Zeitenwende – Investing in competencies for transnational cooperation

Photo: View from a sailboat, We cannot assume that “we are all in the same boat”, even though we are all facing the same storm.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has put into sometimes sharp relief the different perspectives of inter- and transnational cooperation. The violation of the rules-based order after WWII caused shockwaves, specifically in Europe. Experiences of partners in, say, Africa or Asia with this international order historically differ from the European ones; consequently, even if we might share values, perspectives differ. While inter- and transnational cooperation is more needed than ever, cooperation takes place across deepened ideological rifts and conflicting material interests. This is a politically more complex world.

We thus need better structures for transnational knowledge cooperation and individuals who have the skills to navigate unchartered and sometimes choppy waters and address tensions in these difficult times. Training of actors is thus crucial, as a “Zeitenwende” is characterised by the absence of “business as usual”. Consequently, building and strengthening competencies of staff (and partners) to enable them to (re)act to and shape new and challenging situations matters largely for transnational cooperation.

Global challenges require global and transnational perspectives

Cooperation across borders is a precondition and basis for shaping solutions. Working on, say, climate change needs to combine knowledge (in the widest sense) from Europe, North America, China, India or Brazil as well as the participation of partners from most affected regions – Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific and the Arctic. The same logic applies for other crucial elements for societies’ progress, if not survival: international knowledge cooperation is needed in order to understand, analyse, research global challenges systemically and from different perspectives.

Cooperation takes place in a context. In order to be effective and policy-relevant, research will have to include actors beyond academia and think tanks – and engage in transdisciplinary work, co-shaping research agendas. At the same time, work on global solutions directed towards the global common good needs to be based on evidence rather than self-interest and ideology. We thus have to consider power asymmetries, globally and nationally.

Globally, agenda-setting powers differ – and are undergoing changes. Traditionally grants mostly were funded “from the North”, coming with its own challenges, as this was (and still is) substantially impacting on research agendas in regions in need of funding. The North-South divide is an almost tangible narrative. At the same time, Europe is no longer the only show in town: the attraction of alternative actors increases, and their abilities have substantially increased over the last years, too. A decoupling into groups or friends and foes is certainly not a desirable scenario. We cannot simply accept the establishment of “political camps”, but need exchanges across North-South divides, as we need to cooperate for shared understandings and contribute to the global common good. As an illustration: the like-minded G7 needs to build bridges to other actors, not least so in the context of a more “southernized” G20.

Furthermore, national power settings matter for cooperation. Think tanks in authoritarian settings have limited range of manoeuvre. While they do play an important role in providing technical expertise and helping to explain “the outside world’s discussions” to decision-makers, experts might not be able to express their points publicly or outright. Their tasks also include the “projection of the official (inside) view” to the outside. Consequently, cooperation, as much as it is needed, is thus not without tensions, both institutionally and from an individual’s perspective.  Bridges into difficult contexts are needed, and not least think tanks enable bridge-building, through dialogue and training activities.

Different sets of skills and competencies are required to navigate the more complex, multipolar world.

Training competencies for global cooperation – shifting emphasis

Training for professionals in global cooperation has to prepare early career participants for not only operating under these tensions, but to actively contribute to reducing them. First and foremost, tackling situations of high complexity and uncertainty under conditions of fragmentation demands a cooperative approach.

Training programmes need to go far beyond simply teaching “known facts” (and the question, what constitutes facts is an additional dimension for exchanges, anyhow). Knowledge is certainly necessary, i.e. the cognitive dimension of having information about facts, theories, procedures and being able to analyse and apply this information. Yet, competencies are much more. Based on knowledge, they include skills and attitudes. Skills are the ability to do something in practice such as applying a certain technique and using the appropriate tools in a given situation. And attitudes mean feelings and belief systems: in which way do we approach situations? Are we open-minded, risk-averse or experimental?

Cooperation competency is essential for overcoming fragmentation. It is required in order to reach a deeper understanding of different perspectives, thereby laying the ground for a joint analysis of problems and the creation of sustainable solutions. Key elements that nurture cooperation include skills such as active listening or being able to express own ideas and opinions in a clear and non-offensive way. Furthermore, communication competency is based on attitudes such as a learner’s mindset, believing that every perspective is important. In order to address and potentially overcome tensions, conflict management competencies are required, meaning a mix of self-awareness of own emotions (and what triggers them), the ability to manage emotional responses and to change perspectives by listening to differing opinions. Reflexivity is closely connected and refers to the ability to reflect on behaviour and values as well as the readiness to deconstruct established patterns of thinking and acting.

Exploring joint solutions in a more polarised, more uncertain world, however, also requires normative competencies in cooperative actors. Values are the ground we stand on in our positioning. Actors need to be aware of own values, to be able to express them and to identify and honestly discuss inconsistencies and tensions, be it within own value systems or with regards to partners’ values.  Particularly in difficult times and in spaces where actors from different contexts with potentially contentious perspectives interact, it is important to be able to engage in an open dialogue with each other. In the very least, lines of cooperation need to be maintained.

Zeitenwende: transformative competencies needed

And yet, in times of multiple fundamental crises and high urgency – a Zeitenwende – cooperation has to reach a different level altogether. It has to leave behind the policy paradigm of incremental adjustments in and optimisation of globalisation; cooperation needs to reach transformative quality. This is obviously also posing particular challenges to training.

We need to nurture creativity, an openness and willingness to explore new fields and to identify new ways of doing things in order to overcome business as usual. Actors need to sharpen their ability to take into account the interlinkages, side- and ripple effects of actions, drawing upon evidence. In brief: they need to analyse complex systems in a holistic way.  Closely connected to this, training programmes need to strengthen anticipatory thinking as the capacity to create visions of a desired future, as well as the ability to strategically develop pathways of change towards this desired future by seizing windows of opportunity, designing interventions, building alliances for change.

In a nutshell: We cannot assume that “we are all in the same boat”, even though we are all facing the same storm. Yet, in order to weather the storm, we need to strengthen our innovative and creative abilities – jointly, wherever possible.

Image: Sven Grimm

Sven Grimm is Head of the Programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South” at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS)

Photo: Tatjana Reiber, Senior Researcher and Head of the MGG

Tatjana Reiber is Senior Researcher and Head of the MGG Academy at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS)

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