Initiatives of Change, Caux, Switzerland, July 2012
Palace of the World
Having learned that I’d successfully passed all of my units for year one of my Msc in Gender and International Relations, I packed up and left my accommodation in Bristol at the end of June to get ready for Switzerland. I had heard all about Caux from my Initiatives of Change friends down under, and read about the palace before my arrival-so yes I was rather excited. Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a unique international organisation that works to build trust across the worlds divides through a diverse network of people and organisations, all over the world. IofC looks at various concepts and issues about peace building and human security by including all walks of life regardless of nationality, religion, culture and beliefs. Practical solutions then flourish, life-long relationships are born and peaceful change takes place. What struck me about IofC is the emphasis on the individual, the time and value given to focussing on self- development. The notion that change and transformation must start with the individual is key. This is why everyone I meet that is connected to IofC is truly beautiful, unique and has an inspiring story to tell of their life journey thus far. I know that spending some time at Caux is going to overwhelm me, a palace full of 100s of leaders with so much passion, strength and commitment to share. So many people just want a better future for their nations and the world, equality of opportunity, clean water, food and shelter, and no more crime and corruption. Everyone here is open hearted, trusting and believes in humanity-no lie. This is not fantasyland or some strange cult, but an organisation that has a strategic two-fold approach to looking at contemporary problems facing the world. The human element is key, spending time with oneself and dealing with internal conflict and problems. No one on this earth can claim to be free of varying degrees of narcissism at different life stages. How well we battle through these impacts on the life that unfolds before us, much of which we control from our hearts and minds.
So I’m heading to Caux to join the conference team to ensure a successful 8-day conference about Human Security with over 300 delegates from over 50 countries goes smoothly. This is great timing for me as I will be looking closely at International Security as part of my masters programme later in the year, and what better way to learn about it by listening to people dealing with the issues on a daily basis-books definitely don’t teach us everything and academia alone does not really satisfy my curiosity enough. Talking and listening to people with real experiences from all corners of the globe, and then coming up with potential solutions and practical ideas is much more rewarding and educational for me.
As soon as I arrive I can feel magic in the air. I bump into one of my conference team mates at Geneva train station – Yara from Lebanon – so we make the journey to Caux together. We’re both pretty shattered. Yara immediately reminds me of a wonderful girl Jacqueline I lived with in London in 2007. They are so alike in looks and personality. Yara has travelled from Washington DC via London, and had quite an early start as did I, but we still manage to natter away as we travel. Caux palace is extremely impressive on approach up the mountain on the little train. It’s a warm sunny afternoon, a very pleasant arrival to Caux.
People of the World
The next two weeks are utterly fabulous. Everyone staying at the palace regardless of their status is considered equal and contributes to the running of the place. At breakfast, lunch and dinner times, preparation of the food, serving, clearing up and washing is divided up between those of us that are staying there. This creates a wonderful community feeling, love and warmth. I spend an afternoon in the laundry folding sheets in pairs with some of my conference team-mates, whilst talking laughing and getting to know one another. An elderly man from Burma tells me it is his first time visiting another country as he pours me a cup of tea. His eyes are wide and lit up, a wide excited smile on his face show me the boy within. I can’t help but throw my arms around him and he returns my embrace.
The first day of the conference and registration is here. My days begins at 7.30am for a team meeting and ends at 11.30pm welcoming guests and giving them the information they need. I love this task as I have the opportunity to meet everyone and put faces to names. I’m exhausted and give up on my heels half-way through the day. I have a quick break for dinner and sit beside my new friend from Sierra Leone who tells me his story of living through civil conflict, losing his home, and reporting on so many tragic events as a journalist. And here he is full of life and energy, such a big spirit and passion. Opposite him sits a middle-aged man from Ukraine. He spent ten years in a gulag as a prisoner of conscience and now he’s the director of an academic institution. He tells me how letters he received from Amnesty International were so significant and gave him strength and kept him going. This truly warms my heart. I’ve been a member of AI since I was 12 years old and often read stories in newsletters and magazines of innocent people degraded, tortured and stripped of their human rights. And now a survivor sits before me telling me his story and how he was inspired to then set up the very first AI group in the region where he is from.
