At the end of his closing remarks, PSIA Acting Dean Mark Maloney summed up the inputs of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Stephen Dunbar Johnson in the phrase “Common good through empathy and agency for all.” Although precise , the phrase succinctly summed up the discussions of the YLS Summit 2022. In our understanding of the debates that formed this conference, the twin themes of achieving the common good through empathetic dialogue and striving towards agency for marginalized groups – including those that find their voices denied or appropriated because of marginalities of race, gender, ethnicity or language – stood out.
We attempt to look at these twin themes and the issues they grapple with through multidisciplinary lenses, much like the panels themselves, and further ask some questions that the summit raised for us under three sections, each pertaining to a singular theme.
Inclusion through empathetic dialogue
Corporations and private actors in governance
When we talk about ‘inclusion’ in policy making, a necessary question to address is ‘inclusion by whom?’
The discussions across panels and speeches at the YLS emphasized the need for studying the actors participating in, and therefore shaping, global governance in different ways. International organizations, for one, have played a crucial role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The keynote address by Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, highlighted how the WHO itself adapted to COVID-19 in order to successfully craft an international pandemic response. As the nature of diseases evolves, as do information sharing mechanisms. She explained how one major takeaway from the past two years has been the need for facilitating and encouraging this form of knowledge sharing at a global level, and more importantly, using this research as the foundation of evidence-based policies. Over the past two years, scientific research has been at the ‘forefront of change and innovation,’ as Dr. Swaminathan pointed out, and countries and administrations that relied on this evidence for policy implementation have enjoyed the trust of their populations, and have undoubtedly performed better.
However, what about international players that are not composed of nations whose governments and administrations can be held accountable? Dr. Swaminathan admitted that the role of transnational organizations, corporates and private foundations has increased immensely when it comes to public health. She argued that this must not necessarily be seen as a negative development, given the flexibility with which such foundations can operate and the vast funds at their disposal. Private organizations can take financial risks that governments cannot, and can therefore invest much more in research and development. And yet, the concerns associated with their heightened influence in health governance cannot be ignored.
Funds that come from donors and member-states significantly impact global agenda-setting in health. Thus, while the WHO continues to pursue invaluable research, certain goals are inevitably influenced by the objectives of corporations and private organizations. Herein lies the first crucial problem when it comes to inclusion: when the agenda is set by the wealthier, developed ‘first-world,’ that is the home of these private entities, it often focuses more extensively on their priorities. This theme was echoed in smaller discussions where the rapidity in the development of COVID vaccines was examined as evidence of how innovation occurs much faster when diseases plague the first-world. Meanwhile, large parts of Africa and Asia continue to wait for a vaccine for Malaria – a disease that has not only been around for decades, but one that caused over 600,000 deaths in 2020 alone. This raises yet another question: can global health truly be decolonised? Dr. Swaminathan emphasized how without inclusion and participation of international actors across the board, decolonization cannot be achieved. Funding opportunities for researchers must not be limited to high-income countries with well-funded universities, and the contributions of countries such as South Africa in identifying and warning the world about new COVID variants must be recognized. Instead of bestowing this recognition, however, most countries across the world responded with the imposition of travel restrictions on South Africa and neighboring nations. Not only does this disincentivize information sharing and transparency, but it also highlights the need for decolonizing both, scientific research and international politics.
The path forward is through technological innovation and evidence-based policy making, and yet, it cannot lead to equitable and sustainable growth if it is not accompanied by an increase in representation of minorities, indigenous communities, and more broadly, the ‘Global South.’ Agenda-setting and policy implementation in global health must be rooted in empathy for, and the involvement of, parts of the globe that are disproportionately impacted by disease.
Challenges for dialogue: Regulating spaces online and offline
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted for each one of us beyond measure the key link between disease and disinformation and the danger the latter may pose not just to people’s beliefs but more importantly, to lives. Moreover, in the backdrop of the pandemic, the world has seen protests, many of them enthusing in spirit and impactful for law and practice.
That being said, both the pandemic and the protests have raised allied issues of the common good and ensuring human rights for all regardless of the sphere individuals may occupy. The reality of differential access to both tangible resources such as medication and medical resources but also to the intangible power to create and shape discourse around the same, leads to deeper questions such as ‘how far are we from achieving the common good?’ and ‘who can we hold responsible for it?’. Agnes Callamard of Amnesty International pointed out that the world today is extremely far from securing human rights. Further, she argued that this current state of not prioritizing them over other concerns is a product of deliberate and calculated political choice. This choice is one that is centered on the ideas of control and privilege that foster a narrow understanding of national interest, and that privileges the same over securing the common good and allied human rights. The fact remains that the conditions created by this political choice make it difficult to secure the rights or even to situate rights as a prerogative of national governments.
