“The basic idea of liberalism is that governments and societies should aim at giving more freedom to all the members of society,” said Dr. Ronald Meinardus, Regional Director for South Asia at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). “We believe that if you support economic freedom, you support development. If you are developed, more people will live a life in dignity,” he emphasized.

Meinardus was interviewed by Business 360, a leading business media production house in Nepal, on the sidelines of the recent SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) Business Leaders Summit in Kathmandu. FNF closely works with SAARC in the promotion of economic freedom in the region. “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,” Meinardus explained.

Here’s the excerpt of the interview:

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.

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 SAARC. 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.

You can read more on southasia.fnst.org

 

 

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“The basic idea of liberalism is that governments and societies should aim at giving more freedom to all the members