The power of active citizenship
As different as these examples of public protest are, they have one thing in common: they reflect efforts by ordinary citizens to hold not just their governments, but also companies and other institutions, to account. Such actions, and the right of citizens to organise and participate in them, are essential to a vital democratic society, especially during tumultuous times.
There is no doubt that these are tumultuous times. US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jongun have been exchanging incendiary rhetoric, causing many to fear a war on the Korean Peninsula – and perhaps a nuclear clash. Large-scale natural disasters – hurricanes in Puerto Rico, floods in South Asia, earthquakes in Mexico – have brought massive damage and loss of life, and not nearly enough relief aid.
Moreover, corruption scandals have erupted far beyond South Africa, including in Brazil and South Korea, yet the links between business and government across the world remain complex, close and opaque. Far-right populists have made great political strides in western democracies, most recently in Germany. And, all the while, income inequality continues to grow.
Against this background, it is easy to see why ordinary people the world over are feeling increasingly helpless. But it is in the most trying times that we show who we really are. And, from small gestures between neighbours and large private contributions to crisis-relief efforts by major companies, there have been plenty of stories of humanity, individually and institutionally, that offer reason for hope. Indeed, such actions, and the sense of personal accountability they reflect, are what enables our societies to progress and thrive.
As we well know, without rules and accountability, government officials and business leaders cannot always be counted on to do the right thing. Moreover, given their influence over policy and the economy, their ethical and moral failures have farreaching consequences.
Yet, while the need to hold government to the highest ethical standards is generally agreed (if not necessarily i mplemented), many argue that companies should be free to pursue profits at any cost. Like government, however, companies are ultimately run by people in order to serve people; they must therefore also be accountable to people.