In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York City in 2001 and the train bombings in Madrid in 2004, the United Nations created an initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations. Founded in 2005, the task of the Alliance is to tackle international extremism and polarization through dialogue and cooperation. The question is whether—and how—it will realize this ambitious goal. Jeffrey Haynes, Associate Dean of Faculty at London Metropolitan University, is exploring how the Alliance works toward the goal of enhancing life. His research will assess whether the Alliance has the resources it needs to succeed, and determine if it is engaging with grassroots leaders and organizations in a way that will enhance the lives of individuals across the world.
Read a blog post by Jeffrey Haynes about the challenges of inter-civilizational dialogue here.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project?
My background is in the study of religion and international relations. My focus on the Alliance of Civilizations comes from an interest in how a body like the United Nations, which has been quite secular in its orientation, deals with the question of religion. Until the present time, there has been no dedicated UN focus on religion. Even now within the Alliance, the word they use tends to be “culture.” Of course, that term has a lot of meanings and it tends to be a synonym for religion, especially when it’s used in conjunction with the concept of “civilization,” since most civilizations are linked to a religious foundation. And a lot of the work that the Alliance does has to do with the enmity and animosity between the Western world—which is kind of axiomatically Christian—and the Muslim world. So it’s a way of getting at religion through these notions of culture and civilization, even if it’s not quite direct.
What have you discovered about the Alliance of Civilizations’ work and how it functions within the United Nations?
It’s interesting because it’s not institutionalized like other UN agencies—the World Bank, for example. And it hasn’t got a presence in the UN that can be traced back very far. The other agencies of the UN have all been there 70 years, but the Alliance isn’t established like the older agencies and doesn’t have a tried-and-tested means of financing itself. So there are a couple of challenges it faces at the outset: lack of money, and a lack of a clear-cut space within the UN. It’s very small, less than 20 people on staff, but it was designed to be flexible and more effective as a result, compared to the bigger agencies with hundreds or thousands of employees. But honestly, it hasn’t yet become the presence that it envisaged.
How does it promote international dialogue and cooperation? Is this mostly happening between world leaders, or closer to the grassroots?
The Alliance is explicitly designed to bring together governments and other non-government actors in civil society. The UN is a very top-down organization based on the preeminence of states. In theory, the Alliance is moving away from that model, to include different sources of authority and power. Its establishing document was created by the so-called “High Level Group,” which is a 20-person group of eminent people including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They recommended focusing on four areas: youth, media, migration, and education. They have various initiatives—competitions, prizes, events where young people from different cultures meet together—but they don’t have any means of assessing effectiveness. Without that sort of auditing, it’s hard to be sure of the impact of what they do.
What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
If you have cooperation and understanding, that’s a way of making people’s lives more satisfactory. If we can make people feel more comfortable with each other and more capable of living with each other, that’s central to enhancing life. So I wanted to investigate whether a group like the Alliance is facilitating those improved relations and if so, how.
What do you think Enhancing Life studies can offer your discipline, and why?
There’s very little talk of enhancing life on an individual level within international relations. It’s largely about conflict and war. It doesn’t have a take on how we can enhance the lives of ordinary people within that international context. I think this kind of approach would be very helpful—if there was a way for international relations to say, “what does this mean for the average person?”
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I’d most like to go to New Zealand, because it’s so far away from London! But apart from that, it’s supposed to have amazing scenery, and it’s supposed to feel like Britain in the 1950s, and that could be quite interesting.