Stefanie M. Falconi is a Policy Entrepreneur and Co-founder of Instituto Limite – an organization training the next generation of experts building strategies to respond to climate change. Stefanie is an expert in the field of climate change and is also a special guest in our blog series about the development of #skills21 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The twenty-first century has proven to be one of uncharted territories; there are no blueprints for venturing into this era. Before the COVID pandemic brought the world to its knees, headlines were filled with news of forest fires across continents, a decade with record-breaking heat, the intensification of political polarization, and the spreading of fake news, among numerous other threats never seen before. As quarantine and lockdown measures were required by the pandemic, many of us did not know whether to respond with dismay, fear or courage. Many alive today never lived through anything like this.
Our job, for those of us not on the front lines, is to make sense of this moment and to decide how we will emerge from the rubble. Will we choose to come out stronger and more connected, or will we remain complacent with a world that was leaving so many people behind? Of course, this all comes at a time of crisis in global governance, when international cooperation and international institutions credibility is at an all-time low. So how do we build common ground?
Empathy and collaboration are crucial at this moment in helping us answer what kind of society we want to build. Empathy is our ability to connect to the plight of others, even if it doesn’t affect us directly. While collaboration is the understanding of moving forward, we essentially depend on others, because we will not come out of this alone. I want to highlight these two skills on this occasion as I see them related to the type of leadership necessary to navigate the twenty-first century.
In these uncertain times, a surprising silver lining has been engaged citizens powering technology to find common ground and build common purpose. These are people innovating and adapting in the face of adversity. We have seen more decentralized efforts, like states and cities stepping up, to be more agile and responsive to the pandemic. Science and technology is making participation and civic engagement a way to respond adaptively when crisis hits. These are examples of groups and individuals stepping up to meet the challenges of the moment:
Participatory Vigilance: the platform Brazil without Coronavirus is a collaboration between Colab and Epitrack that lets citizens report their symptoms, allowing health officials to allocate resources and response based on the location of the voluntary reports. The concept of a Health platform for crowdsourcing was used during the Brazil Olympic Games, and it is a powerful tool to complement the data collected by epidemiological surveillance. The platform works best when more people participate because it gives a more accurate picture and can help detect outbreaks as epidemics unravel.
Coronavoucher: Brazil approved a 3-month assistance program to help aid informal workers even if they are unbanked by providing a digital account. Many have seen this as an experiment towards Universal Basic Income in Brazil for the 77 million people in need of social assistance and a way to stimulate the economy. Last month, the Senate approved the measure that will benefit an estimated 59 million people who will receive $600 Brazilian reals (BRL 1,200 for single mothers). This offsets economic loss during quarantine, with the possibility of extending for another 3 months. The program was approved after a coalition of five active civic groups mobilized nearly 150 organizations on the ground that gathered half a million signatures in just 3 days.
However, a word of caution: we have to come to grips with how we will deal with different experiences and help adapt and scale responses to different realities. The International Monetary Fund has projected that a -3 percent global growth for 2020 means “many countries now face multiple crises—a health crisis, a financial crisis, and a collapse in commodity prices, which interact in complex ways.” Income inequality translates to information inequality, which means the future does not look the same for everyone. Viral inequality explains how the hardest hit by COVID will also be the populations with least access to social safety nets.
The COVID pandemic is indicative of the risks that come with a globalized world and the influence of global health on political-economic stability. These are unprecedented times for our generation. What I hope we take away from this crisis is that leadership is not limited to upper levels of government or renowned institutions. In unprecedented times, leadership comes from the most unexpected places. Why? Look around in your city, your community, and instead of asking who will clean up the mess, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Leadership this century will require taking risks, stepping up when no one else will. Leadership is not succumbing to fears or letting it paralyze us because right now, all we can control is our actions. Leadership today is about accepting that we may fail–miserably–but we do not have to remain hostage to the status quo.
It is only the beginning of this century and already we have been challenged to upgrade our operating system with new skills. Empathy and collaboration was not the curriculum the past education system was equipping us with. Yet, this moment is calling us to use our collective imagination, those human traits we cannot measure, to build a greater social contract towards each other and towards the planet.