While much of my professional focus is on international politics and democracy building abroad these days I can't help but notice the scary similarities of late between politics in the US with those in some of the countries I work in...and in a pretty depressing and dangerous way.
So much about the upcoming congressional elections involves politicians and partisan news outlets purposefully twisting facts and out right lying in an effort to pit people against each other and demonize minority groups. The motivation is clear, gin people up with false facts to galvanize voter turnout for your side or increase eye balls and ad money for your broadcasts. Despite the known facts that the immigration "problem" is at an all time low, meaning numbers of undocumented workers are down and the vast majority are law abiding, violence in cities along the US side is down (just like it is among other cities in the US), and we have more resources and law enforcement along the border then we have had since the Mexican-American War, politicians and "pundits" are screaming crisis and a shockingly high percentage of my fellow citizens are vulnerable to this message.
Over the years I have worked in Bosnia I asked my colleagues about the history of the ethnic tensions and the causes of the war. While Bosniaks blame Serbian professional forces most agreed that before the former Yugoslavian state dissolved in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union ethnic identity was not important, villages were integrated, families inter married. You could tell what ethnicity someone was by their last name but few paid much attention. It was politicians who fanned the flames for their own personal gain. Ethnic politics is still the bane of Bosnian political life, instead of focusing on real problems like corruption, education, and infrastructure development; politicians gain election by pitting people against one another, and it works because people fall for it. I am not saying the situation here is on the verge of civil war but in my life time I haven't tasted this much anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-other in the air.
The Tea Party activists are coming to DC this weekend and I was thinking of putting together a fact sheet for them and passing out....I might. I will certainly go and check out the rally as I do admire their organizing work, even if a big chunk of it is driven by Glen Beck, and other corporate sponsors besides Fox News. Part of me really feels sorry for them however condescending that sounds because I think they are worried sick about "facts" that simply are not true. We have real challenges in the US, but immigration, mosques, and having an illegitimate President are fortunately not among them.
Featured: Tim Karr, Free Press
Our Common Cause International partners the Centres for Civic Initiatives from Bosnia Herzegovina came to visit us in Washington DC this month instead of our staff travelling to them as we have in the past. Before I talk more about the nature of our collaboration I want to do my American friends and others a solid who might get confused about how all the words describing Bosnia Herzegovina (abbreviated BiH) and its people fit in (as I did when I first started working there).Few quick facts:
Bosnia and Herzegovina are part of what was Yugoslavia (Don't just call it Bosnia-people from the Herzegovina region get offended...)
The country consist of three ethnic groups:
Bosniaks-who are Bosnians who adhere to the Muslim religion
Bosnian Serbs-who identify with Serb identity
Bosnian Croates-who identify with Croation identity
(It's ok to refer to everyone as Bosnian in english)
CCI leadership were here in Washington to meet with leading advocates in Washington DC to glean ideas about how they might improve their lobbying and advocacy work in Bosnia. CCI is the largest advocacy group in southeastern Europe and they've managed to do a lot right. You can visit their website here
, it is pretty fancy and has cool sound effects. Their work is very similar to what Common Cause does in the United States in terms of trying to increase government accountability to citizen input. A major challenge they face, and one which many post communist countries face, is how to overcome public attitudes toward joining membership organizations and confronting apathy and cynicism from their fellow citizens. Much has been written about this topic over the last 15 years, here
is a recent article that seeks to explain the phenomena and builds on earlier research.
I have run into this issue often in my work..."people might want to participate in America but it's not the same here." What I admire about the leadership at CCI is that while it is true that Bosnian have had a very different recent history and political legacy, they understand that people are people and if they are to successfully navigate the transition from a post communist, post conflict country--citizens will have to play an important role. I am looking forward to working with CCI over the next couple of years to figure what works in terms of citizen engagement in BiH. And while other post communist countries have achieved some success in this area, it is still very much of a struggle. My experience is that many groups I've met with bemoan the difficulties of engaging citizens but when I ask what they have tried and where they have failed, more often than not they let the idea of failure completely stiffle their efforts.
Some of the things I often share about American democracy with international groups I work with, in hopes of motivating them, is just how bereft democracy in the US would be without citizen actors. Think about it; the abolitionist movement, women's rights, civil rights, child labor laws, freedom of information, open meetings, the right to organized labor... I could go on and on. These victories all came about because of the active intervention of citizen groups and their allies in government. Kind of breath taking if you think about it.
Special thanks for collaborating on the project to: Ryan Alexander, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Nick Johnson-Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Ed Mierzwinski-PIRG, Tim Karr-Free Press, Patrick Disney-National Iranian American Council, Layth Elhassani of Senator Michael Bennet's Office, Representative Capuano, Mathew Rojansky-Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tom Fitton-Judicial Watch and Sarah Dufendach, VP of Legislation and Common Cause who went the extra mile.