In a world that is increasingly transnational and interconnected, a credible question to pose is why do rights continue to be circumscribed by national borders? Maina Kiai argued that we should shift our focus away from governments in order to secure rights for all. The involvement of private actors in policing and governance highlights the need to expand the ambit of responsibility wherein the state not just acts as a guarantor of rights but also as an obligation-bearer to ensure that rights are not curtailed by the influence and power of transnational and influential private actors. Ensuring this is undoubtedly a political choice on the part of the state, one that needs to be reinforced by popular participation. As borders in the physical world get blurred by the flows of globalization, borders in the world of technology are blurred on inception itself. The role of private actors in regulating online behavior then becomes critical as they provide the platforms upon which this shift is occurring.
The panel on Human Rights and Justice therefore probed interconnected questions into topics discussed in an earlier panel that dealt with the Cyberspace. The Student Speaker, Larissa Zutter highlighted the key link between disinformation, the idea we began with, and inequality. TThis link also perhaps perhaps comes in part from the differing ways in which individuals place a premium on the information they receive online that in itself is a product of access to the internet determined by a country’s developmental levels. As the discussion veered towards concerns faced in the online plane such as combatting online gender-based violence, Caitlin Buchman emphasized the need for us to challenge our biases in the analog world. With the growth of ideas like the Metaverse, we need to find ways to regulate technology such that in an attempt to protect individuals such as women, we don’t protect them out of these spaces. If our biases in the physical world transcend into the digital realm, we reduce our scope to create fairer systems. This does not necessarily need to come from policing content or moderation but creating legal frameworks that can keep with the exponential growth in technology. This is inherently linked to bridging gaps in technology and access and accounting for intersectionalities and power dynamics.
Agency for all: Addressing global gaps
As was touched upon in the Equality in Cyberspace panel in the case of checking online Gender-Based Violence, the larger idea to focus on was making sure that our biases that are rooted in differences of economics, race and history do not seep into the formulation of new solutions and policies. The aforementioned panel discussed the idea of ‘digital colonialism’ propounded by Nick Couldry that sheds light on the same question. While the term ‘colonialism’ is brought up in different contexts and evokes different connotations, a commonality remains in the ideas of historical justice and reparation as contentious.
Perhaps the most visible realm in which this manifests is the inclusion of marginalized communities in economic growth and development as well as the questions growth raises for protecting biodiversity. The panel on protecting the planet critically looked at the term ‘inclusion’ itself and shed light on the possible manipulation of the term by larger actors for profit, brought up convincingly by Charlotte Hourdin.
The idea of inclusivity in this sense highlights a tussle between developed and developing countries where the consideration of gaps between them is doubly tricky. Not only does it raise practical concerns for law and regulation but the categorization itself is often marred by definitional challenges. While some analysts often prefer categorization on the basis of countries’ income levels categorizing them as low, middle or high; the question remains ‘what can explain the gaps today in economic growth, prosperity, and equitable living in a globalized and interconnected world’. For instance, Agnes Callamard took this a step further by grounding this question into a contemporary example. She asked why governments have pushed forward their narrowly defined ideas of nationalism, especially with regard to vaccines when this approach goes against the possibility of a global economic recovery. Maina Kiai interjected to attempt an answer to this question where he highlighted the history of racism and colonization that surrounds the discourse around most issues of development, vaccines being but one example.
Allied issues that come up with this highlight the conceptual gaps between the heightened speed of vaccine development but the inequitable distribution of vaccines worldwide. The debates raised with the challenges like patent protection beg the question of what the purpose of production actually is – to protect populations or to gain profit. This binary is dangerous and is often echoed in the posing of growth and sustainability as opposites. The panel on economic inequality dealt with this question in addition to the vaccine issue. The responsibility placed on countries like India and China is misplaced. While one cannot deny that they are high emitters and need to bring down their emissions, a factor that is not considered is their emissions in an interconnected world. The lack of support from the developed world therefore makes it difficult to take the idea of a common good of environmental sustainability out of the theoretical realm into practice. For instance, Frannie Leautier targeted this geographical inequity by arguing that developed countries could provide geographical subsidies to the developing world. Scott Barrett added that developed countries do not offer to pay the difference for the switch from coal to countries like India. The argument then isn’t about historical justice, it’s about not addressing collective interest
The reason why the issue of definitional challenges is important is because it has tangible consequences for policy and how it affects populations. For instance, Hindou Ibrahim pointed out two key issues with regard to people affected by climate change. First, as the category of climate refugees is not defined, these people become a gaping hole in the discourse around refugees, thereby not receiving adequate protection. Second, in the domestic sphere, displaced persons lose not only livelihoods but culture and a sense of identity that is linked to their relationship with their lands as a product of extractive economic policies. Because of a lack of representation in policy making, current frameworks around compensation and reparations cease to be adequate. Benito Muller added to this the importance of the need to increase the scope of compensation to draw it away from the narrow understanding of monetary measurement that cannot compensate for this loss. He emphasized, compensation needs to be phrased not in terms of dollars but in terms of “making good.”
Tasneem Essop’s link between democracy promotion and biodiversity protection hence provides an insightful look into this as it places the role of extractive economies pushed forward by both multinational companies and governments in the context of authoritarianism and threats to democracy. Deep democracy, at its essence, means inclusion, participatory decision making, and recognition of the power of people. When decisions are made only taking into the stakes of a few people, we not only jeopardize the common good in terms of growth but also in terms of rights and representation. Therefore, power needs to be channelized through popular and grass-root movements where it can be divested at different levels. Popular participation is at the center of this.
