What kinds of personal transformation help to drive system transformation?

What kinds of personal transformation help to drive whole system transformation? That was just one of the questions explored at a fascinating event hosted by Perspectiva earlier this week – if you don’t know them they’re really worth checking out, especially their great project on Beyond Activism.

It’s a really good question, relevant not only to politics, but also to what we need our education systems to do at a point when we’re less clear than ever on what kind of skills our kids will need in a massively uncertain future.

So here’s a first go at thinking through ten areas where progress in personal transformation would contribute directly to wider systemic transformation – and which (if we were smart) our societies would actively invest in training us on, throughout our lives:

  1. State management. Can we manage our mental and emotional states, and ‘untrigger’ when necessary?
  2. Perceiving. Are we mindful of our biases and framing assumptions? Are we able to think critically?
  3. Identity. How much do we see ourselves as individuals and how much do we identify with a larger collective? How big is the ‘us’ that we think we’re part of?
  4. Purpose. Do we have a clear sense of what we’re actually trying to do in – both individually and collectively?
  5. Ethics. Irrespective of whether or not we’re religious, do we have a clear ethical code, covering not just individual behaviour, but also taking responsibility for our share of collective behaviour (e.g. on social media)?
  6. Openness. Are we able to be honest about our feelings and experiences? Can we tell our story fearlessly?
  7. Empathy. Are we able to listen deeply to what others tell us back? Are we able to hold our views lightly, and be prepared to have them challenged and changed?
  8. Collaboration. Are we able to work with others, and how much are we able to do it through self-organisation rather than relying on top-down hierarchies?
  9. Creativity. How much are we able to create and think laterally? Are we able to do it with others?
  10. The numinous. Are we able to connect with and draw on a deeper source of inspiration – whether through silence, nature, meditation, prayer, or awe?

Am sure I’m missing lots here – do ping me on Twitter and tell me what I’ve missed…

[Image credit: Steve Greer]

Myths for an age of political polarisation

Want to change the world? Then what you need most isn’t facts; it’s a really great story. So I argued in a book called The Myth Gap (summary here), which came out last year in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the US election.

Donald Trump and Nigel Farage had hardly triumphed thanks to their evidence base, after all. Instead, it was thanks to their power as storytellers and the resonance of the tales they told: of taking back control, of building bigger walls, of threats from a shadowy ‘other’.

Part of populist leaders’ attraction, I suggested, is their ability to speak to the contemporary absence of – and deep hunger for – grand narratives that explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all who we are.

To win against these kinds of adversary, I argued, progressives need to reimagine themselves as mythmakers and storytellers. And while there’s clearly no single myth that will work for everyone, I argued that the kind of narratives we need today share three defining features.  

First, prompting us to think of ourselves as part of a larger us rather than a ‘them and us’. Second, to situate ourselves in a longer now, in which we get back to thinking in generational timespans. And third, to help us imagine a better good life in which growth is less a story of increasing material consumption and more about finally growing up as a species.

A year on from the book’s publication, I still think we need these kinds of myth. But I’ve also become preoccupied with how to build bridges across the chasm that defines our politics in an age of savage political polarisation.

My concern partly stems from a year spent running the Brexit campaign at Avaaz. Having started out a convinced Remainer, I ended up thinking the biggest problem wasn’t so much leaving the EU as the prospect that any outcome would leave UK politics poisoned for a generation, with both sides feeling stabbed in the back.

Spending six months on sabbatical in Jerusalem has only deepened my unease. I was last here in 2004, and it’s horrifying to see how extreme the polarisation between Israelis and Palestinians has become. Each side now blames the other for everything, and is simply unable to see how it has also helped to create the current impasse, or what it might have to sacrifice for peace.

The abyss in UK politics isn’t as devastating as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, of course. But the political similarities — the anxiety, irritability, tuning out and ‘othering’ those who disagree — are still striking. And they’re getting worse.

The divide we face is bigger than just Leave and Remain, too, as David Goodhart observes with his idea that British politics is now split between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’.

Somewheres, he argues, are rooted in specific places, usually where they grew up. They value security and familiarity, and are conservative on cultural and social issues. They tend not to have gone to university, do less well economically, and often experience change as loss.

Anywheres, meanwhile, like openness and mobility. They’re mainly graduates, who’ve left where they grew up to live in London, the south east, or abroad. They’re comfortable with social change, and internationalist in outlook. They are much more individualistic, and tend to curate their identities rather than having them ascribed to them.

I find Goodhart’s two tribes fascinating — especially from the perspective of story and myth.

I feel as though Somewheres start with an advantage in storytelling because the best stories are so often specific to places. The tale of a 7 billion ‘us’, on the other hand, is still just an outline draft. And by extension, I also have a hunch that Somewheres have something important to teach Anywheres about belonging.

