At the Paris Peace Forum on November 12 last year, French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders launched a global discussion on forging a new consensus for the post-Covid-19 world. This discussion is continuing through an ongoing debate, with contributions from leaders and experts from around the world. Below, explore the contribution of Charline Burton, Executive Director of Search for Common Ground.
The Future is Collaborative: Three Steps to Address Global Mega-crises
Once, with Covid-19 emerging around the world, we wondered how we got to now. Today, we wonder what happens next.
At Search for Common Ground, a global organization dedicated to peacebuilding, we have relied on a simple directive throughout the pandemic.
In short: The only way we can respond to vast challenges is to cooperate across our divides.
This piece offers a chance to imagine a collaborative future, grounded in three tasks: reckoning with the past, centering trust, and embracing people at the margins.
Our Global Context
Even before 2020, political and technological shifts were making borders feel less relevant. Violent conflict had become fluid and horizontal, with international conflict-prevention systems struggling to adapt. Levels of trust were falling—both trust in fellow citizens and in institutions. All these factors were in place before the first case of Covid-19.
Our vulnerability to pandemics emerged as a mega-crisis. But we live in an age of mega-crises: record levels of refugees, digital disruption, and a planet under siege from climate change.
What have we learned that can prepare us for the challenges that lie down the road? As peacebuilders, we see a three-step approach.
Step One: Reckon with the Past
Global problems require collaboration—but collaboration is impossible unless we reckon with the past.
Violence and exclusion leave deep wounds and prevent shared progress. How can you cooperate with someone who—yesterday or decades ago—was threatening your survival? Coming to terms with the past is critical to everything else.
In Sri Lanka, following a 26-year civil war, we gathered testimonies in the form of audio recordings, letters, and children’s drawings. The purpose of this effort, which reached 10 percent of Sri Lankans, was not to reopen suffering but to acknowledge the hard memories that shackled people in place. With this, we opened up new spaces for collaboration, like the council we oversee in Colombo where diverse young people, business owners, and public officials come together to tackle the joint challenges of today.
By wading into the past, we help people find closure and turn to the future, where shared problems await.
Step Two: Center Trust
Along the way, we open the door for genuine, deeply-felt trust that enables solution-oriented collaboration.
This year, we surveyed six places where we work—Kenya, Nigeria, Palestine, Tanzania, Uganda, and Yemen—and discovered that dissatisfaction with the response to Covid-19 and poor access to information fueled broader suspicion of governmental health measures and vaccination efforts.
In conflict-affected countries, many people have strong reasons to distrust the government and other power-holders. Unless we focus on trust and address the underlying causes of distrust, any sweeping policy effort will fall short. Policymakers can avoid this error by looking past their support base and partnering with trusted messengers.
Step Three: Embrace People at the Margins
Formal actors such as the World Health Organization have driven the pandemic response, but so have local activists—women’s groups, social media influencers, student unions, faith leaders—translating health news into approachable language and action.
In the coming decades, power will shift even further away from wood-paneled rooms. We must reform our institutions to cast off rigid bureaucracy and adopt more inclusive forms of decision-making.
We are facing this challenge now in Afghanistan, where peace talks depend on the inclusion of people historically at the margins: young people, women, diverse ethnic groups, and more. Twenty years ago, our Afghanistan Director served as a youth delegate at the Bonn Conference; today, she is pushing to involve a new generation of young activists. If we want to drive lasting social change of any kind, we must get comfortable outside the halls of formal power.
Even before Covid-19, global challenges demanded our attention. The final test of our Covid-19 response is whether we have learned the collaborative skills—of reckoning with the past, building trust, and reforming formal institutions—to heal our world.
Charline Burton, Executive Director of Search for Common Ground
Charline Burton is the Executive Director of Search for Common Ground in Brussels, where she leads the development and implementation of our strategy and partnerships throughout Europe. She previously managed Search for Common Ground’s West Africa portfolio, where she oversaw our programs in the ECOWAS region and facilitated the launch of more than 20 peacebuilding projects. Since December 2018, she has been acting as interim Country Director for Nigeria.