These conversations are kernels of critical takeaways from a long and varied discourse around growth, agency, voice and rights. They are by no means exhaustive but they allow us to rethink what it entails to make space for ideas and philosophies. The important aspect is not to give voice to the voiceless but to create conditions that do not allow for voiceless-ness in the first place.
Reflections and unanswered questions
The Youth and Leaders’ Summit this year offered students the opportunity to engage with academics and professionals on a theme that has been of great significance to global policy and politics, particularly in the past two years. Marked by turbulence and uncertainty, the past several months have highlighted, with absolute certainty, the need for pursuing the common good through inclusion. Over the course of the Summit, panelists and keynote speakers emphasized issues and concerns that can no longer go unaddressed, and discussed how the challenges we face in health, economy, AI, human rights and sustainability can be approached. These conversations offered room for both greater reflection and compelled us to probe and question further.
For instance, which aspects of security must be re-examined? During the panel on Women in Peace and Security (WPS), both ambassador Melanne Verveer and Bineta Diop highlighted how a meaningful role for women in negotiations can bring subjects and themes to the table that may have ordinarily gone unaddressed. Ms. Diop pointed out how leadership capacity has to be fostered at the ground level through the collaboration of the UN and the African Union with local civil society groups. While several questions remain concerning the implementation of the UNSC Resolution 1325 on the WPS Agenda, there continue to exist broader concerns about the ways in which aspects of securitisation are understood in the first place. For instance Arthur Guillaume-Gentil, the Student Panelist, brought up the issue of including minorities, LGBTQ+ communities in specific, in policy formulation and implementation in conflict and post-conflict societies. This need for ‘queering’ the WPS as well as peacebuilding processes has thus far not been addressed by legal or institutional frameworks.
Mike Jobbins from Search for Common Ground highlighted how this lack of inclusiveness can be thought of in terms of historical and contemporary notions of power. Historical views of power have thought of it as the ability to exert authority as well as influence – two concepts that have often been conflated over time. Now, even as positions of authority continue to be held by certain groups and individuals, the question that must be answered is how can the influence of historically marginalized groups be increased in policy making? Thus, evolving legal and institutional frameworks must be ‘queered’ to allow for such instruments to evolve, become more representative, and thereby help increase influence of queer perspectives on security concerns and dilemmas.
How do we define harm, who defines it and whose harm do we consider?
These discussions made it clear how important it is to link growth, rights and agency with democracy and to ensure the presence of diverse voices in legal and regulatory mechanisms. This would be critical to changing systems of governance as it would allow us to analyze costs and benefits from a holistic perspective and take into account the stakes of different demographics. However, the pandemic showed us how some leaders did not follow the science and did not heed the advice of their own scientists and advisors. The question this raises for us is the importance of will, especially from those in power to change current systems for the common good. Achieving equality is rarely a consensual act. In democratically elected governments, ensuring wider representation as a product of popular will can increase the ambit for discussing different types of costs or harms to different people, and allow space for both marginalities of demographic markers and opinion.
That being said, the question of will is perhaps the most relevant in the case of private actors to whom we must turn to ask questions of accountability and securing rights. While popular will, although difficult to ensure, can allow for more horizontal dialogue in the realm of mainstream politics, the ideas of harm need to be defined and considered in the online realm still remains elusive to many. This poses a problem as it means that legislation and regulation cannot keep up with the changes and transnational influence of technology. Questions, therefore, need to be answered about how these online spaces, like the other aforementioned spheres may be linked to democracy, and accountability may be ensured not as an afterthought but as a matter of rights.
Rethinking ‘inclusion,’ incorporating empathy
And finally, we end this series by re-examining the theme that lay at the very heart of the Summit: ‘inclusion’. In her keynote address, award-winning feminist author, Chimamanda Adichie explained how the term itself can be associated with condescension. This observation offers the possibility of re-imagining what it means to be included. The use of the term ‘inclusion,’ here, could perhaps reflect the sanctimonious attitudes of those who have, for centuries, dominated discourse and policy-making, and created conditions where the voices of the oppressed could not find a platform. Stephen Dunbar Johnson of the New York Times offered ‘empathy’ as an expression that could possibly underline the growing need for such a platform.
However, ultimately, we conclude this article by acknowledging the critiques one may have of the term ‘inclusion’ but also highlighting that inclusion cannot be conceived in the absence of empathy. Rather than a discussion over which of the two better encompasses the need for making space, we must come up with understandings that evoke both. The term ‘inclusion’ can be thought of as a recognition of the past several centuries of exclusion. It can be thought of as a reminder of the struggles of all those who have fought for the opportunity to make their voices heard, and find the strength to continue this fight every single day. ‘Inclusion’ cannot, and must not, be granted but be guaranteed through empathy and agency for all. With this final conclusion, Acting Dean Mark Maloney closed the seventh edition of YLS.