The individualism that Anywheres are so fond of has a long shadow, after all. George Monbiot points out that individualism is ground zero for consumerism, neoliberalism, and today’s epidemic of loneliness. Adam Curtis observes that the sense of group identity that political movements depend on struggles to survive when self-expression has become the highest good. The sense of belonging that’s at the heart of what it means to be a Somewhere is powerfully relevant here.

Of course, Somewheres’ focus on belonging can be very dark too: just look at the far right. But a point that Anywheres are prone to miss is that it doesn’t have to be. Take the SNP. It’s internationalist, progressive, cosmopolitan; yet also firmly rooted in place and national identity. English politics might look a lot healthier if a similar synthesis were available south of the border.

And I think that it’s just that — a synthesis of the best of Somewhere and Anywhere — that we need to be looking for. Fuzzy compromises on the most charged issues, that do nothing to resolve the underlying clash of values, won’t satisfy anyone. Instead, we need to find a way to talk about, and work through, the divergences between two very different worldviews.

Somewheres and Anywheres clearly value different things, after all. The real question is whether those values are necessarily at odds, or whether they could in fact be reimagined as complementary.

And that’s the basic question now facing each of us.

If you take the former view, from either side of the political divide, then your only real option is to fight like hell. It’s an honourable point of view, but the problem is that it just leads to more of what we have now: acrimony, attrition, and all political bandwidth taken up with patching over the cracks instead of actually tackling the defining issues of the 21st century.

If you take the latter view, on the other hand — that politics isn’t necessarily zero sum, and that the possibility is there of a conversation that enriches all participants and proves that we do indeed have more in common than what which divides us — then you are, unavoidably, in the business of collective storytelling.

In one sense, it’s a radically new and cutting edge skill-set at the heart of what 21st century citizenship is all about. In another sense, it’s the oldest and most quintessentially human skill in the book. It’s time to dust it off and relearn how to do it.

This post was originally published on the Young Foundation’s blog, ahead of a talk I’m doing there on 18 September on the Myth Gap a year on from its publication – tickets available here

Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – new website

I am currently leading the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies initiative –  a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners, convened by the governments of Brazil, Switzerland, and Sierra Leone, and supported by the Center on International Cooperation. Many of you will have seen our Roadmap, and information about the initiative on here, at events, and on other websites.

We have just launched the new Pathfinders website – take a look and find out the latest on the implementation of the SDG16+ targets.

10 thoughts on the future of activism

So here are 10 thoughts on the kind of activism we need at a point of widespread crisis and deep polarisation – a distillation of what I’ve been thinking about over the course of the first half of a six month sabbatical.

1 The best activism works for both inner and outer transformation, because it understands that the crises burning around us are external expressions of our inner worlds

2 The best activism moves beyond the idea of victory, and categorically refuses to become a story of “us versus them”

3 Love has the power to change the world, but love and care for others only becomes possible with love and care for self

4 Change depends on shared stories, but we cannot truly listen to anyone else’s story, much less develop shared ones, unless we are brave enough to truly tell our own

5 Self-help is great – but if it extends no further than individual level then it’s stunted. In a time of culture wars and deep polarisation, what we need now is *collective* self-help and healing

6 Moral evolution is the central story arc of human history, and we are poised right at the cusp of our species’ emergence from adolescence and into adulthood

7 Our civilisation faces an initiatory moment of death and rebirth, and myths about these themes hold deep wisdom for us at this point

8 The universe is intelligent, conscious, and non-random, and at the most basic level for us rather than against us

9 Unbelievably rapid, non-linear change becomes possible when we remember that we create the reality around us through our expectation, attention, and intention

10 Our best days are before us, not behind us

The future of the UN is revealed!

Each year, the Austrian Ministry of Defense publishes a collection of predictions by various experts on upcoming international developments.  This year, I contributed my thoughts on what will happen to/at the United Nations in 2018.  As it is otherwise only available in German, here is an English version (don’t blame me if it’s all wrong):

2018 will be a year of significant tensions at the United Nations.  The Korean situation, the Syrian war and debates over the Iranian nuclear deal are all likely to create friction in the Security Council.  UN peacekeeping forces face risks of serious violence in cases ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Lebanon.

The Security Council played a leading role in containing the North Korean nuclear crisis in 2017, passing two packages of heavy sanctions against Pyongyang.  China and the US will try to maintain this cooperation.  But if North Korea takes further provocative actions, it may be difficult for the Council to agree on additional serious sanctions.  If Washington edges towards military action on the Korean Peninsula, there could be a serious breakdown in UN diplomacy between China and the US.

