Change (ing the world)?

Interesting exchange this past week with @transitionland on Twitter. She asked:

“Does *anyone* really say “I want to save the world”? I’ve never said that. Ever.”

What immediately came to mind is that probably only Bono wakes up every morning to that thought. Actually, he probably doesn’t just think about wanting to save the world, but likely believes he is already well on his way to accomplishing that goal (but that’s a different story/rant).

Bono - saving the world?
Bono - saving the world?

This spawned a discussion about the different perceptions of the possibility of change – what constrains it, what fuels it and why. Mind you, all in 140 character bites. It got me thinking a bit about change and political systems – how different cultures understand change and evolution at the macro level.

In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama, whose main campaign rallying cry was : “Change we can believe in”. Let’s not talk about whether things have actually changed since his election – rather, I wanted to touch on the way in which Americans construe the possibility of change. 

The belief in the “American Dream” rests upon the assumption that social, political and economic mobility is not only possible, but within the reach of each individual. As Alain de Botton put it in a recent TED talk, in individualistic societies – such as the U.S. – people own their successes as well as their failures. Knowing that your situation can evolve, that hard work pays off, is only as liberating as it is anxiety-inducing: when you struggle to make ends meet, or are on the verge of bankruptcy, it is distressing to think and be told that your failure to succeed is your own fault. There seems to be a pervasive notion in the U.S. that the principles upon which institutions have been founded are not only absolute and timeless, but also designed to create the most advantageous environment for individuals to thrive in.  The fact that the U.S. emerged from the 20th century as the dominant world power, and that, at home, incredible wealth was derived from innovation and entrepreneurship, gives credence to this idea.

Interestingly, though, this fervent belief in the malleability of one’s life does not translate in the realm of institutions – at least not American ones. Indeed, Americans are extremely attached to the structures laid out in the Constitution, as well as to the institutions that have shaped American life for over two centuries now. Since the Constitution was adopted in 1787, there have been a total of 27 amendments to it – 10 of them, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified at the same time as the Constitution itself. The 17 amendments that followed mostly “expand individual civil or political liberties, while a few are concerned with modifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.”

(In contrast, France has known five Republics since 1789 – each with its own constitution. The last revision of the French constitution, in 2008, modified 39 of the 92 articles, created nine new ones, and repealed three constitutional provisions. Only 32 of the 92 articles have not been modified since 1958, when the Constitution was adopted. Compare this to the 27 changes the U.S. Constitution has known in 220 years of existence, and that gives you a sense of the trust Americans place in their system.)

I was an undergraduate during the time the U.S. launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I remember discussing whether “Western-style democracy” could take root in those places, and what would make this more – or less – likely. Almost invariably, arguments about a country’s prior experience of democracy would come up, with the implication that nations with a history of democracy are more amenable to introducing and upholding the institutional changes necessary for democracy to flourish. 

I always thought this line of argument was short-sighted. Democracy – or, rather, the democratic/liberal model – only truly began to take root in Europe following centuries of authoritarianism. The last two and half centuries have profoundly changed the way in which Western societies function. Without retracing the complex and rich history of Western political thought, the Enlightenment, and what Nietzsche called the “death of God“, had a lot to do with shaping the intellectual and political framework for monumental changes to occur in Western societies. 

The transformation of the West from authoritarian, dogmatic, stratified societies to what we have today took place over long stretches of time. Indeed, it takes decades, if not centuries, for profound changes like the ones experienced by countries such as France, Germany, the UK or the U.S. to take root. Which is why, when it comes to development and democratization, we have to take the long view and recognize that while it is possible for nations and countries to experience and sustain systemic political, economic and social transformations – as exemplified by the evolution of Western societies over the last 250 years – these processes take time. 

In the age of globalization, where expectations of instant gratification (and of instant everything) are the norm, it is easy to become cynical about our ability to affect change and make a difference in the world’s less privileged places. For those working in international development/aid/human rights, it can be particularly disconcerting. The changes which are widely recognized as necessary (for example, the empowerment of women worldwide) cannot – and will not – happen overnight, no matter how many millions of dollars we throw at the problem. It can be very disconcerting for people in this field to spend years working on a project that depends on fickle funding cycles, while they themselves dependent on whether the project or initiative actually delivers quantifiable, measurable results. 

While I strongly believe that monitoring and evaluation is absolutely critical for ensuring accountability, there are often externalities created by a project that cannot be captured in a convenient Excel spreadsheet. While in recent years there have been more and more attempts at measuring social impact at the Bottom of the Pyramid, it is very hard to estimate the long term benefits (or negative impacts) of work that seeks to induce change. Ultimately, we are only able to measure incremental changes in development. The very notion of development rests on the assumption that there is a linear path to follow, from underdeveloped (or LDC, least developed countries), to developing (or middle income countries) to developed (or rich, industrialized nations).

