Governance with a Human Face: Iceland and the Spirit of Humanity

Governance with a Human Face: Iceland and the Spirit of Humanity

From 10 to 12 April 2014, Reykjavik, Iceland hosted a fascinating international conference called the Second Forum of the ‘Spirit of Humanity’ with the unusual theme of “Power of Love and Compassion in Governance”. Attended by some 250 participants from 40 countries, the Forum brought together philosophers and philanthropists, spiritual leaders and environmental activists, advocates of peace and champions of human rights. The President of Iceland graced the occasion, hosted a reception and made substantive remarks, as did the Mayor of Reykjavik.

For the uninitiated and those not very knowledgeable about Iceland, at first, the topic of the conference sounded like an airy-fairy philosophical discourse. But deeper reflection brought home the relevance of the subject even to many former diplomats, politicians, and corporate executives, attending the conference.

The Ups and Downs of the Spirit of Humanity in History
It is worth recalling that throughout human history, there have been great epochs when the lofty spirit of humanity soared to new heights. During what the Hindus call satya yuga or the Era of the Truth, humanity was apparently governed by divinity, when the intrinsic goodness of humanity ruled supreme.

Over two millennia ago, Siddartha Gautam Buddha, born as a Hindu Prince in Lumbini, in today’s southern Nepal, spread the message of peace and compassion in South Asia. The Great Indian Emperor Ashoka, after executing a cruel and brutal war, came to the conclusion that his imperial victory was in fact a defeat for humanity, and became the foremost proponent of Buddha’s teachings of peace and compassion all over Asia, the Orient and beyond.

The Renaissance in Europe uplifted the spirit of humanity and profoundly impacted the literature, philosophy, art, music, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual inquiry with deeply humanistic values.

There are many similar epochs of the uplifting of the spirit of humanity in different cultures and civilizations around the world. But there have also been dark chapters in human history when the spirit of humanity was seriously dampened with evils, such as greed, hatred, aggression and megalomania, temporarily overpowering the innate goodness of humanity.

The last such period of evil that engulfed the whole world seriously for half a century was the global Cold War that spread an unhealthy ideological rivalry that divided nations and weakened our efforts to create a strong United Nations.

The Reagan-Gorbachev Summit of Reykjavik
Thankfully, the positive spirit of humanity resumed again when the historic Summit between the American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, in Reykjavik, Island in October 1986 planted the seeds of the end of the Cold War.

The Reykjavik Summit brought great hope to humanity. The whole world breathed a sigh of relief as the Cold War ended. We started seeing significant decline in global military expenditures, and there was high hope that some of the savings from military budgets would be invested as peace-dividend for development.

The end of the Cold War brought about a whole new dynamics in international relations. The United Nations that had been paralyzed by the bitter divisions between the world’s two major super-powers and their followers began to act in greater unison. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe and many other parts of the world greatly uplifted the spirit of humanity.

A series of world summits were held in the 1990s on important topics – starting with the very first World Summit on Children in 1990 at the United Nations (at which, as a senior UNICEF official, I had the great privilege to contribute to drafting its declaration and plan of action containing ambitious goals for children, which eventually evolved into the Millennium Development Goals); the path-breaking 1992 Earth Summit; the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights; the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development; the 1995 Copenhagen Summit on Social Development: the 1996 Beijing Conference on Women, etc. We also saw the end of apartheid in South Africa; and even some signs of the possible end of the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.

But the pace of human progress is not straight-forward. It often goes two steps forward and one step backward. And so it is that although wars between countries declined after the end of the Cold War, wars within countries, especially of an ethnic and sectarian nature, proliferated. At the turn of the millennium, the spectre of terrorism haunted the whole world. The existence of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, and dangers of climate change and global warming still hang over our heads as Democles sword.

In some parts of the world, like in my home country of Nepal, we even saw a temporary rise of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist ideology which many thought had been thrown into the dustbin of history, except in some of its last strong-hold such as in the non-democratic, non-people’s, non-republic of North Korea, and a few other outposts.

The phenomena of religious extremism as represented by the Taliban and Al Qaida, have led to the unintended consequence of Islamophobia, that is a sad blot in the march of human civilization.

Amidst these developments, at one point at the beginning of this decade, we saw the promise of the Arab Spring, rekindling our hopes for humanity again. But it did not last very long, as we can see in the headline news coming from the Middle-East. The most recent upheavals in Ukraine and Syria make one wonder if the Cold War might raise its ugly head again.

Yet, the positive spirit of humanity chugs along – two steps forward and one-step backward – but making net progress and keeping our faith alive.

The Reykjavik Forum
It was in this context that the Second international Forum on the ‘The Spirit of Humanity’ was held at Reykjavik, Iceland, the tiny but peaceful and prosperous republic at the crossroads of Europe and North America in mid-Atlantic that seeks to promote world peace and harmony.

