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Switzerland and collective impact

Switzerland is a stunning country. Clean, neat and ordered with an abundance of natural beauty that you could sit and stare at for hours.

Alongside admiring the snow capped mountains, green hillsides dotted with cows with cow-bells jangling around their necks, enjoying Swiss chocolate and wandering through the ‘old towns’ in Switzerland’s cities, one of our favourite things to do when we’re travelling is to watch people.

In watching the people of Zurich, it was interesting to see just how multicultural the community was. It got us thinking about living collectively in a global world, and whether countries and communities really are getting the most from the opportunity to work across ‘borders’ (geographical as well as psychological), or whether they’re just paying lip service to the concept and are really still struggling to get there.

So far on this trip we’ve met people from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Mexico, Romania and Copenhagen. In getting to know these people from all over the world, it reinforced just how similar we all are at a fundamental level.

When you actually have the chance to connect with someone, and you strip away all the ‘labels’ and the cultural signifiers that we attach to people, you find that we’re all essentially the same. Similar hopes, fears and ambitions.

So why then do our countries still seem to struggle to truly embrace cooperation across cultural borders for the betterment of the global population, when essentially we are all citizens of the same world? Why does international collaboration become so often fraught with tension?

In the United Nations paper, Globalisation and the Nation State, the author Jayantha Dhanapala suggests that the ‘nation state’ is the natural enemy of globalisation, as a national identity hinders true collaboration across cultural borders. This would appear to be true. Despite the similarities that countries (particularly in Europe) share, they appear to place significant value on retaining their own unique cultural identity within their own borders.

Take Switzerland for example. Part of the European Union, but still with it’s own currency, it’s own forms of German, French and Italian languages, academic qualifications that aren’t recognised outside of Switzerland, and as we unfortunately discovered when we arrived, different power points to the rest of Europe.

Here is a country that sits right in the middle of Europe, surrounded on all sides by other European countries, and yet they are hanging onto what makes them different, rather than embracing what makes them the same as their neighbours.

At the most fundamental level, this speaks to the apparent human desire to be able to differentiate ourselves from the ‘other’ at an individual as well as a national level.

What collective impact are we missing out on because we can’t figure out how to play nicely together at a global level? That lesson that our parents taught us as toddlers, yet in adulthood we find difficult to enact.

When this plays out at a national and organisational level, it has a real impact on our ability to bring about positive community change. We’ve seen this in Australia, where not-for-profit organisations with the same ultimate purpose spend no time collaborating with each other, intent on doing things their way, despite the obvious gains that such collaboration would generate for the communities they were established to support.

Given the challenges that we face as an international community, including poverty, uneven distribution of wealth and climate change, we can’t afford not to learn to work together to better address these challenges at an international level.

While it would appear that on a global scale, we have a way to go in developing mechanisms for truly international cooperation that facilitate action on some of the biggest challenges of our times (although bodies such as the European Union are working on this), in the meantime we can at least seek to collaborate with others in the areas of our lives over which we have control, no matter how different from ourselves we may perceive them to be.

There is no beginning too small.

After all, without international collaboration and sharing, the people of Australia may never have tasted Swiss chocolate. And what a sad world that would be.

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