Following is UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s lecture, as prepared for delivery, at the Global Centre for Pluralism, in Lisbon today:
It is a great pleasure and a privilege to be here with you to talk about pluralism and its central place in the work of the United Nations and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is wonderful to be in this beautiful building with its gardens, courtyards and the two research institutions that are helping to bridge the gulf between Islam and western cultures. I thank the Global Centre for Pluralism, and the Ismaili Imamat, for this opportunity, and for all your work to promote pluralism, diversity, inclusion, and a better and more peaceful world for all.
The tension between unity and pluralism, between the whole and its constituent parts, has been debated by thinkers and philosophers for thousands of years. Two millennia ago, the Indian emperor Ashoka the Great called for harmonious relations between people of all religions and respect for each other’s scriptures.
And at the United Nations in New York is a magnificent carpet, a gift from the people of Iran, inscribed with the poem known as Bani Adam, the Children of Adam, by the great Persian poet Sa’adi. Part of it reads:
“If you have no sympathy for the troubles of others,
You are unworthy to be called by the name of ‘a Human’.”
At this gathering last year, the religious scholar Karen Armstrong said that the first thing that appealed to her about Islam was its pluralism and the fact that the Qur’an not only praises all the great prophets of the Abrahamic religions, but accepts them as prophets of Islam. Indeed, pluralism, respect for difference and the ethics of a shared common humanity are features of many different cultures and religions.
My own continent of Africa includes some of the most pluralist societies in the world, with a diversity of tribal, ethnic, cultural and religious groups, different traditions, and people divided along urban and rural lines.
Pluralism is in the DNA of the United Nations. The Charter, our founding document, refers to “We the peoples” of the United Nations, who are “determined to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours”.
Today, I won’t add to the philosophical debate around pluralism. I believe the argument has been fought, and largely won — although we must always remain vigilant. But while the theoretical argument may be over, we still have a long way to go before we can say that our world is living up to this promise. In some cases, there are historical and cultural obstacles or a lack of knowledge or understanding; in others, it is a question of political will.
What I would like to talk about today is the gap between words and actions; between the ideal of pluralism, and the policies and strategies that will enable us to reap its benefits in our daily lives. I would like to link pluralism to the work of the United Nations on the ground, around the world, to promote human rights, inclusion and respect for diversity — the only way we can effectively address the global challenges we face and further peace and prosperity for all.
In the framework of the United Nations, and our current global Agenda — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — we have embedded the principle of inclusion, a word that is largely synonymous with pluralism. In fact, one of the 17 Goals is dedicated to building peaceful and inclusive societies. I would say that the two are not separate goals, but that societies are more peaceful because they are inclusive. We have growing evidence that greater diversity and inclusion, particularly in relation to the inclusion of women, is correlated with higher gross domestic product (GDP), more responsive Governments, better bottom lines, greater stability, and more sustainable peace and development. But if the business case for inclusion is clear, our actions fail to reflect this.
While many leaders may pay lip service to inclusion, the fact is that we are living the consequences of exclusion. Intolerance, exclusion, the need to dominate, and a lack of respect for difference are deeply rooted in many of our policies and systems — political, economic and social.
We have created a world in which, according to recent analysis, by 2030, the richest 1 per cent of people could control two thirds of the planet’s wealth. Economic and, in many cases, political power is concentrated in the hands of the few. The rights of women and girls, and of minorities and marginalized people of all kinds, are routinely disregarded. In many cases those in power hang on by any means possible, often out of fear of themselves being excluded.
Inequality is at extraordinary levels and is growing, both within and between countries. After a decade of decline, the number of chronically hungry people in our world recently began to rise again — despite there being abundant food for everyone.
We have created a world in which we define security as the enforcement of borders, exclusion of others, and amassing of weapons. We see this in the estimated $1.8 trillion in military spending last year, a fraction of which would provide dignity and opportunity for the most vulnerable.
We have created a world in which there is growing ethno-nationalism, intolerance, discrimination and violence targeting women, minorities, migrants, refugees and anyone perceived to be different or “other”. Civic space is shrinking; basic rights are under attack; activists and journalists are targeted; misinformation campaigns and hate speech spread like wildfire on social media.
Hate is moving into the mainstream in many countries and regions — liberal democracies and authoritarian states alike. Constitutions founded on pluralism and respect for difference are undermined as different groups and minorities are attacked.
Access to information is curated individually, so that we are living atomized lives, in our own echo chambers, where news and advertising reflect and reinforce our presumed perspective on the world. Unless we ourselves choose to seek out others, we may not be exposed to alternative viewpoints and arguments that challenge our beliefs.
Attacks on places of worship are some of the most egregious examples of a lack of respect for each other and for our common humanity, and they are rising. In the past few months alone, we have seen horrific attacks on mosques in New Zealand, on churches in Sri Lanka and on synagogues in the United States.
