How the US Congress can make friends and help people

What is the role of US Aid in developing contexts?

A panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies sought to answer this fundamental question, as part of the Global Development Forum meetings.

While the question and its answer seem simple, it does have enormous implications on how foreign aid impacts various levels of development – both domestically and internationally. It shows us how we think of America’s role in the world.

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Photo credit : http://www.humanosphere.org

This question is also important, as it reflects the attitudes that American publics have towards helping those who are vulnerable and weak. It goes to the deeply held beliefs of what the United States is about, its ‘manifest destiny’ is and how other nations are to interact with it. Looking at this question from the inside-out, one can gain incredible insights into what the future of multi-lateral relations will be.

So, who does this question impact? Immediately, in the D.C circles, it impacts the ‘belt-way bandits’, those organizations that are the direct beneficiaries of the government contracts – whether in the International Development space or other indirect forms of ‘capacity building’ through International NGOs. It also impacts foreign governments, whether they are those such as Pakistan, Israel or Egypt, that get a substantial chunk of their aid – to the tunes of billions of dollars from the U.S. or others, such as India, that have sought a more technical partnership and have moved away from accepting large aid.

Looking at the current political climate, where the focus is on ‘making America great’ again and this reluctance to ‘help’ other poorer nations is frowned upon. At the same time, one must not forget that US Aid has been a key part of not only US foreign policy, but also one of its diplomacy or ‘soft-power’ as Joseph Nye has argued.

They key tensions that the panel debated revolved around: Presidential authority vs. congressional mandates, ideological rigidity vs. bipartisanship and focus on alliance building ( abroad) vs. focusing on a domestic agenda. There is no movement purely in one direction, as all members of the panel, which comprised of Michael Millere, Diana Ohlbaum, Les Munson and Talia Dubovi – all veterans of Capitol Hill.

Munson argued that there is bi-partisanship in action, even today; despite what the media headlines say. He pointed to several bills such as Global food security Act, Power Africa Act and others, which have been carried to passage, through sheer bi-partisan support.

On the other hand, the gridlock between both parties is visible in the fact that the Foreign Aid Assistance Act has not been revised in over 30 yrs, pointed out Ohlbaum. At the outset, the Act recognizes that “Furthermore, the Congress reaffirms the traditional humanitarian ideals of the American people and renews its commitment to assist people in developing countries to eliminate hunger, poverty, illness, and ignorance.” This is not surprising that post WWII, the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower, and in this role, was also saw itself as an upholder of greater and nobler humanitarian principles, of which humanitarian aid is a key part.

This humanitarian impulse is seen in the event of major natural disasters that occur. Americans gave, for instance over $350 billion, in philanthropy, in 2015, according to Giving USA. Speaking about giving to International Affairs, Dr. Una Osili points out that the slight drop, by 3.4 % compared to previous years could be because of increasing attention to domestic causes. Also, there hasn’t been a huge natural disaster, that has occurred internationally; for Americans to be involved, she added.

Development, as anyone who studies it, or is involved in, knows,  is a complicated business. There are several intervening factors that go into making a country develop and grow out of poverty. There are also movements and ideas that call for ‘de-growth’ and for reexamining the current modes of ‘development.’

Not least of which is political stability and a responsible government, at the helm. The U.S. being a country that has a lot of leverage in many areas that impact global trade, commerce and flow of goods does have a big say in how the processes that impact development are conducted.  The next presidency will determine if foreign aid will just amount to charity, or if the U.S. Congress, working with the next President, will create an enabling environment for all countries to participate, in the global community of nations.

 

 

“We create Food for The Soul through Theatre”

“I have been doing theatre for a number of years in conflict zones, and have been asked more than once why they should support our work, when people don’t have enough to eat. Shouldn’t basic needs be prioritized over art? My reply is that we create food for the soul. Our work creates hope and opens the door for dialogue and in that sense is equally important,” pointed out Joanna Sherman, Artistic Director of New York based Bond Street Theatre. She was speaking along with Michael McGuigan, Managing Director of Bond Street Theatre at The Lyric Theatre, as part of the public dialogue organized by community Voices on October 24th.

