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Symposium 2015

Solution for Norms for Constructive Coexistence: Challenges of Collective Action

The Challenge

To manage systemic global risks, we must manage transnational challenges more effectively. The tension between the short-term popular pressures on national leaders, and the trade-offs needed to balanc ...

To manage systemic global risks, we must manage transnational challenges more effectively. The tension between the short-term popular pressures on national leaders, and the trade-offs needed to balance costs and benefits in international transactions and those with intergenerational significance, complicates collective action. Current events, from the recent global (and European) financial crises, through geopolitical challenges and the transformative effects of new technologies, to the risk of inflection points if we transgress planetary boundaries, make it clear that present arrangements are unsatisfactory.

Towards the Common Good, in Practice

“It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient know­ledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.” (Anonymous, the New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015)

Rarely has humankind faced such an urgent need to unite around common values; still more urgent is translating common values and goals into something that is workable and operational.

Wise ethical scaffolds affirm that a common core of human values transcend differences in religion, geography, gender, and (to a lesser degree) economic situations. They are highlighted in the human decency with which many Europeans greet refugees and in outpourings of support following humanitarian crises. Inklings of determination to act to deflect climate change emerge in global discussions. Compassionate and sensible responses to catastrophe and more serious engagement on collective action on global problems offer convincing evidence that the common good and responsible stewardship have viable roots. This hard core of common ground draws on concepts of human dignity that encompass both human rights and human responsibilities.

Ethical scaffolds are not just abstract and noble visions. They vary in level of detail, language, and emphasis, but the principles and the values on which they are grounded translate into specific guidelines and actions to arbitrate conflicting ideas and adjudicate conflicts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its many associated covenants, the Earth Charter, the Charter of Compassion, and the Global Ethic are cases in point. People from every religious tradition find resonance in the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

But well-articulated and widely endorsed norms should not mask the reality that people are deeply divided in important ways. Contemporary violent extremist movements are an obvious challenge but there are many others. We see divides at every level, from fractious families to sharply polarized politics to geopolitical tensions. Backlash against values long taken for granted (take slavery, for example) argue against complacency and platitudes.

We should revisit the more robust points that Samuel Huntington argued in his infamous “Clash of Civilizations” article of 1993 (the most read article ever in Foreign Affairs). Are there indeed deep values clashes that center on, for example, understandings of individual versus communal rights? Where do we agree? Disagree? The troubling pattern of questioning women’s equal rights, manifest both formally (CEDAW reservations, for example) and in lived realities of domestic violence and rape widely used as a weapon of war needs hard and wise interrogation. And amidst celebrations of the September 25 UN General Assembly approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) we must ask tough questions about what implementation actually requires. What will address gaping inequalities, among, and within, nations? What can be done?

The challenges demand complex but ordered solutions. This agenda draws on robust shared values set out in dynamic ethical scaffolds, bolstered by evidence-based research and experience.

Changing Attitudes

    1. Remember education: Education is the priority among priorities. It offers the most hopeful long-term approach to building a community of global citizens drawing the best from human capabilities and potential. Constant vigilance to quality, relevance, and wider access are essential.

    2. Take religion seriously: The insight that religious institutions have not, as some had assumed or predicted, retreated into private space, is a truism but the next steps to translate insights into wise action lie ahead. At which tables will religious leaders be engaged and which actors? Obvious priority areas for focus are global health care (looking to the Ebola crisis for one example1) and climate change.

    3. Critique and change both old and new media: Values and norms are not the province of philosophers or religious scholars and media is a practical path towards action. Traditional media outlets investigate, translate, and report. New worlds of social media speed communication and can propel new relationships.

    4. Don’t neglect the arts and humanities: Changes in hearts and minds are often best achieved through the arts. Prominent examples are the Fes Festival of Global Sacred Music, which engaged audiences through music combined with creative dialogue2, and powerful use of story to alter perceptions.

Solving Conflicts, Guaranteeing Human Rights

    5. Creative leadership: Leadership, intellectual and inspirational, is always key to changing norms and rallying around sound ethical principles. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mother Teresa still inspire. Frameworks to harness leadership like the Elders Group3 can work well.

    6. Create, maintain, and nurture safe spaces: Public debate and dialogue are vital tools to bring a sense of reality to discussion about values; transparency is increasingly appreciated and attainable in the Internet age. However, public debate and exploding social media demand private discussion in “safe space” where complex and unformulated ideas can be honed without fear of instant publicity and public repercussions. The question is where and how, and who can guarantee the safety required.

    7. Address lingering bitterness and resentments: Many conflicts look to the past and long-standing memories of injustice. There are good ways to address memories (truth and reconciliation commissions, creative approaches to narrative, justice measures among them). There are significant examples of success and glaring ones of failure.

    8. Respect the human face of engagement: Solving difficult issues demands personal engagement and, thus, relationships. Changes in attitude on topics like racism and prejudice against religious communities results most often from personal contact.

    9. Break large problems into manageable segments: Broad frameworks like the SDGs are obviously essential but vast problems are rarely addressed in one fell swoop. The UN Global Compact works with business, framing the objectives as an effort to create “a sustainable and inclusive global economy that delivers lasting benefits to all people, communities and markets.”4 Focusing like a laser on unacceptable levels of child and maternal mortality, including giving every victim a name, could save many lives.

    10. Take gender issues VERY seriously: The most contentious issues involving human rights relate to women’s rights and gender roles. There is formal consensus on equality between men and women, but lived experience should dispel any complacency. Evidence on the economic, social, and political importance of women’s empowerment grows by the day. Confront doubters with evidence that will convince them.

Proper Use of Resources

    11. Put inequality at the center: Large inequalities within and among nations are today unmistakable, as is evidence of their negative consequences. Action to address inequalities and inequity is, however, not working. Many are not convinced, in theory or in practice. We need better ideas and bolder action.

    12. Sharpen accountability: Sensible, sustained, practical accountability systems discipline good intentions. The Social Progress Imperative (SPI)5, for example, frames goals in specific numbers and a dashboard approach that measures social dimensions of country and subnational management. There are a plethora of indices around (indeed Robert Rotberg identifies 94 solely related to governance6), breeding confusion and overlap, but that should not obscure the need for meaningful indices and proactive use. Good indices are key to making the SDGs work.

    13. Confront corruption on all fronts: The reality and perception of widening corruption and impunity is a leading grievance. We know how to measure corruption and how to address it. It should be a central, integral, and action-packed part of efforts to counter violent extremism and to move towards better governance.

    14. Use naming and shaming measures well: Competitive ranking have important roles. The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index7 goads countries to act on corruption, and the World Bank Doing Business Index8 to address silly bottlenecks. Judicious use of such tools builds on common values and exposes gaps between rhetoric and behavior.

    15. Technology can be an asset: New technology, a defining feature of contemporary globalization, speeds change and modifies rules of the game, as a curse or a blessing. Using its power for good, in intelligent, creative ways, is vitally important, for example, on power, medicine, and encouraging citizen engagement.


1 Katherine Marshall and Sally Smith, “Religion and Ebola, Learning from Experience,” The Lancet, July 7, 2015





6 Robert Rotberg (ed) (2015), On Governance: What it is, what it measures and its Policy Uses (Waterloo, Canada: Centre for International Governance Innovation).