Indabas as a Tool of Partnership

Frankly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this weekend in Paris all of the 196 nations of the world reached a consensus agreement on a plan to combat global climate change. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember another time when the entire world has managed to agree on anything beyond symbolic gestures. So far, I haven’t come up with an example – but if you historians can think of something, let me know.

As others have noted, the work of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to bring China on board removed one of the major obstacles to an agreement. But have you ever worked with a group that tries to use consensus as an approach? I sure have – and even in small groups it is a painfully slow and frustrating decision-making process.

That’s why I find it fascinating that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius adopted a South African process known as “indabas” to reach consensus.

Zulu and Xhosa communities use “indabas” to give everyone equal opportunity to voice their opinions in order to work toward consensus.

They were first used in UN climate talks in Durban in 2011 when, with the talks deadlocked and the summit just minutes from collapse, the South African presidency asked the main countries to form a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and to talk directly to each other.

Instead of repeating stated positions, diplomats were encouraged to talk personally and quietly about their “red lines” and to propose solutions to each other.

By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.

To the Western ear, that’s the kind of thing we tend to write off as way too “touchy/feely” for our sensibilities. But perhaps that’s the point. Maybe it’s time the Western world opened up to an approach other than the one that insists that differences are best resolved by a top-down process of dominance.

For years now I have been suggesting that President Obama’s approach was to replace our antiquated notions of the power of dominance with an exploration of the power of partnership. His efforts haven’t always shown immediate success. But when he was able to convince Russia and China to join the coalition of countries imposing tough sanctions on Iran, we saw how the power of partnership brought them to the table to negotiate an agreement to stop the development of nuclear weapons.

When the entire globe comes together in partnership to tackle the issue of climate change, an enormous positive feedback loop is created. Here’s how the White House press release on the Paris agreement described that:

The mitigation components of the Agreement, combined with a broad push on innovation and technology, will help significantly scale up energy investments over the coming years – investments that will accelerate cost reductions for renewable energy and other low-carbon solutions. This set of actions will create a mutually reinforcing cycle in which enhanced mitigation increases investment and enhanced investment allows additional mitigation by driving down costs.

Or as President Obama said: Success breeds success.

Now that the world has gotten a taste of what we can accomplish via partnership on this issue, one has to wonder what kind of openings that might create for success in other areas.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.