Describing the Indescribable

Dr. Clem McCartney, Independent Research Consultant & Policy/Content Co-ordinator of the Shared Societies Project

Created 07/19/2021



Can we describe an organic development process in a programmatic way, using specific instruments and tools?

Around 2007, the term Shared Societies became associated with a specific concept of a society that would be fair and work for the wellbeing of everyone living there. For example, It was adopted by the Shared Societies Project of the Club de Madrid, the network of former Presidents and Prime Ministers, and Givat Havivia, a centre in Israel with a longstanding commitment to promoting Jewish-Arab dialogue and reconciliation, redefined its purpose as the Center for a Shared Society.

Along with other groups and organisations, they were seeking to go beyond concepts of social integration or co-existence, and strategies of poverty reduction or public participation. As important as these individual concepts are when working toward a society where all can share and are motivated to play a full and active part, the Shared Societies Concept seemed to offer the most potential and already had these essential features coexisting together within it.

Ten years later, practitioners, activists, and academics from Belgium, Germany, Israel, North Macedonia, and Northern Ireland have come together in an informal network to explore Next Generation Shared Societies. The Concept has developed into a fully articulated and detailed framework for planning, implementation, and evaluation. There is now a clear, generally accepted, statement of the essential elements of a Shared Society and ways in which they can be achieved (e.g. Club de Madrid, 2009, A Call to Action for Leadership to Build Shared Societies: The Shared Societies Project; Accessible here). It is also agreed that the Shared Society Concept is holistic, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, multilevel, people centred, non-prescriptive and non-linear. Shared Society is a systemic process of development and problem solving, a process that is key to building solidarity, empowering and sustaining those involved, and ultimately achieving a positive outcome.  

So how do we describe the process of achieving and maintaining a Shared Society and help others apply it in their own practice? This is one of the challenges for Next Generation Shared Societies Theory and Practice.

When one considers the nature of the Shared Societies Concept, it is evident that this holistic interactive approach to complex processes does not lend itself to a “one size fits all” approach to the planning process. It is inappropriate to think that a standard step-by-step methodology can overcome conflict or build a shared society. How therefore does one communicate its essence?

As Ella Fitzgerald and others have sung: “T’ain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it/ That’s what gets results”. Early in my career I was very attracted to Paulo Freire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and I still am. I was also frustrated that the concept often seemed rather elusive and Freire did not explain in sufficient detail how I could actually achieve it. As time went on, I realised that Freire resisted providing a detailed action plan because that would be reductive and does not capture the real essence of the process – placing people at the centre rather than a programme. Attempting to capture all of this into words and trying to formalize it doesn’t do it full justice. And now, my colleagues and I face the same conundrum.

Our colleagues are working in very contrasting situations, on different issues and at different levels, all of which provide insights into how the Shared Society Concept informs their practice; for example: how to understand the contrasting perspectives in Belgium about its past, specifically the colonial period and the wars of the 20th century; designing a North Macedonia One Society for All approach; developing a methodology to assess Germany cities’ progress in receiving migrants and helping them feel at home; and implementing an action research approach to the implementation of Givat Haviva’s Shared Communities initiative.

At all stages of the planning, implementation, and evaluation cycle, a Shared Societies orientation helps to identify the questions to ask, the people to involve, the outcomes that indicate progress, the issues to look out for, and the unforeseen consequences that hinder progress.

We are interested to share that Shared Societies experience and the insights and lessons to be drawn from it and to learn from other’s responses.

Click here to find out even more about the Concept of Shared Societies, including resources, a podcast, and our free Thursday Talk webinar.

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