[With Barack Obama now elected as President of the USA, below is an updated version of this blog, originally posted in June 2008.]
DO GRANDMOTHERS AND COMMUNITIES RULE?
I am not an American and, to use that awful phrase, did not a have a horse in this US Presidential race. However, now that Barack Obama is elected, don't we all need to consider the possible impact of his Presidency on how aid and development policy are conceived, prioritised, and delivered? With intransigent poverty levels, raging HIV/AIDS rates, a food crisis, stagnant infant mortality rates, and a whole host of other big development issues in the poorest countries of the world, maybe this is a good time to consider a fundamental policy shake-up in how we understand and implement effective development action. A good lens into that shake-up would be the possible approach that President-elect Obama might have to development action. For that, we need to look at his background and political principles. How do they translate to the development environment?
Three things jump to mind like an Obama 3-point basketball shot: Grandmother; Chicago; and "Yes - We Can!"
More than any other global leader the rich countries of the West have ever experienced Obama has a deep, personal connection to Africa - his Grandmother and relatives live in Kenya. The natural flow from this connection is to assume a high priority on development aid in his administration. But, within that high priority there could be deeper implications.
Obama will have seen, over a long time period, unfiltered by status and personal distance, both aid and development action as it affected his family and "African home" community in Kenya. His grandmother, relatives, and community members will undoubtedly, over many years, have let him know their views on what is working and not working in their communities and country. He will have heard their voices not as a leading USA political figure but as Barack, their family member.
Is it possible to surmise that an Obama aid and development policy would feature a strong emphasis on community engagement and voice?
As we all know, Obama graduated in law from a very prestigious American university, with lots of job offers for Wall Street and the like, and went on, instead, to be a community organiser in the economically poorer neighbourhoods in Chicago. OK - he had political ambitions...but...a community organiser?
He obviously has a deep belief in the wisdom and desirability of communities organising to address and pursue the issues and goals that they decide. And he has strong personal knowledge, skill, and insight about how that happens.
Can we further surmise that this belief, principle, and experience will reinforce a community organisation and action priority in his aid and development policies?
"YES - WE CAN!"
There is general agreement amongst both the American public and the American political chattering class that Obama's political campaign has been at two levels. Yes - he wants to be President. But he also wants greatly expanded political participation.
Obama's style and approach has fomented an extraordinary level of political engagement, debate, and dialogue across all population groups, but particularly among young people. And he has done this in a way that seeks to place people and communities at the center of the action. His catchphrase is "Yes - We Can!". It is not "What I will do for You!"
If we are not running out of surmises, can we leap forward and see an Obama aid and development strategy that seeks to support greatly expanded public engagement in the decision making that affects those publics' future?
That an Obama presidency would move the development and aid priorities to: Voice; Community Organisation; and Expanded Political Dialogue, Debate, and Participation?
Now that President Obama has been elected, should we not, as good policy makers and planners, spend considerable time trying to learn from the Obama approach and "doctrine". After all, we are all struggling to figure out what works for effective development action. Maybe the seismic development shift in development strategies that could come from an Obama presidency is badly needed.
Or do we all want to face, as he will, his Kenyan Grandmother if we do not do a much better job at aid and development?