At tea I catch up with my Kenyan friend who now lives in New York with his family. He’s here with his wife and two young sons. He tells me of the competition at school, and how hard he had to work to get a opportunity to study at Oxford University. He was not from a particularly elite wealthy family but his parents were able to give him good schooling. With much grafting he made it ahead of thousands of others. He tells me how delightful it was to meet the academics he had been reading as a young student back in Africa. I do not take for granted my education. I was fortunate to go to the university of my choice with the right grades and did not have to pay a penny in tuition. It did bother me how those not making the grade could still get through clearing on a course somewhere. Does this somehow undervalue the outcome and the process? Now I worry about my nieces and nephews that are extremely bright, but are already at such a young age thinking about whether the hefty fees are worth it or not. And here I am talking to an extremely intelligent young African father about what he had to do to study at Oxford and the challenges he has faced in his life. I was pleased to hear that he found English people warm, genuinely helpful and considerate during his time in the UK. Indeed it is a two way process making friends in a new place, and its important to mix with the international and local community equally for a valuable experience. I could go on; every meal time, meeting and plenary, or walk through a corridor in Caux leads to an enlightening encounter where stories, perspectives and opinions are shared. I feel like I am learning so much more here (almost too much!) over a concentrated period about myself, others and my subject, compared with struggling to sit alone reading dense journal articles and going to seminars that scratch the surface of huge topics. Reminds me a little of being on the road travelling…
Monday – Restoring Land, Restoring Lives
Day one of the conference is organised by a department of the United Nations in partnership with IofC International exploring land restoration. A discussion on Women and Land Degradation grabs my attention. An Australian researcher shares her experience in Vanuatu. It is women here that are spending twice as much time than men working on the land who know more of the history and stories of its development and changes. However women are not included in meetings about land use and resource development; there is no connection between people working the land and the decision makers. Outside investors are then able to take advantage of communities leaving the local people in poverty. 80% of cooperatives in Vanuatu have been developed by women-they know their stuff but are being marginalised and disempowered to the detriment of the country’s economy. This is true of many countries. Globally women do 80% of labour on farmland but do not know their rights. Behavioural change needs to be explored to move forward and education is key. Women really are required in leadership roles, this is not just western feminist waffle or whatever it may be labelled as. This is necessary, logical and practical. Women need to be talking with men more, not just with each other. Mediators are often men. Women need to recognise their power and think about how they speak. Women need to use this power to have a vision and then bring it to life as leaders. Women can bring people together and collaborate. We have a special gift, its time to be confident about it and create change. This will happen when both men and women begin to alter their thinking.
The panel goes on to discuss the problem of the collective west and consumption-this will lead to hyper-consumption. A change needs to occur in the corporate world using the language of money. The problem in the developed world is that the use of fertilizers is too excessive; not restoring land but killing it. A shared value approach is required. Leaders of multi-nationals and private companies need a more global outlook and work closely with small not for profit companies to share expertise. Some communities drink Coca Cola, have a mobile phone and satellite TV but have no toilet. Corporations have set people’s priorities and had a lot of influence, it’s time for those championing water and land sustainability to have more of this influence. Someone from the audience asks a key question: how can we sort out the problem of policy makers doing things to get elected and thinking only of the next five years when we need to essentially think long term? The response from the panel is that it should not be regarded as political suicide to discuss these issues. Sustainability actually leads to profitability. A healthy nation will indeed spend more money. Conclusion; women need a bigger voice and power, corporations need to incorporate and shared value approach, political leaders need to unite and think long-term. This is nothing new, an ongoing struggle that is being challenged everyday.
Tuesday – Inclusive Economics
The plenary the following morning has four men on the panel-I can’t help but notice this. Today we’re looking at what can make the world move towards economic policies that meet everyone’s basic needs and offer all a real chance to prosper. There is a delegation of 20 people from South Sudan at the conference so a panel member representing them speaks. Following conflict there are no laws, so everyone will try and take what they can and this leads to much corruption, hence the Anti Corruption exists, says Chairperson of the organisation. Josef Winter, Chief Compliance Officer of Siemens is next. Siemens has an annual revenue of €75 billion. In 2008 the company was fined US$1 billion for bribery. Winter’s job has been to introduce a more value-based approach to the company that is more personal and sustainable. There is now training on clean business with no bribes and good business a result. Or so he says, sceptic me thinks. Sarosh Ghandy, a TATA executive finishes by saying that corruption in India and its awareness is constantly increasing. He suggests that the only way to really tackle this problem is to start with the human dimension and that we are by nature all good people.
