It has been a busy time for Women, Family and Community Development minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim who has been in the thick of things with the campaign against sexual predators at the recent Jenayah Seksual Kanak-Kanak: Hentikan!! (Child Sexual Abuse: Stop It!!) seminar.

But she was also energised and excited by another lesser-known event because she is convinced it holds the key to overcoming the many social challenges we face.

Rohani is instrumental in bringing the Unesco Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST) meetings to Kuala Lumpur from March 14 to 23, convincing Unesco to hold the gathering for the first time out of Paris, France.

The MOST programme is Unesco’s intergovernmental science programme on social transformations, and Rohani is the president of its intergovernmental council (IGC) from 2015 to 2017.

The MOST meetings will be a gathering of researchers and policymakers, and there will be many academic papers presented. But it will be anything but boring, stressed Rohani who finds MOST’s robust research-based focus and social transformation agenda most invigorating.

“The main objective of this programme is how to make policy more evidence-informed. Social science research produces evidence – that which is workable, and that which is not workable. Then, based on that result, national policies should be made. There must be a link between research and policy,” says Unesco’s Division of Social Transformations and Intercultural Dialogue Social and Human Sciences Sector Director Bardach Dendev.

One of the main objectives of the MOST programme is to emphasise to governments the importance of social science research in policy formulation, adds Dendev.

It’s this aim that has motivated Rohani to bring the MOST meetings to Malaysia. There will be four levels of MOST meetings held in Kuala Lumpur – the Bureau of the Intergovernmental Council, Intergovernmental Council, Senior Officials Meeting for Asia-Pacific Regional Forum of Management, and the Asia Pacific Ministerial forum – involving 75 countries.

Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim says there is no need to reinvent the wheel when you can learn from other people's experiences and practices. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim says there is no need to reinvent the wheel when you can learn from other people’s experiences and practices. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

The MOST meetings will “bring policymakers and researchers together because there is a lot to be done. This is not about research for research’s sake but evidence-based ones so that policies can be formulated out of that. It’s real because it’s properly researched,” says Rohani who adds it’s an important platform for the exchange of experiences and successful practices in national policies.

She also stresses that it will be an invaluable opportunity for local researchers and other ministries to learn from the international researchers and delegates attending the meetings.

Other aims of hosting the MOST meetings are to identify research gaps needed for social policies and to provide opportunities to influence international debate and policy formation.

Linking science to policies

The MOST programme’s most crucial task, however, is to connect knowledge to action, science to policies.

“The key to MOST is enabling the knowledge produced by the social human sciences to be used to support policies; policies to change the world to make it a better place.

“That’s what the UN system is for. The UN General Assembly in September 2015 adopted an agenda for 2030 and the agenda for the next 15 years which is about making the world a better place,” explains Unesco’s Division of Social Transformations And Intercultural Dialogue’s Chief Of Section For Research, Policy and Foresight John Crowley.

“For many of the challenges the world faces, using social and human sciences is absolutely essential. So, when governments and cities and civil society organisations and corporations wish to act to implement the agenda to make the world a better place by 2030, they can actually do so relying on evidence, relying on knowledge, relying on things that are rigorous, and not on prejudice or common sense or what they saw last night on the news, or what their neighbours told them in the bus.”

MOST’s intergovernmental council has identified five priorities to be addressed over the next five years. They are five areas of social transformation where member states feel that MOST can really make a difference.

The five areas are social inclusion, environmental change, migration, peace and governance, and digital transformation. In tackling these issues, MOST’s guiding principle is to understand social changes with scientific-based knowledge.

“We need to understand what’s happening in order to act against it.

“Everyone knows that digital transformation is changing the world – but how exactly and to what consequences, and what can be done about it by national policies? For that, we need to mobilise a lot of knowledge and we need to create a space for discussion among governments,” says Crowley.

Inclusive societies

The theme for the Kuala Lumpur MOST meetings is “Building Inclusive Societies”, in accordance to the 2030 Developmental Agenda Sustainable Development Goals.

“Building inclusive societies is about leaving no one behind. If there are pockets of people left behind, then what do we do about it?” says Rohani.

Out of that big theme, the three sub themes identified are social innovations, empowering women and ageing.

“In many of the areas we are discussing – social inclusion, migration, environmental change, peace, digital technology – the challenges of society will be met only with that combination of new ideas and new ways of organising things. And that’s really what we want to be discussing in the ministerial forum to see how we can then take that forward,” says Crowley.

Social innovation, he says, is society finding new ways of doing things. It might involve gadgets and new technologies but it might also involve mindsets.

A good example of social innovation is the development of microfinancing, which is about lending small amounts of money unsecured to vulnerable people. It’s an idea that didn’t require new technology but it has transformed lives.

Rohani says that ageing is an important sub-theme for Malaysia.

“Malaysia will be an aged nation by 2035, so we have to prepare now. So, let’s talk.

“We don’t have much information or database on this side of the world on ageing. This is a good meeting for the sharing of information between our local and international researchers,” says Rohani, who is intent on changing Malaysians’ mindset on ageing.

She wants people to think of active ageing, whereby people still have many years even after official retirement age when they are active and healthy. We have a national policy and a plan of action to help senior citizens lead active, meaningful lives but Rohani says there is still much to review.

Coping with ageing is an issue that people all over the world are grappling with. Crowley says that we need to rethink the way we perceive ageing.

“The idea that you can use ageing as a proxy for disability is not true; it was never true and it’s even less true now.

“Instead of looking at age, we need to look directly at people’s capacity and what they can do for society and that means not thinking of ageing in terms of old people but thinking of ageing as the process of losing social capacity at different rates for different groups of people.

“So, ageing is not about old people, it’s about social inclusion, it’s about how you participate in society. And oncee you put it in those terms, you realise first that it’s a complicated policy challenge, but also that there are huge opportunities for older people to contribute more to society than they sometimes do,” he says.

Rohani concurs, recognising the need to relook her ministry’s programmes to accommodate new data and new patterns, such as women’s longer lifespans.

“That’s why it’s so important to get people together. You learn, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel but to adopt their wheel and go on,” says Rohani. “Reinventing the wheel takes too long, so whatever research work has been done can be adapted and adopted, then that’s it, you fast track.”