Just a quick post to share a good resource link that CC advisor Susan Atwood sent me in response to my blog yesterday. The link is www.newtactics.org and it is full of good ideas from all around the world from human rights advocates and others trying to move their agendas forward. Take a look. Also, if I find something that I think might be useful to ngos I bookmark it on my delicious page, you can find it on the side bar or if you want to see the full list go here http://delicious.com/lmcolet
Just back from a week long trip in Mexico where Common Cause is working with a number of Mexican civil society groups on important government accountability campaigns. The "cool tactic" award goes to my friends at Alianza Civica, a group led by the very creative, smart, and funny Rogelio Gomez Hermosillo. Alianza works on many of the same issues that Common Cause does in the US. Their campaign "Ya Bajensele" (lower it already!) is about reducing the amount of money the Mexican government gives directly to the political parties. This makes the parties the primary player in choosing candidates and makes it tougher for average Mr. Smith goes to Washington types to jump into the race and give voters more choices.
Rogelio's group staged a 24 hour event in front of a government building where they hooked up a bicycle to a spot light. Over three hundred riders pedaled the bike to keep the light shining on the campaign sign for a whole day..even a few reporters covering the story took a turn. The result of the stunt was significant coverage in some major Mexican press and more public attention and understanding of the issue. Tactics are tough, too goofy and you get made fun of and do a disservice to your campaign. Too boring you get ignored, I think Rogelio and Alianza Civica got it just right on this one and had some fun too.
We have some of the same problems in the United States in terms of the political parties having excess influence over who gets to run for office. Prior to the passage of the Common Cause supported campaign finance bill in 2002
(McCain Feingold Bill), parties were all powerful in choosing candidates because they had the bucks to fund their campaigns making it prohibitive for those who were not politically connected to afford to run. McCain Feingold limited the amount of money parties could accept from special interests...it was unlimited prior to that time. Now we are contending with the ramifications of the recent Supreme Court decision entitled, "Citizens United." The decision overturns over 100 year of campaign finance law that prohibited corporation from making political contributions directly to political candidates from their treasuries. That was what the showdown was about between President Obama and Justice Alito during the State of the Union Address. Check out the Common Cause report
to learn more about the decision and its impact.
So I am fortunate to be in Egypt over the next few weeks to learn more about civil society groups who are working with youth in the country. Over 60% of the population of the country is under 30 so it is a very important demographic. I will be helping groups identify issues and desig campaign strategies over the next 18 months. This week I ran across a very interesting group of young bloggers. They are a mix of Coptic Christians and Muslims who met online. They have worked on a number of issues together including women's rights, HIV aids, and the importance of religious tolerance. Their new joint project is called "The Bridge," and is designed to encourage young people to vote in the upcoming elections (the Presidential is in 2011 and is highly anticipated here.) Voter turnout in Egypt is very, very, low...and that is saying something coming from an American, as we don't fair very well next to other developed countries. Part of the reason its low is that the registration process is somewhat complicated. You actually have to go to the police station to pick up your registration card, which aside from being a hassle can be intimidating for some.
They did a short video/documentary on youtube that actually got the attention of a local television station who ran it for free....earned media at its best. It's what we all hope for when we invest in this type of tactic, that a video will go viral or create some sort of a splash in the main stream media. Here is their video below, even though parts are in Arabic, I don't think it needs translation.
Just back from an awesome week of family fun in the Yucatan peninsula. I love visiting Mexico but seldom get the opportunity to do it as a tourist. And while I might of thought the tourists were overly indulgent when I volunteered for a year in the late 80s it's good to be lazy, loud and luxuriate once in a while. Next vacation time needs to be two weeks for sure! The occasion for the trip was the matrimony of my eldest brother in law Keith, who is a very lucky guy to have found his wife Tabitha (I'm just sayin'). I wish them both all the best!
This week I am gearing up to head to my old home town of Chicago to spend some time with the Chicago Justice Project. Being an old Chicago crime dog myself (I set up more block watches then I can remember!) I am very interested in their work and glad an old friend pulled me in to help with some strategic planning. Tracy Siska is the Executive Director and he has a really interesting blog on Chicago crime and access to information. Here
is a provocative recent post that I think is interesting.
I've been following the current climate change debate in Copenhagen along with the rest of the world and the thing that keeps worrying me is what exactly will the developing countries do with the billions they want from the developed world and the not so many billions the West is willing to give?
