“The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we have created them… We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive…”
Take any development theme, and a careful examination reveals that every challenge is inherently perpetuated by cultural and social systems’ causes. As evidenced by so many charitable contributions focused on the mere symptoms of global challenges, philanthropists have adopted an obsessive focus on tracking outputs such as number of toilets built, number of testing facilities established, number of trees planted, and more. Enduring change requires a holistic, systems approach.
Enduring change requires a holistic, systems approach.
In the early nineties when hysteria surrounded the HIV/AIDS crisis, public health professionals were totally at sea, confounded in their search for possible cures to an expanding epidemic. In the time since, after enormous commitments and investments, the world may be on the verge of a breakthrough vaccine. Yet is has taken more than three decades to reach this stage, with the medical component covering only part of the challenge.
Across the globe, cultural and societal norms were in fact the biggest obstacle in the recovery of infected patients. Shame, guilt, denial, stigma, and discrimination were all so pervasive. In Cambodia, villagers were exiled. In Ethiopia, women failed to get themselves tested for fear of being labeled promiscuous. In Arab states, prisoners were denied treatment because the clergy felt they deserved to suffer. Managing the epidemic required an extraordinary response to address multiple challenges through policy formulation and capacity building of institutions to reduce vulnerability, prevent new cases, provide access to treatment, and soften the socio-economic impact of HIV/AIDS.
Unleashing our Potential
Last year I participated in a workshop on radical transformation leadership led by Dr. Monica Sharma, a former Head of Leadership & Development at the United Nations. Dr. Sharma, who was at the forefront of the UNAIDS effort, champions the case for a holistic approach to addressing development challenges. She explains that the development sector is overly focused on solutions and immediate results, all but overlooking the root causes. Solutions are necessary but not all–encompassing as they arise from a narrow problem–solving approach. It is not a lack of know-how that impedes our humanity, she notes, but a misalignment between our actions and values.
It is not a lack of know-how that impedes our humanity, she notes, but a misalignment between our actions and values.
Take the case of reducing maternal mortality. She says it is not only about establishing emergency care for pregnant women but also about providing for a woman’s dignity, her voice, and her rights. Similarly, while reducing crime rates, it’s not just about safety solutions such as SoS lines and surveillance cameras, but also about transforming exclusionary social norms and creating equal opportunities. In dealing with the environment, it’s not good enough to carry out beach clean-ups and plant trees. It is equally important to address the systemic causes of environmental degradation to encourage cultural shifts that lead us toward a sustainable and circular economy. Most social sector organizations are engaged in partial responses and fail to see the complete picture.
Conscious Full Spectrum Response
With her decades of experience, Dr. Sharma has crafted a Conscious Full Spectrum Response (CFSR) meta-framework which overcomes the myopic and piecemeal approach to traditional development sector challenges. The CFSR template is theme agnostic and therefore can be applied to any development sector challenge, including peace building. She advocates an approach that integrates short and long-term thinking and harnesses knowledge and technology to create new patterns and systems by embodying universal values and acknowledging diversity. This results in completeness of response, meaning that the pursuit of visible, measurable outputs is complemented by the application of of Systems Thinking to create systems shifts.
In the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the response was solely focused on the medical aspect. The United Nations, on realizing the response’s limited scope, formulated a Leadership for Results framework, which promoted leadership and capacity building in institutions and civil society across 60 countries for needed system shifts.
Dr. Sharma warns that if we fail to embrace universal values and wisdom while attempting to create systems shifts, we run the risk of adopting dogmatic and ideological stances leading to polarization and thus missing opportunities. Examples of inner capacity building include the ability to make distinctions, say between principled outrage and destructive anger or distinguishing judgement from discernment. Additionally, it involves using tools such as deep listening, responsible speaking, non-violent communication, appreciative inquiry and cultivating inner stillness to tap our universal being.
The CFSR template is designed to drive equitable and sustainable change, no matter the development challenge. It provides direction without being prescriptive, and simultaneously integrates the “what” (results), the “how” (transformative methodologies), and the “why” (root factors) into one effective response. Moreover, it invokes an inter-disciplinary approach, supporting multiple perspectives to include both short-term and long-term thinking.
Whether in relation to poverty, ecology, or global peace, it is a lack of universal values that gives rise to global challenges. Why does one farmer in India commit suicide every 30 minutes while living in the 12th largest economy in the world? Why has the politics of identity upstaged all the real challenges in the world today? Universal values mean no one is left out. If this is the underlying purpose behind the Sustainable Development Goals program, then we should inquire why SDG 4 (Education) is so overwhelmingly focused on learning outputs and outcomes and why the whole dimension of values is missing. Impact should lead to enduring, equitable change for people and planet.
In a world that is increasingly fragmented and divided, cultivating the political, social, and cultural conditions that encourage universal understanding is critical. UNAIDS results were a success only because the UN made a concerted attempt to help global civil society in overcoming its socio-religious biases. My biggest breakthrough from Dr. Sharma’s workshop was realizing that no matter which direction ideological responses point, they are fraught with ego. If we can transcend our tribal instincts and instill compassion in our lives, our mission will be so much easier.