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Empathy in Foreign Policy

A 'foreign policy of societies' can only work if there is a functioning interface betweeen government agencies and civil society organisations on the ground. This requires an understanding of local needs and the dynamics of conflict and peace processes.

What is the Place of Civil Societies in International Politics?

A Zoom meeting, just a few days after the chaos of Kabul. In parallel, crowds of people are at Kabul airport, trying to escape the country after the withdrawal of the foreign troops. Dr Sima Samar, a member of the Global Peacebuilders Network, joined us not from Kabul as usual, but from Houston, Texas. This prominent Afghan human rights defender is the recipient of many awards, including the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize. As a women’s rights activist, she became a target when the Taliban took over the country. She was able to escape because, by chance, she had previously accepted an invitation to visit the USA.

The West has never really understood Afghanistan.

Her colleagues all over the world are now eager to find out how Sima Samar sees the future. In principle, what does she think about interventions by the West – involving military engagement and attempts to initiate nation-building? Sima Samar is not only talking about the experience of Afghanistan when she says: ‘At first, foreign powers are hailed as liberators, then observed more critically, and soon opposed as occupiers.’

Like other intellectuals from her country, she says: ‘The West has never really understood Afghanistan.’ The complexity of local conditions – ethnic groups, cultural characteristics, historical lines, geographical differences – is almost impossible to grasp from a Western perspective. However, this understanding is necessary for initiating lasting, positive change. At the end of the online meeting, Dr Samar concluded: ‘Foreign intervention, wherever it is in the world, should be rethought three times before governments give it the green light.’


More Humility in the Approach

The disastrous experiences of the past decades – such as the West’s missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia – must also lead Germany to rethink its foreign policy. I would like to contribute a few thoughts on this, without presuming to make any statements that apply in blanket fashion. Perhaps this should also be the starting point for the rethink: more humility in our approach.

More humility when it comes to assessing our own capabilities. More respect for the competencies in the countries where we want to support a positive shift towards peace, human rights, and democracy. Humility is understood here as a middle way: not faintheartedness (we can’t do anything), nor arrogance (we know what will happen), but a realistic assessment of our own effectiveness and significance.


Persons from various regions discuss with each other..
Civil society is expected to play a central role in developing countries and conflict regions in addressing challenges on the ground, photo: Antenna via unsplash

I was immediately struck by the dictum of former Foreign Minister and current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. At a symposium in 2015, he spoke of a ‘foreign policy of societies’. By this he meant, at least as I interpret it, that links between civil society organisations are very important.

Firstly, because there are phases when contact through diplomatic channels can be difficult or impossible. And secondly, because civil society is expected to play a central role in developing countries and conflict regions in addressing challenges on the ground. African solutions for African problems, Asian solutions for Asian problems. That’s the logic.

This keynote statement inspired me because it corresponds with my personal experience.

As a reporter who has done extensive research in developing countries and conflict regions, and as coordinator of the Global Peacebuilders Network (GPN), I know that peace processes are usually successful when the region’s civil society is strengthened in such a way that it can have a real impact.

Support can also come from abroad; in many places it even has to, because repressive regimes spy on, threaten, and arrest human rights activists and peacebuilders. But the most important factor for success remains local knowledge of the culture. This attitude is shared by the members of the GPN, from Mexico to Rwanda or Indonesia: we were born here, we have a network here, and we will stay here no matter what. They know the cultural characteristics of their home countries and can approach them in a constructive way.

Unlike external actors who come and go, they have the staying power that is necessary for social change. And from their own painful experience, they have an overwhelming desire to achieve something for the people they live among.


Listening to the Whispers

People who seek to mediate between Christians and Muslims, such as Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, the directors of the Interfaith Mediation Center in Nigeria, have to have intimate knowledge of conditions on the ground. They need to understand the invisible ‘red lines’ that must not be crossed, the web of personal entanglements and relationships, and the sensitivities of ethnic and religious groups.


Germany flags in front of and on top of the Reichstag building in Berlin.
The German Foreign Minister spoke of a ‘foreign policy of societies’, photo: Karlherl via pixabay



Peacebuilding, however, as the term implies, requires a long-term perspective.

Anyone who, like Indian human rights lawyer Babloo Loitongbam, sets out to stop ‘extrajudicial killings’ by police and soldiers has to be well-versed in more than just national and international law. He also has to keep a constant ear to the ground for whispers in his state of Manipur, so that he knows when the leaders of armed rebel groups feel their toes have been stepped on and they are ready to strike.

Anyone who, like Halima Adan, runs a shelter in Somalia for women raped as a weapon of war, has to know how best to camouflage this in a conservative Muslim society. These examples clearly illustrate how foreigners who come to a country for a few years can never have this complex local knowledge. 

Ten years ago, in an article for the Culture Report titled Healing From Within, I wrote: ‘The international community is confronted by violent conflicts that emerge from within a society. They are a society’s heart attack, its organ failure. Generally, two or more ethnic groups with different cultures come to blows in order to gain power. Or so it seems. But underneath it all, it is about mutual respect and recognition. I would even go as far as to say it is about the desire to be respected and loved by others.’ And I came to the conclusion that: ‘The healing of such societies that are torn apart by hate also has to come from within.’ The catastrophic experiences of Western interventions, such as the nation-building project in Afghanistan, painfully back up this argument.