Record numbers of people are on the move around the world, fleeing conflict, drought, poverty and lack of opportunity. At the same time, refugees and migrants are attacked both physically, and rhetorically, with false narratives that link them with terrorism and scapegoat them for many of society’s ills.
Millions of women and girls face insecurity and violations of their human rights every day. Violence is used to enforce patriarchy and gender inequality and police women’s role in society. Excluding half our population not only affects our mothers, daughters, and sisters; it affects every one of us and distorts our societies and economic systems.
We have created economies that value sometimes dubious or even destructive activities, but place zero monetary value on the daily work that happens in our homes — where the very production and reproduction of our societies occurs.
We see the same devaluing of the foundations of society in our longstanding treatment of our natural environment. Trees are worth more as construction materials than they are standing in the forest. Deforestation, overfishing, climate change and pollution are causing unprecedented damage to our natural safety net, but they are driven by the logic of economic models and incentives. As a result, we now face an existential crisis as a species, and are directly responsible for the threat to 1 million other species who may be pushed to extinction in the next few years.
The climate crisis is wreaking havoc on some of the most vulnerable countries and regions, while others continue to burn fossil fuels and add to greenhouse gas emissions. No one would light a cigarette in a room where a child is struggling to breathe, but developed countries are contributing to conditions that are causing droughts and floods halfway around the world, with complete disregard for the rights of others. We have lost sight of our common humanity and interdependence — on each other, and on the planet that gives us life.
I want to stress: none of this is an accident. It is the end result of systems built by men, largely on the basis of exclusion, marginalization and discrimination; and of the prioritization of short-term profits for a few over the long-term rights and interests of all. It is clear that we need a fundamental reordering of our priorities, and a reorganization of our economic, political and social systems, if we are to reap the benefits of inclusion and save ourselves and our planet from further inhumanity and degradation.
While we are living in troubled times, the news is not all bad. There is plenty of evidence that global efforts work, and that further damage to societies and our planet can be prevented and reversed.
As Stephen Pinker has argued, our world is getting better — but not as quickly as we might hope. Violence has steadily declined over time; life expectancy is up, extreme poverty is declining, literacy is at historically high levels. There is greater awareness of human rights, and in some countries at least, minorities of all kinds enjoy greater legal protection than ever before.
Take the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer. This international treaty entered into force in 1989, after climatologists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Since then, the hole has gradually started recovering and projections indicate that the ozone layer will return to 1980 levels between 2050 and 2070.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed by all countries in the year 2000, created the most successful anti-poverty movement in history. They helped to lift more than a billion people out of extreme poverty, to make inroads against hunger, to enable more girls to attend school than ever before, and to protect our planet. The MDGs generated new partnerships and galvanized public opinion, reshaping decision-making in developed and developing countries alike.
Global pluralism, in the form of multilateralism, achieved these things. And it can achieve much more.
Since the founding of the United Nations, there has been wide and growing recognition that major challenges cannot be solved by countries acting alone. As we face a growing number of issues that do not respect national borders, from climate change to spreading conflict and outbreaks of disease, we need regional and global institutions more than ever, to strengthen our collective response.
But multilateralism may be a victim of its own success. We have stopped seeing it as a priority and an evolving challenge that we need to tend, promote and reinvigorate. We have started taking it for granted. We see this in societies and communities that are turning inward, forgetting the lessons of the past. Global institutions must hold the line for global values. And to do so these institutions, as well as our partners, must transform.
His Holiness the Pope has spoken of the globalization of indifference. I believe we must replace that with the globalization of solidarity. Four years ago in 2015, as we reached the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations initiated and coordinated a global conversation about our priorities. All countries agreed that we needed to do better. This resulted in the agreement by all 193 Member States of the United Nations on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — our transformational road map for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships over the next 15 years.
This shared Agenda reflects an important paradigm shift. The Sustainable Development Goals are human-centred, interconnected, universal, integrated, inclusive and mutually reinforcing. No Goal stands alone; each Goal is inextricably linked with the rest for its full implementation.
This reflects the reality of development challenges on the ground, where people living in poverty and hunger are also the most likely to suffer from poor access to quality housing, education and health care. A girl is less likely to attend school, for example, if her parents cannot afford to pay for school supplies, or if she does not have secure housing.
The 2030 Agenda addresses these issues together, tackling their root causes in a holistic way. The Sustainable Development Goals were prepared by all countries, require contributions from all — including developed and developing countries — and will improve the lives of all, so that no one is left behind.
The emphasis in the 2030 Agenda on inclusion and interdependence, as well as a moral obligation to the most vulnerable members of society through the principle of “leaving no one behind”, offers a counterweight to the forces that are leading to increased polarization, tribalism and social fragmentation. They are a conscious effort to build and replenish the world’s democratic infrastructure, our relationship and obligation to each other, and social capital.
The ultimate ambition of the 2030 Agenda is a world that provides dignity, well-being and opportunity for all — qualities that do not come under gross domestic product, but that are finally being recognized as critical measures of successful governance. The introduction of quality of life and well-being considerations into budget discussions in several countries and regions of the world is an encouraging sign.