Well I do of course like the sound of that and agree, but am left a bit perplexed. When corruption is taking place at the top within the government what do we actually do?! Religion on paper is a great avenue, but also used as a political weapon. Putting women in power is not a simple solution, as they can if they want to be as deadly or even more as the male (not mentioning any names here). Consumption, quick fixes and greed for more thanks to the support of globalisation is a worldwide issue, the disease spread from the West. Lack of trust and competition continue to go up locally, regionally, nationally and internationally making the planet at times a rather ugly place to be. Too many huge problems, that can’t all be solved over night.
In the afternoon I go to a change-making session, a talk by a medical doctor and founder of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. The doctor has been active in Palestinian political affairs since the early 1990s. I pick this session, one of three available, as I am constantly hearing about the problems in this part of the world and not being able to fully get my head around a possible solution. Mustafa Barghouti provides a history of Israeli occupation of Palestine from 1947 the present day, with Palestinians now only having 11% of their land that has a wall erected around the occupied area. Barghouti was born in Jerusalem and served as a doctor there for 15 years, but now cannot even go there for a visit. People are stuck within the wall and emergency services such as healthcare are not easily accessible. Barghouti goes on to describe the horrors of living within the walls and the poor treatment of his people from Israel’s. He suggests that a two-state solution is required to stop this suffering, that causes Israeli’s much harm grief as well. 64 years of suffering have gone by, and still no solution. How on earth do you achieve reconciliation in this complex situation? What intrigues me is when he goes on to describe how some kindergarten schools in the West Bank of Palestine use music to look at peace. There are increasingly female festival directors in the country with arts and culture now thriving in this country. The fact that women are at the forefront of this as peace-makers, and the use of creativity is a pleasure for me to hear. Going back to the importance of women’s equality, education, power and position in all societies being significant to ease some of these problems. And the relevance of creativity having the power to transform and educate must not be undermined. There are people in the audience from Lebanon, Israel and Egypt with much to say about the tensions and this demonstrates the complexity of the situation, and emotions on all sides. There has been a lot of hurt and pain that somehow need to be healed through forgiveness before people and the countries can really start to move forward to finding a better solution that makes life more peaceful for all.
Wednesday- Just Governance
A panel discussion sets the scene this morning, why do we need good governance? Why are so many revolutions taking place? People are standing up against injustice, poverty, corruption, unemployment and the control of the economy. Good governance can change this. How can this concept of good governance be universally considered? In the West we have much hypocracy as leaders here let dictators continue with their activities and do not intervene due to partnerships they hold that benefit them, so there are many contradictions at play. Democracy needs to be both social and political. With globalization at play it appears that multinationals are taking over, with governments holding less power, or so it seems.
There is a small delegation at Caux from Burma, so we learn from them about how this country was the least developed in the world. Slow and steady changes in governance have now moved Burma into 48th place from no.1. Not bad. In 2008 the military regime had 25% of seats in the parliament. There have been huge problems of human and drug trafficking. The rule of law is key for improvements in Burma. Justice must be served and is also about human rights. The concept of human rights as an example is different around the world, in the West it is about the ‘I’, my rights. In other parts of the world it is often about how you fit into the whole. But the right to choose and vote should be universal for everyone. You cannot have ‘good’ governance without ‘just’ governance. In Burma some ethnic groups have been fighting for equality and not being oppressed for over 60 years-why? The government is simply doing what it wants to do recklessly. The panel agrees that a gender balance would lead to more just governance. There is now 4% of representation of women in parliament from nothing. They have so far played a good role in the reform. Leaders male or female black or white have their own battles when they claim positions of power, to hold onto these and do a good job. Just because Obama was elected or a woman starts running a country it does of course not mean that inequalities for black people and women will suddenly come to a halt-but it’s a start. Its inspiration for society and young people that change can happen, and that their small part forms part of the whole to shift thinking and behaviour in their local communities and countries.
