NDI celebrated its 35th anniversary on December 6 with over 500 guests, including representatives from the U.S. Congress, the administration, the diplomatic corps, corporate, labor and nonprofit organizations in attendance. The theme for this year’s gala, “Reaffirming Democracy,” celebrated NDI’s three-and-a-half decades of work supporting democratic development around the world despite setbacks and resistance from authoritarian governments.
Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, co-hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” opened the gala with an inspiring reading and reflection on President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 Westminster speech that called for the establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), as well as NDI and its counterpart, the International Republican Institute (IRI). In his historic Westminster speech, President Ronald Reagan explained: “No democracy is not a fragile flower. Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.”
To mark the evening, NDI received a celebratory letter from former President Barack Obama which was delivered by NDI Vice Chair Thomas Daschle, former U.S. Senator. In the letter, Obama thanked the Institute for its tireless work throughout the years and acknowledged that “nothing is more powerful than an informed citizenry.”
The Institute also honored the lives and legacies of democracy champions who were lost this year. The life and democracy work of Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, was celebrated by Susan Rice, former Ambassador to the United Nations. A tribute to Senator John McCain, the former Chairman of IRI, was given by Senator Dan Sullivan, who is now the current board chair. “John McCain leaves a legacy of wit, humor, leadership and loyalty. His life story is one for the ages. A carefree, somewhat reckless young man, a rebel, searching for a cause. Who found that cause in the love of country as a POW (prisoner of war) in Vietnam,” said Senator Sullivan.
The “Leadership in Democracy Award” was presented to Chef Jose Andres by NDI Chairman Madeleine K. Albright. "NDI was built on the premise that democracy is the best means yet discovered to make progress towards what most people want: security, justice, prosperity and peace," said Albright in presenting the award.
Andres, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was recognized for his humanitarian work, which includes delivery of meals to people around the world facing dire circumstances, including in Haiti, Puerto Rico and Indonesia. He reminded guests that “when we talk about democracy, it’s really always about the role of the majority, but the thing is, it is also the obligation of the majority to give a voice also to the minority. Sometimes the minority are those people that are voiceless in our democracy.”
The gala not only reflected on 35 years of democracy promotion at NDI, but it also looked forward through the eyes of three rising political leaders who are making outstanding contributions to strengthening democracy in their country:
- Samson Itodo, Convener of the #NotTooYoungToRun Campaign (Nigeria), a movement in Nigeria that led to the reduction of constitutional age limits for running for public office in the country.
- Vladimir Kara-Murza, Democracy Activist and Opposition Leader (Russia), who has promoted civil society and democracy in Russia. He has been poisoned twice for his efforts, and he played a key role in the passage of the Magnitsky Act to impose targeted sanctions against those who commit human rights violations in the U.S., Canada and several EU countries.
- Masih Alinejad, Women’s Rights Activist, Author and Journalist (Iran), who is the founder of the ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ campaign in Iran to resist compulsory wearing of the hijab.
NDI President Derek Mitchell, in his closing remarks, reminded guests that even after 35 years, “we must become even more agile, innovative and creative, and consider how to make use of every medium at our disposal to promote democratic values.”
The evening served as confirmation that democracy is indeed a universal aspiration. The Institute would like to thank all of our local partners, donors, board members, leadership and staff who have played an integral role in fulfilling our mission over the last 35 years to work for democracy and make democracy work.