Common values and skills, stemming from each and every individual, are the foundation for a sustainable society. They need to be fostered.
Around this time of year, in the wintry streets, we come across them again: Salvation Army members with their collection tins. Their presence in the cold season is a tradition and a constant. ‘As long as the Salvation Army sings in the streets in the run-up to Christmas, all’s well with the world,’ says Simon Bucher, Salvation Army media spokesperson. ‘This tradition reassures people.’
The work of the Salvation Army, like that of many other organisations, makes a considerable contribution towards relieving suffering and poverty. At Christmas time, its work becomes visible. Yet even at this time, poverty and loneliness are often quietly hidden away.
The excerpts from the collage are taken from posters from the book ‘Ja! Nein! Yes! No! Swiss Posters for Democracy’.
Values and faith
Faith is an important anchor for the Salvation Army – the foundation for everything it does. According to Bucher, ‘The belief that every person has a lot of good in them, and in a higher power who watches over everything in confusing times and radiates security,’ helps people to keep their footing even in difficult times. Faith can make it easier to bear suffering and increase resilience. But even William Booth, who founded the Salvation Army, noticed all those years ago that people were not coming to church. That was why the Salvation Army needed to be present on the streets. The distinctive uniform proved to be an excellent way of identifying them. It still stands for tradition today. Bucher says: ‘The Salvation Army treads a middle path between great openness to new things and holding onto those values that make it what it is, and for which it is treasured and respected.’ In a rapidly changing world, this balancing act is becoming ever more challenging. The traditional collection tins are now faced with a world of digital donations. Finding common values in different, sometimes disconnected worlds, does not come easy. This will challenge our society more and more. Bucher is convinced that it will be essential for the future that we meet one another halfway and seek dialogue. Society needs to agree on common values. In a secular world, the search is open-ended. The preamble of the Swiss Federal Constitution begins: ‘In the name of Almighty God’. However, the reality of life in our society does not indicate a unified understanding of values. Many NPOs play their part. They uphold values such as solidarity and convey them to society as a whole. But the question remains: how can a liberal society find common values and develop them further? It’s easy enough to talk about values like freedom and solidarity, but how they are interpreted and experienced may vary considerably. The challenge is to recognise, in times of prosperity and peace, how necessary this debate is to society. To do this is to provide the basis for a sustainable society.
Swiss direct democracy has an advantage: citizens’ values are represented through regularly held referendums. ‘At least superficially,’ points out Eric Nussbaumer, a member of the National Council and Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Anny Klawa-Morf Foundation. ‘In Switzerland, we learn a lot from going to the polls,’ he continues. ‘Some people can develop their own system of values and world view from that.’ A low voter turnout, however, shows up the shortfall. A large proportion of the population has withdrawn itself from these discussions.
A resilient democracy should have an interest in anchoring democratic values among the entire population and maintaining them. ‘We have to keep redeveloping them, emphasising them and contextualising them,’ he says. This is what the Anny Klawa-Morf Foundation sets out to do. It is geared towards the core values of freedom, fairness, equality and solidarity. Nussbaumer says: ‘These are, of course, values that are set forth in the constitution, but it can’t be taken for granted that we have an understanding of what solidarity means in the specific context of the situations in which the world or society currently finds itself.’ It’s about the fundamentals. People’s understanding of democracy has to be maintained. Political education doesn’t happen by itself. It is an investment in the future that has to be made. ‘Acting as though direct democracy is just something you can pick up as you go along; as though everyone learns via referendums how democracy works – that’s too simple for the rapid pace at which we live now,’ says Nussbaumer. He perceives plenty of threats to democracy. Fake news. Polarisation. A lack of understanding of history. That’s why he sees it as important to make these investments. And that, in his view, is what Switzerland has failed to do enough of over the past few years. It has limited itself to teaching civics, he says, with education focusing on issues such as what an initiative is, and how a referendum works. ‘A person’s relationship with a system of values, or what actually makes a good democracy, can only be learned through additional learning opportunities,’ he says. And this is the foundation’s approach: a supplement to the political parties. Established by the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (SP), the foundation aims to promote political education that consciously goes beyond the Abstimmungssonntag (‘Voting Sunday’). It has also specifically undertaken not to mention election issues, or be active in referendums. Its educational programmes are open to anyone. As Nussbaumer says: ‘That’s why it’s important to invest in political education and a lively democratic culture; to train people’s capacity to reflect and develop their own positions.’