Laws end up changing to meet the needs of politicians. Sub Saharan Africa has recently undergone rapid change and development and is looking healthier. China seems to have legitimate economic growth. But what about peace and equality? For real change and sustainable just governance we need to first change minds. What has happened in the past must be forgiven to move forward and see each other as equal. So we ask the question, what is the difference between reactionary and truly progressive decision-making? What is personal just governance? This is What IofC is all about, bringing it back to the individual. Many world leaders are after power, claim the seat, talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. There is a major problem in the system. There is too much attention on the government and power. There needs to be a distribution of power in civil society. The media encourages leaders to market themselves in a specific way to get elected, to get power. But what about achieving justice that needs to be felt on a personal level thorough experience and is of course procedural through courts and legal systems? All actors need to talk and listen to close this gap together-there is too much insecurity and mistrust. Tolerance and acceptance is required, minorities must be heard and respected. Globalization has allowed for free markets but not the free movement of people-a contradiction. When are we all going to feel like equal human beings?
The solutions are not always simple and results not instantaneous to achieve improvements in society, but what always baffles me is the ignorance of people in positions of power and those growing their wealth to extraordinary levels. These people seem to forget the one certain thing about life, that it does end rather quickly and we all heading towards death. None of us are going to take this wealth anywhere with us. One does not need to believe in god to do things right. One needs to be human. Our education systems, and the media overflowing with celebrity rubbish and useless advertising is fooling us into unhappiness and creating a ridiculous amount of over earning for some where there never seems to be enough. The gap widens between rich and poor and who is really left happy? And in the West we have for a while now had a wave of new thinking about life, and going against the grain, taking more ownership of our lives and doing the right thing. And to do this you will confuse and alienate people, scare them and experiences periods of lonliness-well so be it! This is my response to the above discussions, as I am not the one living in poverty but one of the Westerners living in our own man-made mess, that has people psychologically damaged and numerous new illnesses have appeared to cope with the materialist world we now live in where we feel fat and ugly instead of happy and loved in a community. We’re growing into a sea of individuals, loners and competing in our own garbage that aliens would find so amusing and barbaric.
In the evening everyone gathers in the main hall to explore the process of acknowledgement and healing, and what better example than the Australian experience. The indigenous communities in Australia have long struggled for government recognition of past injustices. They are the oldest known culture in the entire world. This evening we discuss if an apology can play a role in healing collective memories. When Kevin Rudd came into power as the prime minister in 1998 one of the first things he did was make a national and official public apology to the indigenous people of Australia, past and present for the injustices carried out on them over the years. We all watch in silence a video of the apology made, its hard to hold back tears and not be moved by what we see on the screen. Kevin spends a good 30 minutes or so describing his experience at that time, and in reflection what he has learned about the process of making an apology.
-Such an apology must be authentic-you cannot pretend. The world knows when you are lying. Kevin ignored whatever had been provided by the government and wrote a brand new apology three days before the event. He had writers block. After listening to the story of an 82 year-old woman who had been stolen from her family at the age of 5, he was able to start writing.
-For an apology to be accepted, it must be received. Kevin took a risk in doing what he did. Such risks must be taken with conviction and faith. One needs to acknowledge the spiritual and emotional side of healing and loss.
-It must be factually based and civil society need to be engaged early. Politicians are often reactive and slow. Those working at the grass root level are closer to people and therefore key to bringing about change and healing.
-An apology without action is meaningless. The gap needs to be closed between indigenous and local people, and this needs to be sustainable in the long term future.
Jackie Huggins, a historian and aboriginal spokesperson explains how this healing must happen continuously. She has been involved in this work for over 20 years. The apology is the hugest thing that has happened so far. Much social research was carried out before it happened. The wounds of the past will not go away, but as a result of the apology they have been able to turn a corner. As a result of it people started sharing their stories. As a child Jackie recalls how she would ask her mother where her friends had gone, slowly one by one they would disappear. Jackie was one on the lucky ones that was not taken away. Today racism is still a huge matter in Australia. Literacy, employment and mortality rates are still problematic for aboriginal people. The education process about these people is slowly increasing. Jackie thanks Kevin Rudd for giving aboriginal people their strength and dignity back. No one is denying that there are still huge mountains to climb, but this has been a step in the right direction. “Never underestimate the power of civil society” says Kevin Rudd in closing. It is not just about political stage play, but civil society leaders are absolutely key.
