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Democracy, Ancient and Modern

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Poverty is not measured by how much one possesses but by how big are one’s desires.”–Plato

“A well regulated State is based on the common sense of the people.”–Giambattista Vico                

“No one pretends that Democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried.” –Winston Churchill

In a relativistic age which beliefs in functional relativistic truths but not in Truth itself, when consequently many sing the praises of democracy but precious few can pin down its essence, a revisiting of Plato’s skeptical attitude towards it may be in order. It may lead us to a surprising discovery, that of Giambattista Vico in the 18th century (see his New Science): that democracy has never been based on the rule of a few all-wise leaders and not even on that of well-learned people, i.e., the philosopher-kings and the all-powerful manipulating politicians, but on the “common sense” of all the people.

The statement on democracy quoted above was proffered by Churchill in the House of Commons on the 11th of November 1947 at the origins of the EU. Some have assumed that Churchill had Plato’s critique of democracy in mind when he proffered it. That assumption is based on a kind of rationalism devoid of imagination which ends up missing the irony of Churchill’s statement, not to speak of the paradoxical nature of Plato’s critique of democracy in The Republic.

Indeed, in an age of relativism, when many sing the praises of democracy as the gift of the age of Enlightenment, ignoring the fact that in reality its cradle is ancient Athens, when others (the futurists who run on cars with no rear view mirrors) say that its essence may have changed even in the last fifty years or so, and will keep on changing faster and faster, while precious few bother to explore its essence, its ambiguity and paradox, perhaps a revisiting of Plato’s critique of democracy may be worthwhile. In book VI of The Republic Plato narrates a parable as a way of answering this crucial question by Adeimantus: “How can you be justified in saying that cities will not cease from evil until philosophers rule in them, when philosophers are acknowledged by us to be of no use to them?” This is the parable by which Plato answers the question, via Socrates: “Suppose the following to the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is large and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short sighted and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarreling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it cannot be taught and are ready to murder any one who says it can. They spend all their time milling around the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drinks or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board, and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the wind and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship (488b-d).”

The above allegory, as per Aristotle’s book on Rhetoric, can be interpreted thus: the ship is the Athenian ship of State, the rather incompetent captain is the Athenian people. The people own the state and are supreme in it, as indeed it ought to be in any democratic Republic, even a rudimentary undeveloped one. The motley crew represents the politicians who are constantly quarrelling with each other on how best to navigate the ship while regularly attempting to take the helm from the captain.

Now, it would appear that things have not changed that much in twenty four hundred years. Undoubtedly, this allegory from The Republic paints a rather bleak picture of democracy. Plato seems to be neither a “republican” nor a “democrat.” Had he lived today in the US or somewhere in the EU, he might have ended up voting for the green party. Be that as it may, some of his readers over the ages, while acknowledging his penetrating genius, have attributed to him totalitarian-elitists intellectual tendencies, the attempt to explain the whole of reality with one over-reaching theoretical scheme. This charge seems to be supported by the fact that Plato maintains a rather skeptical attitude toward the poetical in general, and that his ultimate solution to the conundrum of the political incompetence of ordinary people who own the ship of state in a democracy, seems to be that philosophers become kings or vice versa, kings become philosophers. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that he also advocated that no one is ready to be a philosopher before the age of fifty; wisdom arrives, if at all, with the experience of a life-time of virtue, or to say it with Shakespeare: “maturity is all.”

Were we to seriously survey the history of mankind we would soon find out that humanity has had as their leaders precious few philosopher-kings and an abundance of Caesars and Napoleons, people who in general are in love with Machiavellian “power politik” which they practice rationally on the chess-board of life while being completely uninterested in philosophical speculations. Exceptions are Alexander the Great (a student of Aristotle) and Marcus Aurelius, the author of The Meditations.

We would also find out that sometimes the rule of the majority turns into the tyranny of the mob which represses the few who may be branded as outsiders. This ugly phenomenon is observed and commented upon in modern times by none other than Tocqueville; despite the fact that he had great sympathies for democratic systems, he suspected that it applied to democracies also. The founding fathers of the United States were in fact so troubled by this sad tendency of human nature to rule and manipulate others, that they decided to add the Bill of Rights to a Constitution which already proclaimed and enshrined inalienable and universal truths and values.

