In Borjomi, participants – mainly young scholars and professionals, from seventeen countries from Europe, Eurasia and the MENA regions – discuss global challenges and innovative solutions

On 7-9 July 2017, in the renowned Georgian resort town of Borjomi, in the heart of the Caucasus region, LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) convened a workshop on the theme “Global challenges, shifting regional parameters, and the need for innovative responses”. Forty-six participants, mainly young scholars and professionals, came from seventeen countries from Europe, Eurasia and the MENA regions, to take part in an intensive dialogue on some of the main challenges of our time, and the response to them. The event, held at the Borjomi Crowne Plaza Hotel was part of the activities marking the 20th anniversary of LINKS (DAR), and was organised in partnership with commonspace.eu and EPNK, a European Union peace-building initiative.

Summary of proceedings

Friday, 7 July 2017

Welcome session – the reasons for the workshop

LINKS (DAR) Executive Director, Dr Dennis Sammut welcomed participants at an informal opening session on Friday afternoon (7 July).

Dennis Sammut said that the generation that grew up in Europe since the end of the cold war regarded conflict close to home as the stuff of history books. True, on Europe’s outer rims, and in its immediate neighbourhood, such thinking was always a luxury, yet a decade ago few would have imagined that turmoil, conflict and threats to peace in the world could be so broad and extensive. Many of the certainties that we had become accustomed to have been shuffled, and in many cases the pieces are still in the air, and we are not sure where they will fall. In parallel to this, huge strides in the way we communicate have changed our modern concepts of space and time. The catch all word, globalisation, does not do justice to the kind of dramatic change in the way we think, work and generally do things that is ongoing, and for some, technology seems now to be out of control

Dennis Sammut said that LINKS is twenty years old this year. Despite being a small NGO it has been able to make a modest contribution to peace and understanding in those areas where it operates. Working with a broad range of associates, partners and stakeholders in the areas around Europe’s neighbourhood it supported the peaceful resolution of conflicts, contributed to the process of transition, and engaged in the process of developing good neighbourly relations between Europe and the countries in its vicinity. Our approach to the peaceful resolution of conflicts is anchored in our belief in dialogue, based on good analysis, that is informed by solid research.

There are many organisations similar to LINKS, and for many of us success depends on three pillars: good communications; engagement with local civil society; and public diplomacy. LINKS strength has been its readiness to be innovative, think and work outside the box, being flexible as much as possible, and being ready to talk to as many stakeholders as possible. This versatility has its cost. We remain by choice a small organisation with a lean structure and modest funding.

Whilst in the past we have used strategies and methodology that have stood the test of time, new realities require us to think about how we should organise our work for the future. The 20th anniversary offers us an excellent moment, and this workshop is a perfect opportunity, to do that: to share knowledge and experience, and to learn from each other.

He invited participants to discuss What works? What doesn’t? How can we communicate better? And to contribute in formulating LINKS thinking and plans for the next five years and beyond.

Dennis Sammut said that it was appropriate that this event was being held in Borjomi, in the heart of Georgia, and in the heart of the Caucasus region. LINKS started its work in Georgia, and despite subsequently working in many other countries, Georgia and the Caucasus mountains and region remain its spiritual home.  The region connects Europe with the wider Middle East and Eurasia, and vice versa, has done so for millennia, and will continue to do so in the future. It is symbolic of the interconnectivity between continents and cultures.

After the opening remarks Dennis Sammut invited the keynote speaker, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and the panellists in the Saturday session to give a short preview of what they will be talking about in their presentations.

It was then time for participants to get to know each other. They participated in an ice-breaking session, followed by a fun-World-quiz led by Adel Hamaizia. Immediately afterwards participants were invited for a short introduction to Georgian wines and mineral waters led by Georgian sommeliere, Giorgi Dartsimilia, followed by an informal dinner, and a chance to socialise at after dinner drinks.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Keynote address by the Lord Purvis of Tweed “The seismic changes of recent times in the world should not threaten us, but thrill us”.

