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Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda

For people in the USA. A project of The Advocacy Fund, Indivisible is a project and a guide for progressives ‘looking to replicate the Tea Party’s success in getting Congress to listen to a small, vocal, dedicated group of constituents’ as a means of facing down President Trump’s agenda. The website contains the Guide itself, as well as other resources and means of connecting with other activists in your area. Materials are available in Spanish and English.

“We believe that the next four years depend on Americans across the country standing indivisible against the Trump agenda. We believe that buying into false promises or accepting partial concessions will only further empower Trump to victimize us and our neighbors. We hope that this guide will provide those who share that belief with useful tools to make Congress listen.”

Find out about The Advocacy Fund’s other projects

Rio+20 and Green Economics

Follow our Reporting from this Week’s UN Conference in Rio!

Dear Friends, 

This week the Democracy Center team, myself included, is in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Global Conference on Sustainable Development. Tens of thousands of heads of state, government leaders, UN officials and environmental and social justice activists will gather on what is also the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. 

For those interested, I will be providing news and commentary on Twitter throughout the week at: @jimshultz (retweeted by @DemocracyCenter), and we will be posting those and other reports on the Democracy Center Facebook page here. So please visit us in one place or the other. One of the most important debates in Rio will be about the future and shape of ‘Green Economic’ policies around the world. You can read my article on that on AlterNet and also below.  Finally, for any of our readers also headed to Rio this week, here are two events where I will be speaking. 

Dangerous Weapons: How Global Investment Rules Threaten the Environment and Social Justice
Monday, June 18, Hrs. 11:30-13:30 – Tenda 21 / Salón: Margarida Alves
Glaciers and Climate Change
Thursday, June 21, Hrs. 11:30-13:30 – Tenda 29 / Salon: Pe. Josimo Tavares

Thank you everyone for your interest! 

Jim Shultz

 

Will ‘Green Economics’ Help Save the Environment or Just Sell it Off to Corporations?

By Jim Shultz, AlterNet
Posted on June 15, 2012, Printed on June 15, 2012

 

In May at the headquarters of the United National Development Program in New York, I asked a dozen UNDP staff members to each define the term ‘green economics.’ From one end of the conference table to the other their answers were largely the same – green economics is about fusing environmental values into the marketplace so that economic growth does not have to come at the expense of environmental destruction.

At a meeting here this month in Bolivia, Latin American organizations preparing for this week’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, described ‘green economics’ very differently – “turning nature into a commodity…a huge false solution…green structural adjustment…a new plan to deliver the environment over to corporate control…”

As presidents, UN officials, local government leaders, and thousands of environmental and social movement leaders from across the world all head to Rio, they are also headed into a battle over what ‘green economics’ really means. At the heart of that debate is a basic question: Is the goal is to harness economic forces in service to the environment or to harness the environment in service to powerful economic interests?

The classic ‘green’ approach to economic policies aims at building environmental costs into the price of products and services, through taxes and regulation. As conservative icon Milton Friedman argued, accurate pricing is essential in a free marketplace because it allows consumers to make real comparisons about the actual costs of rival goods, and even Friedman conceded that environmental costs ought to be factored into that equation. If coal energy prices, for example, included coal’s long-term environmental costs we would make very different choices about its use. The environmentalist approach to green economics also includes public support for industries and technologies that move us in a more ecologically sustainable direction, such as solar power.

Corporations don’t care much for building environmental costs into their production and spend millions of dollars in political efforts aimed at blocking such policies. Political conservatives don’t care much for public subsidies for green industries and jobs, something GOP candidate Mitt Romney decries as government sticking its nose into venture capitalism.

However, there is a new definition of ‘green economics’ in circulation that many corporations and their political boosters like a good deal. It comes under the title ‘ecosystem services’.

The logic goes like this: A rainforest in Bolivia, for example, not only serves the people who make their lives in it, but also provides environmental benefits to the world at large by sucking climate-altering carbon out of the atmosphere. That value can be calculated in economic terms and be used as the basis for payments to governments and the peoples living in those forests as incentives for their preservation.

This idea of ‘payments to preserve’ may sound solid in theory, but it is the reality on the ground that has many in Latin America up in arms. The current financing mechanism of choice is carbon offset credits, essentially permission slips purchased by corporations and governments to allow continued dumping of carbon into the stressed atmosphere. As Latin American environmental and indigenous leaders point out, carbon offsets are a recipe to keep the planet on the same trajectory toward steep climate change, with people in impoverished countries, like Bolivia, paying its harshest price.