At this point one may ask: is Plato’s critique still valid today, and if so, what are the practical consequences of ignoring it? Let us try to apply this critique to an overarching problem of modern Western Civilization, namely the principle of sustainable development. This principle would require that we change the way we live our lives. We should distinguish what we truly need from what we want, as Aristotle teaches in The Nicomachean Ethics. In other words, we the people would have to democratically agree to place a greater value on the future quality of the environment than on our present comfortable life-style. This is particularly true in the developed countries, the so called first world, such as the US and the EU.

This moral concept creates obligations not only for the common good of the present inhabitants of the world, but also toward future generations. There is a problem however: in a free market there is no normative standard of what constitutes a need and what constitutes a want. The only standard is one’s desires, as Madison Avenue well knows and as Plato intimated when he said that poverty is not measured by how little one possesses but by how big are one’s desires. In effect the idea that the majority of the people in a democracy would deprive themselves of their wants is redolent of one of Eco’s hyper-reality fantasies.

Most “successful” politicians would not risk their popularity with the ones who elected them for the sake of voters yet to be born, to wit the jettisoning of the Kyoto agreement by a President Bush and its disregard by the EU political leaders despite its pious lip service to it. Hence Plato’s dire pessimism about democracy. He would tell us this: in rational terms, you lovers of democracy have a clear choice; you can keep democracy or keep the earth cool so that you can keep on living on this earth, but you cannot do both. You may ask: what Is Plato suggesting that we opt for dictatorship or perhaps that we vote for the Green party and Ralph Nader? Not exactly, but he is however suggesting a rational pessimism about democratic governments.

The question at this point is this: is such pessimism warranted? Yes, if one keeps in mind Plato’s metaphor of the ship of State and its assumptions. No, if one challenges any of its assumptions. One such assumption is that wisdom does not reside with the people but with a select few elites: the philosopher-kings. However, Giambattista Vico asserts in his poetic philosophy that such an assumption is unwarranted. He has another better idea: he called the wisdom of the people “common sense” and he considered it superior to that of the few which he called “la boria dei dotti” (the conceit of the learned). He is the first philosopher to put forward a radical notion: that Homer, the blind poet, did not exist, that he is the poetic representation of the common oral tradition and wisdom of Hellas, i.e., of all the ancient Greek people which he calls “common sense.”

Vico proved this notion philologically by comparing The Iliad and The Odyssey and showing that they could not have been written by the same author. He repeatedly explains in his New Science how this common sense wisdom has, time and again, saved humankind; that Providence avails itself of that wisdom within the immanence of human history, and it is that kind of wisdom, much more than the elitist kind of wisdom of the learned parading as “leadership,” that saves humankind time and again.

Here we need to remember that in the above statement by Churchill there is an “exception:” Churchill seems to agree with Plato that democracy is inefficient, the worst kind of political system imaginable when manipulated by incompetent politicians, yes, but with the exception of all the others. This paradox that Churchill perceived and Plato seems to miss can be explained thus: when one has trust and faith in the innate wisdom of the people, then democracy begins to appear as the only possible solution to the problems of all the people, for democracy is of the people, by the people, for the people.

This explanation has been proven even empirically and mathematically based on fixed statistical laws by which most modern insurance companies operate. Two or three people are asked to guess how many jelly beans are in a jar; an average is taken and recorded. Then six more people are asked and the average is again taken and recorded. Twelve people are than asked and the average is taken and recorded again. Consistently, the average for the last group will be closer to the reality of the situation than the second or the first, the second closer than the first, that of all the groups together closer than any individual group and closer than the guess of any single individual. This phenomenon was observed even by Aristotle who observed that the decisions of many people tend to cancel out the blunders of a lonely tyrant or even a group of tyrants, hence democracy is always preferable.

In practical terms, the above statistical mathematics proves that one can trust the common sense of all the people more than the conceited knowledge of a few elites. Not to do so, is to risk ending up with dictatorship, albeit that of a philosopher-king. Which is to say, trusting the people, the way an Abraham Lincoln did, for example, when he advocated a government of the people, for the people, by the people, has far better consequences than not trusting them, as a Machiavelli would suggest in his Prince and his geo-political considerations.

Indeed, few people would cooperate with a State that denied them some sort of participation in the decisions affecting their own lives. They would only do so under coercion. In conclusion we can say that from a purely rational viewpoint Plato was justified in being skeptical of democracy, nevertheless he was wrong in the assumption that it was a mere matter of logic and rationality; it is also a matter of imagination and faith: faith in the ultimate wisdom of the “common sense” of the people.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Davos: The Other Side of the Mirror

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It has been a couple of months since I was hanging out in Davos learning about this year’s World Economic Forum.  Perhaps I have a unique view, because I am the founder of Peppr and Ohlala, described as “the one dating app where everyone’s intentions are very clear.”  and the person said to be responsible for the #escortgate controversy, in which paid escorts showed up at one of the world’s most exclusive investor conferences in Berlin in 2016. I am also the author of the statement that “We all have sexwork to do,” I follow up on all conversations related to escorting and sexwork, which I deliberately call “paid dating.”

