Archive for SSP related Analysis

Peaceful Values: A lesson from indigenous communities


Homo homini lupus/man is a wolf to his fellow man. This statement, made by Thomas Hobbes, gives a profound reflection on human nature. Men are aggressive according to their more basic instincts, but not everybody agrees.

There are many indigenous communities that make us reconsider this view about our, supposed, innate violent conduct. We can find a big number of peoples that live peacefully even though they are diverse and with different customs, as Douglas P Fry explains in his book “War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views”.

Social cohesion is the cornerstone of the cohabitation of these communities. For example, in the Upper Xingu River (Brazil) ten different tribes live in peace and they do not know conflict among each other. They are heterogeneous but this is not a reason to trigger violent behaviors, unlike the Hobbesian theory; they have the capacity to respect themselves and each other and keep peace.

These people speak four different languages and have their own traditions but they have found the way to live together within their diversity. We can learn a very important lesson from them, and it is that they have decided to focus on the things that make them feel as a single community, respecting their particular traditions and gathering to create collective activities, such as participating in the same feasts, trading with each other allowing marriage among members of the different groups, etc.

The findings of this and other studies resonate with a core assumption of the Shared Societies Project: the right kind of values, policies, structures and institutions foster and encourage cooperative attitudes and relationships between peoples so that they treat each other with respect and dignity.  Other values, policies, structures and institutions encourage attitudes which are divisive and exclusive and treat others as less worthy of consideration than people from one’s own group.

People like those in the Upper Xingu River have created such a system instinctively and through experience, but in many of our societies we need to take active purposeful steps to shift towards the creation of a Shared Society.  That is why we identified the Ten Commitments which cover the aspects of society which can contribute to a society in which it comes naturally to treat others with respect and dignity and change those aspects which encourage us to exclude and disparage others who we think are different from us.  By making these ten commitments we can build a society in which everyone feels valued and at home and where they can make a full and active contribution to the development of the community.

We would not be surprised to discover that the peoples of the Upper Xingu river already share those commitments.  They are an example of good leadership for other multicultural societies.  Policies seeking the inclusion of varied identities will lead to the inclusion of all the groups and to the creation of a feeling of unity and belonging to that same community.

Policy-makers should take as an example these communities and their way to govern their society. Many of the challenges that states have to face nowadays are related with exclusion of certain groups on account of their religious beliefs, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. This makes these communities impoverished at all levels.

Inclusion of distinct groups would provide a cultural as well as an economic enrichment, as the Shared Societies Project argues, inasmuch as an inclusive society would realise the skills of all its citizens, without discrimination of any kind, making communities bloom with the contribution of all their members, developing economic growth in which all participate and that will help it to be sustainable.

Myanmar faces Buddhist-Muslim Ethnic Tensions in its Transition to Democracy

Captura de pantalla 2014-06-10 a las 13.32.20

Tensions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and other regions have manifested in violent outbreaks in the past two years since June 2012, calling international attention to the high level of ethnic tension between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist majority.

A recent Report of the Thailand-based human rights organization Fortify Rights, directed by Matthew Smith, Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar claiming to disclose the legal documents used to discriminate against Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. The release of this report comes at a delicate time, as Myanmar braces for its first national census in thirty years.

The report is based on twelve internal government documents detailing “restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth and other aspects of everyday life,” eight of which delineate official policies targeting Rohingya, the group says. These include three Rakhine State regional orders and five addenda to those orders. Fortify Rights claims that although these were produced between 1993 and 2008, years of military dictatorship in Myanmar, their policies remain in effect today. The four other documents relating to Muslim citizens outside Rakhine State are not presented in the report but the organization claims that they are dated 2013 and “instructive as background findings.”

In a press release Smith claims that,

“The government is systematically persecuting Rohingya on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and at times gender.”

Fortify Rights maintains that the Rohingya population of 1.33 million is largely stateless and deprived of basic human rights, and that the Burmese government denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity. The organization also adds that the government tends to frame issues relating to the population as matters of national security, overpopulation and illegal immigration.

While the government has made efforts to stop further outbreaks of violence in the country through ceasefire agreements with armed minority groups, and the international community has acknowledged violence and displacement, the report explains that there has been a failure to address the “devastating systematic abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya on a daily basis.” In other words, Fortify Rights asserts that because it is a normalized phenomenon authorized by legal documents, everyday social exclusion often fails to draw international attention.  

The documents put forth by Fortify Rights can provide a basis for negotiation on which Myanmar can focus on an equitable society. Institutions and legal framework as safeguards for the protection of individuals’ rights and the governmental obligation to maintain these institutions are pillars of the commitments of the Shared Societies Project. Discrimination and exclusion that derives in some way from legal documents and institutions can be fought through legal and institutional means.

