Ideal and Policies of Pluralism: The Gap

Published on 25th June 2019

The tension between unity and pluralism, between the whole and its constituent parts, has been debated by thinkers and philosophers for thousands of years. Two millennia ago, the Indian emperor Ashoka the Great called for harmonious relations between people of all religions and respect for each other's scriptures.

At the United Nations, there is a magnificent carpet, a gift from the people of Iran, inscribed with the poem known as Bani Adam, the Children of Adam, by the great Persian poet Sa'adi. And part of it reads:

"If you have no sympathy for the troubles of others,

You are unworthy to be called by the name of 'a Human'"

Religious scholar Karen Armstrong says that the first thing that appeals to her about Islam was its pluralism and the fact that the Holy Quran not only praises all the great prophets of the Abrahamic religions, but accepts them as prophets of Islam. Indeed, pluralism, respect for difference and the ethics of a shared common humanity are features of many of our different cultures and religions. 

My own continent Africa includes some of the most pluralist societies in the world, with a diversity of tribal, ethnic, cultural and religious groups, different traditions, and people that are divided along urban and rural realities.

Pluralism is the DNA in the United Nations. The Charter, our founding document, refers to "We the peoples" of the United Nations, and says who are "determined to practice tolerance and to live together in peace with one another as good neighbours."

I will not add to the philosophical debate around pluralism. I believe the argument has largely been fought, and won - although we must always remain vigilant. But while the theoretical argument may be over, we still have a long way to go before we can say that our world is living up to this promise. In some cases, there are historical and cultural obstacles or a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding; in others, it is a question of political will and I may even say today the generation gap.

What I would like to talk about today is the gap between the words and the actions; between the ideal of pluralism, and the policies and strategies that will enable us to reap its benefits in our daily lives. I would like to link pluralism to the work of the UN on the ground, around the world, promoting human rights, inclusion and respect for diversity - the only way, I believe that we can leave no one behind and effectively address the global challenges we face and further peace and prosperity for everyone.

In the framework of the UN , and our current Global Agenda - the Sustainable Development Goals - we have embedded the principle of inclusion, a word that is largely synonymous with pluralism. In fact one of the 17 goals is dedicated to building peaceful and inclusive societies. The two are not separate, but the societies are more peaceful because they are inclusive. We have growing evidence that greater diversity and inclusion, particular in relation to the inclusion of women, is correlated with higher GDP, more responsive governments, better bottom lines, greater stability, and more sustainable peace and development. But if the business case for inclusion is clear, certainly today we would say that our actions fail to reflect this.

While many leaders may pay lip service to inclusion, the fact is we are living the consequences of exclusion. Intolerance, exclusion, the need to dominate, a lack of respect for difference are deeply rooted in many of our policies and systems - political, economic and social.

We have created a world in which, according to recent analysis, by 2030, the richest one percent of people could control two-thirds of the planet's wealth. Economic and, in many cases, political power is often concentrated in the hands of the few. The rights of women and girls, and of minorities and marginalised people of all kinds, are routinely disregarded. In many cases those in power hang on by any means for far too long, and often I believe out of fear of themselves being excluded.

Inequality is at extraordinary levels and is growing, both within and between our countries. After a decade of decline, the number of chronically hungry people in our world recently began to rise again - despite there being abundant food for everyone.

We have created a world in which we define security as the enforcement of borders, exclusion of others, and amassing of weapons. We see this in the estimated $1.8 trillion in military spending just last year, a fraction of which would provide dignity and opportunity for the most vulnerable.

We have created a world in which there is growing ethno-nationalism, intolerance, discrimination and violence that targets women, our mothers, our sisters, our grandmothers, minorities and migrants, refugees and anyone that is perceived to be different or "other". Civic space is shrinking; basic rights are under attack; things we have often taken for granted; activists and journalists are targeted; misinformation campaigns and hate speech spread like wildfire on social media.

Hate speech is moving into the mainstream in many countries and regions - liberal democracies and authoritarian states alike. Constitutions that are founded on pluralism and respect for difference are undermined as different groups and minorities are attacked.

Access to information is curated individually, so that we are living atomised lives, in our own echo chambers, where news and advertising reflect and reinforce our presumed perspective of the world. Unless we ourselves choose to seek out others, we may not be exposed as we have been before to alternative viewpoints and arguments that challenge our beliefs.

Attacks on places of worship are some of the most egregious examples of a lack of respect for each other and for our common humanity, and they are rising. In the past few months alone, we have seen horrific attacks in mosques in New Zealand, in churches in Sri Lanka and in synagogues in the United States.

Record numbers of people are on the move around the world, fleeing conflict, drought, poverty and a lack of opportunity. At the same time, refugees and migrants are attacked both physically, and rhetorically, with false narratives that link them with terrorism and scapegoat them for many of society's ills.