I have been following up on the conversations ever since: about world leaders said to be not acting as role models (or acting as bad role models), about the hypocrisy over sustainability, philanthropic models or the proposals to adjust taxes for the wealthier among us to secure a basic standard of living for all, a conversation the ones directly affected seemed to be avoiding.

Davos, as we know, brings together so many of the world’s most powerful leaders –parleys occur, deals are made and opportunities appear that likely don’t ever arise elsewhere. And among these deal makers are people whose drive takes other avenues. 

As one woman was quoted as saying: “It’s the kind of place where if a woman turns away to exit a conversation and looks back just quickly enough, she’ll find her posterior aesthetic being carefully dissected by the man who just asked her for her business card — even if he is the CEO of a major bank. When we weren’t being asked how we got here, we were constantly being stared up and down by CEOs, hedge fund managers, finance ministers and embassy heads.”

However, I am still a bit confused about the opinionated statements that were going on this year after Davos. It’s the same debates and thoughts we had around #escortgate.I have been wondering how to productively progress the conversation around this morally, emotionally loaded topic, because clearly we are running around in circles.

What I have seen is a whole lot of personal, subjective judgments of people sometimes labeled as “escorts” and how they are not supposed to be around in places like Davos. I had hoped for a more deliberate thought-through conversation, a dialogue, but mostly what I read stigmatizes and judges people on their very personal choices and agreements: how they want (or have to — as most of us do) to make money, to afford a living.

“I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute”

You might wonder which conversations or statements I was so confused about. First, about the existence of escorts at the Forum, by a young woman named Baillie Aaron:

“And then I heard the whispers of what happens at night, at the parties, in the hotel lobbies and at the famous Piano Bar where it was an unspoken understanding that some men ‘took off their wedding rings.’ Almost all my male colleagues commented on the presence of female escorts at these venues, many of which were guest-list only, or required a hotel badge to access. A quick online search displayed a number of articles confirming that the existence of and easy access to escorts at Davos is nothing new, and what for some delegates, could be a strong motivator to attend.” Statement found here.

Demand creates supply. It’s as simple as that and from an economic standpoint, I do understand wo/men going there to seek business, in any sense. Also, on that particular one.

However, I wonder: What is so bad about the “existence of and easy access of escorts” in the first place? Why shouldn’t there be men or women who get paid to date at the World Economic Forum? If it’s true, maybe some men took off rings because they are in an open marriage? Why would you care about someone else’s choice? (Unless you are the wife of that person and you have a personal private agreement to stay physically faithful and not take the ring off.)

In Switzerland, at least, if there really were some men or women paid to have sex, it would be legal and regulated — not even a breach of law. For me, these workers should be as much part of the conversation as anyone else in Davos.

Actually, given the current political environment in the US around the topic of sexwork, they should definitely be part of the conversations, because this industry screams:“Please reinvent me and improve circumstances for those who are not protected. Make it safer for everyone involved.”

Some politicians already seem to be having a change of heart. Decriminalization is their way forward. Going along with all the standing proposals of Amnesty International.

What else has been subject of the realm on feeling “unsafe” or “discriminated” at Davos.

I look and check bodies all the time myself, with men and women. I can appreciate a beautiful person without having the urge to hook up. We do checkout people all the time — on Instagram and Facebook. But we are not allowed to look in real life? Everyone does it. Recently, I have found myself with other people in the office kitchen wondering how cute the new intern is. #Wetoo do it.

Third quote about warnings regarding sexual harassment

“At the Davos opening Women’s Reception, with some male allies in attendance, I asked a question: Why is it that in 2019, young female delegates are forewarned about sexual harassment — as if it’s our responsibility to protect ourselves — but the delegates themselves aren’t given training on how (or why) not to harass? There was no answer, other than a murmuring recognition that it was a known issue: many of the women who attended in past years had personal experience of sexual harassment.”

What is actually sexual harassment?Can we come up with a definition?Does sexual harassment go both ways?Where does it start?Where to draw the line?