Photo courtesy: Jackie Pontius

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Opening her talk with a “pick your nose hand trick” that got the audience involved in demonstrating how flexible they were with their hands, they jumped right into showing the power of nonverbal communication in reaching out to people. Throughout their presentation that lasted for about an hour, both Joanna and Michael presented various examples of acrobatics, other body language tools that they use to break through the barrier with kids, who for many reasons may not be able to communicate with others. Language is a major barrier, since many of the kids do not speak English or even if they do, many of the kids in conflict zones are so traumatized that they do not trust others enough to open up, to speak, they pointed out. “In these contexts, we believe that theatre, in the form of opening up dialogue through non-verbal communication is key” they said, in tandem. The work they have put together with local theatre groups includes shows such as the Silent Romeo and Juliet that the group put up in collaboration with another theatre group in Bulgaria.

The duo enthralled the audience with their stories of working in remote parts of Burma, India, Afghanistan and over 40 other countries. While Bond Street Theatre has worked on its own in areas of conflict and provided a venue for spreading social messages such as the need for better hygiene, education for girls, among others, they believe that the work they do is also important in teaching local groups how to do theatre themselves. “We want to teach the local theatre groups to perform, to put up shows and also work with the local stakeholders. We see this capacity building component as being significant to our work too. We also teach them business skills, since that is so crucial to remaining afloat as an organization,” said Michael.

This goes in line with the local needs of the people in many remote parts of the world. With no access to TV, electricity, Radio or other forms of communication, many of these people have no other means of getting public messaging. Local community theatre becomes part of their entertainment, as well as news gathering mechanism. In this context, the power of theatre is multiplied manifold, the duo pointed out. In a brief chat before the official talk, Michael shared with me how they were overwhelmed with the positive response from villagers in Afghanistan, during their first trip there. Expecting to see about 50-100 people, they showed up at a local school. On being informed that this was the last day of school, the Bond group did not expect to see even that many people. “We were overwhelmed to see over 1000 people in the school backyard, when we went around. People were waiting anxiously to see us perform. It is one of the most overwhelmingly positive experiences I have had,” he said.

It is not all good news, all the time. There are definite challenges to their work, as well. Being American and working in a country where the Taliban still has some influence can be dangerous. While both Joanna and Michael pointed out that they have never felt threatened by the local people, in any way, there are times when one has to be cautious, they said. The recent controversy about the film on Prophet Muhammad created a lot of confusion, so we just lay low for a while, they said. Part of the solution to being safe and ensuring that their work is well received is to get the buy-in of the local Mullahs, or religious leaders. There is much wisdom in doing that and ensuring that they understand exactly what it is that we are doing, while respecting their local traditions and religious sensibilities, they both said.

Their mission is “restoring humanity through theatre”, in Joanna’s words. And from the stories they shared at The Lyric, they seem to be doing just that. As a parting thought, Joanna said “ If there is one thing I have learnt from all my travels and experiences, it is that people are people, everywhere. They all want to get up and have a good day.”

 

My Wish list on India’s Independence Day

 

What do I wish for my country on its Independence day ( Aug 15th ?). Well, a few things come to mind – as I look at my country from the outside. Having lived outside the country for over 4 yrs now, I have firmly established myself as a Non-Resident Indian ( some would say Non-Reliable Indian), and  I am have become an outsider who has an insider’s perspective.

I believe it is a good position to be in, to analyse and look at a few problems which seem so entrenched and deep-rooted. We seem to have achieved much, since the British left the sub-continent in 1947, but we seem to have also squandered a lot too.

Here is my wish-list for my country and its people :

  1. End of poverty – It is only this year that I read a report on BBC website that there are more poor people in India than in the entire continent of Africa. Shocking, troubling and depressing indeed. But, there is also a great deal of resilience, dignity and courage in the Indian people.

I wish that there is enough for everyone to eat, basic healthcare for all and opportunities for advancement for those who want to progress socially and economically.

As a group of people, we Indians somehow carry on, plod through the problems and face life and what it offers us. This character seems to have evolved over thousands of years and generations of changes, both cultural as well as political. I firmly believe that gargantuan though this seems, the problem of income distribution is not just economic, but also cultural,  political and philosophical.With the right mix of politics and cultural reforms, we can achieve the end of poverty.  Amartya Sen, who has been infamously called the “Mother Teresa” of Economics has said rather philosophically “While I am interested both in economics and in philosophy, the union of my interests in the two fields far exceeds their intersection”. This perspective is also important to understand and de-construct India’s reality.

2. Equal rights and opportunities : When we speak of liberalisation, globalisation and growth, we are indulging in a very middle-class speak, which leaves out millions and millions of those who are not part of the “India”story. I think there has to be greater inclusion and also awareness that there is a huge segment of the population who are not able to participate in this story and who are denied equal rights, simply because of where they come from.

