• Stefan Szepesi

A World in Lockdown at the Balcony

How we talk to one another is as important a question as what should happen next.


The Caux Palace where citizens of Europe reconvened to reconnect post-WWII. Photo credit: Initiatives of Change

Going to the Balcony is a frequently prescribed move in negotiation advice. Coined by William Ury (Getting Past No; Negotiating in Difficult Situations) it stands for taking perspective, detaching yourself from whatever tough conversation you're in; pressing the pause button and leaving the trenches to take a step back and (re-)examine your true interests. What is it in life that matters most? Am I being side-tracked? But also: how do I get back on track? And how do we?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...".

We are living Charles Dickens' words if you read up on the potency of COVID-19 to change the world. What historical moment will it be? The never-waste-a-good-crisis optimists predict lasting behavioural change with more care for one another and the planet at large. The never-waste-a-good-crisis pessimists see agendas for greater good washed out by deep economic recession, greater restrictions on freedom and growing economic nationalism. In my bubble, the optimists are dominant at the city and neighbourhood level. There, corona brings out the best in us. But the pessimists rule the waves at the macro level of international (dis)order. From state sanctioned "piracy" of medical equipment to defunding the WHO (US) and from uncoordinated WTO export bans on medical supplies to ugly fights over European solidarity.


Both pessimists and optimists agree on one thing: we are in lockdown on the balcony. Forced to reconsider what matters most. Forced, also, to reconsider how we should have this conversation with one another in our neighbourhoods, nationally and globally. How we should talk about the shared interests at stake. And how we should address our opposing interests. How do we balance quality of life with lost years; or physical health with loneliness? How do we (re)build an international system in service of humanity at large?


We have taken immense leaps in data and technology but are in pretty poor shape when it comes to finding agreement with one another. At the level of cities and neighbourhoods in many places there is plenty of dialogue, conflict resolution and joint problem-solving. Initiatives are thriving (the Open Government Partnership is collecting them from across the globe with over 250 examples and counting), including those between cities internationally. There is innovation, not just in the act of zooming or slacking ideas when we cannot meet; but in the urgency of inclusion of those traditionally shut out of decision-making (the Gov Lab provides a nice overview of some of the digital tools used for participatory democracy).


But at the global level, negotiating the ways and means of the international system has pretty much been unchanged for over a hundred years. We are skilled at debate but mediocre in dialogue. Can global governance be reinvented beyond switching ministers to videoconferencing? Will states remain the central players with only token roles for citizens, civil society groups and business? If down the road of this crisis, states fail to keep some meaningful global governance and cooperation afloat -defunding the WHO, fumbling the climate crisis, underfunding the response to a record high number of refugees, gutting the WTO's authority, etcetera- who will put the pieces back together?


Over the past weeks, the Geneva Graduate Institute's Global Governance Centre started an experiment to look not so much at WHAT should happen to the various elements of global governance but HOW that negotiation could take place in a radically different way. With a hybrid team of negotiators from international organisations, governments, civil society, and business, Jerome Bellion-Jourdan is behind the emerging International Negotiation Platform, experimenting with a new inclusive format (early adopters can follow the discussion here).


Inclusivity, of course, is only a starting principle. The root of the HOW challenge lies in constructive negotiation practice. Only global public goods -yes, the stuff that limits state sovereignty- can tackle these challenges in meaningful ways. Unilateralism and isolation is attractive and fast-paced; multilateralism is hard and there is zero glamour in its excruciating slowness. Behaviour at the table (and away from it) determines whether a rules-based system still has any real meaning, or whether a few decide and the rest suffer the consequences.


In the best of times, states are slow firefighters to the rescue of global governance. In the worst of times, there are many arsonists among them. The question is whether other players will step into the void. Cities, regions, professional groups, students, unions, entrepreneurs, artists, academia and so on. To good news is that with technology, no network of motivated citizens is powerless. And on behavior at the table, the negotiation education field has moved well beyond university lecture halls. Social and tech entrepreneurs are bringing high quality training, dialogue and innovation on conflict resolution to new places.


Examples abound. What if constructive negotiation practices would be taught in high schools? And what if this would be done outside comfort zones by bringing students from two vastly different schools together for experiential learning? This is what the Pathways Institute for Negotiation Education has started doing in Belgium, pairing students from Francophone and Flemish schools. R3solute is a comparable example, training refugees in Germany to work in their own communities as peer mediators. The Connex Support Unit, also German, is a pro bono negotiation advisory service for public sector officials in poor countries sitting opposite powerful executives of the world's largest mining companies. And with a record number of 50 million internally displaced people around the world and some 600,000 humanitarian workers in the frontlines, the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation is up-skilling an emerging global community of frontline negotiators working in the world's hardest places. If war-zone-negotiation can be taught to many, why can't basic dialogue skills?


Each of these examples faces the scale question: how can they maintain quality and have impact on a vastly larger number of people? Enter the pandemic and the surge of online collaboration and participation in its slipstream. The technology has been there for decades, evolving quietly in the margins, usually in humble service to eventual face-to-face communication. Now it is mainstream, in lieu of, existing in its own right... And -if we put our minds to it- the technology is already good enough to replace lecture rooms, conferences, town halls, conventions, and rallies. So we may have, a bit further down the road, a hundred thousand citizens attending a town hall meeting on a matter of importance to them, a million students attending Harvard, a 100 million teenagers on climate strike... The technology is there even if our imagination still has to catch up...


And yet, to fix global governance with the same energy, empathy and trust we use to collaborate locally we require more than tech platforms. As mediator Ken Cloke noted last month on the pandemic and other global crises:

To achieve these goals, we require not only advanced methods in science and technology, but equally advanced methods in effective communication, joint problem-solving, collaborative negotiation, dialogue and conflict resolution.

Everyone working in the field of education and training on the above has their work cut out on bringing old and new methods to scale. The how revolution in tech needs a parallel revolution on how we talk and listen to one another across borders. Lockdown insights from the Balcony.

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