Granted I don't know a lot about climate change science or new technologies but I do know something about corruption, both in the US (we have plenty) and in the developing world (it is, sadly, rampant). I keep worrying the billions will be shelled out in such a way that they will be squandered to a significant extent by governments who have demonstrated little ability to serve their publics.
Obviously, much of the current climate situation has been caused by the developed world and it is in everyone's interest and fairness that assistance be delivered. But I would like to hear less about how much money and more about how the money will be used. What safe guards will be put in place to ensure its used to benefit those in immediate need? Help the country develop green technologies? Raise people from poverty exacerbated by global warming?
My read of the latest version of the "Danish Text"
is that developed countries are trying to structure at least some of the money as loans with strong oversight measures and concrete expected outcomes. Looks like they are also looking at moving some of the money through established institutions like the World Bank and IMF....important institutions but not without their problems. Many of the developing countries walked out because some of the provisions in the text funneled money through these institutions instead of channeling money from the UN directly to the governments of developing nations. I get the argument that structuring aid in the form of loans might not be the best way to get the necessary resources to the countries but bench marks, hard and fast outcomes, and demands for transparency? Every effort should be made in this area and I don't think the UN is the proper institution to do this.
My solution? I'm sure investing in the ability of civil society to hold governments accountable in the developing world isn't on the docket in Denmark...but it should be. Whatever institution(s) ends up being the vehicle to disburse climate change funds to developing democracies they will only be able to so much...and the funds themselves can make the corruption problem worse.
Why? Many countries in the developing world have deeply centralized governments that are not held accountable by civil society institutions. Too much aid from abroad is spent by specific people in power who have economic incentives that may differ or conflict with the intentions of donors. For example, they often reward friends and favored constituencies. As the aid works its way through various layers of government various corrupt government actors skim off the top and reward their friends and cronies and the impact of the aid money is significantly weakened. Also, aid given directly to governments increases the role of government over the private sector, not healthy for economic development depending on how the money is dispersed. It also strengthens the government hand in contribution to the politicization of economic life.
Aid can also encourage a country to look outward for answers at the expense of doing the hard work of making the internal changes and reforms that are necessary for renewal...a place where civil society institutions can play an important role. I was part of a round table at the World Bank taking a look at this problem last year and I have to say conversations about the role of civil society in fighting corruption (and impairing the effectiveness of aid) are in their infancy. If not for civil society in the US there would be no freedom of information act, no open meetings act, no lobby disclosure, and little or no congressional ethics laws....and even with all that and proof if you get caught in the US with 90K in your freezer you go to jail---- corruption continues.
Just as we have to think outside of the box to address the climate challenge issue those in the aid community need to think of new ways in fighting corruption, my suggestion is take a good look at the imperfect civil society route.
Nouzha Alaoui, Member of the Moroccan Parliament
Just back from Morocco last night, the purpose of the trip was to do advocacy training with women activists from North Africa and to connect them with their counterparts in Morocco. I can't say much more about the other participants because it is politically sensitive but wanted to share some high points from the Moroccan women's movement work. I had done some work in Morocco in 2007 and knew some of the important progress they had made but gained a much better understanding of the dynamics of their campaign to bring about changes to the Moroccan Family Code or "Moudawana" that deeply impacts women's rights in the country. It is not often that we see so much change so quickly so I thought I would share some of what I thought were keys to their success.
A little background...the previous code did little to protect women's rights in the country and basically left them vulnerable to the whims if their husbands with few legal protections pertaining to their property, marriage, or inheritance rights. While some Moroccan women had been working on these issues for years, 1998 proved to be a pivotal for the movement for two reasons. In that year, more liberal opposition parties won the Parliament and the Prime Minister's seat. Equally important the young reform minded King Mohammed VI came to power. Those political changes created an atmosphere where real reform was possible and a new code was constructed by the former opposition. On March 12, 2000 over 100,000 women and supporters rallied in Rabat in favor of a new Moudawana that better protected women's rights. But there was extreme resistance from some more conservative social forces and a considerably larger rally was held in opposition to the changes a few weeks later in Casa Blanca. The proposal was dropped.
In response, King Mohammed VI, organized a council made up of diverse voices including religious clerics, academics, women's rights activists and lawyers to write a new family code that would attract more broadbased support. Some of the changes included:
Co-Responsibility: Which dictated that both a wife and husband would have equal responsibility and rights pertaining to joint property.
Marital Tutelage: Both the man and woman have the legal right to refuse marriage regardless of what male members of their family (father's) might arrange.
Age of Marriage: The legal age of marriage was changed from 15 to 18.
Polygamy: A woman had the right to demand in a prenuptial agreement that a man could not marry other wives.