Thursday – Healing Memory
Today flies by in a blur. I’m feeling a bit tired, all the late nights, making sure things are running smoothly during the day, trying to attend sessions as well as meeting many new people constantly. But I love it! We start the day with a plenary asking the question “How can the wounds of history be faced and healed and trust between people and communities rebuilt?” The first thing I note is that the panel for this session is made up of just women. So the men make the decisions and the mess, women then take the lead in mopping things up as that’s what we’re good at? Just saying, and just thinking…don’t take my word on this-just a side thought (!). The women agree that the first step to rebuilding is forgiveness. One evolves by forgiving. You have to forgive to move on and see that everyone is equal. That is how you build peace and trust. Everyone agrees and sees the value of the act of making an apology. As for integrating communities, women can be proactive and meet together to start off this process, and then move on to involve the rest of the community. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Someone later that day brings the philosophy of Shaka Zulu into the conversations. Life is about collaborating, not just trying to win for oneself. In the West there is so much emphasis on me, myself and I. But perhaps we do need to think more collectively, and this would lead to healthier, happier nations?
Friday – Intercultural Dialogue
How can space for dialogue be created that will heighten understanding and respect across cultures? I’ve been looking forward to this day all week, I feel strongly about developing links between different people be it across nations or indeed within nations. So many cultural melting pots exist around the world and are growing as the world continues to transform. This is often in big cities, that will next to expand and grow up to the skies as it is estimated that by 2050 85% of the world’s population will live in cities.
We start with Michelle Bachelet, Head of UN Women from Chile. Her talk pretty much in a nut-shell simply reinforces an age old message that the whole world needs more women in leadership and economic development, to improve key factors of justice, peace and sustainable development. We need inclusive dialogue and ethical leadership, and social protection. Of course we do I’m thinking, we all know what we need. It’s a matter of changing how power dynamics work and shifting how various structures operate-that is the hard part. Making it happen. Where inequalities rise, so does human insecurity. Conflicts and violence continue to rage everywhere.
Next we have Josef Karanja from Kenya, a lawyer and refugee advocate. He starts by exploring the question why do we need dialogue and how can this be structured? There is an assumption that we are going to fix something in society. Intercultural dialogues cannot be created in the abstract, there needs to be a basis for them. To know where you are going you really need to know where you came from. They are required to ensure that different communities can co-exist, following much death and corruption for example. The constitution alone is not enough, effective public participation is required. We have to involve the public where the problem is coming from, what is the truth about the society? And the talking and discussion cannot go on forever, it must be completed to then move on to action. There are culturally entrenched versions of dialogue such as Fumble Talk – Family Dialogue. But why do we wait for crisis to happen before we have such dialogue? Is violence often a result of cultural differences? We need boundaries, to co-exist, and celebrate our cultural diversity. It is important to look at the youth and unemployment levels. Who are the real perpetrators of violence that end up happening? Why do we wait and not see the opportunity, and remove our pre-conceived notions? Utopias emerge in times of transition and crisis. As we think and intend, so is reality. Why does conflict occur between groups that may be different by ethnicity, ideology, religion etc? There is a perceived threat to their identity. Colonialism in this way continues to leave a legacy. As for democracy, well is this a concept for the West?
Many questions and comments come up and we don’t have all of the answers. For me education is key but it almost seems inevitable that divides do and will continue to exist. The world is made up of many different beautiful colours and ways of life that continue to evolve. We have different languages, food, behaviour, religions and identities. It is so difficult to rise above this, to maintain one’s identity and simply respect an others. People often think their way is THE way, the best way. We slot people into boxes, we often want to be in boxes ourselves to make life simpler and easier. We just need to respect difference, but this becomes difficult when some differences seem dangerous, and we think that other countries are immoral. When should we intervene and to we have the right to? I think we will be asking these questions forever, there is no easy answer. These are big questions about the world, but we also need to go back to basics and look at our local communities and resolve conflict in local multicultural communities, especially as migration continues and cities become more demographically complex. Can there ever be a universally acceptable concept and understanding of human rights? As so far this notion is often used by some states to take advantage and actually cause more problems and destruction, as with the US in Afghanistan beginning as war partly in the name of improving women’s rights, that actually left them much worse off. Leaders of states are in a position of huge responsibility, but when they fail to protect their people, they lose the right to govern their people.
