How to channel compassion towards the excluded and downtrodden for better 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 which would seem not to merit 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 characterised human relations -- particularly in dealing with people of different ethnicities, religions and cultures. Because of the subjective nature of these sentiments, they are rarely factored in designing systems of governance of our public or private institutions.
There are many inspiring examples of how love and compassion can lead to good governance and human progress. Here are some 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 loss, but felt helpless to do anything about it on a mass-scale.
When told that there were many low-tech, low-cost remedies like immunisation, oral rehydration therapy and breastfeeding that even poor countries could afford, and the international community would support, many Third World leaders sprang into action. Grant motivated leaders of rich countries by asking them directly how they would react if a jumbo-jet full of children crashed on their shores every few hours, and how a tiny fraction of their aid budget could help avert such daily tragedies in developing countries.
Besides the compelling scientific evidence and public health argument, it was this 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 immunisation, 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 per cent to 40 per cent, saving the lives of tens of thousands of children every year.
There are many such examples of how non-violent civic activism, harnessing the power of compassionate solidarity has influenced public policy, governance and human well-being.
The good progress Nepal has made in reducing maternal and child mortality in the past two decades is partly due to the compassionate commitment of thousands of our female community health volunteers and front-line health workers.
Still, we should be outraged that 65 children die every day due to diseases that are preventable or curable, children being trafficked, migrant workers duped by recruiters and exploited by employers, and half the children in Nepal being under-nourished. This outrage should be turned into action by harnessing the positive potential of compassion in improving our governance.
Kul Chandra Gautam is a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, and this piece is adapted from his address at the Spirit of Humanity Forum in Reykjavik recently.