Considering how long it took for Western societies to evolve, we should have a more humble approach to this – clearly, no one, not even Bill Gates and his billions, can create immediate, systemic change overnight. This isn’t to say that we should therefore be despondent and that efforts aimed at change are meaningless. Rather, I’m inviting readers – particularly the more cynical, jaded ones – to mull over the fact that initiatives aimed at change can (and most likely will) take generations to succeed. And that there is value even in very small, marginal changes. It is precisely these efforts that, over time, create the conditions necessary for social, political and economic evolution (revolution?) to occur. We needn’t be impatient, but we should be humble and acknowledge that initiatives carried out today may not have an immediate, game-changing impact. 

For the past half century or so, and through various channels, the democratic/liberal model has been pushed upon the parts of the world which have yet to adopt it. In the early 1990s, Western leaders seem to have all read and integrated the lessons from Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History“, in which he writes that the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War signaled the victory of the liberal democratic model. The so-called Washington Consensus led the Bretton Woods institutions and Western aid donors to push the developing world to adopt politicies that create the environment necessary for unfettered progress: lower barriers to trade, privatize industry and an insistence on macro-economic stability – all at any cost.

Today this one-size-fits-all approach to development has all but been rejected. What’s interesting about the failed Washington Consensus is that it makes quite clear that a country’s political and economic model cannot be forced or expected to change through policy prescriptions, however comprehensive and far reaching they may be.

Obama and Africa

Following a G8 meeting where leaders announced a $20 billion commitment to help alleviate hunger and improve food security in the developing world, and a short stop-over in the Vatican to exchange pleasantries with the Pope, Barack Obama traveled to Ghana for his first presidential trip to the African continent.

Obama’s visit generated a wave of enthusiasm across the region, and he was welcomed in Ghana by a huge government delegation, as well as throngs of electrified Ghanaians. Needless to say, the president’s choice of Ghana elicited feelings of national pride for its people and its government – as noted by Cadman Atta Mills, the Ghanaian president’s brother and chairman of the National Economic Advisory board, “Ghanaians have extremely high expectations for this visit. A lot of it is sentimental and personal.” Knowing Accra, I’m sure the vibe there must have been incredible.

In spite of the historical nature of the visit, the speech delivered by Obama didn’t represent any dramatic shifts in the American position toward Africa. Some critics were disappointed that it didn’t represent more of a “shakeup of U.S.-Africa policy”; others lamented that it did not address the tougher issues such as the protection of human rights or how to deal with the continuing tragedies in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Still, l believe that Obama’s speech sent the crucial message-in no uncertain terms-that good governance is key to solving the continent’s chronic underdevelopment issues.

While this position does not represent a departure from previous administrations, who also touted democracy and good governance as fundamental elements of peace and prosperity, I think it’s important to take note of the concrete implications of Obama’s speech and visit.

Obama sends a powerful message by choosing Ghana over Kenya (his father’s homeland), Namibia, Botswana (both stable, democratic countries), South Africa (arguably the continent’s most successful nation), or, most significantly, Nigeria, Ghana’s resource-rich neighbor and the world’s fourth largest nation (and, by the way, also America’s biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa; the U.S. imports about 20 percent of its oil from Nigeria…)

Obama explained that he chose Ghana, a nation of 23 million that has had two peaceful democratic transitions, to “highlight” its adherence to democratic principles and institutions, ensuring the kind of stability that brings prosperity. Nigeria, in contrast, is notorious for its entrenched corruption and chronic lack of effective governance – indeed, in spite of tremendous oil wealth, poverty rates are still alarmingly high (70% of the population fell under the poverty line in 2007.)

His words were quite stern:

“This isn’t just some abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa […] The African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges. We’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance”

“No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers […] No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

By “snubbing” Nigeria and pointing to Ghana as an example of good governance in the region, Obama is probably also hoping to signal to the Ghanaian government that he is expecting them not to mismanage the profits from the country’s new-found offshore oil. A well-timed message, as large oil deposits were recently discovered off the coast of Ghana, with production slated to come online in the next couple of years – and along with it, a steep increase in government revenues. There is reason to hope that the country will be stepping up to its responsibilities. Ghana’s energy minister,Joe Oteng-Adjei, recently declared: “We are committed to doing the right thing for investors and for the country … our concern is that we bring in a third party to deliver the synergies that we expect.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a grim report on Equatorial Guinea, reminding us that the “resource curse” is still very much a reality to contend with in Africa:

“Since oil was discovered there in the early 1990s, Equatorial Guinea’s GDP has increased more than 5,000 percent, and the country has become the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, living standards for the country’s 500,000 people have not substantially improved. Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad.”

