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