Women hold Somali flags at a Women's Peace Forum in Mogadishu, November 2018. Photo: UNDP Somalia/Arete/Ismail Taxta

 

COVID-19 has shifted our world. Over the last six months, no matter where we live, our lives, assumptions, and relationships have changed. Now, more than ever, we have witnessed people from all backgrounds and all ages rise to assist each other

While communities have formed networks of mutual support, many of the institutions mandated to support them have failed to fully harness and amplify the wealth of capacities and support structures that already exist. In international development in particular, a key blind spot that limits the effectiveness of our work exists in the rhetoric we use to understand the communities we work with.

UNDP, along with many other partners, continues to advance new approaches to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, but our continued use of terminology that fails to fully embrace the power of people impedes the transformative potential of our work. This can also lead to inadequate policy and programming, or to insufficient – or inappropriate – action. One of the most prominent examples of this is our tendency to target support to individuals and communities facing poverty, conflict, or other sources of instability by identifying them as ‘vulnerable’ people.

For example, the problem with categorizing  women as vulnerable group project women’s passivity and helplessness, denying them agency and power in the processes of change. A radical reaction to portraying women as vulnerable in recent years has been an over glorification of women’s role as fighters in support of violent extremist groups, hindering their capacity and role as peacebuilders.

Words matter. They shape mindsets, and mindsets shapes approaches and outcomes. There is an important distinction between a vulnerable person and a person living in a vulnerable circumstance. When we define people by their circumstances, we fail to engage with them as multidimensional beings. It’s time for UNDP to move from using ‘vulnerability’ as a means of defining the people it supports, to considering all people as protagonists for change.

This might allow us  to meet people’s aspirations  and assist us in assessment and conceptualization of where inequality stems from and who has a role in combating it. By moving away from a deprivation perspective, which leads to divisive mentalities about the capacity of particular groups of people, we are better positioned to recognize the reality of humanity’s common journey in building a peaceful world, and the role of each individual as a protagonist in it. We can start this journey by changing the words we use and therefore the whole narrative from vulnerability to empowerment and constructive resilience.

Whether this reconceptualization of what unites us to be reached only after a global crisis such as this pandemic has revealed the cost of humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behaviour, or is to be reached through consultation and dialogue, is the choice before all.

We can choose to graduate from the idea of labeling women, youth, racial, religious and ethnic minorities as ‘vulnerable groups in the discussions that guide our decision-making. We can embark on a journey with greater clarity of vision and determination to question and reflect on how our policy and programming promote the nobility of them and draw on their experience.

To accept that the individual, the community, and the institutions of society are the protagonists of civilization building, and to act accordingly, opens up great possibilities for human happiness and allows for the creation of environments in which the true powers of the human spirit can be released.

Several opportunities to enhance our work with peacebuilders, activists, and other populations in bringing about sustainable change and to ensure we recognize and articulate with greater clarity their latent capacity may include the following:

The innovation and resilience shown by communities amidst the pandemic have underscored the need for more expansive understandings of human relationships, and to place more emphasis on identifying the latent capacities and desires of those we hope to serve. This means believing in people and their desires to be sources of peace and justice. This means opening our eyes to the extent of people’s capacity so that we can see more peacebuilders and changemakers in more places. This means embracing the oneness of humankind and human nobility as a foundation for how we develop our policies and programmes.

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