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New Social Compact

A Liberal Society: An Absolute Anomaly

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The murder of a senior Indian journalist and activist, Gauri Lankesh, brought to the fore the fragility of a liberal society. Although the motive behind the murder and the identity of the assailants haven’t been confirmed, it should be borne in mind that Ms. Lankesh’s activism wasn’t tepid or cordial. Her political ensemble consisted of excoriating censure of Hindu nationalism; support for civil rights for minorities, including the ‘scheduled castes’; and a deep concern for free speech and expression.

As would be expected, she received a steady supply of hate mail and death threats over her political positions and activism.

What wasn’t expected was private citizens on social media celebrating and rationalizing the death of Ms. Lankesh.

Prior inroads in to the liberal conscience of Indian society metamorphosed in the form of a controversial and highly indefensible legislation against cattle slaughter, reeking of ulterior motives to bring dietary practices in line with religious sentiments, supposedly ascribed to a resurgent Hindu nationalist movement. This was followed by the installation of de-facto cow-vigilantes, whose sole purpose has been to crack down on the trade, transport, and storage of beef and cattle by absolutely ‘any means necessary’ in juxtaposition with the prime minister’s bromides in response to the atrocities committed by self-professed ‘cow protectors.’

Even more worrisome is the cheerleading for a nationwide beef ban as is illustrated here. The article’s author, Sunil Rajguru, employs the Hindu makeup of Indian demographic as the first argument, among an untenable and light-weight salvo of ten, in favor of banning beef. The Huffington Post went irretrievably off the deep end as it hustled to rally gullible, virtue-signaling liberals in supporting the beef ban by drawing false equivalencies between civil rights for humans and painful slaughter practices, under the auspices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (The HuffPo article is a must-read for its ability to leave the reader in sheer amazement.)

It is staggering to see the devolution of what has been touted as a liberal society, the world’s largest secular democracy, serving as the homestead for a myriad of ethno-linguistic groups.

Turkey, the secular poster child of the Middle-East, experienced a ‘cultural cleanup’ and curtailment of Internet freedom when President Erdogan banned Wikipedia and TV dating shows. This is an about-face from the Ataturk’s objective of establishing a secular and liberal Turkey.

Despite his intolerance of dissent and criticism and his tenuous resolve to maintain separation of religion and state, President Erdogan remains popular with his followers, who make at least a half of the Turkish demographic. This was reflected in the 2017 constitutional referendum, where a majority of the Turkish citizenry voted in favor of an administrative switch – from parliamentary to presidential governance. This would not only concentrate disproportionate power in the hands of the President, but with a poor system of checks and balances, the head of state will virtually have a free pass to unlimited authority and control.

European nations have also been steadily washed in to an illiberal tide of placing burden on freedom of expression. Their peers across the Atlantic haven’t been faring well either, with the Canadian parliament welcoming a motion to use government power to curb religious discrimination – a protection afforded only to Islam. Critics fear that some of the text of the motion, cleverly hidden behind a veil of ambiguity, can be metamorphosed into limitations on freedom of expression.

US college campuses, the last battleground in the fight to preserve classical liberal values, have seen rescindment of speaking invitations, bullying of persons echoing unsavory views, and appropriation of administrative apparatus to shut down unpopular opinions.

Certainly, western societies are scoring better grades at preserving liberal values than are eastern societies.

Regardless, it raises doubts about the proposition that human beings have a natural preponderance for liberal values; that if left to their own devices and not interfered by nefarious elements, most societies will gravitate towards classical liberalism.

Contemporary events put the lie to this myth.

I would submit that classical liberalism is a contrived framework that attempts to stymie human excesses, not a system that facilitates the natural yearnings of human beings. It understands the fallibility of the human condition and acknowledges that even the noblest of the species are capable of imposing unprecedented burden upon their brethren, if it were to serve the interests of the former.

Interestingly, democracy doesn’t make the list of imperatives for classical liberals, but a constitutional republic does. Democracy is but a rule of the majority, which can readily descend into tyranny, if the majority collude to subjugate the minority.

Constitutional republics, on the other hand, are designed with the express purpose of protecting the rights of minorities – the most vulnerable of the demographic. This runs counter to the human trait of acquiring power, which makes constitutional republic an unlikeable premise.

In the minds of classical liberals, the state is a suspect agent, and cannot be trusted to carry out its duties scrupulously. Hence, their deeply-felt need to limit its size and scope and to remain watchful of its malignant growth. This reflects in a strong support for free markets, minimum government regulation, and maximum individual liberty.

