Jason Yossef Ben-Meir: The Alliance of Civilizations

By Jason Yossef Ben-Meir
For PalestineChronicle.com

The United Nation’s High Level Group for the Alliance of Civilizations recently issued its final report, which included ambitious and important recommendations to bridge the divide between Western nations and the Muslim world.  The Group’s 20 eminent members were brought together by Secretary General Kofi Annan, and include former President of Iran, Seyed Mohamed Khatami, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and André Azoulay, Advisor to King Mohammed VI of Morocco.  

The report’s recommendations form a holistic approach to alleviating global inequalities and bridging the Western-Islamic rift.  Recommendations include: education that expands a sense of a common humanity, media literacy skills, and empowering initiatives directed towards youth and other groups; international exchanges with diverse participation; measures that address the challenges of migration; achieving the Millennium Development Goals (“the urgency of which can hardly be overstated”); and other initiatives.     

I suggest that fully incorporating local community participation in the identification and management of development projects throughout the Muslim world, an approach strongly consistent with the Millennium Development Goals and the recommendations of the Alliance Group, will significantly decrease the divide with the West.  Before I explain how, I will begin by stating, just as the Alliance report does (as well as the 2003 Report of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World), that without a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the horrible violence in Iraq and the intensifying violence in Afghanistan, efforts to bridge the divide “are likely to meet with only limited success.”

Participation in community development involves men and women of villages, neighborhoods and regions together defining their priorities for projects (in education, health, economic development, environment, etc.) and a plan of action to achieve them.  Participatory activities are often utilized to help local people analyze and discuss their social conditions from a range of perspectives as part of the decision-making process for projects. Here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, a group of citizens working towards social change in their community went through a series of development planning activities that incorporated the use of visuals, charts and mapping.  They determined that a community center for their youth was most important, and are currently taking important steps towards achieving that.  In the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, local communities most often rank potable water, irrigation and projects for women and youth to be among the top development priorities, and villages that have experienced participatory planning received real benefits from projects they subsequently established.  

Participation in community development shares the same ‘guiding principles’ expressed in the Alliance report: First, “Poverty leads to despair, a sense of injustice, and alienation that, when combined with political grievances, can foster extremism.  Eradication of poverty would diminish those factors linked to economic marginalization and alienation and must therefore be aggressively pursued.” Communities planning local development in a participatory way base projects on the self-described interests of the local people, which work against alienation.  The fact that communities determine and have ownership of the projects provide the basis for their success in generating a vast range of new socio-economic and environmental benefits in extremely diverse contexts.

Second, the participatory approach takes the form of democratic governance that the Alliance encourages: “To be successful, democratic systems must emerge organically from within each society’s culture, reflecting its shared values and adapted to the needs and interests of its citizens.  This is only possible when people are free and feel in control of their destiny.”  The participatory process is democracy that emerges from within because it grows from dialogue and interaction among local community members and is driven by their own needs and interests.

Participatory community development also relates to observations in the report of the impact of the international system on diverse nations and cultures, as well as internal factors in Muslim societies that inhibit development.  Many feel, the report states, that the “international system…offers…greater conformity and homogenization of cultures, complete with the dislocation of families and communities brought about by urbanization, the negation or appropriation of traditional lifestyles, and environmental degradation.”  We have learned from experiences around the world that a preventive against dislocation and the brutal and uneven effects of globalization is diversification of production and income. Diversification requires new development projects and building decision-making skills of people and communities to better enable them to adapt to changing conditions.  Participatory activities help people base their decisions on a range of perspectives and information, leading to development projects that are thoughtfully designed and expand the ways human needs are satisfied.

Participatory planning helps communities not only deal with globalization and other international challenges that impact their development, but also assists people in analyzing and responding to conditions within their own country.  The Alliance report says that “all Muslim societies would benefit from increased dialogue and debate to identify those factors internal to their own societies which have inhibited their development and full integration into global political, economic, and intellectual communities, and to generate ideas on how to overcome these barriers.”  Participatory development can help in this regard because in the process as community members determining priority projects, they analyze social, economic, environmental, historical, technical and institutional factors that affect their lives and prospective projects.  Not only does this analysis and dialogue further public understanding of internal barriers, but is in itself an indigenous democratic reform process that helps to overcome those barriers.

The participatory approach to community development helps to achieve an Alliance of Civilizations through shared means – empowering education and development.  The Alliance stresses civic and human rights education, service learning and movement away from thinking in exclusive terms.  Participation in community development advances this kind of education for communities as they together plan and implement development projects that meet their needs.  Participatory development is simply a practical methodology to help communities create and pursue a common agenda for social development and change.  But if it were facilitated throughout the Muslim world, its effect can be a true Alliance of Civilizations.   

Jason Yossef Ben-Meir is president of the High Atlas Foundation (www.highatlasfoundation.org), a U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to the rural community development of Morocco. He teaches sociology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com

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