There is always two sides of the story and I feel like, in the realm of the “gender narrative debate” (certain traits assigned to genders because of a gender), we need to let both parties speak in order to find a common ground. What one attempt-to-hit-on-someone finds okay, another may feel totally offended.

Of course we could be confused anyway. Every third relationship evolves in a work-related context. So that means, including these events, it could be a dating market as well, right? Personally, 90 percent of my time, I am surrounded by people with whom I somehow work together. The chances that I meet someone that I want to partner up with is high. So naturally, events like this also create a space where I might get to know someone for a night, maybe more.

I understand, there are certain limits: If someone runs up to someone during the day time event in a straightforward business context and does a pussy or penis grab (Presidential style?), I understand negative sentiment. But if people (yes, men AND women) hit on each other in a Piano Bar to romantic music at 2 in the morning, after a couple of glasses of wine or even four gin and tonics, where people go to hang loose and left the laptop in their hotel room, you cannot possibly be surprised that this is happening.

Again, it goes both ways. We all forget our manners sometimes, when we are drunk (or high, or whatever). On a personal note: The most aggressive hit on me ever was by a drunken woman, not a man.

“I think about what I wear more because there are a lot of prostitutes in Davos, especially at the Piano Bar,” one woman said, referencing the popular late-night hot spot. “I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.”

When we gender mainstream almost everything, even adjust anthems of countries, toilet signs, why don’t we just get rid of that particular word too? Or best: all of them: escort, prostitute, whore. Those devaluating terms are connected directly to women. We will not evolve in any of the conversations if we use preconceived terms. We need to let go of these terms.When we talk empowerment, we need to empower all women (or people in general). That certainly includes also those who get paid to date.

I would like to start proposing a couple of solutions and quick fixes.Here are some ideas that I would like to propose as to how to progress in this entire discussion:

Power of perception: Could you, instead looking down toward this type of entrepreneur, take it as a compliment?Flip the coin. Be bold and brave. So what? Maybe that person misread the signs? If he/she thinks you want to be paid to date: just say. ‘No, I don’t‘.  This way you are still respecting other people, especially women who do this — as a personal choice entering into an agreement — and you maintain your own integrity. Problem solved. That I find acting out of a position of power, instead of victimizing yourself.

Let’s stop gender blaming!People can have female and male traits. This makes the whole gender debate almost irrelevant. This is “how men are” or this is “how women are” is simply stereotyping our way to further separation. Even the Davos Vanity Fair – as my legendary professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic calls the WEF – advocates the gender neutrality.

This whole finger pointing and mansplaining doesn’t solve anything but create negative sentiment because we simply sometimes don’t know anymore as to how to behave in certain contexts. I feel like the whole dynamic is ruled by fear, as to what we are not supposed to do, instead of relearning how we can handle each other in certain contexts. Reframe it in a positive way. Look at it as a chance or opportunity.

And it goes both ways, this #metoo. We have to find a common ground towards a #wetoo. From he said, he did, she said, she did. We need to evolve to a “#wetoo are going to solve this together.”

3. Education is key.We need proper training of all sorts on how to handle each other. Why not invest in our (work) relationships?

Maybe we need to elaborate a guideline. We could design a new sort of “Knigge” or a Code of Conduct on how to behave in a work-related context. This could help navigate through some uncertainties, especially if cultures vary across borders and continents.

Or maybe even a defense class to train people for difficult situations. For example: I had a compulsory defense class in middle school. We were trained by really big guys to defend ourselves. The impact in my life? I always feel/felt safe, because though I might be physically inferior, I know some really important tricks. It gave me a lifelong confidence.Maybe that’s what we all have to learn at the end of the day: articulate our intentions properly and (be able to) show the limits.

Imagine a world, free from personal judgement, where “it” would be decriminalized. People active in this field could seek help if they needed it and would pay taxes. The proceeds of the taxes could be used to combat negative forces within this market.

That for me, is a desirable future. One I would like to help shape.What do you think?

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New Social Compact

A Calamitous Week

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Something is infinitely wrong in the picture, a juxtaposition of polar opposites:  New Zealand, a country of unfailingly courteous and kind people, and an extremist terrorist killing 40 Muslims at prayer.  Of course, modern guns made it possible, a hate-filled extremist of Australian origin set the stage, and a country not familiar with such violence — thus an easy target.  All together they broke the proverbial camel’s back.

