From Polarization to Participation

We keep getting stark reminders that in some countries the leadership is exercised in a vertical manner. The top – most of the time a man – decides and the others must fall in line, and if not, they fall. The system is built on favors and fear. Until there comes the time when fear is so widespread that it turns into disgust and dissent. 
A lot of people across the world are fed up with their leaders/governments, or at least some parts of them. The reasons for this dissatisfaction are numerous. Oftentimes, pleasing announcements made without corresponding implementation is a widespread trigger of such irritation. 

The other day a neighbor and I stopped to chat on the pavement of our street, as I was on my way home after time spent campaigning for a public cause. When I asked him what and if he was going to vote on the issue, the reaction was immediate: No, he was never voting, the double standard in public life had disgusted him. 
He expressed that he would try to be nice to people in his vicinity, but no more than that. This poured out of him at length and with some passion. I listened to him with interest, because until now our previous conversations consisted of small talk or our common interests as renters in a block of flats. We ended the conversation by wishing each other a good rest of the day and at least this restored his otherwise unwavering good humor. 

This episode made me think of a good friend who came to Switzerland decades ago as a political refugee. Despite having two degrees to his name, he had to begin rebuilding his life as a night watchman and taxi driver. Later came the time when his city of residence decided that foreign nationals were eligible for the Municipal Parliament. He was elected in the first round and he commented: ‘Now I belong, because I can contribute.’ He eventually became a valued expert of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs. 
So, the question is, what brings about the shift from dissent and disgust to engagement and belonging? By the two instances mentioned above, there is an element of personal change and honest conversation with others. Yet how does this play out in the context of global change? 

At the level of organized civil society, I know some leaders from European countries and consider them my friends. Our friendship is based on a common interest in seeing repeated unjust situations blocked. We found that instead of issues being addressed, they were only being used for polarizing debates. We wondered if there was a way to address these pending issues to achieve a better common good. This was the start of what became the INGO Dialogue methodology, to move a situation from polarization to participation. 

In a nutshell, this process is for all who are motivated by social cohesion, human rights, governance, and diversity – and willing to move from recommendations to implementation based on a multi-stakeholder approach. It has been tested, or given for testing, in places like the greater Paris region, TunisiaThe Hague and Stockholm. The latter situation hasbenefited from a ‘Baseline Report’, done by our local partners. The reach was extended by two partners working along with INGO Dialogues. The impact was among the diverse members of the Somali diaspora in Sweden and it favorably affected the tenants in one of the northern suburbs of Stockholm about to experience gentrification. 

This type of field work has shown that the shift from dissent to engagement can occur not only on a person’s own journey, but also in a societal setting. However, it also means embracing democratic management of diversity and leveraging a human rights-based approach of social cohesion. With this, I believe, a culture of participation is indeed possible.  

Christoph Spreng

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