Much of my professional life involves applying democratic, participatory
decision-making methods in order to catalyze and bring to fruition human
development initiatives. We are fortunate that these enjoy a high success
rate, leading to shared socioeconomic and environmental benefits.
Interestingly, when we come to study such experiences, a fairly consistent
common factor emerges – that of conflict.
In the case of Morocco, for example, where, particularly in rural areas, we
facilitate community dialogue to implement development projects, disagreement
typically stems from a clash of ideas as to what constitutes the necessary
social development and which initiatives should take priority.
In respect of similar situations worldwide – where causes of social discord
are non-racial – proven, well-established participatory methods exist to help
local groups identify goals, work through differences and meet an array of
practical human needs.
However, across the globe there are also communities that cannot embark on
such a path of joint development planning because they experience a type of
conflict rooted in ethnicity or race that prevents parties even from entering
the same room and engaging in discussion concerning their relationships.
In these cases too, participatory methodology can be employed to break down
hurtful, deeply entrenched barriers and assist in reconciliation by enabling
parties to share their stories, give recognition and express regret. This
process, once achieved, can lead to a previously undreamt of situation
whereby the new, productive relationships are not only embodied in treaties
and agreements but acted upon through collaborative planning and
implementation for growth.
Opening an inclusive conversation is the essential first step towards what
can methodically lead to multi-racial collaboration for prosperity and peace.
A brave example of the application of this methodology of reconciliation is
The 'Race Together’ initiative launched by Starbucks in 2014 to promote
community dialogue on matters of interethnic relations in the United States.
Appropriately returning social and political discourse to the modern-day
coffee house – traditionally a center of debate – this voluntary
participatory exercise involves expressing and listening to people’s life
experiences as they are shaped by aspects of racial identity. The ensuing
social media negativity expressed against Starbucks, simply for inviting
American communities to discuss issues relating to race relations, brought
into sharp focus the barriers to progress that exist in this area.
For such a project to make a real social impact – to enable the building of a
substantial base of emotional knowledge encompassing, for example, an
understanding of the depth of feeling experienced by African Americans at
tragedies such as Ferguson – individual conversations need to be catalyzed
millions of times.
Advancing to greater scale requires two further factors – the large-scale
training of facilitators and economic stimulus measures. The former could
involve, for example, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood
Partnerships in funding training programs for individuals from religious
communities to be facilitators of community-based racial dialogue. The latter
might include investment in town hall discussions on race relations in order
to bridge divides so that new local growth projects can together be assessed
Were the process to occur on a national scale, the outcome – reconciliation
dialogue leading to joint development planning – could muster bottom-up
pressure on national leaders to pursue with sincerity equal opportunity
policies among diverse groups.
In the run-up to the March 2015 elections, the Israeli electorate was
disenfranchised when their prime minister played musical chairs with kindred
far-right parties to the tune of primal and delusionary political and racial
obscenities. Is it not an irony that some of those Jewish extremists of
European origin, recipients of ''white privilege'' in Israeli society, in
addition do not especially appreciate fellow Jewish citizens who originate
from Arab countries and who themselves experience institutional racism? The
situation in Israel exemplifies an inherent aspect of white supremacist
systems; they determine the power relationships between members of the same
ethnic or racial group as well as external relationships with other groups.
At this high level where the healing of racial divides needs to take place,
the third-party role would be performed by NGOs, education centers and
individuals who coordinate community meetings, ensuring all parties are
present and heard. This is necessary in order for local reconciliation
movements to become a cohesive, wide scale and rising social force enabling
ever larger groups to gain greater control over events that shape their
Practically speaking, willing members of groups in conflict need to meet and
directly discuss in places – within communities themselves – where they can
recognize each others’ hardship and build improved cross-relationships. The
U.S. as well as European and Asian nations should seek, therefore, to fund
every opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian community-based dialogue and remove
restrictive criteria (including that for joint technological development)
that hinder funding being received for projects involving both parties'
The same may be said in respect of healing the Sunni-Shia divide that
convulses much of the Middle East. Direct, local dialogue between ethnic and
religious parties whose intense animosity threatens the fabric of entire
societies, remains the one option that is both immediately applicable and
Catalyzing and maintaining localized talks and reconciliation processes in a
creative, strategic and broad manner could promote a bottom-up surge in
societies and increase tendencies toward federalist or decentralized public
administrative systems. Sub-national levels would be empowered, gaining
strengthened managerial capacities. Further, through coalitions and advocacy
they would be in a position to pressure and shape national levels in their
diverse and more inclusive image. Currently we are witnessing this phenomenon
within the U.S. Republican Party as pressure grows from states and young
members around the country to create a national platform cognizant of the
human interests of GLBT Americans.
Implementing processes of reconciliation leading to human development and
economic growth and prosperity need not wait for enlightened national (and
international) leadership – indeed it cannot, considering the global urgency.
In truth the fulfillment of this task lies in the hands of each and every one
of us at the present moment.
Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is an American sociologist with a particular interest
in the MENA region. He lives and works in Marrakesh, Morocco.