Participants convened on Saturday, 8 July, for the second day of the workshop which opened with a keynote address by Lord Purvis of Tweed, a member of the upper house of the UK Parliament, the House of Lords, and of its International Affairs Committee.

Lord Purvis said that he did not come from a political family – his ideas were formed by his life experiences, and the people he had encountered. They were influenced by the fact that he was a borderer, born in Scotland close to the border with England.

Lord Purvis said that no time in human history has seen such rapid social, economic, technological and political, change in such a short time, as humanity has experienced since the time when he was born in 1974. For those who have lived through this period this has been either a thrilling or a threatening time. For those that have good education skills, and live in a reasonably stable environment, this has been a thrilling time. On the other hand, for those who do not have the right skills, or who live in unstable regions, this very often seemed like a threatening time. People have looked at different responses to this period of intense change, and in many ways what ensured was a dichotomy.

Lord Purvis reflected on the changes of the last four decades and said that in many sectors there had been huge progress:

“In 1974 there were fewer democracies, but in a way the world was much more stable. The certainties of the cold war were reassuring for many people, including policy-makers, but much has changed. Many changes were for the better. The population of the world has grown from 3.9 billion in 1974, to 7.5 billion today. The world economy has grown astronomically from USD 5.5 trillion to USD 76.7 trillion, and per capita GDP from USD 1,400 to USD 10,300 globally. This marked economic development reflects itself in life expectancy, which has increased from 61 to 72, whilst child mortality has reduced from 132 per thousand births to 43. People are more prosperous, healthier and better educated today, and there is more emphasis on social spending. Spending on defence has gone down from 3.7% to 2.2 %.

In many ways today’s world is also much smaller. The number of air passengers in 1997 was 401 million, the number of persons travelling by air in 2016 was 3.7 billion. The world is much more closely connected as a result of the internet. Half a trillion text messages are sent out every day compared to hardly any until the mid-1990s.

Politically too there has been progress: the number of countries considered democratic or largely democratic in 1974 was 34, today it is 87 the number of people living in a democratic or largely democratic environment has risen from 1.7 billion in the 1970s to 4.1. billion today.”

Lord Purvis said that however therein lay many of the current challenges:

“What comes with democracy is a belief that the individual is a stakeholder; democracy establishes a social contract which requires the government to deliver against the expectations of those who vote it to power. What is happening now however is that the expectations of the voters are outstripping the ability of the democratically elected governments to deliver. The growths in the populations are creating greater needs for services and trained staff in schools, hospitals etc.  Demographic challenges in the aging countries of the west and the far east, and demographic pressures in the youthful populations of Africa and the MENA region require levels of investments that are not being met, and state coffers are not able to meet demand. I do not think that with the present economic path they are likely to be met in the future either.”

Lord Purvis then addressed some of the other challenges facing the world at the moment, including population shifts from rural regions to mega cities, climate change, and the competition for water resources. He said that while more and more people are living in democracies, and aspire to live in prosperity, the harsh truth was that this was probably the first generation in the west for centuries that would not be able to leave to the next generation a better level of prosperity and opportunity than the one they had inherited. This was an unprecedented development in global human development. In other parts of the world, such as Syria and Gaza, we were actually seeing negative development, something that should shame our generation.

Lord Purvis said that the youth demography in Africa make it the most exciting, innovative and creative continent on earth, but equally the development challenges are immense, and employment opportunities, especially for the highly educated, remain elusive.

Lord Purvis said that technological development, digital connectivity, demographic and other societal changes were some of the current challenges facing the world. For the west there is also the concern about the growing rise of China, and the increasing assertiveness of India. Both have a different concept of the west-based international order, and western countries are having to come to terms with this. But even within that order the level of commitment is different as was seen by the Russian annexation of Crimea, and president Trump’s isolation policy. This was an unsettling time in global governance.