Liberals also believe in a strong system of checks and balances and separation of powers to prevent the different branches of government to go out of bounds. While this may lead to gridlocks, it seems that is the very intention of such a system, in which rigorous and protracted debate occurs over every piece of legislation and policy-making.

A vigorous protection of freedom of expression and free press is paramount for a liberal society, but they clash with the machinations of power-hogs and protectors of the status quo.

A rigid separation of religion and state, to create a secular government, is galling to scores of people, for whom religion is the crux around which life and society is arranged and whose principles might clash with those of some other religion.

Secular policy-making and regulations upset religious folks who believe that their private, often impractical, principles should be worked into a legislation.

A liberal society, thus, is by no means a comfortable place to dwell. Views will be challenged, request for favors will be turned down, highly revered values will be discarded, and success will follow merit, not traditional hegemony. All in all, the residents will be irked from time to time.

No wonder, liberal societies are relatively easy to establish, but hard to sustain, as people grapple with the bleak reality that they will have to work with a system that is rational, moves through dialogue and persuasion, and favors no single group.

To keep this unnatural, loathsome, yet efficient, system viable through the means of a flawed human psyche requires an aware citizenry, vigorous debate, law-abidance, a deep understanding of history, and a persistent fight to limit government.

UPDATE

As a testimony to the above thesis, I would like to present the following statistic from Pew Global Trends & Attitudes Survey, 2017. Over half of those polled in India expressed strong support for autocracy and military rule. On the polling for support for autocratic rule, the Indian sample recorded the most ‘yes’ of any other sample, surpassing Russia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This comes from a country that was birthed out of an overthrow of colonial rule and has been democratic since its inception.

New Social Compact

An education approach to preventing and countering violent extremism

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Last November Goodenough College and The Royal Commonwealth Society brought together four experts to discuss and debate the role that education can play in putting youth at the forefront of fostering stability, change, and a peaceful future.

The justification for putting youth at the heart of these issues is simple – youth are often seen as the most vulnerable to turn to violent acts, but what is habitually left out is their capacity to be agents for change, and their ability of bringing new and innovative ways to address the issues of today. Secondly, the youth population is only growing, currently now 60 percent of Commonwealth citizens are under the age of 30.

There is a global shift towards the recognition that robust and quality education can play a critical role in preventing and countering violent extremism. A lack of quality education, just as poverty, bad governance and the absence of rule of law, creates a ‘push factor’ and raises the tensions that can make people more susceptible to a violent extremist narrative. Robust education can, among other things, encourage critical thinking, cultural awareness, respect and understanding, tolerance and cultures of peace. These attributes help create an environment whereby young people are more likely to resist the ‘pull factors’ that can lead them to employ or support the use of violence to express their grievances.

However, education on its own is not sufficient to prevent violence. Not all education inspires peaceful environments, and not all education can be classified as CVE work. The right to education is critical, but simply promoting education is not enough to prevent terrorism. We know this as many violent extremists are well educated. Secondly, education systems can in themselves be based along class or ethnic lines creating more grievances, and curricula can be written in a way that encourages discrimination and hate.

Tackling violent extremism through education must have a three-pronged approach. We can use formal and informal education to directly discuss the issues driving violent extremism and catalyse community action and local solutions. We can develop effective curriculums and equip teachers with tools to encourage critical thinking and respect and tolerance. Finally, we can work with governments to overhaul education systems to ensure that they are inclusive environments that encourage peace and dialogue.

These are some of the approaches that education ministers will consider at their summit in Fiji next month. The Commonwealth’s joined-up approach to development work means that governments can benefit from initiatives in our CVE unit as well as key resources from our education team, such as the Education Policy Framework and the Curriculum Framework for the Sustainable Development Goals which offer step-by-step guides that ministries can use to improve and modernise education policies and curriculums.

A version of this blog was originally published in the Royal Commonwealth Society’s Commonwealth Voices December 2017

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New Social Compact

UN urges Comprehensive Approach to Sexuality Education

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Photo: UNICEF/Adriana Zehbrauskas

Close to 10 years after its first edition, a fully updated International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education published today by UNESCO advocates quality comprehensive sexuality education to promote health and well-being, respect for human rights and gender equality, and empowers children and young people to lead healthy, safe and productive lives.

“Based on the latest scientific evidence, the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education reaffirms the position of sexuality education within a framework of human rights and gender equality,” says UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “It promotes structured learning about sexuality and relationships in a manner that is positive and centred on the best interest of the young person. By outlining the essential components of effective sexuality education programmes, the Guidance enables national authorities to design comprehensive curricula that will have a positive impact on young people’s health and well-being.”

The Technical Guidance is designed to assist education policy makers in all countries design accurate and age-appropriate curricula for children and young people aged 5 – 18+.

