15 September 2022

Democracy is a verb

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

On 22 February 2017, the Washington Post added “Democracy dies in darkness” as a slogan to their website, and it has been prominent on their web and print editions ever since. On this International Day of Democracy (15 September), while recognising the dark challenges and direct threats to democracy we are faced with in Europe and around the world, I would hope that the day also marks a moment to shed light on what philanthropy can and is doing to drive it out.

Democracy is one of the core values of the EU, and the same can be said of Philea and many of our members and partners.

Since our establishment last year, Philea has placed democracy front and centre as one of the three key priorities for the decades ahead. This is no accident. From the Covid-19 pandemic recovery to climate change, faced with an economic recession impacting those already marginalised, we need strong democratic institutions to help turn the tides.

Faced with major societal challenges, investing in healthy democracies can and should be part and parcel of the solution. Research has for instance illustrated links between democracy and environmental outcomes. In short, we have aligned our three predominant themes to underline that the health of our planet (climate) is tied to the health of those living on it (equality) and the societies they are part of (democracy).

And yet, trust in democratic institutions is in decline. Worryingly, 53% of young people believe authoritarian regimes are better equipped to deal with climate change than democratic regimes according to a recent Bertelsmann Stiftung poll. Citizens, particularly younger citizens, are frustrated, with a lack of spaces for them to express themselves and be heard.

As Plenary speakers at the 2022 Philea Forum Joe Elborn (Secretary General, European Youth Forum) and Michael O’Flaherty, (Director, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) stressed, the erosion of trust in our institutions, especially among youth, is leading to an erosion in democracy. And without democracy, we cannot hope to tackle the challenges that are before us, such as climate change and rising inequality. A key role for philanthropy is creating spaces for dialogue and understanding with citizens, with youth, leading to novel channels for true engagement of citizens in their societies.

While progress has been made over the past decades in the field of human rights, a lack of understanding of the importance of social and economic rights, combined with increased inequalities, have furthermore led to increased disengagement of many citizens, thus polarising societies and affecting our democracies.

The sky is likewise darkly clouded by sustained disinformation campaigns by flawed regimes and entrenched tech biases and business models which cast a grim shadow over our democratic institutions. Dark skies often bring violent storms, and the backsliding of democracies pose real security threats, as illustrated in Ukraine. 

But there is sufficient light to push out the dark, if only we can

  • Pursue a comprehensive, whole of society approach (including the private sector, arts, culture, civil society, philanthropy, …)
  • Continue looking for the symbioses of challenges using an intersectional lens
  • Design a future which is intergenerational
  • Share power and encourage the right to participation at all levels
  • Invest in independent journalism

Critically, all five of these bullets above involve a role for philanthropy in addressing threats to democracy by working to widen and deepen civic participation, and joining forces with partners to build trust and legitimacy. With its convening power, ability to take risks and roots at the local level, philanthropy is well placed to make a difference, and is why we are continually calling on the EU to allow us to be the best version of ourselves by providing us with a more efficient, enabling environment to help us achieve these goals.

This year, the International Day of Democracy focuses on the importance of media freedom to democracy, peace, and delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals.  In this area we are already seeing amazing work by Civitates and the Journalism Funders Forum and many, many others across the philanthropic ecosystem.  We ourselves are in the process of reshaping our Democracy Network (formerly European Democracy Network) to foster exchange and collaboration amongst foundations on this crucial topic. On this day of democracy, while there is so much do, it is heartening that so many – inside and outside our sector – are so driven to get on with doing it.

I will end back where I started. Democracy is a verb, not a noun. It is something that does, not something that is.

And today, among many days, we shine a light upon it.


Delphine Moralis
Chief Executive Officer, Philea