Posted by: ourvoicestogether | October 25, 2007

Citizen Advocacy Or Citizen Diplomacy: What Can You Do? Plenty!

What Can You Do?  Plenty! Safer, More Compassionate World Forum: Williamsburg, VA

Monday night I spoke at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA. The local chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy invited me to drive down and talk about building a safer, more compassionate world and non-military responses to terrorism. I already knew this was a unique place from previous visits, but walking from the parking lot by the a cappella group practicing in the acoustics of an open porch in a colonial-era building, was an apt reminder. (William & Mary has 11 student a cappella groups!)

So here is the very important question students posed: (I am paraphrasing to include some of the issues we explored leading up to and during the discussion of this question.) As an already globally-minded American who wants to be as effective as possible in building a safer, more compassionate world, which of the following should I do?

  1. Personally reach out internationally and, for example, support a school, having a direct impact on a few people’s lives both through the education I can help provide as well as through the positive interaction people have with me.
  2. Use the levers of our democracy to advocate for policy changes and budgetary priorities and elect leaders who will place higher priority on having a more positive impact on people’s lives around the world.

There were good arguments put forth by students on both sides. Some pointed to America’s economic, political and military might abroad and stressed that the US government has potentially the biggest impact on lives all over the world and as only American citizens decide our government, we should focus our energies and finances on advocacy so that this power is a force for good globally. Others pointed to the huge impact and effectiveness of one individual supporting one project, multiplied many times, and you get the cross-cultural, person-to-person benefits as well. Some opined that an individual doesn’t have any real impact on foreign affairs issues Congress due to the lobbyists and major campaign contributors, so you can be more effective directly supporting a project in the field.

“At least supporting a school or clinic you see exactly where your money goes.”

“Ahh, but you haven’t made any systemic change, which better policies and leaders can do.”

“Your good policies will likely have to be tacked to some unsavory policies or pork spending just to get passed and can be undone during the next election.”

“Your school or clinic can still get bombed or closed down.”

$600 can pay a teacher in Pakistan for one year. A $600 campaign contribution won’t get you a meeting with your Senator. But using your voice and your vote will! Option 1 or 2? I think 1 AND 2. We can’t afford one without the other. We can and must do both. What do you think?




  1. Why not do both? After reading Meeting the Enemy, Becoming a Friend by Dr. Gelder, I’ve been seeing ways to be a global citizen all over. Sure, on one’s travels there are many ways one can better represent America, but also at home. I think citizen diplomacy and certain forms of advocacy are really the only way to go at this point in time.

  2. Ideally, yes, options 1 AND 2 sound good. Both must be conducted side-by-side in order effect a ‘real’ change. But is that a realistic proposition?

    However, I would rather go with a systemic transition, a process orchestrated by prominent force structures within the dynamics of the scheme of things. And, therefore, to my mind, making a well-intentioned effort to achieve Option 2 in its entirety through various ways and means may be the appropriate plan of action.

    I understand that by opting for Option 2, there will be an absence of a ‘personal touch’. However, if a mechanism of balanced checks and balances can be devised, and if the right infrastructural improvements are made into a system, there is a greater likelihood of a nation or a state making a worthwhile transformation.

    For instance, it is a proven fact that when Western NGOs (non-governmental organizations) work with governments in the Third World countries, educating the policy makers, bureaucrats and the like to, guiding them in the right direction, things have more than often taken a turn for the better. Countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are probably the best examples of NGO’s working hand-in-hand with the governments, utilizing the indigenous resources and helping those countries grapple with issues like education, health and social welfare.

    On the other hand, a lot depends on how much and to what extent is it possible to impact the lives of the people we are dealing with. Is there a desire to improve? Can they absorb the proposed changes with a certain degree of tolerance? What will be the levels of resistance?

    One country where, despite consistent efforts, not much has been achieved is Pakistan. For years together, NGOs have tried and test the waters without much luck or success. Policy changes vis-à-vis education and health reforms, human rights, and democracy have not had a strong impact overall.

    Pakistan still suffers from the worst form of slavery, in the shape of the kiln workers and child carpet weavers. Feudal system is recognized which implies that farmers are subservient (mind you, ‘subservient’ is an under-statement) to the feudal lords (and by the way, Benazir Bhutto, the woman portrayed as a sole hope of democracy in the country, is herself one of the biggest feudals).

    Therefore, the crux of the matter, no matter what type of approach is adopted and where we try to impact a positive change in people’s lives around the world, what also matters is the will of those running the affairs in those regions to act as honest facilitators and trustworthy allies of those who offer a helping hand.

  3. The Us is going to have to learn that the best way to lead the World and influence it people is through a positive example. We can’t be #29 in the World in education and talk about educating people in 3rd World counties. We can’t be #18 globally in health care and preach wellness and global health. We can’t be the World’s biggest nuclear proliferator and then try and constrain others from becoming nuclear. We can’t say that we have the best of Christian values, the bomb and kill everyone in sight who threatens our thirst for oil. You can’t propose diplomacy, then have no policy or bureaucrats to exchange in diplomacy. They tell you on an airplane, if you’re traveling with young children and we lose cabin pressure, put the air mask over your face first then over the child. That’s the same way we should be leading the World; let’s make America #1 in everything, then share our success on a global basis. Right now, we have neither respect or credibility in the World thanks to Cheney/bush.

  4. The big shift the USA has to make is to embrace what it is great at…providing opportunity for people ….the spirit of the USA is that everyone has a chance to live their dream.

    The USA has moved away from this and now attempts to rule the world through hypocrisy (invading countries who supposedly have weapons of mass destruction when the only country ever to use a weapon of mass destruction is the USA).

    The USA is so socially and economically dependent on the military machine that they have created that real solutions to human issues are the furtherest thing from the scope of many Americans.

    There needs to be a shift away from this part of American culture….the part that says stuff you all… the American way is the only way and if you don’t like it we will blow the $$%$^ out of you.

    There is obviously such a vested financial interest in America being at war with someone.

    It is time for a shift in consciousness and American can lead the world in this.

    The shift is way from spending on the military and toward spending on human welfare. Initially this needs to start at home.

    This means addressing things like homelessness and health problems (like obesity). It means creating a system where people are encouraged to have great health.

    It means where the heroes of the nation are those that act peacefully and for the good of all mankind.

  5. As individuals we may be able to choose between the two options based on our abilities and preferencies. We’re ultimately responisble for both–for having a good government and for personally being good global neighbors–but whether we get more involved in one or the other may be about our abilities. Someone who has a passion for foreign languages might make a better citizen diplomat than a lobbyist. The work they do cannot be emulated by a government or tax dollars.

    Perhaps we should think of government not as a way of helping other people but as a way of structuring the rules of American society to help those who want to help others. If the government pays for a program like fulbright, or hires USAID employees, it will ultimately be these citizens abroad who represent the US and the government money will only be an enabling factor.

    If you see it this way, personally helping is the important part and politics has a secondary importance–allowing more citizens to be diplomats. Here’s a question, though: which one has more of a long-term impact? which type of work will have a more lasting effect?

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