Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at the Summit for Democracy in Zambia (As Prepared for Delivery)

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Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at the Summit for Democracy in Zambia (As Prepared for Delivery)

March 30, 2023

Your Excellency, President Hakainde Hichilema, Minister of Foreign Affairs Stanley Kakubo, Minister of Justice Mulambo Haimbe, Heads of Delegations from across the continent, distinguished guests, ladies, and gentlemen, all protocols observed …

It’s an honor to represent the United States here at the Africa-regional event of the second Summit for Democracy. 

My heartfelt thanks to the government of the Republic of Zambia for graciously hosting us here today – and warmly welcoming me to this beautiful and diverse country.

We all come together from different countries.  We represent different backgrounds, different perspectives, different stories. 

But what unites all of us is this: the firm conviction that democracy delivers.

Democracy delivers inclusive economic growth.  But it also delivers much more than the material benefits. 

Democracy delivers hope for change – the possibility that our societies could always get better, and our futures could always get brighter. 

And it delivers the understanding that mistakes can always be corrected – and conflicts can be resolved without violence.

Democracy delivers resilience – values that endure and institutions that last -- even as we evolve and improve.  A system that is greater than individuals, moments, or whims.

Democracy delivers accountability – the means for people to exercise fully their rights and freedoms, and the institutions to make sure governments respond to the people they represent.

And democracy delivers choices.  It gives more people more options – for their lives, for their livelihoods, for their futures.

Accountable, responsive democratic governance is the best tool we have to deliver on the full potential of our people – and the full promise of our nations.

Democracies aren’t afraid to question themselves or welcome new ideas, grounded in their firm belief that everyone’s voice matters.

This freedom and fearlessness are why democracies are stronger and better able to find creative solutions to the challenges we face.

Nowhere is that more clear than in democracies across the African continent.  The hard work to ensure democracy delivers is represented by all of you, sitting right here, right now.

We see it in Mozambique, where half the ministers are women, the Parliament regularly brings the cabinet in for tough questions, and civil society plays a critical role in keeping the government accountable.

We see it in The Gambia, which has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy on official corruption and recently held free and fair legislative and presidential elections.

We see it in Niger, where President Bazoum is the first democratically elected president to take over from another in the country’s history. 

Today, I have the honor of speaking from one of the bright spots.  Zambia… this is your moment.

Zambia’s reform agenda today presents a model of democratic and economic renewal for all of us. 

And Zambia’s young people are raising the bar for the country’s future. 

Here in Zambia, young people stood in long lines, waiting to cast their vote – because they were determined to change the future of their country and the course of their lives.

Here in Zambia, young people ran to become local elected officials or members of parliament themselves – with some now serving in roles from Mayor to District Chairperson.

And here in Zambia, we saw that bear fruit in the country’s historic third peaceful transition of power – where Zambia has embraced the democratic reforms pledged by President Hichilema.

What you’ve accomplished here in Zambia is an inspiration to the world. As I’ve heard people say here: Zambia Kuchalo!

Let me also say this: the story of democracy is not new to the continent.  And it is not just one of votes counted and leaders elected.

It’s the story of potential unleashed. Dreams realized. Young people leading.

The UN estimates that by 2050, half of the African continent’s population will be under 25.

That means the African continent could well be on the doorstep of a democratic renaissance – driven by a powerful youth dividend and leaders like you, at all levels.

I have high hopes for our shared future – and high aspirations for our continued partnership where we learn from one another and support one another.

We know, too, that the work of sustaining and improving our democracies is never done. 

But that potential for change, led by the people, is part of what makes democracy so powerful. 

Like any other democracy, we in the United States have faced setbacks.  Disappointments.  Threats to our elections and democratic institutions – from inside and outside our borders.

236 years after our Constitution was signed, the work of protecting and sustaining our democracy continues.

President Hichilema, you described the same idea beautifully when you wrote: “Like a fruit tree, democracy needs constant attention. If you come to it once every five years and expect a bountiful harvest, you will be disappointed.”

So, I hope you won’t mind if I extend the fruit tree comparison today to describe the work that lies ahead.

Like growing a fruit tree, you first have to plant the seeds of democracy. 

In a democracy, free, fair, and transparent elections – the theme of this event – reflect a key moment when the seeds germinate. 

Elections are where people can make their voices heard. 

We’re doing important work to nurture those seeds of democracy – including through some important initiatives that came out of the first Summit for Democracy, like the Global Network for Securing Electoral Integrity, the Defending Democratic Elections Fund, and the Democracy Cohort on Election Integrity.

