Power of Love and Compassion in Governance

Power of Love and Compassion in Governance

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. On the other hand, love and compassion are deeply felt personal emotions and sentiments of individuals. It would, therefore, seem that love and compassion do not or need not have a legitimate place in governance.

Love and compassion have guided the best of individual human behavior 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.

An international Forum on the ‘The Spirit of Humanity,’ held at Reykjavik, Iceland last week, challenged this conventional wisdom. Inspired by the historic Summit between American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev which it hosted in October 1986, that led to the end of the Cold War, the tiny but peaceful and prosperous republic of Iceland seeks to promote world peace and harmony. Its hosting of the Spirit of Humanity Forum with the unusual theme of “the power of love and compassion in governance” is part of its innovative approach to contribute to good governance.

There are many inspiring examples of how love and compassion can lead to good governance and human progress. Here are some examples from my experience at UNICEF.

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 Grant, was surprised how people were not shocked or outraged by such statistics, and politicians felt no shame or 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. Leaders of rich countries were motivated to act when 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.

More than any scientific evidence 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 focusing on low-cost and low-tech primary health care rather than expensive, high-tech prestige projects of sophisticated hospitals that were beyond the reach of ordinary people. The result led the New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof to remark that 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.

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 football star Pele’s mother, who proclaimed that her son was the best football player in the world because she had breast-fed him, and 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.

There are many such examples of how love and compassion have influenced public policy, governance and human well-being. After all, 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 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.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post