Additionally, many countries in Africa face a common challenge of having to address the creation or strengthening of institutions that guarantee the rule of law and enforce respect for the constitutional rights of citizens. Ghana has done well on that front, especially relative to most other countries in the region, and it’s clear to all of Ghana’s neighbors (particularly Nigeria) that to win the favor of the U.S. and its charismatic president, a proactive stance on good governance is necessary.

In spite of Obama’s strong and meaningful message, I don’t think this is a watershed moment in the U.S.-Africa relationship. First off, for all the verbal commitments to being “a friend and a partner every step of the way,” let’s get real about what the current recession implies: a bit of turning inwards for rich countries who will again not deliver the necessary policy changes to really make a difference; the lowering of tariffs for African products; a complete overhaul of agricultural subsidies – these are among some of the critical areas for policy intervention. In this climate of fiscal constraint and tightening credit across the globe, access to finance is also a key issue for African development. Despite their significance for the continent, Obama failed to speak about the aforementioned issues.

Probably because he knows that in one brief (albeit historical) visit, and one speech, one can only deliver so much.

Bono’s assessment is that “presidential attention would be a shot in the arm for these [anti-corruption, rule of law improvement] efforts — an infusion of moral and political amino acids that, by the way, will make aid dollars go further.”

I’d like to believe that a one-day visit to West Africa and a speech before the Ghanaian parliament could truly galvanize country-level efforts in promoting effective democracy. But, at the risk of stretching Bill Easterly’s Man in Charge argument, I think we need to have a humbler understanding of what this speech means for America’s relationship with Africa. Efficiently dealing with issues as varied as corruption, nonexistent infrastructure, protracted conflicts or subpar education, will require significant – if not dramatic – shifts in policy and attitudes. While Bono seems to believe that Obama’s words inevitably produce change, African commentators are (surprisingly?) far more sober in their assessments. An editorial in the South African Daily News notes that “even the most devoted Obama fans are aware of the fact that the first black American president – whom they love to call a ‘son of Africa’ – cannot solve the continent’s many problems.”

I agree with David Rothkopf, who discusses the natural limitations of presidential influence and power: “It’s time recognize that it really does take a big team of empowered leaders to make the complex foreign policy of the U.S. work and evolve in the right directions. It’s time to recognize that it does not reflect badly on the president if we all agree he cannot transform the world single handedly, that however different he may be from his predecessors, that alone is not enough.”

Assorted Thoughts

Given that, as of late, the world is revolving around the Financial Crisis and its ramifications (or the Crash of 2008 – I think we should now think of this as a seminal event that deserves capitalization!), conversations usually veer off on that topic. I was recently discussing the measurement of prosperity with a friend – and how, for rich countries, GDP appears to be the single most important determinant of prosperity. As Megan McArdle from The Atlantic aptly puts it:

Because fiscal stimulus “working” is more than a question of increasing measured GDP. In every other context, liberals are all too aware of the limitations of GDP as a proxy for human wellbeing. In the context of the stimulus debate, however, all those reservations seem to fly right out of their heads.

Interestingly, the stimulus measures being debated in the United States are intended to positively affect different areas of our society – chief among them, economic output – but also, for instance, the quality of education and access to medical care.

There seems to be a tension in the public debate: we are asking for genuine, systemic change, but at the same time, we are not willing to spend the time and resources necessary to do so. What gives? And the United States is a good example, but it’s true in many other places where the status quo is maintained because of some sort of collective inability to compromise.

We have been using the Human Development Index to measure progress in and between countries for nearly two decades – perhaps it would be interesting to adapt some variation of it to suit a national context — as a proxy for human wellbwing — it would allow the public to construe well-being in a less unidimensional, more holistic way.

Just a thought.

By the way, the US ranks 15th in the 2008 HDI rankings. Liberia 176th out of 179 countries. And Sierra Leone, its neighbor, trails in the last position.

I like this, although I’ll cynically add that there might be something a little bit contrived about it… (via TED)

– I missed this story earlier this month. The violation of refugee and human rights goes unabated, in a context of complicated politics between Egypt and Israel. Once again, the UNHCR is unable to weigh in decisively – I’m looking forward to the 2009 edition of the Human Development Report, which will focus on migration, both within and beyond borders.

– Lastly… I am extremely pleased that B. Easterly just debuted his blog. He started with a bang, throwing punches at Jeff Sachs and Robert Zoellick, and making fun of Davos party-goers (I am secretely hoping that the title of that particular post…”and now for something completely different:…” is a direct reference to Monty Python.)