The 2030 Agenda will require a shift in mindsets, to go beyond GDP to how we also measure our well-being. It will require a reprioritization of economic systems so that they improve lives and make them more meaningful. The main requirement is the political will to push through changes in the governance of economic and trade systems to make them more inclusive and equitable.
While the SDGs are global, they reflect both universal values and local and traditional cultural traditions. To take one example, we can see the values of the Islamic faith, my own faith, reflected in many of the Goals which stress environmental justice, nature and the interdependence of all things.
The United Nations itself is changing to support countries as they undertake this ambitious global project. We have reformed the UN Development System so that we are better-placed to help Governments deliver on the 17 transformational Goals and targets. From providing access to technical expertise to reaching global agreement on the financing arrangements that will be critical to success, the United Nations is at the heart of delivering on the 2030 Agenda.
And we are reforming to ensure more diverse representation, with a new gender parity strategy for recruiting and retaining women staff at all levels, and greater efforts to ensure more equitable geographic representation. We are just months away from achieving parity in our senior leadership for the first time in seven decades. We need to lead by example and demonstrate the importance of diversity and inclusion that reflect the reality of our world.
That is the big picture. But it will only succeed if each of us is part of this effort. Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals must start from every space in which people connect: the community, the workplace, schools and medical clinics, small businesses and the media.
It is here that we will need to make the radical shift needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda — a shift in mindsets away from accumulation by a few and exclusion of the many, to a paradigm based in interdependence with each other, and with our environment. A shift in policy solutions that are based on mutual gains rather than zero-sum thinking, and from a definition of security that is based on an ever-increasing stock of weapons and stronger borders, to one based on resilient societies and mutual respect for each other and our planet.
This shift needs to start from our education systems. We continue to build schools of bricks and mortar and teach rote learning uncritically from outdated textbooks. We are preparing our young people for a world that has passed, rather than the use of technology, critical thinking skills, well-being, and ethic of shared responsibility needed for the world of today and tomorrow.
While the 2030 Agenda is global and all-encompassing, it will require action at every level. It particularly needs the leadership and guidance of faith-based and philanthropic institutions working at the local, national, regional and international levels, who can re-instill a sense of our common humanity.
The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has written of membership of “a family, a neighbourhood, a plurality of overlapping identity groups, spiraling out to encompass all humanity.” This concept asks us to be many things, he says, because we are many things.
I am very familiar with these ideas. My personal story is one of multiple identities, from Nigeria to the United Kingdom and back again, from work in the private sector to the Nigerian Government and the United Nations. I am an African mother and grandmother, a former Government minister, a survivor of gender-based violence, a faithful Muslim, the granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister; and the second-highest international civil servant in the world. I received an education in a country where today Boko Haram thrives.
While Anthony Appiah and I may be poster children for pluralism, we all embody many different identities. The growth of DNA-testing services proves this in the most literal way, but it is also true socially and culturally. There is no homogenous culture in our world; there are simply those that are more and less honest about their history. I am happy to say that our hosts today, Portugal and Canada, are among the most honest.
Portugal, the seat of the Ismaili Imamat, has made many significant contributions to openness, diversity and pluralism in our world. Portugal’s history of discovery, of reaching out and connecting, has a central place in its culture. The Iberian peninsula was for many centuries a battleground between two of the world’s three major religions, and this has left a legacy of interdependence and respect for cultural difference.
I cannot talk about Portugal without referencing our Secretary-General, my colleague and friend António Guterres, a proud Portuguese citizen who never fails to remind us of your country’s special and unique qualities, and particularly its food!
I would also like to mention Canada, host of the Global Centre for Pluralism, and a leader in respect for diversity, honoring the values of pluralism in its institutions and across the entire fabric of its culture. Canada’s pluralist national identity is reflected in its approach to welcoming refugees and is fundamental to the relationship between Canada and the Aga Khan Foundation. No society is perfect. Most, if not all, nations have forged their borders through war or conquer, leaving a set of historical injustices that challenge their identity. It is how these challenges are confronted that makes clear its values.
Canada’s efforts to address their own relationship with the indigenous First Nations people in a spirit of honesty and reconciliation, difficult as this can be, is one example of this leadership.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the Aga Khan Development Network and institutions for its work on behalf of some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in the world. You combine a strong ethical foundation with respect for the environment and a commitment to supporting societies in which every citizen, regardless of cultural, religious or ethnic differences, can reach his or her full potential.
The approach to supporting all members of a community so that everyone is stronger as a result exemplifies the words of His Highness the Aga Khan, who once said that pluralism is not simply an asset, or a prerequisite for development, but a vital necessity for our existence. I agree wholeheartedly. You have been a consistent voice promoting pluralism, inclusion and respect for diversity over decades. We need you now more than ever. I thank you all for your commitment and look forward to working with you, the Aga Khan Foundation, and the Global Centre for Pluralism, for many years to come. Thank you.