Beyond Polarization, to Solutions for People and the Planet

Aug 2, 2017

At RESOLVE we’ve been thinking along with many of you about the challenges we face and constructive responses.

Today, we operate in a world defined by polarization and conflict rather than collaborative solutions and constructive compromise. At a political level, in a number of jurisdictions, elected officials are rewarded for obstruction and confrontation rather than stewardship and good governance. This is exacerbated by the tendency toward media echo chambers, the politicization of science and facts, the proliferation of fake news (I mean actual fake news as opposed to fake, fake news), and attacks on legitimate news sources. This coarsens our civic space, narrows the political commons, and promotes an ethos of mistrust. Those who would benefit from rational policy and pragmatic solutions suffer.

While the challenges are daunting, I’m optimistic about what’s next, particularly if we can create new leverage together, strengthen cross-sector partnerships, and show a willingness to take risks.

I’m optimistic because I see the progress underway with our partners in Sierra Leone promoting post-Ebola sustainable development (https://goo.gl/SyaC97); mining companies contributing to green energy development (https://goo.gl/K4Kd75); developers and indigenous communities making better agreements (https://goo.gl/ehH8tr); and a new program to help replace lead service lines to homes across the U.S., including in rural communities (https://goo.gl/KQ2Zxt). Each of these efforts is based on cross-sector partnerships that help us get beyond polarization.

We see risks and opportunities for our partners in civil society and leading businesses; risks include:

  • Weakened government capacity in key jurisdictions may result in less willingness or capacity to protect civic space. We may see an erosion of the rule of law. Targeting of opponents has the potential to deepen and intensify conflicts.
  •  A turn away from evidence-based policy-making could accelerate, leading to worsening health and environmental outcomes, including defunding of key programs for natural resource and health planning.
  •  Decision making for major natural resource projects could slow or stall as effective stakeholder engagement is deprioritized and government capacity weakens. This could increase risks for large-scale multijurisdictional projects, including major infrastructure projects. Investors may seek to “wait-out” a period when project risk is on the rise.
  • The backlash against the role of the private sector as an “agent for progress” is real and could intensify, due to perceptions that even global brands are fostering economic disparities. Corporate social responsibility strategies – those fashioned for a different era – may fail to deliver desired results. Despite this backlash, many in civil society and communities will look for corporations to lead as government action falters.
  • In some cases civil society organizations, seen as credible intermediaries, are able to fill voids left by government, often with support from donors and corporations. However, this role has the potential to foster a polarizing backlash, particularly with regard to charged political issues such as climate, family planning, and others.

In this climate we have work to do together:

  • Defending the space for those with different perspectives and experiences to explore productive solutions.
  • Helping our partners, especially those in other sectors, navigate these uncertain waters.
  • Doubling-down on what we know works –partnerships, collaboration, and informed, constructive compromise (yes, compromise!) to achieve policy solutions and voluntary agreements, and implement good practices.
  • Pushing back (smartly) against efforts to delegitimize institutions, attack civic norms, or target vulnerable or under-represented populations.
  • Stepping up to amplify constructive voices and actions and look out over the horizon, creatively and with confidence.
  • Undertaking innovative, forward-looking activities that point to solutions and create hope, like ReGrow West Africa, Nature Needs Half (https://goo.gl/IMORzm), and improving end-of-life care (https://goo.gl/t2HuX6).
  • Supporting corporate and civil society leadership, recognizing that we may be entering an era where constructive, collaborative CEO activism is essential and rewarded (https://goo.gl/nUyHGS).

Since RESOLVE’s founding in 1977, we have seen leaders in non-governmental organizations, communities, and companies advance the art and craft of effective engagement. They have built unlikely or unexpected partnerships, leading to new, innovative, and impactful solutions. The hard work of these collaborative leaders and their willingness to reach across divides, both real and perceived, made the world a better place. We will draw on these leaders—their experiences, skills, and wisdom are now invaluable. They are our navigators.

 - Stephen D’Esposito

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