But let’s also be clear: too often people confuse elections as the be all, end all of democracy. 

Planting the seeds in the context of democracy means encouraging people to participate in the democratic process for the first time – and beyond. 

That’s why education is so fundamental.  And, it is why President Biden dispatched me, America’s “Education Minister” as his representative here today.

When a child learns to read and uses that knowledge to learn about issues that will matter for their future, education plants the seeds of civic engagement.

When a student learns about the history of their nation and how their government functions, education plants the seeds of democratic participation.

When a young person learns in class about pathways they can take in their career and their lives, education plants the seeds of hope.

So I want to applaud Presidents Bazoum, Hichilema, and many others for investing in education.

I also want to be clear about something: when I talk about the importance of education, I talk about it with humility, recognizing fully the challenges of our own education system. 

In the United States, I often call attention to a broken status quo that has failed students.

I talk about teacher shortages. 

I talk about making education more affordable and accessible. 

I talk about the need for more pathways to careers. 

And I talk about the need for civics education at a time when young people, especially, are growing up in an environment of increasing misinformation and targeting by bad-faith actors.

I’m sure some – maybe all – of the issues I mentioned resonate with you in your own countries. 

If we are going to fulfill the promise of education to plant the seeds of stronger democracy, we are going to have to learn from one another – from our successes as well as our mistakes.  We are in this together.

That’s a big reason why I’m so proud of the educational exchanges we in the United States have with young people from all over the world, including students from across the African continent. 

These exchanges, whether it be the Young African Leaders Initiative, Fulbright, or others, build the people-to-people exposure and ties which make all of our democracies stronger.

Once we plant the seeds, we need to nurture the tree so it develops a strong and resilient trunk that can help the tree stand tall.

I think of the baobab trees you can find here in Zambia and in other countries across the continent.  The baobab tree is known for being able to store huge amounts of water in its trunk.  So, even when the times are dry, the tree is still able to produce beautiful fruits.

Just like the trunk of the baobab tree, a resilient democracy has a built-in capacity to deliver, even in difficult times. 

It relies on systems, not superheroes.  It has strong institutions that are designed to deliver for people.  It has space for effective civil society organizations like the ones many of you here represent today – like Nigeria’s Yiaga Africa, which promotes democratic governance, human rights and civic engagement.

And here, too, education also plays a critical role. 

When we invest in our education systems, we invest in our people.  We build a more resilient future.

The same goes for our health systems … our agricultural systems … our systems for managing free and fair elections … and more. 

And, even once they are strong, we cannot take our systems and institutions for granted – as we have seen all around the world in recent years.  We need to cultivate and nurture them, and always build our democracy’s capacity for the future. 

We need to make the trunk of the tree stronger.  

So, after we’ve planted the seeds, and nurtured it into a strong tree, then we can reap the harvest – the fruits of democracy. 

That has never been more important.  All around the world today, democracies are facing serious challenges.  Political polarization.  Misinformation.  Corruption.  Distrust of institutions.  Deepening inequality.

And that’s all before factoring in the threats from hostile actors and authoritarian leaders outside our borders.

That’s why I stress the need for accountable and responsive governance. 

Here’s what that looks like:

Civil society contributing to the solutions.  Opposition political parties presenting alternate perspectives.  Transparency in public services.  A responsible and vibrant media.

When we get all of that right, we get democracies that deliver.

As we focus today’s discussions on free, fair, and transparent elections, let us also nurture the entire ecosystem and lifecycle that fosters the fruit tree. 

The work of democracy neither starts, nor stops at the ballot box.  It requires nurturing the seeds of democracy…growing its capacity for the long term … and finally delivering the fruits.

All of us here today have a stake in making sure democracy delivers in our countries. 

I said it before and I’ll say it again: we are all in this together: as friends and partners, brothers and sisters.  Let us support one another on this journey.

I’m reminded of the founding father of an independent Zambia, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda. 

He popularized a phrase that might resonate with all of us who have come together today: Tiyende Pamodzi.

It translates as: we roll together.

Today, as our democracies face down challenges from inside our borders and threats from outside, we roll together.

As our democracies strive to live up to our highest ideals, sometimes succeeding, sometimes falling short, we roll together.

As our democracies work to deliver for our people, now and for years to come, we roll together.

If we can come together as equals… if we can work in partnership … if we can learn from one another and support one another … I know that the future of our democracies will be bright. 

So let’s roll together.  Thank you.