In early March 2022 when Russia voted against a UN Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution condemning its invasion of Ukraine, thereby using its veto power as a permanent member to block the resolution, it got people talking about the effectiveness of the Security Council’s voting system. As fate would have it, about six months ago, Learn Biomimicry gave me a chance to fulfil my long-standing dream of becoming a Biomimicry Practitioner and my project was aimed at applying nature’s principles to public policy, with a particular focus on the UNSC. After months of studying several animals, plants, and social insects, in January 2022 I finally discovered the perfect biological model; the African wild dog.
Global Policymaking is failing
At the moment, global policymaking favours only a few (countries, social class, etc.) in the system and as it evolves it should favour more and more of the system. Until policymaking benefits the system as a whole, its structure will remain largely flawed and the people it’s supposed to serve, unfulfilled. Nature inherently does this at a systems level.
A good case in point is the UN Climate Conference 2021 (COP26) which many says didn’t live up to expectations. The infographic below shows that the policymaking at COP26 was largely skewed to benefit only one part of the global system. Rich countries that benefit from coal the most, refused to pledge to quit coal despite the obvious ravaging effects on our planet.
Similarly, we see this trend mirrored in the Security Council. Today it is Russia invading Ukraine, a few years ago the U.S invaded Iraq, and tomorrow it could be China invading Taiwan, all exploring holes in the international law to do their bidding. For those who might be wondering what I’m speaking about, let’s do a quick UNSC crash course, shall we?
An African wild dog unwinds in between hunts. (Photo: Alistair Daynes)
Meet the African Wild Dogs and ‘Sneeze Voting’
African wild dogs live across sub-Saharan Africa in savannas and arid areas, in packs containing pups, juveniles and adults, led by a dominant male and female adult. Dominant dogs control many things in the pack, including mating and the care of pups. However, when it comes to making decisions about leaving a resting area — to go on a hunt, for example — decision-making is a little more flexible.
Before collective movements, the dogs take part in stereotyped social rallies (high energy greeting ceremonies). Not all rallies result in collective movements, but the probability of rally success (i.e. group departure) is predicted by a minimum number of audible rapid nasal exhalations (sneezes), within the rally. A study by Walker, R. et al found that a minimum of ten sneezes are required for movement if the sneezing is initiated by a less dominant dog, while a minimum of three sneezes are required during the rally if the sneezing is initiated by a dominant dog.
26% – First rallies rarely ended in a movement away from resting spots (only 9 out of 34 first rallies were successful), but the likelihood of a successful collective movement increased over successive rallies.
64% – 5 out of 8 third rallies were successful.
I’m sure you’re thinking, pssst! What is really the catch? Dominant dogs still get their way right? Well, not really. If you look closer at the principles you’d recognize the genius behind their system and how it fits perfectly with the UNSC. The table below translates parallels between the dogs and the Council.
(Credit: Ebenezar Wikina)
10:3 Voting in the UN Security Council
For many decades, there have been several calls for reforms to the United Nations system including calls from the current Secretary-General António Guterres, who has made proposals to reform the United Nations since the beginning of his term in January 2017. However, in reforming the UN Security Council’s voting system, the most important question we must answer is; How do you give decision-making power to the least dominant entities during a vote but at the same time recognize the social power of dominant entities?
According to the African wild dogs, here are three steps we must follow:
The emphasis should be on quorum (the will of the group), thus just like with African wild dogs, dominant entities shouldn’t be able to stop a vote that the majority wants just because they don’t like it. I know many of the permanent members would not like to see this but it gets better.
This is in line with the 10 sneezes for less dominant dogs and 3 sneezes for dominant dogs system observed in the African wild dogs, ensuring that even the temporary members can start votes and get resolutions passed by securing the will of the majority. There are 10 temporary members and 5 permanent members in the Security Council but the minimum vote is pegged at 12 and 7 respectively to avoid splitting the Councill into two (permanent vs temporary scenario) so both groups need two extra votes from the other bloc to pass a resolution.
Only 9 out of 34 social rallies (voting sessions) result in quorum for African wild dogs. By the 3rd social rally, there’s a 64% likelihood of quorum, and the more rallies (votes) that occur the closer the pack gets to making a resolution. Repeat voting session 3 to 5 times (especially with breaks in between) before moving on to other issues. However, for urgent intervention issues quorum should be sought within a single sitting.
Is it okay to learn from African wild dogs even though they are endangered?
African wild dogs were listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List during an assessment conducted in 2012. There is no current public information on the status of their population 10 years after (2022).
However, it is worthy to note that the range of factors identified by the IUCN leading to the drastic reduction of the African wild dog population are unconnected to their feeding patterns, which the voting system speaks to. Some of these factors include:
Therefore, it is safe to mimic the ‘sneeze voting’ principle because their endangered status has nothing to do with their feeding.
A Note of Appreciation
This project is dedicated to the memory of Claire Janisch, co-founder of Learn Biomimicry and founder of Biomimicry South Africa. Claire, your passion and commitment to the growth and expansion of the biomimicry field in Africa is the reason I can live out my passion today. We hope you continue to watch over us even as the seeds you’ve planted bloom across the world into giant forests of knowledge and practice of biomimicry.
Thank you so much, Jessica Berliner, for believing in my raw ideas and giving them expression through the Learn Biomimicry Practitioner program. Thank you Yuma Langenbach for your technical guidance all through the six months of this program, and thank you Melissa Sikosana for helping me understand design thinking from a new perspective which made abstracting the biomimicry principles from the African wild dogs easier. Mel, we co-created the name of this solution, 10:3 Voting System, together
My fellow nature apprentices in the Learn Biomimicry bumblebee cohort, thank you for working so hard on your ideas, and for inspiring me to do so on mine. I am because we are. I am excited about all the good things we will do in the world with this newly acquired knowledge.
Finally, all glory to God for the abundance of flawless ideas and solutions embedded in nature, which we continue to discover and abstract daily through biomimicry.
In the coming weeks, the Policy Shapers team shall be working with Learn Biomimicry to develop a policy memo communicating this principle as a recommendation to the Security Council’s Advisory Branch and the UN Reform Office.
Ebenezar Wikina is a certified Biomimicry Practitioner and founder of Policy Shapers (www.policyshapers.com), an open-source platform for policy ideation, dialogue, and advocacy led by young people.