Disclaimer: This is the response to another prompt on the Third World Development final–about what advice you’d give president-elect Obama about turning around the dismal and disintegrating reputation of America abroad and conquer poverty, hunger, and social injustice at the same time. It’s a bit long, but I’d honestly love feedback.
Hopes are what the American Dream is built on—what brought, and continues to bring, millions of immigrants from every continent by land, by sea, and by air to this country. And despite our own past specters and present demons of corruption, hypocrisy and injustice, the American Dream is still real. We still hope that children of all colors and creeds will live together in security and respect. We still hope that opportunity and hard work will open doors and break generations-long chains of poverty and oppression. We still hope that this grand experiment of liberty will indeed enlighten the world.
But this liberty was meant to enlighten the world, not subject it. The shackles at the feet of Lady Liberty are broken—it’s the torch she holds high. This is the embodiment of soft power, as much as the so-called “gun-barrel democracy” of recent decades is the embodiment of hard power. Both types of power can be used to “export democracy,” but they accomplish it in fundamentally different ways. Where hard power seeks to command and coerce, soft power seeks to co-opt. The tools of hard power are force, sanctions, payments and bribes; the tools of soft power institutions, policies, culture and values. Hard power is authoritarian and self-serving. Soft power is neither. And HOPES development is built on soft power.
It’s not a cookbook recipe for poverty eradication, and it’s not a step-by-step guide for building world peace. HOPES development is an approach, an ideology based on bits of diffusion theory, behavioral change theory, world systems theory, and development theory (not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears lessons of some of the world’s great change agents) about what it takes to make a lasting difference.
HELP : Meet immediate needs, Give them what they ask for!
ORGANIZE : Design holistic solutions to authentic challenges.
PREPARE : Address financial, social, human and conceptual capital gaps.
EMPOWER : Confront social and structural barriers.
SUSTAIN : Implement long-term solutions for evolution and growth.
First, help. Literacy programs have little impact when parents can’t feed their children, and distributing condoms to teenage girls won’t make much difference if the men who rape them don’t use them. HOPES development starts with listening to the people on the ground, identifying underlying needs, and then giving them what they ask for! Sincere and generous help will open doors, to say nothing of hearts and minds.
Second, organize. Once immediate needs have been met, a development community can set out unpacking complex problems and setting step-wise goals. Beginning with the end clearly in mind helps unify groups and manage scarce resources. Thorough communication and established priorities early in the process can help avoid costly (and damaging) misunderstandings later.
The next principle is preparation. This involves addressing issues of personal capacity and motivation—gaps in financial capital might be filled through programs like microcredit or microfranchise, gaps in social capital through co-ops or communities of practice, gaps in human capital through training, apprenticeship, and literacy programs, and gaps in conceptual capital through information access and openness.
The fourth principle, empowerment, focuses on the social and structural barriers to change within a development community. It entails supporting change through collaborative effort; harnessing peer pressure within the community, changing the physical environment, influencing policy and public opinion leaders through media and other channels, and introducing original reward and punishment schemes aligned with emerging goals and values.
The final element is perhaps both the most difficult and the most crucial. Change efforts that evolve and even grow after the international funds have dried up, the international volunteers have gone home, and the international news cameras are pointed somewhere else are few and far between. Sustainability has become a catch phrase for our energy use, our population growth, our business and pleasure pursuits, and must be equally central to our development efforts. Accountability through embedded evaluation processes, adaptability through flexible and responsive strategic processes and authentic agency of all players involved are key factors in the sustainability of any development effort—and simply maintaining the growth and evolution of a change effort as a central measure of its success from the outset will go a long way to ensuring its lasting effect.
The remainder of this essay is to show how HOPES development could be instrumental in a soft power approach to checking the freefal of America’s reputation and addressing the root causes of disillusionment, discontent and dissent from the First World to the Third.
The tide of anti-Americanism has been rising around the world for decades. In the last several years, however, it has become nearly inescapable. Everyday Americans who’ve never seen Paris or even Tijuana are confronted on a regular basis with ever-stronger indications that the “city set on a hill” is attracting fewer longing glances, and more toilet paper and eggs. Thomas Friedman calls this undercurrent (particularly pronounced in the Arab world) a “river of rage” and names three main tributaries feeding it; The first is humiliation. There may be no more powerful force in international affairs than the (literal) indignation of people whose traditions are disregarded, whose beliefs are mocked, and who find themselves trapped and destitute through the single-minded might of an outside force (be it military or multi-national.) The second river is oppression. Simply put, oppressive governments, oppressive culture, and oppressive poverty all breed impotence—discontent with no perceivable way out. The third is misinformation, and—equally potent—lack of information. These forces combined have citizens from Lebanon to Vietnam to Bolivia wondering at once why the US, with all its wealth and power, doesn’t step in and help them, and why it can’t seem to get its arrogant nose out of other people’s business and let someone else succeed. We can best confront these rivers of rage not by burying them, poisoning them, or sending “droughts” to dry them up but by opening a channel for the pent-up energy of so much impotence into constructive, hope-full efforts—building metaphorical hydro-electric dams to harness the energy of these natural cataracts.
