President-elect Obama and his team have demonstrated an extraordinary ability to foment and support change. Much of that change relates to the practice of democracy and governance which is also such an important global development priority. Of course the major change challenges of a global economic melt-down, climate change, poverty, global security, relations between peoples of different faiths, and other vital issues now await an Obama Administration. But we should all reflect on what we can learn from their democracy and governance change process to date.
12 months ago, over a long dinner, a group of UK Labour Party Members of Parliament told me categorically that there was no chance of the USA electing a Black President. Many of us from outside the USA have watched with eyes wide open and jaws gaping as we witnessed the election of this Black President. That in itself is extraordinary. But in many ways the other achievements have been equally impressive: the vastly increased political engagement of previously disenfranchised, disillusioned, or disinterested populations such as many parts of the Black and Latino communities and young people across the country; and the extraordinary escalation of informed and astute public debate and private dialogue on substantive political and social issues.
If we are to achieve international progress on democracy and governance, the realisation of similar phenomena is essential. Achieving those democracy and governance dynamics has proved very elusive.
So, whilst the rest of the world is probably focused on WHAT President Obama will do I suggest that local, national, and international development policy makers focus on HOW he did it. We are all in the change process and the Obama team has certainly demonstrated how to achieve change. What can we learn?
One informed commentator [I think it was Roland Martin on CNN] put it this way:
Obama married community organising to the Internet!
And that does encapsulate his approach.
Strikingly, the very first thing that President-elect Obama did on being elected was to send an email. Before he made his Grant Park acceptance speech in Chicago he sent an email to the 3 million people in their network. This was instant, non-mediated communication and it will have produced instant and unfiltered feedback. It is the new technology version of a street corner chat - that essential component of community organising.
The "network" is an essential part of any community organising process. President-elect Obama and his team were able to communicate with 3 million people instantly because they had taken the time to focus on, build, grow, nurture, and engage a broad network of people.
Good community organising requires two way [perhaps more accurately multi-way] communication processes. No community organiser would be effective if they simply said "line up behind me - follow me - here we go". The Obama team made extensive use of the new digital social networking tools in order to re-create this two-way process on a major scale.
All of us who are trying to achieve something - community organisers included - are very well aware that if style does not trump substance it is certainly its equal. How you approach a task is as important as what you do. The Obama team continually stressed what "we" can do, highlighted the importance of "everyone's contribution" recognised diversity and difference [it's the first time I have heard an American President say 'gay' in a positive tone, for example]; and highlighted that they could not "do this alone". Their extensive use of the two-way and community-oriented digital technologies not only reinforced this tone but facilitated real, substantive action in the same tone for an enhanced American democratic process.
You will get nowhere as a community organiser if there are not places and spaces where people can meet, talk, debate, and decide. This is a vital part, not just of community organising of course, but of any democratic process. The Obama team knew this and they very effectively utilised the new social networking technologies in order to implement this principle both within their campaign organisation and in the way they related to the American electorate. It was a vital component, for example, of their engagement of the youth population in the USA - a population that demands almost as a right that they are engaged, not talked to!
These are just some of the ways that community organising has been married to the internet for very substantive advances in USA Democracy and Governance.
What seems to stop the development and pursuit, at significant scale and with commensurate resourcing, of democracy and governance policies and strategies of a similar ilk to the Obama approach?
In order for this to happen there would need to be a distinct policy decision to move to a more balanced policy and strategy process. Good judges, solid legislation, fair policing, improved leadership, better political journalism, strengthened political parties, and unbiased election monitoring remain very important, of course. But they have little meaning in the absence of expanded political engagement across communities and broader and more informed political dialogue in more public and private spaces. These elements need to be a much more central focus in international development policies. The Obama team strategy gives us some clues about the way forward.
We also need some young people to, if not lead, then be key players in this policy and strategy process. I am far too old for this to be an appeal to self interest. There is little doubt that young people understand the nature and potential of the new technologies in ways that those of us who are not of this youth generation can neither understand nor appreciate. Consequently, when faced with digital processes we retreat to the safe, secure, and understood. The opportunity is lost. It is no coincidence that so many in Obama's team were so young.
That is my assessment of the lessons to be learned from the Obama campaign for more effective local, national, and international development action to progress democracy and governance. What is your assessment? Please reply below.
Thanks - Warren