The theme of the conference, “the power of love and compassion in governance” might sound a bit esoteric to many. I was myself a bit skeptical at the beginning, but my skepticism gradually turned into positive curiosity, and then to strong conviction at the end of the Forum.

Governance is a process of managing the affairs of a state or an institution through rules, regulations and norms that are negotiated and agreed upon by all key stakeholders. It emphasizes accountability, checks and balances, audit and inspection, measurable results and impact in the end. Nowhere in the standard text books of governance would we find any mention of love and compassion.

Love and compassion are, of course, deeply felt personal emotions and sentiments of individuals that have guided the best of individual human behaviour and values throughout human history. But suspicion, indifference, animosity and hatred have also characterized human relations – particularly in dealing with people of different tribes, religions and cultures. Because of the subjective nature of these sentiments, these are rarely factored in designing systems of governance of our public or private institutions.

The 2nd Forum on ‘the Spirit of Humanity’ at Reykjavik, challenged this conventional wisdom. It pointed out that if we look deeper into examples of some great successes in governance, one can find inspiring examples of how love and compassion have played a role in good, people-centric development.

At the Reykjavik Forum, it was my privilege to share several examples of great forward movement for humanity that I had the good fortune to witness first hand, which exemplified the “power of love and compassion in governance”.

The UNICEF Child Survival Campaign
In 1980 more than 15 million children died annually – or 41,000 every day – from causes that were readily preventable at very low cost. The head of UNICEF at that time, James P. Grant, was surprised how people were not shocked or outraged by such statistics, and how politicians felt no shame or sense of accountability for allowing such genocide. He was determined to change this indifference through a global campaign for child survival.

Grant adopted a strategy that appealed to people’s hearts, to their feelings of love and compassion, to take bold and decisive action to save children’s lives and to promote their well-being. He reached out to Heads of State and Government, and civic leaders, inquiring if they had experienced deaths of children in their own families; how they felt about it; and what they would be prepared to do to prevent such tragedies. Many leaders in the Third World had direct personal experience of such tragedies, but felt helpless to do anything about it on a mass-scale.

When told that there were many low-tech, low-cost remedies like immunization, oral rehydration therapy and breastfeeding that even poor countries could afford, and we could mobilize massive international support, many Third World leaders sprang into action.

Similarly, leaders of rich countries were motivated to act when the case was presented in a manner that touched their hearts. For example, asked how they would react if a jumbo-jet full of children crashed in their shores every few hours, and how a tiny fraction of their aid budget could help avert such daily tragedies in developing countries, many donors showed great empathy and support.

More than any scientific evidence, economic rationale, or public health argument, it was the appeal to their human feelings of love and compassion that motivated world leaders to support a global movement for child survival and development. This resulted in dramatic expansion of childhood immunization, improved nutrition and control of infectious diseases, that saved the lives of millions of children in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The governance of public health system itself changed dramatically in many countries with increased focus on low-cost and low-tech primary health care interventions rather than expensive, high-tech prestige projects of sophisticated hospitals that were beyond the reach of ordinary people. Millions of child lives were saved and the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of children improved. As the New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristoff remarked, the child survival campaign that UNICEF’s Jim Grant led in the 1980s and 90s, saved more children’s lives than were killed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong combined.

Pele and Breastfeeding in Brazil
In Brazil, the life-saving practice of breastfeeding had declined dramatically in the 1980s, because of advertising of bottle feeding of infant formula, and changes in life-styles of “modern” women. In a counter-advertising campaign, UNICEF enlisted the support of the great Brazilian football star Pele. In widely publicized posters and billboards showing Pele and his mother, the latter proclaimed proudly that her son was: “the Best football player in the world, because I breast-fed him”, and she commended all mothers to do so. Within a few years, exclusive breastfeeding rates in early childhood in Brazil increased from 8 percent to 40 percent, saving the lives of tens of thousands of children every year.

Inspired by Pele’s example, the government of Brazil adopted a strong breast-feeding campaign as part of its public health strategy. This was an example of how the power of love and compassion influenced the governance of health sector in Brazil, and many other countries.

Days of Tranquility in El Salvador
In yet another example, during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, many children were killed in the war, but even more children died because they were deprived of childhood immunization. UNICEF approached President Jose Napoleon Duarte and asked him to declare a cease-fire to allow children to be immunized throughout the country. He readily agreed, but asked how the rebel forces could be convinced to reciprocate his gesture. We learned that the Catholic Church could be a trusted intermediary. We approached the senior-most leadership of the Church in San Salvador and at the Vatican itself. The Church was initially reluctant to get involved in a politically polarized conflict. But when UNICEF made the case that saving children lives and protecting their well-being would be a gesture of great compassion fully consistent with the Church’s religious and humanitarian mission, it agreed and persuaded the rebels to honour several “Days of Tranquility for Children”.

