, of which 40% are under 35, the belief in democracy’s efficacy remains bleak. Corruption and violence during elections have only fueled this distrust, leading to decreased voter turnout and a prevailing sense of helplessness. She noted that, in response, initiatives like the CIPE Youth Leadership Project aim to bring civic education to the forefront, striving to re-engage young Nigerians in the democratic process.

Aleksandar Stankovic, a youth leader engaged by FEDN, brought in perspectives from Serbia. He highlighted that a concerning 60% of the youth in 2023 expressed a preference for a strong leader, indicating a lean towards autocracy. This preference is a product of education gaps, familial backgrounds rooted in socialist impoverishment, and a lack of media freedom. Stankovic emphasized the urgency in addressing these issues, drawing parallels with the digital and economic growth witnessed in Estonia as a potential pathway for Serbia.

In the final moments of the discussion, panelists addressed the broader implications of these issues on democracy. They emphasized the imperative need for early engagement with the youth, offering them the tools, training, and mentorship necessary to understand and value democratic principles. The role of the private sector was once again underscored, with a call for them to provide economic opportunities, share wisdom, and facilitate mentorship for young people.

Grassroots to Global Impact

“Whatever it is you are doing at the grassroots level, we must make sure that we are contributing it to the global agenda. And we do that by just looking at what affects us and picking it, and building on it so that at the end of the day, we are able to not just contribute to a global conversation, but also get a positive impact for ourselves.” – Grace Nzou, during the “Fireside Chat”

In a deep dive on her ongoing FEDN small grant project, facilitated by CIPE Program Officer Tamari Dzotsenidze, Network Member Grace Nzou discussed the importance of local initiatives in driving global change. Elgeyo Marakwet County in Kenya, where the project is implemented, has been a pioneer in embracing transparency and citizen participation, being one of the first to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and one of only three in Africa to do so. However, despite these strides, Nzou noted that there has been a noticeable backslide in democratic practices since 2022, particularly affecting the youth and their involvement in democratic processes.

In response to this, Nzou launched the “Using Democratic Spaces to Promote Ethical Practices in
Business” project which has been initiated to support youth in business to use collective action to participate in democratic spaces and create a conducive, ethical business environment through the formation of County Youth Assemblies (CYAs).

During the Fireside Chat, Nzou shared numerous success stories of CYA members formalizing their businesses, tapping into new markets, and holding dialogues with government bodies on the hurdles faced by youth entrepreneurs. She further explained that through the project’s engagement with OGP, youth participants have transcended local boundaries, contributing to the shaping of international development strategies. By engaging with this global initiative, youth participants provided valuable insights on how grassroots actions can align with and contribute to wider global objectives. This synergy between local actions and global strategies is crucial for addressing pressing issues and sharing best practices.

The Power of Effective Messaging

“Democracy is a powerful brand and it’s constantly being redefined.” – Beatrice Reaud, during the “Reframing Democracy” panel discussion

This enlightening panel discussion, moderated by CIPE Asia Director John Morrell, dissected the intricate dynamics of how autocrats manipulate the concept of democracy to legitimize their authoritarian regimes, highlighting the urgent need for counter-narratives to challenge and dismantle these false portrayals. Beatrice Reaud, Senior Advisor with USAID’s Office of Global Trends and Technology, acknowledged that relying solely on facts is not sufficient to champion democracy; rather, there is a crucial need to craft intentional and compelling messages – grounded in shared values like security, prosperity, freedom, and fairness – to make a persuasive case for democratic ideals. These values, she noted, serve as pivotal entry points to initiate and foster democratic dialogues.

Louisa Tomar, Director of CIPE’s Center for Digital Economy and Governance, emphasized the critical role of technology and digital transformation in contemporary governance, pointing out the evolving expectations of citizens who now demand reliable access to the internet and digital tools as a governmental responsibility. Tomar also highlighted the internet’s role as a facilitator of faster feedback loops between citizens and their governments, encouraging governments to embrace this new era of rapid communication and critique. This digital transformation has given rise to new communities with diverse experiences, capable of serving as authentic voices advocating for change.

Catch Ofilada, Director of Governance & Sustainability at the Makati Business Club, provided a unique perspective from the Philippines, describing a growing disillusionment with democracy and illustrating how political leaders are exploiting this sentiment, blaming previous governmental failures on democratic processes. She touched upon the significance of trusted messengers in communicating democratic values, highlighting the influential role of business associations, which tend to garner attention from both governments and civil society members.

Each panelist emphasized the importance of cultural relevance, tailored messaging, and understanding the values and trusted networks of specific communities to ensure that democratic messages are not only heard but also resonate and lead to action. They also acknowledged the interconnectedness of the global community, highlighting the potential of technology to facilitate a worldwide conversation on democratic values, and reminded the audience that even in closed societies, there are pockets of influence capable of driving change.


Mieczyslaw Bak, member of the FEDN Steering Committee, delivered a compelling closing address, encapsulating the profound synergy between democracy and free enterprise. He eloquently described these concepts as twin pillars that uphold societies valuing liberty, innovation, and human potential, emphasizing their role as foundational elements in some of the world’s most prosperous communities. Democracy, in his view, is crucial for ensuring that every citizen has a voice and for safeguarding fundamental rights, while free enterprise drives economic dynamism and innovation, offering opportunities for social mobility and rewarding ingenuity.

He encouraged FEDN to serve as a voice of change, amplifying marginalized voices, challenging established narratives, and sparking grassroots movements. Bak underscored the importance of solidarity, especially in parts of the world where democracy and free enterprise are under threat, stating that the successes and unity of coalitions like FEDN send a resounding message in support of these ideals.

“As a collective, we have the resources, knowledge, and influence to shape the trajectory of both democracy and free enterprise. As a network of change agents, we can stand at the forefront by disseminating best practices, advocating for groundbreaking reforms, and providing an unyielding defense against threats.” – Mieczyslaw Bak, during the conference “Closing Remarks”