To form your own opinion, you need others
This means that theoretical discussions are broken down into values at a practical individual level. People in a society need to be able to form their own opinions and to defend them. And this is precisely what the YES programme – Young Enterprises Switzerland – focuses on. The charitable organisation engages with practical business-related and opinion-forming schemes.
The ‘Jugend debattiert’ (‘Youth debates’) programme cultivates political knowledge and understanding. ‘An important part of this is getting to grips with different opinions; learning how to argue,’ says Johanna Aebi, CEO of YES. During the course, young people learn to debate, even on less familiar topics and views that they may not share. Seeing a topic from various points of view not only opens up their understanding of other people’s positions, but also sharpens their own, or even enables them to form an opinion in the first place.
‘If you don’t have an opportunity to discuss a topic, you can’t form an opinion on it,’ says Aebi, ‘and that’s what we want to encourage: an objective debate, listening to each other, coming together constructively.’ YES wants to help young people learn to listen to what their counterpart has to say. The programme aims to give them the skills to think carefully about the content and to react to it in their response. These are exactly the skills that Aebi believes are under threat today. She has noticed a tendency towards extremism and populism, and a lack of discourse. She says: ‘It is really valuable if young people learn this. It contributes enormously to the development of resilience.’ Debating is only one of YES’s programmes. They also run a scheme for primary school pupils in which they explain, for example, how a local authority works, in order to raise awareness of the fact that our society doesn’t just happen by itself. Understanding this interconnectedness strengthens resilience. It explains to the children what holds society together and enables it to function. Part of this involves various institutions passing on this knowledge. Aebi does not see it as a failure on the part of the state school system that YES has seen success with its programmes. More the contrary, in fact. It is the lived interconnectedness, the complementary thinking, that creates added value. YES works with many volunteers, especially from the private sector, who provide children and young people with new perspectives. This is one of the greatest strengths of the Swiss system. These strengths, eclipsed by the current political polarisation, slip into the background at times, but still work. Distances in Switzerland are short. People know each other. Making contacts is easy. ‘As a politician, I am often even invited to visit companies before referendums,’ says Nussbaumer. There are discussions, which he finds valuable. All stakeholders have to cultivate a political culture, he says. That cannot be left entirely to politicians. ‘All stakeholders, from religion to politics and business, must play their part, so that our community functions,’ he says. This engagement may take many forms. Some companies give their employees time off for political work, others make a financial contribution. For instance, the Anny Klawa-Morf Foundation is able to provide its basic political education thanks to untied donations from various companies. They promote democracy based on their shared responsibility for society in a fundamental way.
Landsgemeinde meeting at the end of the 18th century. (Museum Appenzell)
You can make a difference
In order to do justice to this interconnected way of thinking, YES is devoting a programme to entrepreneurship. Young people learn what it takes to run a company. They learn that profit is not guaranteed, and what is realistic and possible. They find out how teamwork works, how to cope with setbacks and that they can be overruled. And they have to learn that they cannot influence or predict everything, but must instead react to changes. In short, ‘They learn that what’s needed is solution-oriented thinking,’ says Aebi, ‘and what difference they can make.’ In today’s world, that is a particularly important point for a sustainable society. Young people are growing up in a society that lurches from one crisis to the next. ‘For young people, it is incredibly important to see that they can make a difference. In view of these huge challenges, they need to feel empowered to find solutions.’ This is the only way that they can actively contribute towards a resilient society.
People’s own resilience
The Salvation Army has proven that it has resilience in spades. It has experienced two world wars. Despite, indeed because of, these difficult circumstances and their effects on church congregations, on their members and on people living on the margins of society, the Salvation Army pressed on with its work. Bucher says: ‘This will to carry on, and their perseverance in standing up for the values and convictions they hold, are surely the reason why the Salvation Army is so resilient today.’ By the way: fundraising with collection tins, now known as ‘red kettles’ in North America, was thought up by Captain Joseph McFee, a former sailor and Salvation Army officer, in 1891. He wanted to provide 1,000 impoverished people in San Francisco with a Christmas meal. So he hung a crab pot on a tripod, set it up in a busy thoroughfare, and Salvation Army members asked for donations. The idea caught on. Six years later, the proceeds from these collections paid for 150,000 Christmas meals across America.
Collecting for the poorest with a crab pot: Joseph McFee invented the pot collection with this idea in 1891.