Meredith Preston McGhie has devoted more than 20 years to addressing conflict and instability in Africa and Asia in some of the most troubled situations. From working with the Naga in Northeast India and indigenous communities on the Thai-Myanmar border, to supporting UN efforts in Kosovo, Northern Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Kenya, her work has straddled frontline negotiation, policy and diplomacy.
She became the Global Centre for Pluralism’s Secretary General on 1 October 2019. Most recently, as Africa Regional Director with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, she oversaw the HD Centre’s complex mediation and dialogue efforts in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Somalia and South Sudan, among other places. In the Kenyan National Dialogue and Reconciliation Process in 2007-08, she advised the Panel of Eminent African Personalities led by the late Kofi Annan. She has contributed annually to the Oslo Forum, a gathering of the world’s leading experts and policymakers in conflict resolution, and teaches mediation practice internationally.
Ms Preston McGhie studied military and international history at the University of British Columbia before pursuing graduate studies in global security at Keele University in the United Kingdom.
What is pluralism? Please give a definition.
Pluralism, at its heart, is an ethic of respect for diversity.
While diversity in society is a demographic fact, pluralism refers to the decisions and actions we take to respond positively to these differences. Diversity is treated as the basis for more successful and prosperous societies, rather than something to be managed or overcome.
But what does this look like in practice? Pluralism requires transformative change both to the institutions that govern diversity, such as constitutions, courts and government, as well as to our public attitudes about belonging. A strong legal framework to support diversity is important, but only one piece of the puzzle. For the laws and policies to be applied and sustained, we need to build societies that are committed to embracing diversity across all sectors.
Finally, pluralism is contextual. It may look different in each society, depending on the nature of that society’s own diversity and history. Therefore, the pathway to pluralism in each place will differ. As a global organisation, this is something we are constantly considering in all our work.
You were Regional Director for Africa with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. What did you learn about the need for pluralism from your time in Africa?
Over the past two decades, I was fortunate to help facilitate dialogue towards peace in a range of diverse places, including Nagaland, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan, among other places. While the histories may have differed, what they all had in common was that the conflicts stemmed from the societies’ failures to manage their differences.
What I learned from these processes was that a broad set of tools were needed that went beyond mediation and peacemaking if peace was to be rebuilt and sustained. It was not just a case of stopping violence, or bringing in armed groups, I saw the need to revisit so many elements of the social fabric, from how history was taught and ethnic identity represented in the educational curriculum to how to make the online space less divisive.
The peace agreement is an important piece, but only one small piece, of how you put a society back together so that it can manage its differences constructively. Taking pluralism forward is essential to maintaining peace, and it requires actively working across all sectors—from government policymaking, to media, education and arts and culture – to embed a deep respect for diversity in society.
What is the Centre’s Global Pluralism Award and how does it work?
Our Global Pluralism Award recognises and supports the extraordinary achievements of organisations, individuals and governments who are finding innovative ways of demonstrating that diversity in society is a tremendous asset. The recipients’ achievements offer tangible and inspiring examples of how we can all work towards pluralism in our everyday lives. Take Deborah Ahenkorah of Ghana, one of the 2019 winners, who saw the lack of representation of African stories and characters in children’s books and decided to start her own publishing house and writer’s prize to try to change the landscape of children’s book publishing on the continent and around the world.
We are now in our third cycle of the Award. We issue a global call for nominations every other year. Nominations that we receive go through a rigorous screening and due diligence process, which includes in-country visits. Ten recipients (three winners and seven honourable mentions) are selected by the independent, international jury chaired by the Rt. Honourable Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada. Winners are each granted $50,000 CAD to advance their work to promote pluralism.
Our most recent call for nominations closed in June of this year. Currently, submissions are being reviewed and screened ahead of the first meeting of the Jury.
What sort of initiatives do you look for in the Global Pluralism Award?
The Award looks to surface individuals, corporations, academics, civil society organisations and governments from around the world that are working in creative and high-impact ways to build societies where everyone belongs.
Since we strongly believe that pluralism must be promoted by a wide range of actors from multiple disciplines, the Award is not restricted to any one sector or activity. Rather we are looking at the diverse and multi-faceted ways that pluralism is being championed. For instance, we have had past recipients working in everything from building apps for the deaf community (Hand Talk, Brazil), to promoting peace through classical music training (Afghanistan National Institute of Music), to engaging youth in cross-cultural dialogue online (Soliya, United States).
The winners of the Award have gone on to some awe-inspiring achievements. Leyner Palacios Asprilla of Colombia, a 2017 winner, was recently named the new commissioner for the Colombian Truth Commission, as part of the ongoing peace process in that country.
With what is happening now, do you see a greater or lesser need for pluralism?
The global crisis of the pandemic has underscored the urgency of a truly global effort to promote pluralism. We know that the health and economic impacts of the pandemic are not affecting people equally. Those who were already marginalised, such as low-wage workers, undocumented immigrants and women are disproportionately affected. When we look more closely at this inequality, we find a strong correlation with other markers of difference, including race, ethnicity, language, indigeneity, religion, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, and so on.
Given all this, all policy responses must be informed by pluralism. We need inclusive solutions that acknowledge the very different lived experiences of the pandemic and address the systemic inequalities that have been exacerbated. These are inequalities that hold all of our societies back and keep groups of people in our societies in perpetual cycles of poverty, with less access to educational opportunities, healthcare, benefits of citizenship, and so forth.
Has COVID affected efforts to foster pluralism?
The pandemic – and having to keep apart from one another – has reduced opportunities for people of different backgrounds to come together, share experiences and think about how to work across differences. This definitely poses challenges to building the understanding and respect that is so crucial for pluralism.
Like so many organisations, we at the Centre had to pivot much of our work online. We have been fortunate to be able to continue with much of our programming in this new online environment. We also decided to launch something new in an effort to better understand and address the inequalities and exclusions being revealed by the pandemic across different sectors.
To help inform recovery efforts, we created a digital portal, Pluralism and the Pandemic, presenting a series of curated analyses and interviews about the impacts of the pandemic from the perspective of pluralism.
We had contributors from educators, to peacebuilders, to doctors weigh in and I would highly recommend checking out some of these conversations.
For instance, in this interview with Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola, she discusses how the pandemic and trans-national movements like Black Lives Matter are already moving the dial on the future of journalism, social media, policing and democracy.
In this interview with Vanessa Erogbogbo, Chief of the Sustainable and Inclusive Value Chains section at the International Trade Centre, she explores the effects of the pandemic in emerging economies, particularly on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises which are predominantly run by self-employed women, and how governments and the private sector can better support these women.
Can you talk about specific programmes you have to foster pluralism?
I will highlight a recent example of our programming from this past summer, as I think it highlights a very practical application of pluralism. As part of our ongoing efforts to create tools for teachers to support them in being pluralist educators, we initiated a summer programme around anti-Black racism and addressing historical racial injustice. This came as a response to current events in the United States, including the murder of George Floyd by police and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. We recognised that teachers would be looking for ways to talk about these often sensitive issues with their students.
The online course on Talking about Racism in the Classroom for high school teachers across Canada involved training more than 500 teachers, and presenting a webinar on the topic on our website. The practical nature of the discussion helped teachers develop the skills to have these very challenging conversations. Together, participants discussed how to create brave spaces, which invite student engagement. Participants walked away with techniques that help them listen with intent, validate emotion, model empathy and challenge students to question their own bias and assumptions. The training also demonstrated the immediacy of pluralism to current issues.
We continue to develop professional development offerings for teachers, which will be piloted next year. To learn more about our work in education, visit www.pluralism.ca/education