Honourable Minister of Local Government
Excellencies Ambassadors and UN Resident Coordinator
High ranking officials from the Government, DPs, UN, civil society
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, all protocols observed.
Allow me to join my colleague, Yasser, in extending a very warm welcome to each and every one of you. We are, truly, very honoured that you have accepted our invitation and come to be with us at this event.
Please allow me to also thank our Guest of Honour, the Honourable Minister, who did not hesitate to agree to be our guest speaker once he heard the theme of the forum. We are honoured to have you with us, Minister.
Finally, let me also extend my thanks to Yasser, Donna-Marie and the rest of the World Bank team. The idea for this Forum came from the Bank, and we were quite delighted when they invited us to join and co-host.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am, like everyone else, getting older. And with age, I find myself becoming less patient to see miracles happen within my lifetime.
I know, society has come a long way since I was a child. We have seen tremendous progress and advancements in so many areas and seen the lives of millions of people improve. But these changes have not happened everywhere and not for everyone. And in this age when we speak of leaving no one behind, there is a bit of magic and some miracles I would like to see happen.
The magic and miracle of Inclusion. Diversity and Inclusion. This is what we are here to talk about today.
I have read a lot of the research on the issue of exclusion - the scholarly papers, the neurobiological analyses and so on. And I understand, that across the world issues of exclusion exists and, moreover, is often grounded in how we are, as humans. The research tells us that humans universally tend to make Us/Them dichotomies, tend to see ourselves in groups, cliques and clans, often along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language, religion, age, socioeconomic status, school we went to, and so on. And the research suggests that neurologically, we form these biases and create these dichotomies with remarkable speed- in fact, in a fraction of a second.
The scientists have proven in their labs, that we all seem to have a need or sometimes an urgency to barricade ourselves from “outsiders” or “intruders”; and that this is largely based on ancestral fears and predispositions. Belonging to a tribe, a group, or family was always pivotal for our survival.
In the long-ago past, and in the immediate present, this tendency can, and often, result in either a very benign exclusion of others or, in the worst case, into people denigrating or demonising the Thems, and rationalising why we exclude or hurt or kill those Thems.
When exclusion is open, when it is overt, when it results in violence and blatant stigma and discrimination, it is easy for us to see, and to condemn.
The problem is, exclusion isn’t always open; it isn’t always explicit; it isn’t always violent; and it isn’t always something we are aware that we ourselves may be guilty of because of our implicit biases.
Let us leave the research for a minute. Time for a short story.
When I was about 14 years old, I would write a lot. Poems, stories.
Disposable people. Feeling that if we ceased to exist, it simply wouldn’t matter to the rest of society. The sense that people often looked straight at us but never saw us. The image of your mother standing for a long time in the line at a bank, then a wealthy person walks in, is greeted with a great smile by the teller who immediately tends to him, while the poor wait in silence as their children watch.
That was benign. Sometimes it wasn’t.
One early morning – maybe about 2 am. Alarm in the village. We all ran out to see what had happened.
Turned out that a group of ‘traditional’ high school boys had been out having fun, and left their party, saw a lady from our village who was mentally disabled, started playing games with her, and eventually threw gasoline on her and set her on fire.
I only saw the charred remains when I got there. But what I remember most, is one of my relatives telling me what one of the upper-class kids had said he was very sorry, he just didn’t know that she would feel it.
In 1980 at a political rally, watching a group of one party supporters killing a person from the other party, slicing him open with a knife. Wondering, is it that they don’t think he can feel the pain because he is Socialist and not a Labourite?
Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
I wrestled throughout the period of life with this issue of how it is that so many people either benignly did not see us, or did not seem to think about how we feel.
The German-Israeli philosopher Martin Buber identified two opposed ways of being in relation to others: I-It and I-thou. I-It means perceiving others as objects, whereas I-thou refers to empathic perceptions of others as subjects.
It turns out that a high percentage of people see other people in instrumental terms. I-It. Sometimes it is benign. Sometimes it isn’t.
They say, teaching people about D&I is not like teaching them math or about how to market a product or how to produce a report. This is because D&I training touches on individuals’ core beliefs. It goes deep into the core of who we are, how we were raised, the kinds of conversations we had within our families and with friends, what we were socialised to believe, the things that happened at school and so on.
All of these things have shaped us as human beings, shaped our beliefs about humanity, shaped what we see and do not see in our society, shaped how we look at all types of people within society and so forth. Ultimately, it also impacts on who gets what opportunities and who doesn’t. Who gets included and who is excluded.
35 years later, I still see them, the people who exist on the margins of society, on the margins of the workplace. Sometimes, they are women, sometimes they are people with disability, sometimes they are poor, sometimes they are people who are excluded simply because they don’t belong to the ‘club’. But most times, I think, they are excluded simply because we do not take the time to think about Them. To think what it would be like to walk in their shoes for a mile.
We can go and start to make changes – adopt the gender seal initiative which helps to review all the barriers to gender equality; adopt a proactive approach to promoting people with disability and so on. That would be a fantastic start.
“Look within the individual not just at the individual.” Streets of Kingston.
See the person, see the human being. See that we ourselves have biases.
It is through our own changed behaviour that we make the biggest contribution by becoming role models for our organisations and our families and our friends and our societies.
Thank you once again, ladies and gentlemen, and I do hope you will be inspired by this forum.