From Rod Nichols, AFGG Senior Advisor
Great Ideas and Organization for Action
“Great ideas,” remarked Albert Camus, “come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope.”
In Baltimore, on November 12, at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, a great idea was underlined and a campaign for action was announced. Now the action must be organized. The great idea – Tikkun Olam, the call to heal the world, a profound tradition in Jewish history – is the base for a new program conceived by the Alliance For Global Good and the Reut Institute.
Among the eleven “principles” in the powerful strategy of what the organizers dub “21st Century Tikkun Olam” or “21CTO”, designed to reach 250 million people over a decade are: “partnerships with emerging local leadership driving change within their communities; and leverage through partnerships with global institutions and other nations as well as private sector involvement.”
This is a tall order. It will, of course, require organization. But what kind of organization? “Volunteers” don’t want to be ordered around. Local groups don’t want to be commanded by a distant headquarters, much less by multiple bureaucracies. How can we nourish the “great idea” of 21st Century Tikkun Olam so that, as Camus said, “ it will negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history?”
One perspective flows from the work of Elinor Ostrom, the first (and only) woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Her research showed the local users are often in the best position to solve the “tragedy of the commons,” those circumstances in which incentives for individual action may deplete the community’s resources, such as in overfishing or cleaning up parks. So the challenge for the 21 st Century Tikkun Olam initiative will be to mesh global vision with “emerging local leadership”. Matching a global scan of humanitarian needs with the energy of local capabilities, and with the program’s available technology and know-how, will demand humility and collaboration.
At least two other tough problems will have to be confronted. First, what are the benchmarks – for the character of the problem and for progress? “When you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers,” said the great physicist Lord Kelvin, “ you have scarcely advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.” There is no question that “measuring” humanitarian work is challenging. But it would be irresponsible to glibly dismiss this issue. Only hard problems merit the depth of commitment implicit in the power of Tikkun Olam. And only genuine solutions, or great gains, merit applause. If “healing” is merely palliative it is not sustainable.
A second problem is: how to build authentic partnerships among groups that prefer to go on their own? What’s in it for them? Indeed, this may be the harder nut to crack. It’s akin to “headless nails,” the bane of incompetent carpenters like me. Easy to put in place, these nails are nearly impossible to remove or replace. Some say that may be the situation with many Jewish and other humanitarian organizations: they were founded by good people, funded by generous philanthropists and governments, and are working well in every corner of the world. Their nails are in place; they resist change. What will induce then to join a movement that, if it works, will do far more than they can do individually? One answer is trust in the leadership of the new alliances that must be shaped for a global Tikkun Olam to be born healthy. Trust will minimize the perceived risk of losing resources or identity because the needed new funds will be sought jointly and shared fairly, and the process of forming partnerships will be founded in broad consultation.
Let us honor the “great idea” of a 21st Century Tikkun Olam. Let us seize the opportunity to undertake careful planning and pilot projects.