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New Humanism for the 21st century

Diana Bozhilova | October 5, 2016

In this monthly round-up of the UN Secretary-General (SG) contest, I would like to especially focus on the core ideas of one of the candidates, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO. The moment for this is especially fitting: in the midst of the largest refugee crisis of our recorded history, the dimensions of our polity, the global village, are in much need of re-imagining. Imagination and humanism go hand-in-hand, so a key question is how free are we to imagine, how much humanism is there left? Bokova talks of this in her seminal vision called “New Humanism for the 21st century”.

Both the UN SG and the US presidential races are in their throes. Many of us might have started following them with a great deal of hope for change. That change in the first instance centred on the curiosity of whether women can make it to positions they have never occupied before. But ultimately, it comes down to the substance of what they propose, for change is not captured by gender alone.

After the first US presidential debate, those motivated by change in its many guises are still balancing the odds.

In the case of the UN SG election, the informal rounds of encouraged/discouraged/no opinion voting, have lent significant support to Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal. From this we can deduce that regional equitable representation (Central and Eastern Europe is the only region that has not held the post) and gender politics have given way to experience, where Guterres was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for over a decade. He would have certainly seen the proliferation of the refugee crises around the world during his time in office but is this enough to give us hope for change?


Bokova’s UNESCO pet project on “New Humanism for the 21st century”, proliferated into her UN SG campaign, which I was invited to hear in person on 5 September in London, presents a particular vision. First, that sustainable development is inauthentic without a rapprochement of cultures. Underpinning this idea is our ability to learn socially from one another: not one dimensionally (I.e. from West to East) but multi-dimensionally. This position interests me especially at policy level. Before we can speak of a global social learning project, we ought to begin to seek out inter-regional social learning. The recent case of the Hague finding in favour of cultural heritage destruction as a war crime in the case of the Mali civil conflict is a major milestone in the rapprochement of cultures and certainly, a judgement that Bokova’s two terms at the helm of UNESCO would deem a key step in the attainment of authentic sustainable development. Ultimately, through this, as a global polity, we come to understand that what happens in Mali, matters for humanity.


Bokova’ second tenet is, however, more problematic. Her New Humanism for the 21st century seems to have as its end goal peace, maintained through the motivation to self-sufficiency. I had similar difficulties with Nehru’s mindedness to self-reliance as India’s path to unity and prosperity. Both visions are fundamentally rooted in the key role of education as the gateway to equality, respect, tolerance, and co-operation. Nehru wished to translate Gandhi’s satya and ahimsa through the scientific method into a set of applied policies, from the village to the entire nation. Within India, this had proven a complex, in many instances, convoluted process, which often betrayed its contextual nature. Even in globalisation 4.0, as urbanisation became the mantra for sustainable development (cue, the World Bank), what we see is that cities are inherently “cruel”; that the ability to earn becomes an end goal in itself, which is far removed from the notion of ahimsa. Similarly, Bokova’s mindedness to self-sufficiency leaves her exposed to an applied misinterpretation of the undoubted nobleness that the notion of Humanism in itself encapsulates.

Ultimately, the UN race, as it often happens when electioneering during times of an ideational impasse, will come down to our faith in either the experience we know or the vision we aspire to.

Diana Bozhilova

Head of Faculty & Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations