GVI BLOG SERIES: How to co-create a values-driven UN/global system? BLOG I – A psychology of global progress

For the Solution “Have a personal mission: Be the change”, Alisa Clarke, GVI Founder, shares her perspective on how change in the world can be driven from personal, individual ideas and action

A psychology of global progress: the persistent structural limitations in our hearts and minds that we can shift today for the world we want

I work in the world of international relations, where our jobs are to try to marshal the wills of governments and individuals towards the aims we’ve all agreed to as worthwhile – peace and security, justice, equality, human dignity, collaboration, accountability, solidarity and environmental sustainability.

(Yes, for each of these goals, there is someone, somewhere who will gain from their being undermined, and who will also do everything to pursue their own perceived interests.  And there are certainly differences in cultural interpretation. But, if even for themselves and their loved ones, I believe most individuals cherish the peace of mind that safety brings, demand being accorded respect and fairness as a person, and have experienced the indispensable support of community, so to most of us, these values resonate as meaningful on some level.)

It has always struck me, however, that whatever ills we are seeking to resolve outwardly, are at least partially a product of whatever ills we need to confront inwardly.  It has always seemed that the world we are shaping, we as individuals and we the global system in and around the UN, is an amplified reflection of us and vice versa. And among the things for which I credit the 2030 Agenda is the degree to which it underlines how inter-connected we all are – across sectors and siloes and geography and every kind of perceived division.  So more than ever we are revealing to each other who the other is – how human rights is embedded in development through e.g. the principle of “leaving no one behind”, how climate change impacts on economic growth, how security is a product of economic stability, the you in me, and the I in you.

So it doesn’t seem too far to go to see how the ways we think and feel – as individuals, as teams, as organizations, as governments, diplomats, as non-governmental organizations, as citizens, as the private sector – impact on the ways that every other part of the global system thinks and feels too, and thus acts.

With that as the premise, and observing trends over the last 20 years or so on the international stage, a few key persistent assumptions in our beliefs have appeared to me to be at play, and I think are worth exploring if we aim to truly transform how the global system works, its culture and DNA.

So I ask: what in my own thinking and feeling accounts for growing humanitarian crises, climate events, resource competition, rising authoritarianism, food insecurity and other ills? Four core limiting ideas would appear to be embedded in our approaches:

  1. Having more material wealth will make us happier

The pursuit of financial stability is a driving force in our daily activity – our jobs, promotions, increasing consumption, competition for goods and services – and the more the better, because the more we have, the safer we will feel and the higher will be our social status… right?

Actually, as abundant research in economics, psychology and other disciplines increasingly show, notably through the UN World Happiness Report and the growing Sufficiency Economy movement, in fact material comfort is only one, albeit a foundational factor, in achieving well-being.  Beyond a certain level of income for a given societal setting, more money does not actually make us happier.  What does make us happier includes a sense of community, trust in governance and fair institutions, a healthier environment, and self-development. Importantly as well, human psychology is such that the perception of relative wealth also creates unhappiness, so inequality breeds dissatisfaction with our life circumstances that otherwise would make us happy.

So work-life balance becomes a more complex and complete approach to my happiness – living with less, living in community with my family and neighbours, and participating in civic life as a citizen. These are concrete changes I can make today, knowing that they take me towards our shared goal of well-being.

We as the global system around the UN therefore need to do a much better job at messaging that the goal is not open-ended economic growth, but equitable sustainable growth towards levels beyond which any additional benefits for happiness begin to drop off. It’s also essential to signal the value of community ties and the environment for well-being. This would serve as an incentive for the re-distribution of resources that would promote equality and further happiness.  We must be clear that what we are seeking is economies that deliver well-being not just higher incomes or GDP levels.

  1. Things we cannot see and count have no value

Following from these kinds of assumptions around material comfort are the beliefs about what does have value.  The majority of well-being factors that most deeply sustain us – family and community and the environment – are those we most take for granted and least validate.  They also happen to be the traditional domain of expertise of those people who are least validated in societies generally and in the global system – women, indigenous peoples, rural and close-knit communities, often from the south.  The assumption seems to be that only if we can quantify their contribution to the tangible economy can we give them value.

But whether we put a dollar value on something or not does not make it any less vital.  Translating that value into dollar currency because that is the dominant language understood may be helpful to develop common understanding, but without first accepting its equal or more important contribution in advancing our collective well-being, we may not meaningfully move forward.