Initiation of Divorce: Both the man and the woman had the right to initiate divorce proceedings...previously only the man could.
The women's rights leaders we met with (like Nouzha Alaoui, now a parliamentarian pictured above) were smart in a number of ways in my view. Here are a few key decisions they made that I think really made their campaign strong.
While many of the women had alliances to various political parties, they left these alliances in the background. This decision kept their attention and deepest loyalties to their issues so they were not undermined by partisan politics or eclipsed by other party priorities.
Their communications strategy was to base the changes they were seeking in the Family Code in the framework of a more progressive and equalitarian reading of Muslim teachings.
And lastly, they sought alliances with more conservative and traditional women's rights groups and came to agreement on many issues. This deflated the opposition and made for a powerful collaboration between untraditional forces that was very powerful.
Of course they also organized like crazy. Women now hold over 3,000 seats in local government and 32 in the Parliament...there is one new local female mayor. Many of the groups we met with are continuing their work, with a special focus on domestic violence issues, a problem in all countries but very common in Morocco. The hard work the women's groups conducted in the years prior to 1998 laid the ground work for the transformation so when the new King came to power and opposition parties took control they were ready to take advantage of the opportunity. Food for thought for women working in other Islamic countries who aren't fortunate to have a pretty groovy King like Mohammed VI...not that I think Kings are a good idea, but if you have to ha
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Just returning from a week long trip to "Cocoyoc"
a resort in the mountains outside of Mexico City. The word means place of the coyotes in the native Nahuatl and was first settled by them in the 11th century. In the 16th century the Spanish built a large hacienda in the area where the resort now sits. While the environs were beautiful my conversations with Mexico civil society leaders from all over the country about how to improve the education system in Mexico was serious business.
Mexican school children score the lowest of all 28 members states of the OECD (Organization for Economic Coopration and Development) despite the fact that Mexico spends comparable amounts per student with many other member nations.
Why aren't the students achieving? A major reason in my view is the Mexican Teachers Union (SNTE) or Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion. It has overstepped its role in protecting the labor rights of its members and created a corrupt political empire with little accountability for its actions. It's leader Elba Esther Gordillo, also not so affectionately known as "La Maestra," recently declared herself "leader for life." She is widely reported to extort millions of dollars from public education funds for personal use. She cruises around Mexico City in a hummer, and owns a $5 million dollar home in San Diego and various upscale apartments in the Capitol according to a recent report by The Economist 
. She also has a strangle hold on government. She might be corrupt and selfish but she is a smart politician. She created a third party that represents 1.3 million teacher's votes....important votes since the PRI and the PAN parties in Mexico have been running so closely in recent elections and she has used her political leverage to her advantage...not so much for the education needs of Mexican children but for her own personal and political interests.
Just as bad ---her union actively resist standardized qualifications for teachers, teacher testing, and mandatory exams for students to measure learning. Teachers within the union recently went on strike last year to perserve their ability to determine who would recieve their jobs when they retire. They wanted to be able to either sell them for money ($6 or $7K) or hand them down to their children in the manner of an old fashioned trade like blacksmithing! Not all the teachers are in support of the union, some studies show that as many as 80% of teachers disagree with union practices but many are afraid to come forward and challenge the status quo.
I am really passionate about working on this issue because unlike other issues I have worked on in the US, all of which I obvously thought/think are important, this one has the potential to be truly transformative in so many ways. Putting labor/economic interests ahead of the developing minds of a nation's young people is a deep assault to their human rights and dignity, a huge loss of potential for the students and for Mexico and its continued future development.
This campaign is going to need a lot of resources and momentum and we are just getting started. While we are clearly on the right side of history, this will be no easy fight.
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It is really nice to be home after my month long trip as a guest lecturer for the US Department of State in India. I very much enjoyed the trip and my head is still swimming with all the interesting people I met and places I visited.
There were the advocates in Kolkata (Calcutta) working on rights for same sex couples (they recently won a important court case making sexual intimacy between same sex couples legal), the human rights groups in Gowahati working in the tea gardens to address female trafficking and tribal ostracism, the students in Tirunelvelli organizing democratic forums, the smart policy people in Dehli trying to shape the democratic debate, and dedicated officals like TS Krishnamurthy
who have a deep understanding of the system and know where the changes are needed.
And while India, like any democracy has its problems, it is growing rapidly and has much to be proud of. I am looking forward to returning early next year to continue my work with the groups I met with. One thing I was very impressed by was the natural beauty in India. I didn't have much time for sight seeing as the schedule was pretty hectic with six cities on my agenda but next time I want to get some hiking in. Below are some pictures I managed to snap when I wasn't in a car, airplane, hotel, or conference room;)