Following the news is a particularly depressing activity most days. With war, suffering and division making headlines, a person would be forgiven for thinking that seven decades after the defeat of Nazism, 20 years after genocide in Bosnia, and over a decade after the 9/11 attacks, humankind is marching away from progress and civility, not toward it.
Here in Northern Ireland, we can be grateful that the gunmen and bombers no longer stalk our streets, murdering innocent people in their beds and blowing people up on their way to work. But we still despair at the nasty tone many of our politicians use, their inability to find compromise, and their seemingly infinite tolerance for political brinkmanship. And with depressing regularity we are collectively shamed by the harassment and intimidation of ethnic minorities who have arrived on these shores hoping to forge good and productive lives for their families and communities.
As we navigate dangerous moments at home and watch our foreign policy play out abroad, there is reason to despair. But what we often forget – and what the media rarely reminds us of – is that there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful as well. And for concrete examples of that, we need look no further than a gathering taking place in Belfast this week of people working in the local governments, business sectors and voluntary organisations of 16 of the world’s most divided cities. Some of these cities have put their troubled pasts behind them – Belfast and Derry-Londonderry, Berlin, Sarajevo – while others are in the throes of war right now: Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Tripoli in Lebanon.
Part of a group called Forum for Cities in Transition, delegates meet every year to share experiences of building and rebuilding in places where the odds for success – sometimes even the odds for survival – seem long. This year Belfast will play host, sharing its story of transformation under the theme Promoting Reconciliation Through Resilience. The gathering aims to promote and support grassroots solutions and concrete outcomes from the many discussions that take place there.
The forum is organised around a simple principle: it is the cities that are transitioning away from division and conflict that are in the best position to help other cities through similar transitions. The interesting thing about this gathering is that the focus is not solely on the high-prestige, high- media value work of peace talks, nor does it concentrate on headline-grabbing acts of violence and war.
Instead, it understands that all cities, but especially cities in transition, have common problems ranging from policing to garbage collection to road construction. And in addition to those issues, which are hugely important in the every day lives of citizens, many cities experiencing conflict must also identify flashpoints that trigger violence and develop mechanisms to control and contain such outbreaks.
It is this mundane work that allows some semblance of normal life to continue in many of these strife-ridden places – and it also fails, for the most part, to make headlines. The old newsroom adage, ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ is true not just in tabloid culture but also applies to the fact that with the media in general, division, rancour and in-fighting get much more media coverage than the painstaking work of coming together.