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Conferencing on Mountains

Posted by on October 26, 2012 at 8:40 AM

For the last four years, somewhere around the final week of June, I’ve made my way up the mountain from the Swiss city of Montreux, famous for its Jazz festival, to the rather less famous village of Caux, 1,000m up the mountainside towards the distant Rochers de Naye.


I’m not the only one to keep coming back. I roughly calculated that about 100,000 people hours, overwhelmingly from volunteers , are invested in the Caux Conferences each year. It’s certainly an idyllic setting, but many of the volunteers spend most of the daylight hours (and often night hours) in a kitchen, or behind a desk somewhere, facilitating all that happens during the conferences, as well as the parallel programmes, including the Caux Scholars and the Caux Interns Programme. Perhaps it’s something in the spirit of the interactions there that draws people back. They are, after all, ‘just’ conferences – quite a lot of talk. And many of the underlying themes could seem rather simplistic: concepts like ‘the new we needs a new me’; the idea that human security needs to be understood holistically; that trust and integrity are good for business; that there’s an important  link between personal and global change; or that there are tools to understand the dynamics of being a changemaker. So what!.

Yet it seems some of these points aren’t sinking in. Despite our capacity for extraordinary feats of innovation and ingenuity, we seem strangely incapable of grasping the keys to collective prosperity. The fact is that, historically, those saying ‘we can’t’ have often successfully convinced those saying ‘we can’ that no, in fact, we can’t! But standing out are some extraordinary examples of the opposite.

And it’s in this area that Caux is well placed to offer an important contribution, going back to 1946. With a view to an improbable reconciliation, it hosted some of the first Germans to leave Germany after the war, along with hundreds from France. Then, as now, the Caux approach aims to make integrity in decision making a practical reality at all levels; to create space for reflection (all the rarer now that distraction is always only a click away); genuine dialogue among people of diverse backgrounds, and see where to discern the next steps for action.

This summer in Caux has sketched more such examples. A remarkable evening with Australians Kevin Rudd, Jackie Huggins and Daryle Rigney emphasised the power of an effective apology, along with reality about what is needed for meaningful restitution of historical wounds. Farai Maguwu spoke compellingly of his work combating corruption in the extractive industries, discussing principles of integrity alongside Josef Winter, who is charged with seeding a new culture of good governance in Siemens.

Transformative change demands people who can catapult us beyond the parameters of linear development. Nelson Mandela didn’t accept the parameters of apartheid. Nor did Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, accept that his continent would always be governed by a crude win-lose mentality. And yet we treat most challenges as problems to be solved within a flawed paradigm, accepting limitations of the status quo. But why assume that trust and reconciliation is not possible between people or peoples who have been mired in mistrust for centuries, or that the dialogue between the ‘99%’ and the ‘1%’ has to be an adversarial one?

What gets in the way of a new paradigm? Perhaps it starts somewhere in the realms of our hypocrisy (dare I suggest this isn’t a flaw our politicians have a monopoly over?). There’s always something wrong with the people around me, and that must be why I’m having so much difficulty. As the lyrics to a 1950s Colwell Brothers song go; isn’t it, isn’t it terribly sad, that I’m so good and the world is so bad! The reality is that although the unexamined life may not be worth living, many of us give it a red hot go. And to the extent I do examine it, I generally have an excuse, while the other’s indiscretions are unforgiveable (or at least grounds for holding a grudge indefinitely).

Maybe we can do something about that at a personal level, but does that relate to change on wider scale? Those in Australia may know of Kim Beazley Snr, who served in the Australian parliament for 32 years, 27 of those in opposition. He said that ‘if you do not accept the importance of conscience, you accept only the importance of power’. One defining encounter for him was in 1953 when he was challenged to examine his life ‘with nothing to prove, nothing to justify and nothing to gain’ for himself. The fruit of his response to this is well documented in his memoirs and obituaries following his death in 2007.

The Caux approach reminds us that change means a change in people as much as in structures. People don’t like to change; so if I’m not prepared to start with myself, I can’t fairly expect anyone else to change. And somewhere in the roots of this is the reason I return each year to Caux. On the side of inspiration; seeing people, especially younger people, glimpsing the possibility of community built on the deepening of relationships and trust. On the more challenging side; the inevitable illumination of areas where I need to improve; particularly in extending the same compassion and care to the people I don’t like as to the people I do.

There still remains for me an impenetrable question mark around the periods or moments we seem impelled into self-absorption and attachment despite ourselves. I’ll leave it to someone else to comment on that.

This first appeared as a Global Voices piece on the International website of Initiatives of Change -

Categories: Human Security, Trust-building

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