Leadership in a Polarised World – Challenges and Opportunities by Shadia Marhaban

Below is Shadia Marhaban‘s excerpt from a longer document from CPCS: MOVING BEYOND MULTI-TRACK DIPLOMACY AND BIG MAN MEDIATION

When I was asked to reflect this topic about leadership in a polarized world – challenges and opportunities- I thought, where can I draw my experience? And it leads me to a small detailed process that I didn’t think of before. The lockdown during this COVID-19 makes me reflect even more. COVID-19 is transforming our world from the macro-level down to our everyday life. From decision-making being made in high buildings, now we can do it from our home, from our kitchen, to our gadgets and internet. While some take refuge in their comfortable homes, many more of the world’s population cannot survive without living or working outside their homes. So this is something that made me think that mediation will definitely be different. They are working for the immigrants, the migrant workers, and in the continents that we’re living in. There are millions in Asia, and actually, they are our faces.

The question I’m challenging now is: Are we really in this together? Are we leaving them alone? Are we listening enough to this situation? I’m not just talking about poverty, although according to the Overseas Development Institute, there will be an additional 250 million people in extreme poverty in 2030 due to COVID, reduction in jobs, and whatever is happening out there. It will take ten years for economic growth to bring the extreme poverty numbers back to where they were before this crisis. So definitely, we see a huge challenge ahead of us. So, what can we do as mediators? Should we still be talking about the same things we talked about 20 or 15 years ago when we know that the challenges ahead of us will be different?

In an interview with Pankaj Mishra, an Indian scholar, he said that “democracy needs some agreed-upon notion, some sense of solidarity and community, that we are in this together. And that has been missing for a very long time because every society we see has emphasized too much of a hyper-individualistic notion and a dangerous idea: The pursuit of private interests.” Of course, capitalism is part of this. We are witnessing a polarized world, not in the old sense of West versus East, but the developed countries versus the developing countries, global north versus global south. It is now a global geopolitical shift where even the most advanced countries we have been told to aspire to for decades are now in social, economic, and political turmoil – this is something we didn’t experience 20 or 30 years ago.

At the same time, there-emergence of hate politics divides us. Borders are closed. Nationalisms strengthen to unite the people in fighting the virus. The saddest part is, we are at risk of closing hearts and our minds. At this point, our sense of solidarity, of community, is shrinking. We only want to feel safe with people who are seemingly similar to us – skin color, faith, political ideology, race, and ethnicity. What kind of mediation are we facing in the next 20 years from now?

The polarized world is simultaneously a multipolar one, a constant fight of multiple forms of hate and crisis right into our home, right before our eyes. Democracy is in decline. It’s happening in front of our eyes, but we barely notice it because we are busy saving ourselves with the illusion that we can be saved alone on our own separate islands.

This also makes me think that during the pandemic, we lost not only our faith but also our spirituality. We have seen religions exclude others and support racist misogynists, fascist leaders, and terrorism. Religions have become a faith of those who refuse to believe we are all born equal and bleed the same blood. We need to bring back spirituality into the hearts of our faith – the courage to resist, fight and enlighten our collective responsibility. Why am I talking about collective responsibility? It’s because this is why God created us humans. Our existence is defined by our humanity and we’re trying to challenge now the challenges with opportunities.

There are three challenges in democracy that we are seeing – hate, injustice, and exclusion. They are what makes our mediation more complex and difficult and more robust and interesting.. Some of the world’s leaders feel these three gain more power and impact those people on the ground. People fought and killed each other for this, for the belief. As long as there is injustice, we must have the courage to resist.

We know that capitalism is in crisis. In this recent article, the economist Jeffrey Sachs reminded us of the importance of virtue: economics emphasizing moderation, friendship, trustworthiness, and social justice. This is crucial if capitalism wants to be sustainable. Instead of greed and hyper-individualism, this is something that those people need to think about. However, I’m not standing here to speak on the pessimistic view. I want to also shed light on hope and optimism, being a woman and a mediator in Southeast Asia. Where challenges layer on, it also holds an opportunity for us to thrive. This is, in my opinion, our biggest gift from God. We need to move from the same thinking and mindset of hate and greed to move forward to consider what we can do best for our humanity. Our humanity can fall into the darkest valley of hate and greed, but it can also emerge above. When we all hit rock bottom, we have nowhere to go but to rise. Within the politics of hate, the opportunity is also the politics of rights.

So, I’m calling this leadership. The proactive, progressive leaders, who are adapting their leadership amid the strain and dangerous circumstances, to build more bridges and tables. The opportunities for mediators like us are the same. We’re no longer thinking mediation as of the big man bringing two parties together. “Hey, you sit there. We want to settle your conflict.” It’s no longer like that. But we have to think comprehensively. We have to think with our hearts. We have to keep searching for the wisdom in each other and how could we improve and polish. Think of it like a diamond, and the more you polish, the brighter it is, you know. And by leaders, I mean not only the heads of states or top high-level positions of international agencies, but those leaders who want to adapt. All of us are the leaders in our home, community, environment, our local context and beyond. I want to make a special emphasis that we shape our own world, but we only have one world to save: planet Earth. It reminds me of Sufi master, Rumi. He said that “doing as others told me, I was blind. Coming when others called me, I was lost. Then I left everyone, myself as well. Then I found everyone, myself as well.”

So I want us to take this journey of reflection as mediators to really think about what kind of world we want to see for our future. What generations are we planning to build? What capacity-building is suitable for them? Are we going to be still the same, still using the same words: capacity-building? Maybe those people that we teach capacity-building have more capacity than us. Perhaps those people that we think are on the ground, armed groups that I met inside the jungle, probably have more knowledge and wisdom than us who are sitting in high-rise buildings. These are the things we have to reflect on. Mediation in 2020 and beyond is about bringing ourselves together, learning others’ sufferings, and having more ears. I keep telling my mediation students that we have to have not two but six ears. So increase your ability to listen and analyze and understand what pains, what triggers the pain. From there you work on your process design, and you design how you want to produce the peace agreement.

We are beyond diplomacy tracks. We work in very rocky ground and difficult situations in Southeast Asia, but because it is such a limited space, we dance in that little space. And the beauty of the dance is that we can share this knowledge with the rest of the world. We learned about mediation from the Swiss and the Americans, but maybe the Swiss should come to Aceh. We could learn from everybody. This is the beauty of collective leadership and can also help mediators in the future to be wiser.