Environmental and indigenous groups also warn that when their water and lands become just another global commodity up for trade, the loss of control is soon to follow. Looking at the big global plans ahead for their natural resources, what many here see is a 21st century version of the resource theft that began when the Spanish first began mining silver out of the mountains of Potosí five hundred years ago.

As the Bolivian Climate Change Platform writes, “The proposals of the ‘Green Economy’ expressed [in the draft Rio agreement] are not an answer to the current environmental and climate crisis. Putting a price on nature is not the solution and will only benefit big capital.”

It is a fact that the climate and environmental crisis that we are handing to our children requires deep and rapid changes in the actions of billions of people. One of the few tools we have capable of provoking such change is using public policy to alter markets and the mass incentives they create.

This debate over how environmental demands combine with economic interests is crucial. We can neither afford to abandon the idea of green economic policies, nor can we allow that idea to be morphed into something else entirely. The stakes are too high. What we need most in Rio is not a superficial battle over a phrase, but a deep discussion about what it must mean.

 

Jim Shultz is the executive director of the Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia and San Francisco. He has worked with both Latin American social movements as well as the UN in their preparations for the Rio conference. Jim will be Tweeting from Rio all week at: @jimshultz.

 

Getting Action: Talking About My Generation

Dear Readers,

Those of you who receive our Newsletter will already know about the work the Democracy Center in engaged with to make the case that climate change is, most urgently, about our children. As Jim Shultz wrote in our latest edition

“It is a given now that our children will become adults and will raise their children in a world where draught threatens food supplies, where floods destroy communities, and where more and more extreme weather patterns claim lives (see the Democracy Center’s new multimedia site on climate change in Bolivia here).  We are set on a course toward a devastating environmental future.”

But children and young people cannot afford to be passive observers to their fate, and across the globe the younger generation are using their passion, energy and creativity to challenge the status quo and campaign on issues local and global, large and small, for a safer and more just future. We witnessed this recently in Bolivia making a film with teenagers about the impacts of climate change here and their role in confronting it (more on this coming very soon…).

Chloe Maxmin has been a committed environmental activist for many years – and she is still only 20. Now a Harvard student, and the founder of an organization connecting young activists worldwide, she took a few moments to share with us some of the important lessons she has witnessed in the struggle so far for her generation’s climate future.

Maddy Ryle – Communications Director

 

Talking About My Generation: Lessons from a Young Life in Activism

by Chloe Maxmin

Climate change is the defining issue of my generation. My peers and I are the ones who will face the major effects of rapid climatic shifts, and we are the ones who must find solutions. This may seem like an unsolvable challenge, but we have the tools to mitigate climate change and provide a healthy, safe, socially just future for all.

The environmental movement is vibrant and growing rapidly across the world. I personally began my environmental activist journey eight years ago, when I was 12. I joined a campaign in my home state, Maine, to oppose a massive development proposal for Maine’s North Woods. I brought this campaign to my high school and founded the Climate Action Club. Our mission was to provide opportunities for people in our school and community to be green. We began with basic projects like an energy audit and recycling. We applied for grants, and slowly our projects grew. We expanded into the community and worked with local schools and organizations. The CAC distributed 3800 reusable bags throughout our town, and we won a large grant that enabled us to install solar panels on our high-school. We were even featured on the Sundance Channel and won national and international recognition.

The CAC started out as a small eco-club in the middle of Maine, and our work spread around the world. This was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I wanted to share this message of empowerment with other youth, and so I founded First Here, Then Everywhere. The goal of FHTE is to unite young environmentalists and spread the message that one person can make a difference, and one person can change the world. Youth-led initiatives are featured on the site to show the many ways in which our generation is working to mitigate climate change.

In retrospect, I think that there are a few reasons why the CAC grew quickly and completed so many successful campaigns. These strategies can be summarized with a simple acronym:

Convenience

Love

Innovation

Meaning

Action

Timeliness

Education

First, convenience: we provided opportunities for people to be green. We made it easy, affordable, and fun. People did not have to go out of their way to recycle batteries or cartridges, acquire a reusable bag, or save energy. We put recycling buckets in convenient locations, and we brought those buckets to the recycling station. We designed, purchased, and distributed reusable bags throughout our town. We installed energy-saving devices in our school.

Love: Each person in the CAC was committed and deeply passionate. We were willing to sacrifice our time in order to help our school and community. We also approached our campaigns with empathy towards each stakeholder and group that we worked with. We sought to find common ground in everyone’s pursuit to save our planet.