My own experience of New Zealand — visiting universities and delivering the occasional lecture as academics do — was uniformly pleasant.  It was as if a piece of 1950s England had been sliced off and transported to the Pacific, down to the egg, sausage, bacon and tomato breakfast.  The numerous small kindnesses of the people one met left a warm glow.

I was therefore, quite unprepared for Australia, the only country where I have been taken aside into a room to be grilled by an immigration official for what seemed an eternity.  People are people:  The hotel receptionist was welcoming and helpful.

At the Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland was appearing in The Daughter of the Regiment to a sold-out first night.  As luck would have it, a ticket return was my ticket in .  Quenching a thirst during intermission, the withering looks of fashionably-dressed matrons is now an aide-memoire.  Otherwise, I might have forgotten, as I have, for example, the performance at Schloss Schonbrunn outside Vienna.

Universities are different of course, and students and professors tend not to harbor such prejudices or exhibit them within the ivory towers.  The conference was much like others.  Australians in person seem friendly, unselfconscious and lacking the class prejudice common in England.  I must add that I have counted quite a few as friends and academic colleagues over the years.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outburst at New Zealand following the shooting was a trifle premature.  Of Turkish origin, 40-year old Gorkmen Tanis opened fire inside a tram in Utrecht, Netherlands killing 3 and wounding 3 others.  Hate and more hate in a world of conflicting values and customs, coming into sharper focus as people travel outside their own countries (and comfort space) in quest of greater economic reward.  Necessity or greed, opportunism or adventure, each individual has his own motivation for leaving home. 

The situation is not improved by jingoist politicians exploiting it during elections or otherwise (Modi in India or Trump in the US) trying to boost standing with their base support.

Calamities other than from the barrel of a gun but perhaps not unaided by human hand gave us an historic deluge mid-March, flooding almost the whole state of Nebraska.  Rich countries have the resources to limit deaths in these catastrophes but not the devastation and the ruined lives of those who have to start all over again.  In Mozambique, however, President Felipe Nyusi fears the death toll will be far higher than the present 200 estimate in the aftermath of cyclone Idai which hit the port city of Beira.  We are told it is possibly the worst storm ever to hit the southern hemisphere; its path of destruction enveloped Zimbabwe, Malawi and of course Mozambique.  In addition to the deaths in the latter, another 150 at least have perished in the other two countries, and thousands injured.  The inundation and loss of crops are expected to impact the lives of more than 2.6 million people.  

Calamities engineered by man or by nature aided by man are the story this week.  Can we change? 

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New Social Compact

How men can play an active role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment

MD Staff

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International Gender Champions and Heads of the Vienna-based United Nations organizations have discussed how men can play an active role in promoting gender equality.

The event, held to mark International Women’s Day 2019, kicked off with a presentation by Matt Wallaert, a behavioural scientist and entrepreneur working at the intersection of technology and human relations. He talked about the importance of being aware of the micro-behaviours that hamper or promote gender equality in organizations.

Wallaert said that achieving gender equality benefits men and women but that to achieve it “we need men to change.”

Yury Fedotov, Director-General of UN in Vienna and Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said, “We need to heed the call of this year’s International Women’s Day to ‘think equal, build smart, innovate for change’ and do more to fast-track gender equality through innovation around gender-responsive systems and services.”

LI Yong, the Director General of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), said the call to innovate for change is a key part of his organization’s work to achieve inclusive and sustainable industrial development.

Li said, “As UNIDO evolves to meet the challenges of the future, we will continue to support women innovators, entrepreneurs and industry leaders to find ways where technology and innovation can remove barriers and advance gender equality.”

Ambassadors Brendon Charles Hammer, Permanent Representative of Australia, and Ambassador Alicia Guadalupe Buenrostro Massieu, Permanent Representative of Mexico, both related incidents of struggling with and prevailing over gender inequality during their careers.

Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, said, “In the 21st century, we must have the courage to understand gender equality as a path to social justice. It all comes down to respect and making space for each individual to exercise his or her talents. This approach benefits humanity, peace and development.” 

UNIDO’s Li highlighted the need to build an equal partnership between women and men for the benefit of all, adding that, in this context, “men have an important but often less acknowledged role and responsibility.”

“We have to break the glass ceilings and the glass doors to arrive at gender equality,” Li concluded.

The event, which was moderated by Ambassador Andrej Benedejčič, Permanent Representative of Slovenia, was a joint initiative of the Gender Focal Points of the CTBTO, IAEA, UNIDO, UNODC/UNOV and the Focal Points for Women from UNODC/UNOV.

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