Lord Purvis added,

“In the UK we are asking if the multilateral bodies of which we are members are now fit for purpose, whether we should push for their reform, or if we should consider membership in them altogether. We are not talking simply of the EU, but also of NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, and even the UN. Are these institutions set up after the seismic global conflict of WW2 now fit for purpose, and for the challenges that we are now facing. On the other hand new bodies are being established such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, originally a Chinese initiative but one in which now the UK has invested USD 100 million. Are these new institutions complementing or competing with the long established institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank? These are questions we need to ask at home and abroad. There needs to be new thinking because the challenges are immense.”

Lord Purvis then highlighted other challenges, including the unprecedented migration of people between countries and continents which has seen 1.5 million people moving in the Mediterranean through Turkey alone in the last few years, and mass communication. On the latter, Lord Purvis said that people no longer get their news solely, nor even primarily, from their national broadcaster. Instead people increasingly rely on “referred news”, which may be true or fake, but because it is referred to them directly they are more likely to believe it.

“Very often it is a filtered story and it is more likely to align to your existing views, either extreme or benign, rather than challenge it or stimulate new thinking. This has now become fertile ground for those wanting to influence public opinion through social media. It is having huge impact on public opinion and political matters. These practices rely heavily on big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning algorithms, not just in the process of gathering news, but also in disseminating it, and because it is influencing public opinion it is also influencing politicians.

I mentioned already that more than four billion people now live in democracies. Democracies are living institutions, and they are vulnerable. Politicians are open to influence by public opinion – they receive letters and phone calls and emails from the public which they have to take into account, however if people are being influenced by unscrupulous on-line platforms they will inevitably also influence the parliamentary decision making process. We have already seen in the most powerful and richest country in the world how its election and political process has been systematically and successfully attacked and influenced. Smaller and developing nations, or those that do not have capacity in their regulatory system to have safeguards, are finding it impossible to address these threats. Their only recourse is to revert to the power of the state to regulate, but this is proving difficult and challenging. Over the last year social media was restricted in many MENA countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Morocco. 2017 has seen a continuation of reactive responses where the traditional control of the nation-state on media and news ebbs. This is a dichotomy. The closure of al Jazeera was one of the demands of the four blockade states against Qatar recently – yet Al Jazeera Arabic has over 1.5 million subscribers. There are now new norms in the way states in the region operate.

Social media is now much more influential in the MENA region than it was in the Arab Spring in 2012, because its audience is far bigger. It is difficult to factor this into the decision-making process because the time frame in which decision-making is done is slow. Politicians do have to react quickly to stories unfolding on the television screens, but on policies we still work on a fixed time period, where normally we enact laws, and then allow a period of ten to fifteen years to pass to see the impact before moving to make any changes. But if we take the Arab Spring, although it only happened six years ago, the situation today is radically different. For example the number of facebook users in the MENA region has tripled since 2012; social media is driven by smart phones, and 93% of users do so connect to the internet through a mobile device. So even in this short time the nature of media usage has changed considerably.

Communications challenges are not only defying the traditional limits of state boundaries, but can also bring with it threats to national security. The day Britain launched its new £6 billion aircraft carrier, The Queen Elizabeth, from its berth in the Rosyth Dockyard in Scotland, I could not access my parliamentary email because the British Parliament was under cyber-attack. This was a determined, even if ultimately unsuccessful attack. I was surprised that it did not receive as much media attention as it should have. The incident, and the response to it, struck me that the way we operate, even in the mainstream media, is way behind the curve.

Since that weekend there have been two other cyber-attacks against the British parliament. They failed but nonetheless they were relentless and co-ordinated attacks, and in many ways state sponsored. We believe the first attack was from a cyber centre outside Moscow, resourced with small amounts of money, when you compare it to the £6 billion aircraft carrier.