Again the SDGs have made some headway, by asking us to value unpaid domestic work and making sustainability inextricably linked with the economy. And the Paris agreement is urging us to leap forward in our thinking.  Rising to meet what they require of us would seem to first mean asking ourselves – how do I change the lens through which I see women, indigenous people, rural and agricultural workers, villagers and members of small communities, the people of the south, as actual critical contributors to my well-being, rather than objects of concern who I must somehow teach to be more like me, that is, producers of what I can see and count? What can we learn from them to achieve the balance we need for our well-being, and even planetary survival?

how do I change the lens through which I see women, indigenous people, rural and agricultural workers, villagers and members of small communities, the people of the south, as actual critical contributors to my well-being

  1. Financing and investment are the best assistance

As an expansion of the common views on what and who is valuable is the persistent default approach towards assistance for those viewed as objects of concern.  Yes, material wealth is indispensable and needed for all societies to function. However, historical approaches deriving from the above assumptions have essentially entailed extracting material wealth from those whose different values and perceived inferior value themselves made them easy targets.  This has left many post-colonial societies bereft of the natural resources and governance structures that otherwise could have contributed to the goods and services required for effective functioning.

My concern is, if the above underlying assumptions remain significantly unchanged, what can be done differently now with the same persistent mindsets?  In place of colonialism we have the drive for foreign direct investment and the race to weaken regulations to encourage private sector involvement in economies.  So once again, massive amounts of wealth, instead of being channeled through taxes to citizens, are siphoned off to TNCs and other business entities.  Yes, there is much that innovative financing can do to help generate green and blue economies and social entrepreneurship.  But these should be the icing on the cake of core revenues from taxes in the countries where companies operate.  The Addis Ababa agenda provides an ideal framework for this focus, given strong investment of political capital.

As we embark on the excitement of the SDG opportunities, we can ensure that giving financial support to countries in the south does not mean taking funds out of the south in the first place.  We can today change our way of thinking and feeling so that partnership is based on a revised view towards the equal value of all partners and what they bring to the global table.

  1. If everybody is equal, how can I be special?

At the same time that equality and diversity have grown as part of politically correct rhetoric in recent decades, we see the backlash of entrenched pockets that resist this new outlook.  Through ethnic and religious conflict, the rise of populism, as well as the xenophobia and unequal distribution of jobs and wages that may at least partially explain the rise in terrorism, is some experience of fear of the “other”, that threatens my long-held sense of privilege or demand for dignity.  Ideas of individualism, competition, greed and consumption further fuel these beliefs.

The struggle we have seems to be: as someone with pre-existing privilege, how can I accommodate the other without losing something that makes me special? What is my new role? For those demanding their legitimate rights for equality, how do I constructively channel my frustrations? Prevailing beliefs seem to revolve around assumptions such as “migrants will take my job, a different religion will undermine my world view, a woman doing what I have always done means that I am less of a man”.

We have asked so much of the world so quickly in terms of being able to answer these questions on their own, overturning centuries of culture and relationships, but maybe we have not listened enough to people on how they are struggling with these questions.  We need to do more to empathize with the challenges for the fragile human ego, as well as advocate strongly for more open thinking and greater compassion, as we move towards each other, developing skills such as curiosity over violence and holding hard person-to-person conversations that break through misconceptions and fears. With the proliferation of IT and communications channels, at our disposal, we can surely do much more of this, starting today…

And we need to find ways to forge new roles that preserve the best of our distinct identities, while finding our ultimate identity as part of the whole, with shared universal values – living the truth we can so easily observe in the natural world, that “the wave is the sea”.

The world is indeed a big and complex place and solutions cannot be over-simplistic if they are to be effective. But I believe that since we are the global system, we are also the global solution.  The above limiting beliefs that likely live in you and me and deeply permeate the approaches the UN and global system take must be fully confronted, as individuals, organizations, governments, civic actors, because they take us away from realizing the values we say we cherish. The shift we want to see in the world is actually within our power to make today, starting with me…

Leave a Reply


GVI produces publications on substantive issues from a values perspective, and linked to current events on the UN agenda. GVI also solicits and hosts articles by UN system actors, so you can hear your own voice in the conversation.

The Blog

Twitter Feed


Support us in supporting you. GVI is a tax exempt 501(c)3 organization so your contributions are tax deductible. We invite you to make a safe online donation.