“I don’t understand”


Club de Madrid is partnering with Partnership for Change for the 2015 General Assembly/Annual conference, and they have adopted the Shared Societies Approach as a framing concept for its work.

In their last conference in Oslo on 15th May this year they devoted one stream throughout the day to Shared Societies.  Participants from Club de Madrid, the UN agencies, Search for Common Ground, the business community and Norwegian civil society explored what this concept really means.

The discussions spend some time considering the distinction between, on the one hand, tolerating people different from our selves but trying to mould them to be just like us, and on the other hand really being open to the other, welcoming them, respecting their dignity, and valuing them in their own identity.  The latter of course builds a Shared Society and helps the other person to feel at home and confident to take their share of the responsibility for the community.

One person told a nice story which captured the distinction.

An immigrant came into a library in Oslo and asked the librarian “What height am I?”  The librarian told him and he went away.  The next day a number of other immigrants came in and asked the same question “What height am I?”

It turned out that they had been registering with a doctor and had been asked this question.  They did not know the answer or even what the question meant, but they did not feel confident enough to ask for an explanation.  But they knew the library was a place to get information and that the staff would be understanding and accepting.  The librarian had conveyed their respect for the dignity of the other person, which the health centre had not been able to convey.  I am sure that the health service staff were kind and caring and that the individual would receive good treatment.  But if they are to use the services of the health centre there needs to be this extra dimensions which is harder to define and harder to apply.  At its root it means connecting to the person as a person, not a client or number, and showing we are willing to listen even in the midst of our busy routine.

There is a message in this for the drafters of the new Sustainable Development Goals. It is not simply identifying targets for the desirable level of service: the number of schools or health clinics or the access to jobs.  The actual provision is important but it only achieves the goal when people can use the services in a confident self-defining way.  We know too many stories of new health centres which were established in remote areas, but were not used because the planners had not listened to the local community and take into account their culture and values and provided the service in a culturally sensitive way.

This is why the Members of the Club de Madrid are advocating the importance of including a goal on good governance and, within that, the importance of the participation of those affected in planning and implementing policies.  Such a goal is not a means to judge states on their current standards of governance but to ensure that they provide the services they themselves want to provide for their citizens in ways that make them effective.  And that no one walks away because they do not feel able to say “I do not understand” or “I do not feel comfortable”.

Photo Credit: Hatford Public Library

The success of ‘12 years a slave’ triggers shared societies community efforts

The NY Times' 1853 Article On 12 Years A Slave's Solomon Northup

Second of March at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, California: 12 Years a Slave wins three Oscars. For the first time in 86 years a movie directed by a black person wins the award and Afro American Lupita Nyong’o takes home the film’s industry higher honor as best supporting actress. The script is also awarded as the best adapted screenplay of the year.  Media underlines the importance of these awards as a landmark in the race discussion and the newly elected Academy’s President African-American Cheryl Boone Isaacs, says that with 12 Years’ success, “a major door have been kicked down… I believe very strongly that the entertainment and motion picture business is going to be more open and aware of different voices.

But far away from the string of reactions and global buzz that the picture generates along with the Hollywood Hills flashes and glamour, the story that tells and is a reminder of the recent past of the United States is still causing a lot of uncomfortable situations for many.

One place hidden from the limelight is Rapides Parish, the community in rural Louisiana where the real story of “12 years a slave” occurs. The picture is based on a book of the same name and it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and enslaved. That was 161 years ago, but even today that legacy stills lives on today.

The book was rediscovered in 1968 by historian Sue Eakin, who lived in the same area were Solomon Northup was enslaved. As a white woman championing the story of a black slave in the days of deep segregation, and therefore as a women championing a shared societies vision, Eakin faced many challenges. 50 years after that, her great-nephew, Lamar White still has to deal with controversy as, even today, there are many who refuse to acknowledge this area’s history. As White says, “It is difficult to build a community when there’s that giant psychic wound that slavery inflicted. It was easier for people to get along if they ignored it”.

As the BBC reports in its article “Louisiana grapples with 12 years a Slave” at a two-day discussion on the book held recently at Louisiana State University, “Northup’s story was debated by a group of black and white Americans. Ginger Jones who leads the university’s multicultural committee, says her initial proposal to host a symposium on race relations met with resistance

People whose ancestors were slaves in the area refused to attend because it was a painful topic to address. Karen Riley a panelist at the symposium says “there’s shame, fear and mistrust”. She points to the way many in the South celebrate the start of the Civil War and the lack of memorials for those who suffered slavery. Bob Vincent, a white pastor whose ancestors were slave owners believes the conversation will only open up if America fully acknowledges the past.  “Here in America our hands are very bloody with the legacy of slavery”.