Thinking about stuff…
As well as the various plenaries we have small group discussions to bring the wider issues into our own working and personal lives to reflect on them. I’m surrounded by people that have lived very different lives that have seen and experienced suffering and humiliation in a way that I can barely begin to imagine. A lawyer from Kenya talks about the 100s of cases of child sacrifice he has worked on, the torture, pain and death caused. I sit and listen and feel out of my depth, how do I respond to that? I have a passion for filling my brain with information about things, people and countries that are so different from me, thinking that this will make me a better person. What I find is passionate people doing jobs where they are affecting the lives of other in a positive way. They have suffered or their fellow citizens have, and this is what gives them the drive and focus to create change. I on the other hand have grown up very fortunate and I have always known this. There is always someone better off than us all, it depends on how we look at it, how we look at life. If someone has more love, money, family etc are they better off than someone that doesn’t? I’m not so sure. Often not having certain things that may feel painful make some of us stronger, and much happier and satisfied later if we value the simple things more easily. There are some basics I guess, it would be good to have food, shelter, and be within a community to feel safe and not alone. In the West we have created situations where we are made to feel we are always missing something, often material. We need to go through an education system to then get ‘good’ jobs to make lots of money. Need to have the big houses, cars, a tiny body, to have a loving partner and children. The sense of community is disappearing and instead there is competition, mistrust, greed, loneliness; in my opinion failure.
Developing countries continue to develop and create more wealth, and their young people are also being pulled into this trap of acquiring wealth for me myself and I. I don’t really know all the answers, we’re at a point where things have just gotten too complicated. As usual I am thinking about it too much and then struggling how I fit into the mix, what small part can I play in this big messy picture? We often start from a place of knowing and the familiar, which is what I did as a young person. I followed what I connected with, and before I knew it I started to open up my world to people and places that have made my views on cultures, situations, values and people change constantly. My social circle continues to grow and change. I find myself connected and in touch with my rich Sikh and Punjabi heritage, that is the religion and place of my roots. But I am not completely defined by this nor do I choose to be restricted by this group of people, I love feeling my world grow, even if it does often lead to a big ball of confusion, it’s exciting, real and keeps me on my toes every day. I am British, Indian and international-a global citizen. I can’t seem to get enough of meeting more and more people and thrive on this!
So Now What?
There was much more that happened this week than I have shared, but I can feel that I have gone on too much already so I better stop soon. It’s not everyday that one is sitting in a beautiful old palace at the top of a hill amongst mountains with an extraordinary view feeling love and honesty flowing through the air with people from all corners of the globe. People that share the same feeling of wanting to break down the walls of difference, inequalities, death and destruction in the world. An African woman stands up one day from the audience, in response to a plenary about healing. She talks about her belief and god. She says god is in everyone of us, and we need to treat each other with love and respect. This is something my mother has told me since I was a small child. One doesn’t need to be religious or believe in god to be a good person. But for me this is how I choose to be in the world, to think and live my life remembering at the beginning of everyday that I need to make the most of it. I am not perfect so often forget, but everyday I want to be kind and love those around me. God does reside in every person around me, however good or bad their intentions may be. I believe when we are conceived we are all the same, our environments and various circumstances shape our behaviours. We are all capable of love and evil given the right circumstances. We live in fear and I’m often criticised for being too open, interestingly usually by my friends from developing countries where there is more mistrust, and competition is on another level. Well I’ve learned a hell of a lot on this life journey so far, and I choose to live a life of truth, self-respect and honesty. I’m not scared of death or what a human being might do to me in this little life, this is a tiny existence in the universe. I am a tiny spec in it all. I don’t want to live in fear of the unknown, but to keep embracing this magical fantastic life I have been granted. To do something good however small on a daily basis, and find my way in the world to ensure I’m doing my bit the best I can. The clock is ticking, I look forward to seeing how the next chapter unfolds.