Innovation: Our campaigns and strategies were built for and with our community. For example, we originally wanted to tax the use of plastic bags in our town, modeling on other effective campaigns around the world. But merchants in our town did not like this approach because they regarded the logo on their plastic bags as an important marketing tool. Instead of threatening what the merchants valued, we created a viable alternative: a unique reusable bag for our town that featured the logos of local sponsors.

Meaning: We held many community forums so that people could lend their input. This way our campaigns could be the most compelling and effective in our town, having real meaning and value for the local community. People felt invested in the campaigns – they were a point of pride. By including everyone, a green movement spread throughout our community.

Action: The CAC provided opportunities for people to be green so that they could act easily. Action creates sustainable change and lasting habits.

Timeliness: our campaigns were pertinent and relevant. Our reusable bag campaign built off the momentum of other anti-plastic bag movements around the world. We initiated a “No Idling” campaign after we heard of other local schools adopting similar policies.

Education:  All of our campaigns maintained education at the core. We did extensive research, created fact sheets, and pamphleted outside of local stores. With our “No Idling” campaign, we talked to drivers who were idling and handed out educational materials. People understood why it was important to alter behaviors and habits.

Chloe and fellow activists from the 'No Idling' campaign

I am now a sophomore at Harvard College. I have opportunities here that I never had in Maine. I have met more leaders, activists, educators, and scientists that have inspired me to work even harder and explore new areas of activism. I have been able to join different protests – something I had never done before. I learn about environmental policy and the legislative process, working with Senators and Representatives in the Massachusetts legislature to organize a Green Economy Caucus. I learn an enormous amount from interacting with the political world and understanding different perspectives on climate change. Yes, I want renewable energy now. But what are politicians thinking? How do they perceive environmentalists? I have realized the importance of being exposed to these many facets of environmentalism. It has enabled me to understand different interests and motivations, which are the key to more effective and engaging campaigns.

Anyone can get involved and make a difference. The climate movement depends upon individual actions. We should be mindful of our impact on the Earth, educate ourselves and our neighbors about climate change, and join local environmental groups. People in the US can call on elected officials to fight for meaningful effective environmental policies. Politicians will act when they know that their constituents want change.

A current campaign is focused on cutting fossil fuel subsidies. There are a few organizations that are working on this campaign, including 350.org. It has also recently become a big news topic. Many of the campaigns are just starting to pick up steam because there has been an emphasis on education: organizations are gathering data about fossil fuel subsidies and why Americans must oppose further federal support. The campaign is also dependent on individuals taking action and people collectively using their voice to call for change.

People all around the world are working to ensure a healthy planet and social justice for all. But we are far from achieving this goal. As each individual on Earth feels the effects of a changing world, humanity will turn to me, to my friends, to my peers, to my generation to find solutions for the future. The seeds of these solutions lie in the effectiveness with which we learn to engage the public right now.

 

About the author: Chloe Maxmin’s goal is to make climate change the defining issue of her generation. She is currently a Freshwoman at Harvard College pursuing a degree in Environmental Science and Public Policy, but she deferred a year to travel and study in South America and China to learn about environmentalism in those regions. She founded the Climate Action Club at her high school. The club galvanized and led a green movement in her school and the surrounding mid-coast Maine community. She also founded First Here, Then Everywhere. FHTE connects young environmentalists around the world and provides tools and platforms for youth activism on environmental issues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 2012: Climate Change and Captain Underpants

Third grade ends this week.  While I will be grateful for a three-month respite from making my daughter late to school most every day, there are many things about the school year I will surely miss.  I will miss listening to Taylor Swift while navigating our small Toyota through our neighbor’s slow-moving cows as they block the road (sometimes I have help being late).  I will miss the way my daughter runs right past me when she gets home, to check on our ever-expanding population of baby bunnies.  But mostly, I think I will miss Captain Underpants.

Throughout the school year, on Tuesdays, instead of kissing my daughter goodbye at the classroom door, I followed her in and sat down as twenty-three small people and their teacher gathered in a circle to hear me read aloud from the epic adventures of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey.  The series, which goes on for ten books, features a grumpy elementary school principle turned into to a superhero who wears nothing but cotton briefs and a red cape, thanks to the wonders of a 3-D Hypno Ring in the hands of two mischievous students.  Over the course of third grade we have born witness together as the bald and pudgy champion has defeated such adversaries as Wedgie Woman and Professor Pippy P. Poopypants.

When I am in work meetings a hemisphere away from home (as I have been too much this year) it is easy to let the mind wander to the more exciting task of reading aloud about epic battles with zombie cafeteria ladies.   But during this year, as the Democracy Center has stepped up our work on the climate change crisis, I have found myself thinking of my daughter and her classmates for other reasons more serious.