This should translate from just high moral principles in the Constitution to ground realities. We may use a combination of market economic as well as public sector initiatives to achieve this. Liberalisation since the 90s has achieved much progress, but I believe this must be tempered and integrated into the entire fabric of Indian society so the Indian economy doesn’t follow the trends of Wall street alone

3.End of bigoty and narrowmindedness : Regionalism, petty-politics of language, religion and caste is the bane of our society. While the multi-party system in some ways guarantees that there is diversity of opinion and participation by all strata of society and of all castes and creeds, I believe the amount of bigotry and narrow-mindedness that exists in Indian society is truly astonishing.

A dear friend told me recently that he thought the only way to get rid of this would have been to have Soviet style communism for a few decades. While that would seem rather strong remedy for the malady, perhaps some such drastic measure ( though democratic) would purge us of our narrow thinking.

4. Less corruption and greater civil society participation – With the brouhaha of Corruption and Lokpal having caught the imagination of our public and the media, which is ever-ready to pounce on any new issue that comes to the fore, there is also a need to look at practical measures to ensure there is less corruption. Passing a bill or law will not change much, unless there is a shift in consciousness of people.

Reform of the Administrative apparatus and also the civil services is a good idea. The Civil servants I have interacted with over the past few months ( who come to the Maxwell school of Citizenship) for training also point towards this fact. The pay-commission and its recommendations have apparently made life better for them, and the incentive to be “honest” is greater now. But, unless there is a more professional approach to public service, there is bound to be nepotism and red-tapism.

Platitudes and sloganeering may not really help much.

5. Regional peace – This is truly the Elephant in the room. With Pakistan at the brink of a social revolution, there is an opportunity for India to seal the deal with the neighbor that we have had trouble over the last few decades.

It is encouraging that we had talks with the Foreign minister of Pakistan a few weeks ago and there is at least a momentum to engage and discuss contentious issues. This should be kept up and both countries should ensure there is regional peace.

f there is something to be learnt from history, perhaps it is that when two neighbours fight, it is someone else who gains. Peace may not be the sexiest or cool thing to pursue, and it may even mean a few compromises; but diplomacy and politics is all about compromises and we should not forget this as we work towards becoming a regional super-power.

MENASA ?

The Acronym dictionary defines MENASA as – Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

When you google it, MENSA throws up. Not a very smart acronym, this one. But try harder, and you will find the definition for it.

A new acronym. A fad. A smart ( and pretentious) way to club together groups of countries ? Well, that depends on the way one looks at it. But to me, this makes sense.

According to a few important reports that came out recently, this region will define the future of the world – the key argument being one of demographics and also resources. The one that i read in some depth is the one by the management consulting firm Mc Kinsey. If one observes the ongoings in the MENA region, with the Arab Spring, this seems like a far-stretched argument.

But let’s take the long-term view. Social change takes decades, not months and weeks ( often the time-span that traditional media uses as a frame of reference).

The arguments for MENASA can be summed up as :

A recent report by Mc Kinsey pointed to the demographics as well as the wealth of human resources in the region – which are full of entrepreneurial zeal ( refer:http://www.menasaforum.ae/partners/official/files/Perspectives%20on%20MENASA.PDF).

The region is set to generate nine per cent of the world’s total growth in gross domestic product in the next 10 years, up from its current five per cent share. And during this period it is slated to achieve real growth rates of six to seven per cent. The western economies have stopped growing or are experiencing deceleration, while the economies of MENASA continue to grow.

McKinsey estimates cumulative financial inflows from hydrocarbon exports in these countries could exceed $9trn by 2020.

India, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey account for 92 per cent of the region’s population.

We also see that the widespread use of English in India, Pakistan and Egypt and French in Morocco, coupled with these countries’ significant pool of skilled people and the relatively low labour costs, make them attractive destinations for companies looking to outsource support functions and value-added services such as legal and accounting services. This is already happening in a big way and will continue to grow in the years to come.

But isn’t all of this fantastical thinking, in the absence of democratic institutions and also recourse to law and strong contractual systems ? This is a valid argument, especially when one reads of businesses suffering due to lack of transparency as well as red-tapism and corruption.

But with the growth in economies and greater demand for transparency and better systems, things are bound to change. In India, there is the Right to Information Act ( RTI), which is being implemented in several states, and has made the government more accountable.

Similarly, the Arab spring is bound to bring in better systems, which are more robust and responsive to the citizen’s needs.

I am inclined to believe that this region is where the action is. Despite the funny acronym, there is reason to believe that this is where the future lies.