The guns fell silent during a series of “Days of Tranquility” when children were immunized and given other health care on both sides of the conflict, saving many lives and ultimately creating an atmosphere for the end of the war. This was a dramatic example of how the power of love and compassion influenced a nation’s governance, and even led to conflict resolution. Since this pioneering experience in El Salvador, humanitarian cease-fires have been organized in many other countries in conflict, e.g. for immunization against polio and for provision of emergency relief supplies.

Nepal’s Female Community Health Volunteers:
My home country of Nepal is one of the poorest in the world with very high rates of illiteracy, illneses, and under-development. But over the past two decades, we have seen dramatic progress in improving maternal and child health and women’s empowerment. More than the government’s efforts or international aid, one of the decisive factors in this progress has been the extra-ordinary role of community-based women health workers whose love and compassion led to massive service outreach and dramatic reduction in maternal and child mortality.

Given its difficult mountainous terrain, underdeveloped infrastructure and shortage of trained medical personnel who were willing to serve in remote areas, Nepal had extraordinary challenges to expand basic health service in rural communities. So the government, with support from UNICEF and USAID, devised a strategy of empowering ordinary village women with a little bit of training to act as local health promoters, known as Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHV).

There are now some 52,000 FCHVs throughout the country. They are given periodic training on simple health messages such as the importance of hygiene and sanitation, proper diet during pregnancy, encouragement for antenatal care, safe motherhood, breastfeeding and good infant feeding practices, childhood immunization, oral rehydration therapy, diagnosis and simple treatment of respiratory infections, etc.

The FCHVs personally administer to young children Vitamin A and deworming medications. As a result of their loving, caring and dedicated effort, Vitamin A coverage in Nepal is over 95 percent, one of the highest in the world. Even during Nepal’s decade-long civil war, the FCHVs continued to operate in all 75 districts and thousands of villages across the country when most other basic services were interrupted. If any children were missed during the Vitamin A campaign, the FCHVs would personally visit them at their homes and ensure they are protected. This is the kind of loving and compassionate care that government officials do not provide, but these highly motivated volunteer women do cheerfully.

As a result of their effort, in the past decade maternal mortality declined by 75 percent and child mortality by 60 percent – making Nepal one of the few least developed countries on track to achieve these important Millennium Development Goals. The FCHVs, along with the local Mothers’ Clubs (Aamaa Samuha), and para-legal women’s clubs, have done more to promote maternal and child health, to combat domestic violence and empower women, than any other government program. The work of these women’s groups has also helped weaken traditional caste barriers in Nepali society as their services are inclusive and non-discriminatory. This is an outstanding example of governance with a human face, harnessing the power of love and compassion to help change a society’s age-old negative cultural traditions and to promote new egalitarian values.

Participants at the Reykjavik Forum on the Spirit of Humanity shared many examples of governance with a human face in various sectors in different countries which have profoundly influenced public policy, governance and human well-being. The Reykjavik Forum also explored how the power of love and compassion could be further harnessed to address the serious governance deficits in our societies in dealing with issues ranging from genocide to ecocide. The ‘appreciative inquiry’ approach was recommended to help identify areas for further action. There was strong consensus in promoting value-based education to foster value-based governance.

Iceland and the Spirit of Humanity
The host country of the Forum on the Spirit of Humanity, Iceland, offers an inspiring model of how it is possible to harness the power of love and compassion to promote peaceful, humane and democratic governance in a whole nation. Ranked number one in the global peace index, Iceland is a country without an army, where even its President and Ministers; government offices and security-sensitive institutions like the airport, are not guarded by any armed personnel. The President of Iceland Olafur Ragnar Grimsson proudly proclaimed how there has not been a single armed soldier in the soil of Iceland in the past seven years, since the closing of the US/NATO military base there in 2007.

Consistently ranked among the top countries in the world in terms of such indices as human development, social progress, and gender equality; with a pristine environment; very low crime and corruption rate; Iceland offers a model of a compassionate society with value-based governance.

Love and compassion are the underlying sentiments that lead to solidarity, mutual self-help and cooperation. In modern societies we cannot survive and thrive without such compassionate solidarity. As the whole world becomes increasingly a global village, where inter-dependence rather than independence in a narrow, parochial sense becomes the basis for our collective security and prosperity, there is no alternative to harnessing the positive potential of love and compassion in the governance of all human institutions.

The world needs to support and nurture more initiatives such as the Forum on the Spirit of Humanity to promote humane and compassionate governance as our evolving gold standard for global and local governance.