So how are people responding to this massively complex situation? Some messages from world leaders are simple and beguiling. People like Putin, Erdogan, Trump. and to a lesser extent Modi in India, propose a simple response. They say that in this threatening world you need a leader to stand up for you, and if you are proud to be a member of a nation state, than that nation state needs to be protected because you are also at risk and not only the state. There is therefore the need for “a strong man”. I use the term not pejoratively but deliberately, as there is an underlying sexism in how the many, particularly young men who do not have role models, are responding to alpha male politicians. Consider what happened in the US, where a tougher, more coherent Presidential candidate, was challenged by a businessman who was an alpha male and who promised to put America First. But the issues that I raised cannot be solved by simple solutions from alpha male politicians using nationalist discourse. In Europe the possible emergence of a Macron-Merkel alliance may help provide an alternative.”

The need for new thinking – International Globalisation Goals and Rules.

Lord Purvis spoke about the need for new thinking to address the current challenges

“As a politician and as a liberal I am perhaps not particularly good at innovation. In 1959 the Liberal Party in Britain contested the election on a manifesto that was described by the then Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, as being “full of original and innovative ideas”. He however hastened to add that “none of the original ideas in it were innovative, and none of the innovative ideas, original”. Nonetheless we are in desperate need of original and innovative thinking, and I suggest that we need to match the Global Development Goals, successfully promoted by the United Nations, with a new set of International Globalisation Goals and Rules.

Tim Burners-Lee who invented the internet is proposing a Magna Carta of the World Wide Web – basic principles of rights and freedoms and responsibilities on the use of the web. That kind of debate will be very challenging in many parts of the world. I want to add a few more suggestions of what can be included in new International Globalisation Goals Rules:

•         A Technology United Nations – with a common technological regulation across the world

•         Common agreements on defining extreme ideology, and a common response to it.

•         Global agreement on fair taxation; common employment rules and rights so that we can have transferability of contract laws, and so that we can eradicate once and for all the scourge of modern slavery;

•         Consistent and persistent adherence to human rights, so that we do not have ambiguous interpretations;

•         A UN Parliament where we have deliberative legislation based on policy, but operating virtually and digitally, and entirely inclusive which whilst not simple providing for knee jerk responses can still be responsive to developments across the world;

•         Cyber peacekeepers we will need them in the future in the same way we need the blue helmets in Cyprus and other places in the past;

•         Parliamentarians need to start thinking of themselves in a global context. MPs should have the right to participate in debates across borders.

In conclusion, Lord Purvis said,

“We cannot turn the clock back to 1974 when I was born, but we can learn from some of the things we conducted ourselves then, and translate some of this into how we need to work in this new digital and technological world. In this way we can ensure that the seismic changes that have happened in the world do not threaten us, but thrill us.”

Lord Purvis address was followed by a panel discussion on the broader theme of the workshop “The big picture:  Global challenges, shifting parameters and the need for innovative responses” with presentations by panellists Adel Hamaizia (SOAS, University of London/Oxford University), Tim Ogden (journalist), and George Mchedlishvili (Black Sea University).  This was followed by a discussion.

After a short break, participants reconvened for the second panel discussion focusing on media and information with presentations by Annelli Ahonen (East StratComm Task Force, European External Action Service, Brussels) and Joyce Hakmeh (Chatham House, London) addressing the theme “Information and disinformation in a chaotic digital age”.

After lunch participants addressed the theme: “What works and what doesn’t? The need for innovative responses to address current challenges”, with presentations made by Kenny Imafidon (ClearView Research and Bite the Ballot), on social movements and social media, and Sophia Pugsley (International Alert) on public diplomacy.

Presentations and discussions were held under Chatham House rules.

In the afternoon participants were able to visit the town of Borjomi, ride on a mountain cable car, visit the sulphur baths and other local attractions.

In the evening participants attended a Georgian traditional supra dinner, with Georgian folk music. Zviad Mukbaniani presided as Tamada, assisted by Giorgi Gogorishvili, George Mchedishvili, Gia Abashidze and Giorgi Khurishvili.

 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

“What works and what doesn’t? The need for innovative responses to address current challenges”.