When adults around the world sit down to speak of climate change, it seems always to turn into a running “blah-blah” of chatter about “2 degrees vs. 3 degrees” or the planning of protests at summits, or visual gimmickry such as dots around the world to try to win public attention.  But to me, in all honesty, none of that is what really matters.  What really matters is that we are handing my daughter’s third-grade class, and all the other third-grade classes all over the world, an environmental future full of reckless unknowns of our own making. Climate change is, most urgently, about our children.

This is not sloganeering.  It is a given now that our children will become adults and will raise their children in a world where draught threatens food supplies, where floods destroy communities, and where more and more extreme weather patterns claim lives (see the Democracy Center’s new multimedia site on climate change in Bolivia here).  We are set on a course toward a devastating environmental future.

Our friends at UNICEF in the U.K. have also done important research showing that even today it is children that bear the harshest brunt of climate catastrophe.  When disasters strike, it is children who suffer the highest rates of disease and malnutrition.  Their schools shut down and can wipe out a whole academic year.  With each new crisis more children sink into poverty.  As our UNICEF colleagues write, “Children are not responsible for climate change, but are the most likely to feel its effects and are the least prepared to deal with them.”

Despite all this, the world’s political systems, especially in the U.S., remain largely unable to act.  How do we break through?  How do we alter the chemistry of climate politics?  There is no one answer but I believe that an essential part is to redefine the climate debate as one of the most urgent children’s issues of our time.  This will be an important part of the Democracy Center’s work in the years ahead.

Recently, the Democracy Center and UNICEF have teamed up on a global project to help raise up the voices of young people on the climate crisis.  Together we’ve started a series of youth workshops, starting here in Bolivia, in the U.K. and in Vietnam.  The aim is to help children and teenagers speak out about climate change, to each other and to the world through a video we are producing and which will be launched in association with next month’s United Nations ‘Rio+20’ conference on sustainable development in Brazil.  Here in Bolivia a group of young people produced a mock news program featuring stories on how drought is destroying crops.  In Vietnam teenagers spoke of their fears of growing up to see their villages and towns destroyed by rising sea levels (millions of Vietnamese live in the lowlands that are expected to be swallowed by the sea in this century).  We’ll be sharing a link to that video on-line with our readers next month.

It is exactly twenty years this week since I first became a father.  At every step we work so hard as parents to do what’s best.  When they are toddlers we worry that they’ll careen down stairs and hurt themselves.  Later we worry about their schooling.  When they become teenagers we worry, well, about everything.  In a world where parents worry and work so hard to nurture the well being of our children, it is remarkable that we remain, in our actions together, so inactive on the environmental disasters we are leaving in their path.

Captain Underpants has saved the world many times (roughly once for each book), but of course he has super powers and the benefit of being a cartoon.  We owe it to all the children sitting in all the tiny chairs, in all the schools in this world, to understand that climate change is not about just facts, figures, politics, and science.  It is above all about our kids and whether we have the love and commitment required to care about their futures, to hear what they are asking of us, and to do all we can do to help save their world while there is still time.

Stay tuned to this newsletter in the coming months for more on ‘Children and Climate Change’ and on what you can do to make a difference.

Getting Action: Crowdsourcing to the rescue! Looking for the Charles Lindbergh of sustainable development

Dear Readers: 

The Democracy Center’s working relationship with the United Nations began five years ago in Montenegro, where I did a series of advocacy trainings for the staff at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). These were folks wickedly committed to development that is equitable, environmentally responsible and economically competitive, and were involved in helping save their nation’s beloved Tara River from development.  One avid and able UN campaigner is Milica Begovic Radojevic, who I have been fortunate to work with since. In this Getting Action post we bring you an article, and call for participation, that Milica wrote for us about how the UNDP is using an old strategy reborn — “crowd sourcing” — as a way to generate new ideas on how to make global development sustainable in the face of climate change.  We hope you enjoy this post from the Balkans, and look forward to hearing your ideas!

Jim Shultz – Executive Director

 

Crowdsourcing to the rescue: looking for the Charles Lindbergh of sustainable development

By Milica Begovic Radojevic, UNDP in Montenegro

In 1919, famed New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize for anyone who would dare fly solo across the Atlantic. It was a bold dare. In accepting the challenge, Charles Lindbergh paved the way toward transoceanic air travel and proved that crowd-sourcing can be a powerful method for reaching out to people in the hope of finding solutions to the most difficult problems facing humanity.

