IHP news #525 (June 7, 2019)

On Women Deliver in Vancouver (and 21st century power & spirituality)

By on June 7, 2019



Dear Colleagues,

As you might have expected, this week’s issue will pay plenty of attention to Women Deliver in Vancouver (3-6 June), even if from a distance. Women Deliver is the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women in the 21st century. As such, it probably also features the highest concentration of ‘change makers’ in the world 😊. The conference aims to assist in propelling the world towards a more gender-equal world.  This year’s theme was “Power”. In the words of UN SG Guterres, perhaps:  “Gender equality is fundamentally a question of power, and throughout history women have been subjugated to a culture built for and by men, where women’s needs and contributions are marginalized and gender-based violence and harassment are normalized. Women Deliver’s theme challenges all of us address these power imbalances and to put more power in the hands of women and girls. To do this, we need to redefine our conception of power entirely,  from one that reinforces patriarchal structures to one based on solidarity, respect for our shared humanity and commitment to the public good. This is a world in which human rights, and women’s rights, underpin harmony and prosperity.”

Sounds very attractive, such a world. The one billion dollar question is of course, how on earth do we get there? The world is currently going through a nasty backlash against women’s rights, which is horrible enough (hence the calls at Women Deliver for a ‘Pushback against the pushback’); and more in general “power” is showing its more ugly face once again around the globe. Put differently, the global outlook in general is darkening. Coincidentally, in the very week that saw China host World Environment Day (in Hangzhou), the 30th anniversary of “Tian an Men” was commemorated. Like many, I felt sad about this anniversary, not just for the many victims and crushed hopes of all these young people back then, but also thinking of what could have been instead, for China and the world. In Sudan, meanwhile, the power and ruthlessness of ‘security troops’ (what’s in a name) is crushing ‘the people’  (with these paramilitaries once again supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, it seems, behind the scenes).  We’ll have a lot to talk about next year in Dubai…   And these are just a few examples from this week. Even if the African Union and Horton came with encouraging messages for youth in Sudan and worldwide, towards the end of the week.

Whether you discern an increasing appeal of ‘authoritarian/illiberal capitalism’ in many countries (with China as an early ‘trendsetter’) or rather a ‘Trumpism going global’ trend  ( Nick Dearden calls it ‘Capitalism’s plan B’), it’s obvious that we’re not in a good place, four years into the SDG era. Alex Evans put it like this, quite accurately in my opinion, in his new Collective Psychology Project report, ‘A Larger Us’: “Our inner and outer crises are two sides of the same coin, and it’s time we acted on that fact. “  Evans emphasizes we need to make 3 psychological transitions, both individually and collectively. In a way, it’s more about ‘healing’ than ‘winning’, he says. Traditionally, religions (at their best, at least) had a function in all three areas, but that’s not exactly working out anymore (if it ever did…).

Evans has a point. Like him (even if he doesn’t frame it in these terms), I think we need a “”spirituality for the 21st century” (for lack of a better word) to make real progress on the 4 key challenges a new Oxfam discussion paper  sees for the 21st century: gender equality, climate change, democracy (with currently shrinking space for civil society worldwide), and the technology challenge (with automation disrupting labour markets and making working conditions even more precarious for poor, low-skilled and female workers).  All of which are undermined by extreme economic inequality.

It’s clear that a true ‘spirituality of the 21st century’ would need to avoid the polarization (or worse) you so often see from more extreme/hardline parts of current religions. But how do we get there?

Earlier this week, the UN’s deputy head saw a role for (traditional) faith institutions in this respect,  calling  for faith institutions to show strong moral leadership to heal people’s “collective trauma” and fill the void left by international political failure. Amina Mohammed, the UN’s deputy secretary general (and a Muslim herself) indeed called for these organisations to take a lead in facing up to global challenges such as poverty, inequality, migration and the climate emergency.

Still, traditional religions can only take us this far in the current world  (even if the climate crisis is, if I put it in somewhat “biblical terms”, truly ‘a present from hell’), I feel. Many of these religions & organisations have retreated from public space (as Evans acknowledges), their extreme versions have not exactly been “instrumental” on the path to a better world (to put it mildly),  and last but not least, the ruthless global economic system we’re functioning in, often feels like the exact opposite of what these religions are advocating for in terms of values. And let’s not get into social media here 😊.

It’s clear that a Ministry of Happiness in every single country also won’t cut it, as they seem to think in the  UAE, let alone a ‘National Programme for Happiness and Positivity’, and neither does a model whereby you have to rely on grotesquely overpaid football stars to  reduce anti-Muslim hate crime among football fans (and I’m saying this as a big fan of Mo Salah, both as a footballer ànd as a person), even if football is a “religion” for many in the world.  The new (?) American religion of UFOsas reported in Vox, based on a new book by Diana Pasulka (also popular in Silicon Valley circles, it appears, and linked by her to a zealous belief nowadays in technology,  “our new god & culture”) is also not really the road we should be taking. Unless you’re stuck in the Transformers stage – usually something for kids under 12.

So, in short, not really being guru material nor a complexity ‘juggling with Theories of Change’ theorist, I don’t really know how to get to ‘spirituality for the 21st century’. Yet, that we need it, seems obvious, and what it should involve, ideally, seems equally clear: human beings should be able to recognize one another’s humanity (Yes, I know, trashy reality tv also does that, but I wouldn’t call that ‘spirituality of the 21st century’ 🙂  ).  In addition, the right of future generations to a planet like ours, also needs to be a core element of it. And thus, we should also have – paraphrasing “ET” now – deep respect for our ‘planetary home’.

Somebody summed it up nicely on Twitter, this week: “I’m not interested in “saving the planet”, which is just code for bringing the whole of life under the control of technocratic elites. I am interested in building a kinder, slower, fairer way of living, which will hopefully allow the natural world to recover and thrive.”  That’s indeed where we need to arrive.

For the moment, though, we’re still heading in the opposite direction. And the funny thing is that it will take a massive “battle” to get to such a way of life & planet – if we ever get there. Even if I’m not too fond of the “Third World War“ metaphor Stiglitz used to describe the climate crisis we’re facing.  The reason: we are ‘living’ this crisis of the global economic (and political) system, we’re all immersed in it. It’s thus indeed both an inner & outer crisis, with plenty of vicious feedback loops but potentially also virtuous ones if we get this right. Which is, by the way, why Greta Thunberg (who takes a year off from school to go to the UN Climate summit this year in September, by boat !)  is so much more credible than globetrotting Al Gore ever was.

Granted, Alex Evans is not the first one to point this out, some of the smartest gurus have said this before, as well as a particular political movement decades ago already.  So far humanity hasn’t listened much. And yes, I also know my few remaining marxist colleagues wouldn’t want to have any of this woolly & fluffy  spirituality stuff : )  Still, I insist: we need to combine an (eco-) Marxist lens and readiness to resist, with spirituality for the new ages.

At its best, global health is doing that. At its worst, it’s standing in the way of progress rather than helping.

Enjoy your reading.

Kristof Decoster



(you find the pdf of the full newsletter here: IHPn525 )

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