How do we do it? Well, one thing is certain, we don’t do it alone. To counter the image of America as the “take-it-or-leave-it,” “with-or-without-you,” “my-way-or-the-highway” maverick (read: bully)—a decidedly hard power image—our first step should be to engage. Solicit and acknowledge the opinions and the contributions of other players, on their terms. Welcome disparate voices and foster debate. Do more speaking softly (which does not have to mean weakly) and less brandishing of big sticks.
Part of using soft power to change the image of America is simply repurposing the things that have always made us unique, and historically made us “great.” We can tackle new challenges in the world economy with the same zeal and adaptability that helped us tackle space travel (and unlock the Internet.) We can express the gritty determination and dogged optimism that is such a part of the American spirit without alienating those who express their commitment differently. We can celebrate (again, for the first time) the diversity that makes us a pot of stew, or fruit salad, or a bowl of Chex® mix, by embracing varied and disparate voices from around our country and around the world.
We can start by engaging with the Elders (not claiming them or assimilating them or restructuring them as we might be inclined to do) but simply engaging with them as any village would; posing questions to them, hearing their stories, seeking their advice, upholding their examples with respect and honoring their legacies through emulation. The likes of Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Ela Bhatt and Fernando Cardoso have much more to offer than most of us know. We also have some “elders” of our own who could make meaningful contributions to this community; C.K. Prahalad, Madeleine Albright, Bill Gates, and many more. Scholars and biographers can even help bring the ideas (and ideals) of American legends from Addams to Lincoln to Alinsky to King back into our dialogue with the world.
In addition, every challenge we face at home or abroad has its own set of “elders”—men and women who have poured heart, soul, resources, and years of their lives into grappling with the AIDS crisis in Africa, advocating adult literacy in Central America, exposing the sex trade in Southeast Asia, and combating meth abuse among young mothers in the American Midwest. For each issue this community decides to take on, there is an (often informal) global council of elders to engage with. Examining these success cases—and the efforts that haven’t proven effective—and supporting those whose work is making a difference, whether they fit our profile or not, is a critical part of organizing for sustainable development.
But a village is not composed solely of elders. Part of a soft power approach that relies on cooperation instead of command or coercion is engaging with the ones who actually have the problem. How can a community set out to eradicate poverty without the perspective, the priorities and the proposals of poor people? How can we hope to fight social injustice when we deny its victims an active role in the mechanisms designed to liberate them? How can we strive for sustainability in our efforts if those who ultimately have to sustain them have no voice in how we proceed? Our efforts must encompass, not simply be aimed at (pun absolutely intended) those we hope to serve.
Another critical step will be to engage more than just the pocketbooks of the average American (incidentally, even this would be a step—most Americans don’t even know their pocketbooks are engaged right now.) Just like the most effective damage control for Islam after the 9/11 attacks did not come from the imams or the mullahs (the best predictor of a person’s ability to mentally separate jihadi extremists from Islam was a personal or professional relationship with a Muslim) America can best counter growing resentment, frustration and disappointment abroad through the positive personal interactions of her people. Many, if not most, Americans have compassionate hearts and a sincere desire to leave the world better than they found it—only they have no idea how. And the same rivers of rage that feed anti-Americanism around the globe are feeding frustrations at home. Humiliation, impotence, and misinformation have many Americans baffled at the apparent failures of both diplomacy and war, despite the blood of thousands of our soldiers, confused at what looks for all the world to them like blatant ingratitude and laziness from the failed states of the world, outraged by administration policies and tactics that seem decidedly un-American, and exclaiming in exasperation “Hey! I thought we were the good guys!” Critical efforts to organize, prepare and empower must be expended right here at home, so that the average American is aware of and engaged with the broader world, equipped with the information and skills she needs to take action, and confident in her ability to make a difference.
This approach sounds (and probably is) a bit naïve. It’s an experiment, an approach that’s perhaps been tried but never succeeded before. It’s risky and complex, and requires the cooperation of too many people with too many different ideas. It’s brazenly against the way things have always been done, and it’s incorrigibly idealistic. But, then again, so is America.