A good response to Easterly’s criticism of Zoellick’s plea for increased and sustained foreign aid flows can be read here. Excerpt:

But these are not normal times we are living in. Poor countries, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are facing an unprecedented crisis. Private capital flows, which had been rising faster in Africa than any other region, are drying up or reversing. Remittances, estimated at $20 billion a year to the continent, are also slowing because, for the first time, the crisis started in the sending countries (77 percent of remittances to Africa come from the U.S. and Western Europe). And the fall in commodity prices is sending many commodity exporters into a recession. Previous growth decelerations in Africa have been associated with increases in poverty, infant and child mortality and out-of-school children. Worst of all, just when economic reforms were beginning to take effect in Africa (growth had been sustained for ten years and accelerating over the last three), people are being asked to tighten their belts—for a crisis that is not even remotely their fault.

Great Leap Forward

Barack Obama yesterday ordered the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and CIA secret prisons, closing the book on the Bush administration’s controversial “war on terror” policies. (Financial Times)

Thank you for restoring dignity to the United States, President Obama.

He is striking the right notes in my book – banning torture, closing Guantanamo Bay, capping the salaries of White House staff to $100K (unlike a certain disappointing someone when he was elected in 2007)

A great leap forward, or a just return to order? Either way, fabulous news. Cheers to GOOD news, for once.

Proud, Relieved, Happy, Elated

I know these are probably some really overused words today, but I really do feel this collective pride, relief, happiness and elation. It feels like, finally, after 8 years of complete insanity, we can finally expect actual Leadership from the President of the United States. Being 25, I became an “adult” under Bush – if that makes sense. But his Presidency really had an enormous impact on the world, and my perception of it. Countless times, I have felt so utterly dismayed, upset, shocked by the actions of Bush and his cronies, and on a very personal level, Obama’s election is so meaningful.

One of the most beautiful things about this election is that it’s meaningful for so many people, on so many levels, and for so many different reasons – it puts Obama in the undesirable situation of having to deliver on a lot of fronts, but, for now, we should revel in this moment and appreciate how absolutely deal changing this election is.

In the spring of 2003, during my sophomore year in college, I went to Detroit over spring break. I went with a group of students from Tufts, through a program called Volunteer Vacations which organizes week long trips to underserved communities for student volunteers during school vacations. We drove to Detroit in a large van, 13 of us – we were a motley crew, and none of us knew each other prior to the trip. We were staying in a church in downtown Detroit, with sleeping bags on the floor. Our mission was to work with a group called SOSAD (Save our Sons and Daughters), which was founded by a group of mothers whose children had been killed in gun violence. These women organized volunteers to go into inner city schools and talk to teenagers about conflict resolution, peace and non-violence.

Our first day of training, we were given some strategies to engage with the teens in the classrooms – how to break the ice and get them to talk to us, their “peers”. During the training, other mothers from the community came to talk to us about how their child had been killed – some got in a fight, and were shot; others were victims of stray bullets. I had not anticipated this level of emotional intensity for a volunteer stint – quite frankly, I didn’t really understand the dynamics at play in Detroit.

The 13 of us were quite shaken by the end of training, and really dreaded our assignment. When we went to the schools, we were met by metal detectors, long looks and suspicion. Besides the fact that we were a bunch of privileged kids from a liberal arts college on the East Coast, we were also trying to talk them about conflict resolution and non violence precisely at the same time as Bush was launching his useless war in Iraq.

On March 17th 2003, when we began “shock and awe”, my group was gathered around a TV, at a pastor’s house who lent us his place (and his fridge full of beer – yes). We had been recounting the events of the day, but when the images of the bombing began, the room fell silent and we realized how absurd it was for us to preach peaceful conflict resolution and non violence when our LEADERS were going against that very principle. I’ll always remember the way I felt, which I don’t think I can really describe with mere words. I felt so disheartened, so defeated. Compounded by the fact that we were in possibly one of the bleakest places in America, it was a very dark time, and it shook me to the core. That semester, I was taking a photography class I really got into, and expressed a lot of this anger, frustration, sadness and fear through art (which is NOT my forte), which might have been the only time I’ve been able to capture these feelings outside of my own mind.

The feeling of powerlessness and disgust, when a 14 year old girl actually ASKS us “how can you talk about peace when our own country is killing innocents?” Well, that was a great question. How CAN we talk about peace in those circumstances? How hypocritical can we be with a straight face?

The Detroit trip was really eye opening for me on many levels, a defining moment in my young life – most significantly, it awakened me to the brutal reality of the world, which of course I had not ignored until then, but simply had not FELT.

Last night, that strange, inexplicable weight I have been carrying with me for nearly six years was lifted.

Well, not entirely – nothing has changed yet. We still have a million battles to fight, and justice has yet to be restored (or created). But what’s amazing, is that today, there is actual HOPE that it can be done. And I’m so thankful to Barack Obama for making me feel that we can still fight for good, and that that’s precisely what he’s going to do.

Thank you, Barack Obama, for the hope you are instilling in all of us.