The last day of the workshop enabled participants to reflect on the ideas put forward in the previous two days, and to bring their own contribution to the theme “What works and what doesn’t? The need for innovative responses to address current challenges”. Participants divided into three groups focusing respectively on (a) New media and social media (Chair: Ghia Abashidze, rapporteur: Tim Ogden); (b) Issue based social movements (Chair: Adel Hamaizia, rapporteur: William Murray-Uren) and (c) Public Diplomacy (Chair: George Mchedlishvili, rapporteur: Irene Katopodis).

After several hours of discussions in the working groups participants reconvened into a full plenary to hear reports from the rapporteurs of the three working groups and this was followed by a discussion. Proceedings in the working groups were held under Chatham House rules.

Conclusions

Dennis Sammut. Director of LINKS (DAR) summarised the work of the workshop in his concluding remarks. He said the workshop had provided space for people from different backgrounds and opinions from Europe, the Caucasus and the MENA region to share and compare experiences, reflect on some of the more significant recent events in their regions, and consider how, the young generation in particular, could respond to the new challenges. That was the overarching theme of the workshop, but a second, more modest theme, was how LINKS itself should work in the future to remain relevant in this fast-changing environment.

Dennis Sammut said that Lord Purvis’ keynote opening speech had caught very effectively the enormity of the changes that were ongoing in the world, and how many of the certainties of the past are now being challenged. A phenomena often called “populism” was testing how we look at democracy, yet grass root activism remained a strong tool that could deliver peaceful change. The different experiences and perspectives heard in the workshop from participants from the European Union countries, the Caucasus and Eurasia, and the Middle East and North Africa, had highlighted existing synergies, and the benefit of joint analysis.

Participants in the workshop had given a lot of attention to the role of media and social media in the formation of public opinion, and eventually policy. The unprecedented access to information of all sorts was somehow intimidating to governments and citizens alike. Attempts by some governments to control the media and particularly social media, were getting mixed levels of success, but were more likely to fail in the long run simply because of the sheer volume of activity. Perhaps a bigger threat was fake news. The huge risks that organised disinformation campaigns could have, particularly on democratic societies, was considered one of the biggest contemporary challenges. Participants highlighted the importance of visual media (pictures, video footage etc) in conveying messages. Satire was considered a strong tool, especially in the MENA region, whilst in the Caucasus and Eurasia, the decline of the Russian language necessitated more use of vernacular languages. Building a long-term credibility based on accuracy and factuality was important for all media outlets large and small.

The threats of war and conflicts were still very high. In the Caucasus the threat of war was very real, and conflicts in the MENA region raged on unabated. Conflict was very disruptive to human society and there was need for more commitment to try to deal with the problems that arise through dialogue and mediation. Participants highlighted the importance of public diplomacy, and the need to engage a wider set of stakeholders, including women, business people, war veterans, among others. Sports was also mentioned as a possible tool in public diplomacy. The cross-fertilisation of ideas between people from different regions, as was seen in the workshop, could be hugely stimulating intellectually.

Dennis Sammut said that as LINKS reflected on its work over the last two decades, it also committed to a process of renewal to keep it relevant for the future. During the workshop many ideas had emerged on how we can work together, and better, how to bring in a new generation of activists, how to keep lines of communication open across conflict divides. Participants had shown a high level of awareness, a strong commitment to contribute to a better future, and a spirit of enthusiasm and determination. This was hugely inspiring and encouraging.

LINKS will do its best to learn from the outcomes of the workshop, implement as many of the ideas as possible into its work, and launch new initiatives in line with this. He said that one tangible initiative as a follow-up of the Borjomi workshop will be the Borjomi Innovators Network  – BIN), and all participants of the workshop will be invited to join the new network once it is launched later on in 2017.

In conclusion, Dennis Sammut thanked all speakers and participants in the workshop. He added a special word of thanks to the technical team – George Simonishvili, Manuchar Managadze and Ernest Petrosyan who had helped create the right conditions for the workshop to be held successfully, as well as Adel Hamaizia for joining him as co-convenor of the workshop.

For more information on the Borjomi Workshop or about LINKS (DAR) please contact the secretariat at office@links-dar.org

 

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