Therefore, here we have a case where a Hollywood success has again had a translation into the real world. Despite all the troubles and difficulties, the bad memories coming alive and resistances found in the way, there are a lot of positive angles to stress starting from the fact that the powerful filming industry starts breaking its own racial barriers.  And second, but as important as the former, the efforts of the communities to initiate frank talks about their past and to move forward a shared future in a shared society.

Additional information: see the original text from the New York Times (20th of  January, 1853) that documents Solomon Northup story. “THE KIDNAPPING CASE. Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northrup. INTERESTING DISCLOSURES”.

Ethnic and cultural minorities with worse health outcomes

Precisely when we are in the process of reviewing the Post 2015 Development Agenda from a Shared Societies Perspective, we found this article “Stop Denying People Their Right to Health” by Sarah K. Edwards from Health Poverty in Action at the HuffPost Impact.

Across the world, ethnic and cultural minorities are marginalized and experiencing more poverty and worse health outcomes than the rest of the population, but there is a lack of statistical information around this. By measuring national averages, the MDGs cover up this situation and fail to incentivize countries to breakdown of data into sub-national groups.

Professionals on the field, as those from Health Poverty Action, are viewing and experiencing this, but the lack of data hinders the development of policies that could put a stop to this marginalization process. Allow us to link this with the position paper that the Club de Madrid prepared and is now promoting within the framework of the Shared Societies Project: “A Shared Societies Perspective on the Post-2015 Development Agenda”. In this paper, it is clearly stated that the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals must address the issue of the continuing marginalization of many groups on grounds of identity. Marginalization affects not only the groups being excluded but also the society as a whole, socially, economically and politically.

Furthermore, the first suggestion of this position paper for the New Sustainable Development Agenda is the importance of disaggregating data to show the differential outcomes for different sections of society. This was stressed in the Report of the High Level Panel. It would be helpful if this is explicitly stated in the new Agenda and that it includesdisaggregation in terms of identity. Otherwise we will have no way to know if new development has reached all sections of society.

If we want to promote policy approaches that generate safe and prosperous shared communities, Ethnic minorities shouldn’t be left behind.

Follow Sarah K Edwards on Twitter:


April elections: a Shared Societies opportunity for Afghanistan?

Photo credit: Al Jazeera

History in Afghanistan has as many twists and turns as one can ever imagine. And a new one could be in the making. This could be surprising for some but for the first time in many years the next elections, to be held this April, will feature 11 presidential tickets and all of them will be ethnically diverse. All tribes have their leaders separated and represented in various presidential candidate teams and that triggers a question: is the era of ethnic divisions, that had its climax during the civil war (1992-1996) over?

The answer to this kind of complex questions about Afghanistan will hardly consist in a simple “yes” or “no” but the good news is that it is “probably yes” or “partly yes” (for instance check out this article with the four main questions on the table regarding the elections). As Helena Malykar, Afghan political analyst and historian said in her Al Jazeera report:

The ousting of the Taliban by the US-led military forces at the end of 2001 and establishment of a new regime based on democracy, equal rights and freedoms, has offered Afghans a new environment. During the last decade, while Machiavellian games for power have continued to be played, a wave of change has also made its way into the society, especially among the young generation of Afghans. Changing values are slowly transforming this nation and this shift is quietly, but fundamentally challenging the old ways.

Photo credit: Al Jazeera

Photo credit: Al Jazeera

It’s true that the reasons why all the presidential tickets are integrating leaders from different backgrounds might not be very clear. The rumors in Kabul point to President Karzai as having a lot to do with this refound diversity in an attempt to control the process. Others think it is not a convictions/ideals driven process but calculation on the part of the candidates themselves. And yes, the common visions and programs may mean little but the fact is that the younger generation is striving for a better quality of life and better public services like education, health care or infrastructure rather than focusing on ethnic issues. As Malykar says

there are clear and present signs that voters may transcend ethnic and sectarian dividing lines during the April presidential elections. Whether the division of votes will be motivated by immediate material gain or based on a forward-looking vision, remains to be seen.

Therefore the process in Afghanistan towards a Shared Society is both challenging and promising. The fact that all the presidential tickets will be ethnically mixed at least opens the door to implement three of the Shared Societies Commitments and Approaches on Inter-Community Development: “take steps to reduce tensions and hostility between communities”, “initiate a process to encourage the creation of a shared vision of society” and “promote respect, understanding and appreciation of diversity



Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: