Health and Healthcare Systems

Human relationships are the all-purpose tool for sustainable development

Abaco resident Berman Baptiste passes the time inside a damaged church serving as a shelter for people who lost their homes to Hurricane Dorian in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, Bahamas, September 8, 2019.  REUTERS/Loren Elliott - RC1FC01A3870

Churches have become shelters for people left homeless by Hurricane Dorian. Image: REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Andrew Serazin
President, Templeton World Charity Foundation
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

Human beings are a uniquely amazing species. From the construction of great cathedrals to the modern scientific enterprise, our greatest accomplishments happen when we work together. We crave social connections as much as we desire nutrition or shelter. We experience a social loss as an injury to our body.

In the Bahamas, we are recovering from our greatest loss in recent memory. We watched in horror as Hurricane Dorian’s 200 mile-per-hour winds and 25 foot storm surge claimed dozens of lives and destroyed thousands of homes. As we tend to the wounds inflicted by the storm, our community faces an overwhelming grief.

Although nature endows us with a wide capacity for suffering, it also gives us the tools for hope and progress. Indeed, it is our exceptional ability to form a “shared we” that allows disparate persons to work together towards mutual goals.


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The initial disaster response in the Bahamas testifies to the power of empathy and cooperation. To deliver aid, humanitarian workers and community members alike leveraged local relationships based on communal trust and responsibility. A fleet of local boats were among the first to deliver supplies to the hardest hit areas, while churches are shelters and staging grounds for aid distribution.

How will these efforts succeed over the long haul? To answer this question, we need to look beyond massive government action or provision of material goods. We need to build old-fashioned human relationships.

Fortunately, short-term humanitarian efforts like those following Hurricane Dorian and the long-term international agenda like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, considered this week at the UN General Assembly, can benefit from a burgeoning area of research. Using the best in psychology, neuroscience, and developmental science, a new community of researchers is testing dozens of interventions to strengthen human relationships.

Here are three of my favourite innovations:

Developed over twenty years of careful research by psychologist Everett Worthington, this approach to transforming personal trauma into hope and healing draws on cutting-edge neuroscience. The research team is now testing the two-hour workbook in a randomized control trial across eight countries, including Colombia, Indonesia, China, Ghana, South Africa and Ukraine. Results indicate this elegantly simple intervention may have long-term positive benefits while reducing anxiety and depression.

Equally exciting is an ongoing study by Professor J. Nathan Matias and researchers at CivilServant, who are seeking to foster gratitude and hospitality in online communities like Wikipedia. The person-to-person relationships among editors at Wikipedia can become rancorous, endangering the vitality of an unprecedented free resource for sharing knowledge worldwide. Simply encouraging editors to thank each other for their contributions to articles promises to dramatically strengthen the health of the Wikipedia community. As digital communities like Facebook and Twitter continue to wedge themselves into our daily lives and serve as public forums for discussing values and politics, it’s not hard to imagine how this research could be used to improve online discourse more broadly.

By designating a bench outside health clinics for conversation and staffing it with local community members, this project drastically improved patients’ post-appointment mental health outcomes in regions where the usual Western medical remedies are not available. In fact, it was as effective at improving issues like depression and anxiety as pharmacological solutions. The Friendship Bench has become a global phenomenon, even in rich countries like the United States, showing the universal applicability of such ideas.

Innovations in strengthening human relations. Image: Templeton World Charity Foundation

These examples form a larger call to action to use the best research to focus on strengthening human relationships. Development agencies like USAID are beginning to invest in programmes that build empathy and resilience. And more must be done. At the Templeton World Charity Foundation, we have recently launched the Global Innovations in Character Development initiative, which will test dozens of small-scale innovations to improve human relationships – and then scale those that work.

Let this also be a lesson for the Sustainable Development Goals, a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet” and the focus of this week’s UN General Assembly.

Human relationships will be key to these towering goals. Solutions for clean and affordable energy (Goal 7) will rely as much on global cooperation as on technological advances, which will only go so far in combating climate change (Goal 13). To create a peaceful and just society (Goal 16), we must first learn to transform trauma and violence into forgiveness. And we must treat the epidemic of loneliness to promote wellbeing at all ages (Goal 3).

Each goal poses its own unique challenges, none of which have easy solutions. But as with Hurricane Dorian, we can brave the storm with the better angels of our nature: our vast potential to cooperate and forge human bonds.

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