The Trump administration is also likely to create divisions in the Security Council if it makes further efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal.  The overall deterioration of the security situation in the Middle East more broadly will be a central issue in UN diplomacy through 2018.  There is a growing possibility of new hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that would put the long-standing UN peace operation in the area (UNIFIL) at severe risk of casualties.

The UN force on the Golan Heights, which has already been severely constrained by terrorist groups during the Syrian war, could also be caught up in a regional conflict.

The UN may also need to find a new strategy towards Syria itself. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies do not want UN peacekeepers or political officers to play a significant role in Syria.  However, Moscow may press European aid donors to support UN civilian reconstruction efforts in the country, arguing that this will limit further refugee flows.

UN agencies could end up effectively working on behalf of the Syrian regime to provide basic services to the population, and possibly facilitate refugee return, although this could leave UN officials at risk of terrorist attacks.

Other UN engagements in the Middle East, such mediation in Yemen, can make little progress while tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain high.  UN aid agencies will struggle to find the resources to assist the suffering across the region, especially if there are fresh flare-ups of violence in Lebanon and Iraq to deal with.

In Africa, UN peacekeepers face serious ongoing conflicts in cases including South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  Presidential elections in the DRC, supposed to take place in 2018 after a controversial delay in 2016, could also result in serious violence between supporters and opponents of President Joseph Kabila.   The UN is likely to need military reinforcements in one or more of the cases to contain trouble.

The Trump administration has demanded major cuts to the peacekeeping budget, and will be skeptical of most proposals to expand existing UN forces, or launch new blue helmet operations.  A possible exception is Ukraine: Washington has indicated that it is could support the creation of a UN peacekeeping force in the east of the country to ease tensions with Russia.  While Moscow’s interest in this option is uncertain, it remains possible that the UN will launch a mission in Ukraine in 2018.

In this scenario, European countries (especially those outside NATO, such as Austria and Sweden) could face calls to provide the backbone of a credible UN presence, possibly alongside Russian-speaking troops from states such as Kazakhstan.

Security issues will not be the only source of tension at the UN in 2018.  The US has threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council unless the body reduces its criticism of Israel.  While European governments are working hard to persuade the US not to pull out, there is still a good chance that Washington will eventually do so.

A focus of diplomacy in New York will be migration.  UN member states are meant to agree a new compact on improving international migration management in July 2018.  This has the potential to create tensions between European governments and developing countries over how to handle large flows of migrants in cases like Libya.

There will also be negotiations in New York on proposals by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to reform the UN secretariat and development system.  Guterres has secured considerable support from UN members including the US for plans to streamline the organization’s antiquated management structures.  Yet there will be lengthy debates over the budgetary and organizational aspects of these reforms, potentially distracting Guterres and the UN system from broader global problems.

One global theme that Guterres will emphasize throughout 2018 under any circumstances is the need to strengthen the Paris climate change agreement, despite President Trump’s announcement that the US will leave the pact in 2020.

Trump has indicated he is still willing to negotiate over the issue, but real talks on revising the agreement to meet US interests are unlikely in 2018.  Instead, China will play an increasingly prominent role as a leading actor in the fight against climate change.

China is becoming an ambitious player in the UN system overall, acting increasingly assertively to promote its positions on issues including human rights.  Beijing will continue to look for ways to raise its profile at the UN through 2018 – possibly be implementing promises to send thousands of new troops on UN peacekeeping missions – and while most states will welcome this, the US may see it as a challenge.

There is a risk that the Trump administration’s relations with the UN could deteriorate further if current US ambassador in New York, Nikki Haley, stands down.  Haley is a mainstream Republican who has succeeded in moderating President Trump’s strongest anti-UN policies.  She has been tipped as a potential Secretary of State or presidential candidate, and could leave New York in 2018 to pursue higher office in Washington.  President Trump could then nominate a harder line replacement as US ambassador to the UN, reversing Haley’s moderate stance.

Despite the risks of rising tensions at the UN in 2018, however, it is worth noting that the organization continues to play a significant role in managing and containing major potential crises such as that over Korea.  The UN may be an imperfect and fragile institution, but it will be at the center of high stakes diplomacy through 2018.

Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – HLPF side event

Every time I read the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, I am struck again by the magnitude of the task of delivering them. The agenda hails itself as “supremely ambitious and transformational,” which is all well and good, but only if there is equivalent ambition in implementation.

At the Center on International Cooperation, our focus is on the targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies – not just those in SDG16, but in all Sustainable Development Goals.

We started with violence against children, helping create the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. With the partnership, we contributed to the INSPIRE strategies, the first time the international community has united behind clear recommendations to policymakers on how these forms of violence can be prevented.

