Summer Series: A Conference to Change the World
How many places exist where you can find people from all over the world, of all religions, and from opposite sides of violent conflict in one room discussing how to make the world a better place? This is exactly what happens in Caux, Switzerland every summer where Initiatives of Change holds its conferences. In a beautiful hotel in a small village surrounded by forests and mountains, journalists, creators of NGOs, religious chiefs, princes, diplomats, and students all gather to share their ideas for change.
Initiatives of Change was formerly known as Moral Re-Armament, which was founded in 1938. The organisation holds Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and Participatory Status at the Council of Europe and has branches all over the world: the movement is especially popular in India. It is based around what it calls the ‘Four Absolutes’: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love.
This summer I was an not an intern for Initiatives of Change, but for the Next Century Foundation (NCF), which is a small think tank that works to create policy and dialogue primarily in the Middle East. The NCF works closely with Initiatives of Change, and as part of my internship I was given the opportunity to attend one of the week-long conferences in Caux: Just Governance for Human Security.
During my time in Caux, I found that Initiatives of Change has become a platform for discussion between people from all over the world. For me, the most intriguing aspect of the conference was not the official panel discussions, but the casual discussions between the people who attended. Every speaker and participant was placed in a community group on the first day, and these groups met every day for about two hours for a small group discussion about any topic. These groups also volunteered to help manage and run the hotel and conference; everyone spent some time working in the kitchen, helping with housekeeping, or volunteering with administration. I spent several days peeling and chopping carrots next to people who were about to be speakers on a panel.
This spirit is what allows for such deep discussion of sensitive topics: everyone, no matter who they are, is put on the same level. During the conference I attended there was a Turkish-Armenian dialogue attended by both Turks and Armenians, as well as a screening of a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attended by both Israelis and Palestinians. There was even an African-American perspective on healing history centred on the rarely mentioned Tulsa race riot of 1921.
Clearly, no topic was off limits in Caux. Besides the difficult discussions between groups with troubled histories, topics were focused around corruption, sustainable development, terrorism, extremism, and the role of the media. Extremism was one of the most significant topics, which was fitting since Initiatives of Change began as an ideological movement.
However, Initiatives of Change has moved away from the promotion of its ideology to almost become exclusively focused on these conferences and small-group meetings and discussions at its various branches. Its ideology was hardly mentioned at the conference, and many of the speakers were not part of the organisation at all. It has become an example of how an NGO can change over time, and even move away from its original purpose.
Although it is no longer the focus, its ideology might be the best tool Initiatives of Change possesses in its quest to change the world. The conference was informative and incredibly unique, and the discussions held there were special. However, the people who attended them were already open to forgiveness and hearing the other sides of their stories; this is the reason they travelled to Caux. If Initiatives of Change could expand to bring in regular people without an exceptional interest in politics and who would not normally attend a conference like those in Caux, it could be an incredible tool to bridge the gaps and stereotypes that occur after conflicts between people who have struggled with forgiveness.
By promoting its ideology and being clear about its goals and beliefs, Initiatives of Change could gain a wider following and bring in people who would normally not want to speak to someone with different views. Its international reach gives this organisation the capacity to promote its ideology of dialogue, forgiveness, and the idea of changing yourself to change the world. According to the talks about extremism during the conference, this is the way to combat violent extremism: offering marginalised people a different ideology which can make them feel like they have a voice. In this way, Initiatives of Change could actually be a tool to combat violent extremism itself instead of just a platform for discussing the various ways to do so.