The UK was riding a wave of optimism when I left it in the mid 1990s. Britpop and Cool Britannia were at their peak. Things could only get better. Internationally, optimism abounded. The Cold War felt well and truly behind us, and Europe was increasingly cohesive. Countries were developing, from the Asian tiger economies to the BRIC countries and, more recently, the 'Africa Rising’ narrative emerged. It would not take long to Make Poverty History.
As I set off for Africa – a fortunate, mobile and globally connected citizen – I shared in the optimism. I trusted in a positive future; in our global institutions; in the world’s clear trajectory of improvement; and in the UK's role in that world.
Two decades later, I returned to the UK. I found a country and people increasingly unsettled, and a palpable lack of trust. Politicians, business and mainstream media have never been less trusted. Trust in NGOs and in our global institutions has decreased, too. At the same time, there’s a heightened awareness of disparities, conflict and protracted fragility in multiple geographies where my organisation, Mercy Corps, works.
Before, there was a general sense that much of the world was advancing, albeit oftentimes at a frustratingly slow and unevenly distributed rate. Now, there seems to be little confidence that the global system is working. Across the world, and particularly in the UK, there is a lack of trust in our leaders, in our institutions and in the future.
In my world of international relief and development, trust is essential. We ask for trust both from the recipients of our assistance and from those paying for it. Without trust, everything falls apart. Therefore as we approach 2018, those in leadership positions must make decisions to help restore trust.
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This has never felt more important. So what should we do? Here are my suggestions for the next 12 months:
January: Let’s kick off the year at events like the World Economic Forum by stopping oversimplifying our message. In international aid, it is tempting to assume that for people to trust us, we have to simplify what we do. Not only does this not work; it’s counter-productive and reduces trust. The public, particularly young people, see through simplistic messages. When they look at crises like Yemen, the Rohingya or South Sudan, they know there is nothing simple about them. We are trying to make things better in extraordinarily complex places. We have to be more effective in communicating that complexity. We have to explain better how working to resolve these crises requires an array of adaptive approaches.
February: Take a clear stand on what is right, in keeping with events like the World Day of Social Justice. Moral ambivalence is toxic to trust. Most of all, the current lack of trust has been created by the sense that leaders don’t believe in anything. But there are moral red lines, and we should not be timid in defending them. Implementing discriminatory travel bans is wrong. Arming countries engaged in indiscriminate warfare is unacceptable. When a policy is overtly discriminatory, morally wrong or dangerously reckless, we must say so.
March and April: In the run-up to the Skoll World Forum and the World Bank spring meetings, focus on opportunity. The world is full of opportunities, but to realise them we must be willing to risk failure and invest in innovation. Not because they are buzzwords, but because embracing curiosity is a good approach to life. A lack of trust has led us to lack tolerance of failure, particularly in aid programmes. But innovation only thrives when we accept the possibility of failure.
We should address inequality of opportunity, too. Even in the most confined or fragile places there are opportunities, but they are not available to all people equally. Visible inequality of opportunity breeds disengagement and resentment, particularly among young people. We should frame inequality around access to opportunity, making it a priority to provide opportunity for all.
May: Learn from events like the ICT4D Conference in Zambia to put the power of technology in the hands of the many. Technologies are more accessible than ever and they have the potential to empower people around the world. But they also have the potential to embed existing power structures, if they are dominated by vested interests. Those of us in positions of power, including in the NGO community, must be certain we are putting new technologies into the hands of the people we work for, not using them to prop up our own established positions.
June: At the G7 meeting in Canada, focus on reducing conflict, and commit to investing in efforts to do so. According to the World Bank, conflict is now the single most significant driver of poverty. While the war in Syria enters its seventh year, children starve in Yemen, and the world continues to be disfigured by conflicts that affect two billion people, we cannot restore trust. There needs to be more active investment in peace-building initiatives, to tackle the root causes of crisis as well as its symptoms.
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July: In the spirit of the Nelson Mandela International Day, trust people to do what is right. Trust cuts both ways, and while there is a crisis of trust in leadership and established institutions, there has also been a lack of trust in ordinary people. Leaders have been unwilling to trust them to make the ‘right’ decision. That has to change. In the aid sector, this means increasing approaches that enable people to make decisions for themselves, like cash programming.
August: As the media and political calendar moves into ‘silly season’, attempt to change the timeframes. Media and political cycles are both increasingly short and out of sync with one another. Businesses measure growth by the quarter and NGOs are tied into short-term projects. We all need to realign how we work for the long-term. For example, in tackling cyclical crises like drought in East Africa, we must deal with the world not as a caricature, but as it really is. In the real world, things are complicated, and they take time.
September: When leaders meet at the UN General Assembly, have humility, especially in how we communicate. International aid professionals like me don’t have all the answers. Nor do leaders in politics, business or the media. In my field, what we grapple with is complex and uncertain. We are enormously privileged to meet some extraordinary people around the world. We must be humble enough to recognise that almost always, other people have better answers than we do. We must support and empower them.
October: To coincide with the meeting of the European Council, stand up for shared societies. Global connectedness is greater than ever, particularly among the young. This should be a cause for celebration and embracing opportunity rather than fear. As the world changes faster than ever, we must fight the forces encouraging us to turn in on ourselves. This ranges from addressing the causes of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, from where I currently write, to Europe’s response to its influx of refugees.
November: In the spirit of the International Day for Tolerance, we should step out of our boxes. We live in an increasingly multipolar and diverse world, but collaboration between different sectors is still the exception rather than the norm. I am continually staggered that the NGO community still talks in terms of Global North and South. And the development debate is often framed as a polarisation of political ‘left’ and ‘right’. We must resist the temptation to pigeonhole people, and accept that the world does not fit into neat categories.
December: As the year comes to an end, look forward, not back. While we can achieve much in 2018, we need to continue into 2019 and beyond. We must learn from history, of course, but not become hooked on times long past. The ‘Global Britain’ framing, for example, must avoid staring back through rose-tinted spectacles, while China advances with its 900 million WeChat users, AliPay and the $10+ trillion One Belt, One Road initiative. Whatever lies ahead, we can be sure it will not be the same as the past.
I realise that this is a lot to ask, and that trust will not return quickly. But if we are serious about making things better, leaders of all kinds should take action now. Here in Britain, 2018 will no doubt be fraught with complexity and challenges as Brexit negotiations continue to take centre stage. But it could also be a year when Britain reframes its place in the world, by taking concrete steps towards restoring trust. We need this more than ever. As does the world.