Over the past year, we have supported the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners that has been convened by the governments of Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Switzerland.

Based on existing country leadership and best practice, the Pathfinders have developed a roadmap for 36 targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). For the first time, this tracks a way forward for turning the ambition of the SDG targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies into reality.

You can read the roadmap here.

Today, the draft roadmap was presented at a side event at the High-level Political Forum in New York. Here’s what the UN Deputy-Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, had to say about the roadmap:

The roadmap proposes three cross-cutting strategies:

  • Invest in prevention so that all societies and people reach their full potential.
  • Transform institutions so that they can meet aspirations for a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future.
  • Include and empower people so that they can fulfill their potential to work for a better future.

It sets out nine catalytic actions: on violence against women, children and vulnerable groups, building safer cities, prevention for the most vulnerable countries, access to justice, legal identity, tackling corruption and illicit flows, open government, empowering people as agents of change, and respecting rights and promoting gender equality. around a common agenda.

The roadmap is the result of an extensive process of consultation and debate, and will be finalized in the coming weeks. We will then launch it in September, at the High-level week of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly.

The Pathfinders will then continue their work as a platform for action. The group will not displace existing activity, but will act as a ‘docking station’, bringing partners from across the world together around a shared vision.

The focus is on the High-level Political Forum in 2019, when Presidents and Prime Ministers will gather for a summit on the 2030 Agenda and ask ‘what have you achieved over the past four years?’

Will we have a good answer to that question?

The State of the World: A Report Card on International Cooperation

Guest post by Megan Roberts, associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations

Last week the Council of Councils, a global network of think tanks, released its third annual Report Card on International Cooperation and the results are not pretty. The Report Card, which surveys the heads of member think tanks to evaluate the world’s performance on ten of the most important transnational challenges, found that global efforts earned a barely passing C-, a steep drop from the B earned last year. Moreover, across the ten issue areas that the Report Card covers, only one – combatting transnational terrorism – registered an improvement over 2016.

Few who pay even passing attention to global affairs will find the results surprising. The past year saw some of the most significant shocks to international cooperation since the end of the Cold War. After Brexiteers narrowly beat out Remainers in the United Kingdom, Americans voted Donald Trump into office. The scandalous longshot in a crowded field of Republican candidates, Trump made a number of campaign pledges to withdraw the United States from international entanglements that he viewed as unfair and incompatible with his vision of ‘America First.’

Echoes of this isolationist call have been felt in subsequent elections, most recently in Marine Le Pen’s bid for the French presidency. And while liberal candidates prevailed over nativist calls this year in France and the Netherlands, there’s reason to believe that populism, far from being beaten back, has merely reached what the New York Times recently called “an awkward adolescence,” too small to win elections, yet large enough to disrupt national politics.

This matters all the more so because many of the world’s most pressing challenges cannot be stopped by borders. As the Report Card notes:

Around the world, a surge of populist nationalism poses a political challenge to globalization and calls into question continued support for multilateral institutions. At the same time, many of the most important challenges confronting governments and citizens – from economic shocks to climate change to infectious disease – are inherently transnational, crossing borders that leaders have vowed to reinforce.

Digging deeper into the ten issue areas, the Report Card reveals more pessimism. Once again, the Report Card reserves some of its poorest grades for international efforts to prevent and respond to violent conflict. Though the Report Card identifies conflict management as a high priority going forward, it is not expecting to see opportunities for breakthrough this year. In contrast, the areas that scored highest marks – mitigating and adapting to climate change, promoting global health, advancing development – were all seen as relatively lower priority areas for policymakers. In short, according to the Report Card there is little expectation for progress on important issues, where the world is already underperforming. And while there is hope for progress in areas already performing relatively better, these gains matter less.

Two issue areas – combatting transnational terrorism and promoting global trade – buck this trend in opposing directions. Despite scoring a middling grade for performance in 2016, international efforts to combat transnational terrorism ranked as both a high priority for policymakers and the top area where the Report Card expected to register progress this year as the international coalition fighting the Islamic State has rolled back significant swaths of the group’s territorial control.

Efforts to promote global trade, in contrast, received some of the Report Card’s poorest marks, as major mega-regional trade agreements failed, and the Council of Councils ranked trade as a low priority, in part because it did not see any hope for progress this year. In an environment of continued anti-trade rhetoric, the most that may be expected is that the world can avoid worst outcomes – a China-U.S. trade war, the collapse of NAFTA, orderly Brexit negotiations – but this is a low bar indeed.

To learn more about how events over the last year have shaped expectations for international cooperation in 2017, visit the Report Card on International Cooperation.