A role for philanthropy in governance and debate


Richard Dion


This year’s presidential election season is showcasing the culture of debate that has taken hold of the United States.

Yet governance doesn’t just require good debaters, it also requires the soft skills of compromise, dialogue and empathy (CDE). Philanthropy could step in to kickstart the healing of our fractured society.

As a discipline, speech and debate builds a student’s confidence and communication skills to wade one’s way through life and reason is crucial in society. Many of these debaters, often from prestigious universities such as Harvard, Yale or the Oxford Union in the UK, find themselves in the corridors of power, as presidents, prime ministers or parliamentarians. However, there is an unintended consequence of hardwiring a child for debate, which we are now only really comprehending.

Indeed, some of the most important governance qualities must include compromise, dialogue and empathy (CDE), all three of which are currently in dire need. Six-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and former Bridge Museum Advisory Council member Dr. Steinar Bryn explains that dialogue is not about winning, but about understanding. It is not about persuading, it’s about explaining.

CDE deserves considerable attention, forcing the question, who and when will make a concerted effort towards training the next generation in CDE? We cannot expect that from government, so philanthropy should step in to carry that torch.

Possible programme areas

While some are trying to create this culture of dialogue, it barely registers on the national scale. A few potential areas for philanthropy to consider creating a culture of CDE include:

Data: No significant data exists around U.S. polarisation. Questions to look at could be: ‘How likely are you to marry someone out of your political party? Your race? Socio-economic conditions?’

Blue-Red University exchanges between the coasts and the centre. Forget Paris and London, what about studying in a red or blue state? And how can that be incentivised?

Promoting CDE in grammar schools: Walking in the shoes of others and understanding those ‘others’ are crucial soft skills for anyone in the future.

For those who can tear up the stage (and an opponent) in a debate, CDE training would help high achievers to wear their intelligence lightly. No matter how correct one is, the tone, volume and speed of one’s delivery is a turn-off and can backfire.

Learning from Germany

Thirty years ago this month, Germany reunited. The split between East and West was stark and long, however it has improved since 1990 and appeared to improve more recently during the pandemic, which no doubt paid off in Germany’s leading role in containing Covid-19. It helped to have a measured leader in office, whose approach saved thousands of lives and positively influenced Germany’s social cohesion).

How much is this culture of debate costing?

Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes wrote a 2008 analysis of the (second) Iraq war’s estimated price tag – roughly $3 trillion. That war was not only tragic in lives lost, but tragically expensive. While the methodology has its detractors, it provided a glimpse as to how much a policy action could cost, now and well into the future. Stiglitz and Baines’s work followed the 1994 seminal work from the U.K. Charity Saferworld entitled The True Cost of Conflict.

How much does polarisation continue to cost all of us? Any estimate would have to include economists not just from the coasts, but from the middle. It should also take into account that the U.S. serves as the ‘force multiplier’ – what happens there has a ripple effect around the world.

Maybe an initial estimate would wake some people up into thinking of the economic costs of polarisation. America’s to do list is approaching the biblical – pandemic, climate change, homelessness and its long painful racial challenge. Without ‘understanding the other’, none of our major challenges can be resolved. Listening to, learning from. and understanding each other can only help rebuild bridges.

Big Bet on polarisation

Embracing compromise, dialogue and empathy is a big bet – like transparency in the extractive sector – that philanthropy could and should be making to try to build bridges within families, among communities and throughout society. A child understanding an ‘other’ has a pay-off over that child’s entire life, potentially three generations, and has a direct influence on their offspring.

If philanthropy could light the first match to a culture of compromise, dialogue and empathy, maybe we’d catch a glimpse of our common, more secure and more prosperous future.

In the eternal words of troubadour Peter Case, let’s turn this thing around.

Richard Dion is a governance, communications, and regional development consultant based in Germany. From 2016-19, he led the effort to create Bridge Museum, whose vision was of a more connected, less polarised society.

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