Based on a review of the current status of sexuality education around the world and drawing on best practices in the various regions, the Guidance notably demonstrates that sexuality education:

  •  helps young people become more responsible in their attitude and behaviour regarding sexual and reproductive health
  • is essential to combat the school dropout of girls due to early or forced marriage, teenage pregnancy and sexual and reproductive health issues
  • is necessary because in some parts of the world, two out of three girls reported having no idea of what was happening to them when they began menstruating and pregnancy and childbirth complications are the second cause of death among 15 to 19-year olds
  • does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behaviour, or STI/HIV infection rates. It also presents evidence showing that abstinence-only programmes fail to prevent early sexual initiation, or reduce the frequency of sex and number of partners among the young.

The publication identifies an urgent need for quality comprehensive sexuality education to:

  • provide information and guidance to young people about the transition from childhood to adulthood and the physical, social and emotional challenges they face.
  • tackle the challenges posed by sexual and reproductive health issues, which are particularly difficult during puberty, including access to contraception, early pregnancy, gender-based violence, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV and AIDS
  • raise awareness of HIV prevention and transmission, of which only 34 per cent of young people around the world can demonstrate accurate knowledge
  • complement or counter the large body of material of variable quality that young people find on the internet, and help them face increasingly common instances of cyberbullying.

The Guidance was produced in collaboration with UNAIDS, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

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New Social Compact

Romanian youth learn how to fundraise and shape a sustainable future

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Photo: YouthBank Romania

At YouthBank Romania young people take all the crucial decisions about how to raise funds and which sustainable development projects to back.

The programme, an offshoot of the International YouthBank, a youth-led grant-making organization, has been running for twelve years in Romania and its success can be seen by the fact students have now become leaders themselves within the programme.

One such ex-student is Programme Manager Alexandra Soare who explains how the programme works within the particular context of Romania and describes how the organization is now poised to take a new step forward.

YouthBank Romania is a non-formal education programme coordinated by the young for the young and is formed of groups of up to 20 students who meet to fund raise and choose sustainable development projects to receive the money.

Once they are signed up, the young people have training sessions on fundraising, communications and grant-making. They gain hands-on experience with real money and responsibility. Projects chosen to receive funds are as diverse as group clean-ups of a neighbourhood to sponsoring a student with cancer through treatment.

“We target a wide range of people, urban and rural, wealthy and not which means students get to interact with people they might not have come into contact with otherwise,” said Alexandra.

Diversity is built into the programme so that, for example, often excluded communities like the Roma and the Hungarian minority are actively integrated.

‘Gamifying’ the experience

“The biggest challenge we face is gaining people’s trust in a country where the NGO and Sustainable Development culture is still growing. Then we have to keep teenagers interested in the programme over the long-term. It is not that easy to convince a 16-year-old that they can raise, say, 400 euros and then at the end of the year they may see an impact. They have grown up with technology and instant results so we are trying to ‘gameify’ the process by giving small regular incentives and updates,” said Alexandra.

Another bigger challenge is to keep youth and their experiences from leaving Romania, which faces many social problems, once they are adult.

Despite all that, YouthBank has chalked up some major successes.

“Some kids wanted to mount a festival in their school yard, something that had never been done before. The idea was to fund raise to buy equipment for children in rural areas. We are now on our 8th festival proving that it is a truly sustainable idea and has become a tradition. Each year they fund raise for a different cause. This year they came up with the idea to create fools for blind people who may be visiting so that they can ‘see’ different tourist sites in braille. So there is real innovation.”

The next step is to expand. Currently the programme is running in 10 communities in Romania. The plan is to expand the network to new cities and by 2020 have 20 YouthBanks up and running around the country.

Since its implementation at a national level there have been more than one thousand YouthBank members (main beneficiaries), around 3,000grantees (secondary beneficiaries) and nearly 400,000 direct and indirect beneficiaries of implemented projects.

“We would also like to shift the emphasis from purely events-based fundraising to social entrepreneurship which will be of benefit career-wise to participants, to raise the quality of the projects themselves and increase the capacity of the trainers,” said Alexandra.

The last word goes to Diana Gherghelejiu, a member of YouthBank Sibiu.

“After 3 years as a YouthBank member I can strongly say that this programme is an extraordinary experience for every teenager that wants to do more than homework during high school years.

“The phenomena through which a group of people becomes your family, a family with a common goal, feels incredible and I do not know what I’m going to miss the most: the brainstorming sessions, the interviews or the meetings. What is clear is that there’s nothing more complex, educational, interactive and fun than being a YouthBank member.”

Source: UNICEF

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