It’s January, a time for new year’s resolutions and self-improvement regimens. Yet many of these resolutions are abandoned by February. For those that manage to succeed, what’s their secret? Apparently, one of the keys to a successful new year’s resolution (or ‘self-change’ as they are called by psychologists), is measurement: setting realistic and clear goals that can be tracked over time. The ability to monitor progress not only helps a self-changer understand whether the resolution is being achieved, but also acts as a source of motivation to continue.
Eight months ago, an unprecedented gathering of humanitarian actors laid out their own version of ‘self-change’ in the form of commitments at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. It will take some time before we know whether or not these commitments are being successfully achieved. But if we think that measurement is important for a successful commitment, then there is much work to be done to ensure that the Agenda for Humanity is a success. Currently, it’s unclear how commitments made under the Agenda for Humanity will be implemented, or how their impact on humanitarian action will be assessed.
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In 1965 Bob Dylan wrote a song called Ballad of the Thin Man about a Mr. Jones who was struggling to understand the changing world he saw around him. Dylan fans will recognise the famous line ‘something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?’ In the wake of Brexit and the new US President elect, Donald Trump, I suspect many of us may well be feeling a bit like Dylan’s Mr. Jones.
But much of what is going on is understandable and we can see common features and patterns in recent events in the UK, USA and beyond - not least a growing group of people who, for various reasons, feel disenfranchised and disempowered and who believe that perceived elite groups, whoever they may be, are out of touch, lack empathy and are not serving their needs. People are frustrated and angry and above all they want change, even if they don’t have a clear idea of what this may look like. And the change they want has to be radical and transformative, rather than incremental. This new movement is gathering pace and is rapidly transforming the global political landscape.
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There’s a common folk tale that paints the picture of six blind men who come across an elephant for the first time. Each of the men approaches the elephant and blindly feels what is in front of him. One finds the trunk, another the tail, another the foot, another the ear and so on.
Afterwards, the men discuss the elephant: “An elephant is like a strong pillar” says the man who felt the leg. “What are you talking about?” asks the man who felt the tail, “the elephant is clearly like the brush we use to sweep the floors. It’s thin and hairy – not at all like a pillar”. The others chime in with their own experience, all certain the others must be mad, for they each felt the elephant with their own hands – they know what an elephant is, surely!
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At the first face-to-face meeting of the WHS thematic teams in 2014, a thematic team member posed the following questions: ‘Who was this Summit for? What was the change it was trying to achieve?’ The answers from the WHS Secretariat were: ‘Everyone’ and ‘Everything we possibly can.’ In the absence of an inter-governmental process, this Summit process opted for inclusiveness and participation over formal negotiations and binding agreements. As a result, several hundred commitments have been produced, but the security of a formal framework - like Sendai – has not.
A friend remarked to me on the way back from Istanbul that the Summit has unwittingly created an unmanageable load. He said it would have been better to have three big things to work on, all of which can bring about optimum change and improvement. Instead, he lamented, we have over-produced and created commitment gridlock.
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In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that one is not born a woman (or man) but becomes a woman (or man) by upbringing and society’s differentiated space for men and women. Nearly 70 years later, when it comes to refugees, it is unfortunately still all too relevant. Perceptions of the social roles of men and women play a decisive, if not reductionist role in the way non-Islamic politicians and media deal with refugees from the Syria crisis.
In short, women symbolise innocence and deserve our compassion. Men, on the other hand, depict danger. They are a danger to their own women, who they beat, oppress or rape. And they are a danger to society, as they are associated with violence, or even terrorism. When people depict refugees as a ‘terrorist threat’, without being explicit, they are invariably referring to the male refugee.
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