Social Cohesion and G20 Agendas: Responding to the Perils of “Othering”

By Katherine Marshall, Vice President, G20 Interfaith Association

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The United Nations offices in Geneva

During the spring 2024 Human Rights Council meetings in Geneva, a side event, organized by a coalition of government and non-governmental actors, explored difficult challenges around the social phenomenon known as “othering”, and its evil companions: hate speech and intergroup violence. With a focus on different education and training approaches, the event’s dominant message was that well designed and constructive programs geared well to different contexts, communities, and age levels are not only feasible: they are vitally needed.

The G20 Interfaith Forum (IF20), one of the organizing partners, posed the question of how G20 leaders and communities might engage this challenge, both at global and national levels. Three important reasons why they should were advanced. First, both hate speech and intergroup violence (especially involving religious communities) are on the rise worldwide and concerted efforts to address the problem are a must. Second, the topic comes with noteworthy sensitivities but, addressed with care and nuance, it can be tackled in different settings, making a material (and measurable) difference. And third, the religious dimensions, though especially sensitive, are intertwined with broader social tensions in important ways and therefore need to be and can be an integral part of the various approaches that were outlined in the side event. They are, for example, embedded in the Indonesian Cross Cultural Religious Literacy Program that has met a remarkable affirmation from some 7000 teachers who have engaged in the program, in Arigatou International’s long standing Ethics Education program. Also discussed was the GO-Human Rights Educations’ global initiative which addresses similar issues.

The IF20 has undertaken to bring what we see as the best of the religious experience to the G20 process, with the broader hope that by doing so, we will open some doors to contributions to global agendas. This effort must go beyond a simplistic if persuasive contention that religious voices belong “at the table”, an argument made so often that its meaning has dulled. What is essential is to bring practical, demonstrable experience to bear, in forms that policy makers, facing a host of demands, can visualize and act upon. That was the central theme of the Geneva side event and its focus on responses to the “othering” challenge.

Among development actors, time and time again, questions turn on priorities: among so many needs and demands, where should we begin? For economic and social development, there are of course, many points of view, but, asked to rank priorities, many will respond: Number one, education. Number two, education. Number three, education. The focus on educational approaches that help build social cohesion and address tensions of polarization that we discussed in Geneva thus belong squarely on the G20 agenda.

During the side event, it was striking that diplomatic representatives (the Ambassadors of the Gambia and Indonesia) and experts from four different continents all echoed several similar points.

First, they focused on the conundrum surrounding diversity: that it is vital, growing, deeply beneficial for long term societies and economies, but difficult to manage in the short term. Diversity is the spice of life but especially in dynamic, changing societies, can spark tensions. So how do you build peaceful and inclusive societies within a rapidly changing, increasingly diversifying set of communities across the world? That challenge was very much at issue during the general Human Rights Council discussions, for example around hate speech and incitement to violence in different settings.

Second, different programs to address diverse communities’ challenges in living together need to address the complex and often contentious issue of religious freedom and religious engagement. A widely expressed concern is that in place after place, education systems are failing to impart essential civic values. But whose values, which values? And how to impart them? Views differ widely, blending and navigating values, morals, and ethics, and the ways in which education should achieve one of its primary purposes, which is, to teach people to be good citizens, good people. How does that work out in this diversifying world? Thoughtful approaches to questions about values are sorely needed.

Third, what does religion have to do with it and why does the question matter? In focusing both on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and on human rights, religious literacy is increasingly understood as a prerequisite for addressing the many religious dimensions. In other words, if people don’t have a basic understanding of religious commitments and religious differences, how can we move to the next stage: doing something about underlying tensions? Approaches to religious literacy differ: Obviously, religious literacy for judges or religious literacy for teachers or religious literacy for kindergartners are quite different matters. While there are positive examples, questions linger as to how best to address gaps in knowledge and understanding. Each presentation during the event focused on an aspect of how to link questions of teaching values with understanding and support for critical thinking. There is much here to bring to the G20 process on these topics.

Despite a notably optimistic outlook, a fourth issue involves the global patterns of rising intergroup tensions. How can we better understand the whys and explore ways to benefit from diversity that allow us to enrich our knowledge, our understanding, our compassion, our empathy, but also to contribute in meaningful ways to addressing the polycrisis of linked conflicts involving poverty,  conflict, and climate?

As we look at the G20’s power and responsibilities and especially questions around education and knowledge, the trauma of the COVID-19 crisis has shone a new spotlight on contemporary challenges. The current will to leave COVID behind is understandable but ironic. In many parts of the world, we saw enormous learning losses, which cannot be caught up easily. The current young generation confronts grave mental health challenges, a particularly painful part of the legacy of isolation and trauma they experienced.

We approach the G20 convinced that the kinds of programs the March 12 event explored belong on the G20 agenda. They need to be set in the context of the multiple crises that we face today that include the legacy of COVID, the need to think about future pandemics, the need to integrate the upheavals that are part of the climate changes, the conflicts that are happening in different places, the humanitarian crisis that we’re seeing. All come together in the kind of programs, the kind of issues that come under the heading of cross cultural religious literacy and learning to live together.

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Professor Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. She serves as the vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, and worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006, tackling development issues in the world’s poorest countries.