CGI University 2012: Some Constructive Criticism -- The Necessity for a New Holistic Paradigm in the Humanitarian Field

04/04/2012 09:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2012

For the past five years, Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) has brought together undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world in order to engage them against some of the most crucial global challenges. Students submit their projects (commitments) in five focus areas: Education, Environment & Climate Change, Peace & Human Rights, Poverty Alleviation and Public Health. Initiatives like this are desperately needed in our troubled times, but at the same time they should be promoting a change in a paradigm that has been tragically unsuccessful. It is time for self-assessment and constructive criticism.

CGI U 2012 took place in Washington, D.C., this past weekend, hosted at the George Washington University. It was a truly inspiring event with brilliant individuals; however, it failed to hit the mark, as it reproduced once again the very mistakes that the humanitarian community has been making for years. How were most of these commitments even conceived? The complexity of the systems that they are trying to interfere does not allow space for assumptions. There should be extensive assessment, prioritization and coordination -- not just random initiatives and pilot testing. Interspersed efforts have shown minimal impact on the ground and wasteful management of resources. There is a paramount necessity for a holistic approach to such complex systems as the ones targeted by CGI U.

Robert Ricigliano makes the most realistic argument about this when he asks the following question in his book Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding: "How chaotic and ineffective would a medical treatment be if nurses, therapists, and doctors did not regard themselves as belonging to the common field of medicine? Or recognize their common goal of improving patients' health? Or pool knowledge across specialties? Or recognize the interdependence of their work?" Practitioners who intervene in conflict-affected or developing areas tend to limit their perspectives within the frames of their own discipline (may it be conflict resolution, diplomacy, health or education, etc.). There is minimal focus on the superordinate goal of ameliorating the conditions on the ground, when we should be talking about coordination, maximizing our efforts and cost-effectiveness. Ricigliano is one of the many practitioners and academics such as Peter T. Coleman, Andrea Bartoli, Andrzej Nowak and Robin Vallacher, arguing for a systemic approach that views these systems holistically and embraces their complexity.

CGI U is the perfect platform to promote a change in the paradigm of the broader humanitarian field. It needs to edify its members on the paramount importance of coordination, coherence and accountability. The cross-pollination of ideas that takes place in these events is inspiring; however, there must be a way for all this synergy to be charismatically guided into the next era of effectiveness and pragmatism. The profusion of ideas and energy is encouraging but CGI U should push the students even further. The issues that CGI U aims at improving represent the protracted failure of our societies. Revering each other on our segmented commitments does not serve any purpose. Realism knocks at the door and CGI U should hear that and fight any elements of sanctimoniousness. The end of the conference should not leave the students with just a feeling of exultation; they should not be jaunty but aware. Being optimistic, empowered and proud is important; however, each student's excitement at the end of the weekend should be escorted with a serious hint of skepticism and deeper awareness of the challenges. Each commitment is a new element in a highly complex network of systems and that is why, as Peter T. Coleman suggests in his book The Five Percent, we should develop a basic understanding of the nonlinear relationship of these networks, in order to be aware of the possible impact of our intervention.

Self-critique is not anodyne, and the focus areas of CGI U demand a deeper analysis. A new superordinate focus area should be added: Holistic Approach. CGI U should emancipate its members from groupthink and present the pragmatic dimension of the challenges while fostering systematic changes. Since it is self-evident that current humanitarian business practices do not work, then why promote the same business practices? Our intentions are the best but it is the overall impact that matters; therefore, we have to become better at doing good. CGI U can really make a difference by making the instillation of this concept to the next generations its top priority.