A ‘foreign policy of societies’ emanating from Germany could work if there were a functioning interface between government agencies and civil society organisations, particularly those in other countries. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As far as civil society is concerned, ministries lack an understanding of local needs, of the dynamics of armed conflict and peace processes, and of the ways in which civic organisations work, live, and communicate.

I know of many NGOs that have simply given up when applying for support from the German Foreign Office or the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.


A swarm of papers packed all over the picture.
The bureaucratic hurdles are simply no longer manageable, photo: Christa Dodoo via unsplash

The bureaucratic hurdles have grown steadily higher over recent years, and the time and effort required for applications and reports, documentation and evaluations is simply no longer manageable.

To cite just one example, there is a six-week time limit on the use of Foreign Office funds. This means that amounts applied for have to be spent within six weeks before new funds can be received. In war-torn regions, this is often not possible simply because business has to be conducted under chaotic conditions and with inadequate banking systems. Another obstacle to achieving truly lasting results for greater peace is the fact that funding is only available for one-year projects. Peacebuilding, however, as the term implies, requires a long-term perspective. Short-sighted funding policies are dysfunctional.

Trust Reduces Complexity

Under the current conditions, the foreign policy of societies presents itself as a hurdle race that is attracting ever fewer competitors. Many civil society organisations from the Global South are reaching out to other international players, such as Sweden and Switzerland, which take a more empathetic approach to funding. It is a strategy that, once again, has to do with humility: they work together to set the aims of a project, but the ways and means of working towards and achieving these goals are decided by the local actors. Their core competence lies in how to deal with complexity in their country.

Distrust breeds ‘controlitis’. The desire for (public) funds to be used transparently and effectively is shared by most civil society actors. On the other hand, I do not understand the increasingly rampant control mechanisms, which seem to be based on a fundamental lack of trust. They just lead to more time being spent on accounting and financial and factual reports rather than on working with people, on the peace process, on development.

It takes a willingness on both sides to build bridges and communicate. Those who want to do this will find a way, those who don’t will find their reasons.

Trust reduces complexity. What might a trust-based ‘foreign policy of societies’ look like? I propose a very simple basis for this: talk to each other! This is also a recipe for success for many peace processes: talking to people in different camps, talking about ourselves and our experiences, values and attitudes, and listening to others with an open heart. This brings people closer. Civil servants and civil society actors may not belong to hostile groups, but they certainly live in very different cultures. The former live in the Global North, in financial security, working in official and bureaucratic structures, often moving between Berlin and foreign embassies. All of this prevents them being truly touched by the issues, the people and their concerns. The latter work in the Global South, in precarious financial circumstances, driven by a heartfelt desire to improve their country and the lives of its people. Two worlds that could not be more different.

It takes a willingness on both sides to build bridges and communicate. Those who want to do this will find a way, those who don’t will find their reasons. Ways of doing this could involve well-moderated, regular dialogues with the main aim of treating each other with greater empathy. I believe that the images of ‘the enemy’ held by both sides would soon melt away in real dialogue.

A study by psychologist Emily Kubin of the University of Koblenz-Landau shows that sharing personal experiences can be one of the best ways of bridging social divides. Understanding the other person better does not automatically mean approving of his or her attitudes and arguments – but it makes it easier to understand why they think and act as they do.


The North Must Understand These Issues

Illustration: Athmospheres drawn as shake hands and form a heart-shaped map
West cannot create peace globally, but it can give its full support to those who try locally, photo: GDJ via pixabay

Such an exchange of ideas was proposed at the end of 2020 by a group of German non-governmental organisations that regularly work abroad with Foreign Office funding. Initially, the idea was enthusiastically welcomed by ministry staff. But then the date for a first round of talks was postponed so long that the initial interest waned on both sides and not a single meeting took place. Such experiences are regular occurrences when it comes to dialogue between government and civil society.

But if we are to continue pursuing the ideal of a ‘foreign policy of societies’, we urgently need open dialogues to build bridges of understanding between the two worlds. As a reporter in conflict zones, I have observed time and again that people from the Global North have very few opportunities to make an impact.

I came to the conclusion that we cannot create peace there, but we can give our full support to those who try. We can offer money, advice, networking and training so that they can continue doing their good work and do it even better.

However, it must be left to local actors to decide which offers they want to take up and which actions have a useful purpose. Let’s listen to them! This would be a form of cooperation that is both resolute and humble in the best sense of the word. It would be an empathetic ‘foreign policy of societies’.

About the Author
Portrait of Michael Gleich
Michael Gleich
Science journalist

Michael Gleich is a science journalist, moderator and developer of journalistic projects. In 2016, he initiated the first Global Peacebuilders Summit for civil society peacebuilders from crisis areas around the world. For his Peace Counts project, journalists and photographers travelled to over thirty conflict regions and documented the work of peacebuilders who are resolving conflicts peacefully and with demonstrable success. This initiative was also supported by ifa.