Millions of women and girls face insecurity and violations of their human rights every day. Violence is used to enforce patriarchy and gender inequality and police women's role in our society. Excluding half our population not only affects our mothers, daughters, and sisters; it affects every one of us and distorts our societies and economic systems.

We have created economies that value sometimes dubious or even destructive activities, but place zero monetary value on the daily work that happens in our homes - where the very production and reproduction of the quality of our society occurs.

We see the same devaluing of the foundations of society in our longstanding treatment of our natural environment, our homes. Trees are worth more as construction materials than they are standing in the forest. Deforestation, overfishing, climate change and pollution are causing unprecedented damage to our natural safety net, but they are driven by the logic of economic models and incentives. As a result, we now face an existential crisis as a species, and are directly responsible for the threat to one million other species who may be pushed to extinction in the next few years.

The climate crisis is wreaking havoc on some of the most vulnerable countries and regions, while others continue to burn fossil fuels and add to greenhouse gas emissions. No one would light a cigarette today in a room where a child is struggling to breathe, but developed countries are contributing to conditions that are causing droughts and floods halfway around the world, with complete disregard for the rights of others. We have lost sight of our common humanity and our interdependence - on each other, and on the planet that gives us life.

None of this has been an accident. It is the end result of systems that have been built by men--and I am going to underscore men here because if we had had women in charge we probably would not have been in the same mess--largely based on the basis of exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination; and of the prioritisation of short-term profits for a few over the long-term rights and interests of all future generations.

It is clear that we need a fundamental reordering of our priorities, and a reorganisation of our economic, political and social systems, if we really are to reap the benefits of inclusion and save ourselves and our planet from further inhumanity and degradation.

The news, however, is not all bad. There is plenty of evidence that global efforts have worked, and that further damage to societies and our planet can be prevented and reversed. After all, it was, and is, manmade. 

As Stephen Pinker argues, our world is getting better - but not as quickly as we might hope. So, much of the evidence that we see for progress is not catching up with the reality of the challenges and we are, in many cases, just flatlining. Violence has steadily declined over time and life expectancy is up, extreme poverty is declining, and literacy is at historically high levels. There is greater awareness of human rights, and in some countries at least, minorities of all kinds enjoy greater legal protection than ever before.

Let's take the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer. This international treaty entered into force in 1989, after climatologists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Since then, the hole has gradually started recovering and projections indicate that the ozone layer will return to 1980 levels between 2050 and 2070. This is global cooperation.

The Millennium Development Goals were agreed by all countries in 2000. They created one of the most successful anti-poverty movements in history; at least in my country we benefited from a savings of a billion dollars a year that we were able to put into people's lives. They have helped to lift more than a billion people out of extreme poverty, to make inroads against hunger, to enable more girls to attend school than ever before, and to protect our planet. The MDGs generated new partnerships and galvanised public opinion, reshaping decision-making in developed and developing countries alike.

Global pluralism, in the form of multilateralism, achieved these things. I believe it can achieve so much more.

Since the founding of the UN, there has been wide and growing recognition that major challenges cannot be solved by countries acting alone. As we face a growing number of issues that do not respect national borders, from climate change to spreading conflict and outbreaks of disease, we need regional and global institutions more than we have ever done before, and this I believe to strengthen our collective response.

But multilateralism may be a victim of its own success. We have stopped seeing it as a priority and an evolving challenge that we need to tend, promote and reinvigorate. We have started taking it for granted. We see this in societies and communities that are turning inward, forgetting the lessons of the past. Global institutions must hold the line for global values. And to do so in these institutions, as well as our partners, we need to transform. To be fit, as I would say, for purpose in the 21st century.

His Holiness the Pope has spoken of the globalisation of indifference. I believe that we must replace that with the globalisation of solidarity.

Four years ago in 2015, as we reached the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, the UN initiated and coordinated a global conversation about our priorities. All countries agreed that we needed to do better. This resulted in an agreement by all of our 193 countries of the United Nations to the 2030 Development Agenda - our transformational roadmap for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships over the next 15 years. Already we are four years into that.

This shared agenda reflects an important paradigm shift. The Sustainable Development Goals are human-centred, they are interconnected. More importantly they are universal, integrated, inclusive and mutually reinforcing. No goal stands alone; each goal is inextricably linked with the rest for its full implementation. Although I must say I do take goal five and make that as the docking station for 16. It is so important to our humanity.

It does reflect the reality of development challenges on the ground, where people living in poverty and hunger are also the most likely to suffer from poor access to quality housing, education, healthcare, water and sanitation. A girl is less likely to attend school, for example, if her parents cannot afford to pay for school supplies, or if she does not have secure housing.

The 2030 Agenda addresses these issues together, tackling the root causes in a much more holistic way. The Sustainable Development Goals were prepared by all countries, requiring contributions from all - including developed and developing countries - and we will improve the lives of all, so that in the end no one is left behind.

The emphasis in the 2030 Agenda on inclusion and interdependence, as well as a moral obligation to the most vulnerable members of our society through the principle of "leaving no one behind" does offer a counterweight to the forces that are leading increased polarization, tribalism, social fragmentation. They are a conscious effort to build and replenish the world's democratic infrastructure, our relationship, social contract and obligation to each other.

The ultimate ambition of the 2030 Agenda is a world that provides dignity for all, well-being and opportunity - qualities that do not come under the GDP measure that we have, but that are finally being recognised as critical measures of successful governance. The introduction of quality of life and wellbeing considerations into many budgets around the world and the country is one of those that we believe is an encouraging sign for our human family.

The 2030 Agenda will require shifts in mindsets, to go beyond GDP to how we also measure our wellbeing. It will require a reprioritisation of economic systems so that they improve the lives and make them much more meaningful. The main requirement is the political will in the leadership to push through changes in the governance of our economies and trade systems to make them more inclusive and equitable.

While the SDGs are global, they also reflect both universal values, local and traditional cultural institutions and traditions. To take one example, we can see the values of the Islamic faith, my own faith, reflected in many of the goals which stress environmental justice, nature and the interdependence of things.

The UN itself is changing to support countries as they take this ambitious global project, being fit for purpose. We are reforming the Development System, and also the peace and security so that we are better-placed to help governments and accompany them in delivering on the 17 transformational goals and targets. From providing access to technical expertise to reaching global agreement on the financial arrangements that will be critical to success, the UN is at the heart of helping to deliver on the 2030 Agenda.

We are reforming to ensure more diverse representation, a new gender parity strategy for recruiting and retaining women staff at all levels, particularly in leadership, that we have parity already in our management and greater efforts to ensure much more equitable geographic representation, meaning that all persons of the world should be part of the United Nations and be actively represented in the leadership at the country level. We are just months away from achieving parity in our senior leadership for the first time in seven decades. We will be 75 next year. We need to lead by example and demonstrate the importance of diversity and inclusion that reflect the reality of our world.

That is the big picture. But it will only succeed if each and everyone of us, individually and collectively, would become a part of this effort. Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals must start from every space in which people connect: the family, the community, the workplace, schools and medical clinics, small businesses, media, academia.

It is here that we will need to make the radical shift needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda - a shift in mindsets away from accumulation by a few and exclusion of the many, to a paradigm based in interdependence with each other, and with our environment. A shift in policy solutions that are based on mutual gains rather than the zero-sum thinking, and from a definition of security that is based on an ever-increasing stock of weapons and stronger borders, to one that is based on resilient societies and mutual respect for each other and particularly our planet.

This shift needs to start from our education systems. Education is one place that we really need to rethink how that happens for us in our world today. We continue to build schools of bricks and mortar and to teach rote learning uncritically from outdated textbooks. We are preparing our young people for a world that has passed, rather than the use of technology, critical thinking skills, well-being, and the ethic of shared responsibility needed for the world of today and of tomorrow.

While the 2030 Agenda is global and all-encompassing, it will require actions at every level. It particularly needs the leadership and the guidance of faith-based and philanthropic institutions who work with the local, national and regional levels but exist in many international levels, who can re-instill a sense of our common humanity.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has written of membership of "a family, a neighbourhood, a plurality of overlapping identity groups, spiraling out to encompass all humanity." This concept asks us to be many things, he says, because we are just that many things.

I am very familiar with these ideas. My personal story is one of multiple identities, from Nigeria to the United Kingdom and back again, from the private sector to government and the United Nations.

I am an African mother and a grandmother, and I have to tell you that my children, Nigerian, British, Syrian, and it goes on, Brazilian grandchild, I am also a former government minister, one that I never thought I would be, I always wanted to go home and implement the SDGs, but to be given the ministry of Environment, which in my country was considered for want of a better word "the dustbin lady," it was really only about waste, but for within 18 months Nigeria producing for the continent the first national domestic green bond and I heard last week that we just had the second and again it was oversubscribed, so the impossible can become possible.

So, as a former government minister, a survivor of gender-based violence, a faithful Muslim, the granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister; and the second-highest international civil servant I am humbly in the world. I also received a basic education. I think this is important because often we do not look back in history to see what is it that created the sense of insecurity that we have today, the conflict, the terrorists. But my basic education was in Neduguri, a town in the Northeast of Nigeria where today Boko Haram thrives. Where a chard hardly exists, for its shrinking and so we see the exacerbation of poverty, climate change.

While Anthony Appiah and I may be the poster children for pluralism, we all embody many different identities. The growth of DNA-testing proves this in the most literal way, but it is also true socially and culturally. There is no homogenous culture in our world; there are simply those that are more and less honest about their history.

We need to come together to close that gap and we need to continue to give hope to those many that today would be hopeless. It is possible, as Nelson Mandela said "it becomes possible after you have addressed how impossible it is, you make it happen." And I think we can make that happen.

By Amina Jane Mohammed

A British-Nigerian Politician who is former Minister of Environment of Nigeria and current Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. 


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