 

Almost a century later in the run up to Rio+20, where world leaders are meeting to renew their commitment to sustainable development, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is preparing to crowd-source a challenge relating to sustainable development. Are the challenges of (un)sustainable development as important as our inability to fly across the ocean 100 years ago? Infinitely more so and here is why.

The way global economies have been developing is no longer a viable option – for people, for the economy itself and for the environment.

To a large extent, this is the case because we can’t shake the addiction to dirty energy. The price we pay for it doesn’t reflect the cost it inflicts by polluting the air, water, and soil, depleting natural reserves, not to mention the cost to human health.

On top of this, governments subsidize fossil fuels, sending all the wrong signals and creating many unintended consequences. One such consequence is that keeping prices low provides the least benefits to the poor who, for example, are not very likely to live in large homes and do not therefore consume as much energy.

The other by-product is the scientific link between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and extreme weather events. By subsidizing fossil fuels and incentivizing their use, governments around the world are contributing to the increase of frequency and intensity of these extreme events. It is usually the poorest and most vulnerable communities that suffer the most from this consequence, being generally more exposed to the effects of e.g. droughts and flooding, and also the least prepared to cope.

And for all the subsidies, domestic energy prices continue to rise. McKinsey’s Resource Revolution argues that this trend is likely to continue because:

  1. There is an interlinked relationship between the resources – you need water to generate energy and grow food – so a stress on one resource will be transferred to another.
  2. With up to three billion people projected to join the middle class, we can no longer say with certainty that the traditional supply of resources can satisfy our appetites for more without additional risks, costs and consequences. And guess who suffers the most when the price of food, water and energy go up?

So not only are subsidies increasingly ineffective in keeping the prices artificially low, they are chipping away at the Governments’ ability to invest in social programs and create new jobs. This is all the more critical today as an increasing number of people are facing malnutrition, and a lack of access to basic services. This traps people living in poverty, as they are unable to make the changes necessary to build better lives for themselves.

Does the compulsion to subsidize fossil fuels play a role in rising inequality? This could be the topic of a whole other blog, but what we see today is that the world is indeed becoming less equal. And what we do know is that more inequality leads to more social problems, such as higher rates of infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, and lower life expectancy, math and literacy, and trust within the society.

But I digress. Back to fossil fuel subsidies – they act as a barrier to investment in clean energy, in universal access to, and efficient use of, resources.

Out of 1.3 billion people globally who don’t have access to electricity, at least 3 million of them live in transition and OECD (Organization for Economic Development and Transition) countries. Can you imagine a life without electricity? Telling a bedtime story to your child – only by the light of a candle! How do you fight poverty without electricity? You don’t, or rather can’t.

So this is a shout out to engineers, urban planners, investment managers, research and development groups, and economists.

Renewable energy use in Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States is among the lowest in the world. Heavy reliance on fossil fuels, 88 percent of the primary energy supply according to Human Development Report 2011, is not good news for health.  Armenia, Bulgaria, and Romania lead the world in deaths from outdoor air pollution. So, now you are poor and sick.

We are calling out to the scientists, meteorologists, engineers, mechanical and electrical technicians.

Europe and CIS is the world’s leader in energy inefficiency – one euro of GDP takes more energy to produce than in any other part of the world. This means more pollution and more subsidies. We are on the look-out for the behavioural experts, marketing gurus, architects, and the technology innovators.

So, to wrap up. Fossil fuels that drive our economies are bad for our health, bad for the environment, bad for society (inequality?) and increasingly bad for the economy itself. Subsidizing fossil fuels prevents investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy access for those who badly need it.

The scale of the problem is overwhelming and the solution goes beyond the capacities of any single government or private sector company. It goes beyond the civil sector, any one individual or development organization. It requires collaboration and the convergence of knowledge, resources, and commitment.

So what do we do? Well one thing we can do is try to draw out the expertise buried in the crowds. And this is what UNDP is attempting to do. Our first mission: to frame a good challenge that will effectively address an aspect – or aspects – of un-sustainable development.

One possible challenge candidate asks: What is the solar power equivalent of a $100 laptop? Access to inexpensive information technology revolutionizes education in poor countries. Access to inexpensive solar power would revolutionize development as we know it.

So as we continue in the quest to frame this challenge, maybe you could help out with some good ideas? Just remember, we are on the look-out for the Charles Lindbergh of sustainable development! And stay tuned….

Can you help Milica and the UNDP develop an effective challenge to find solutions for sustainable development? Please leave your ideas in the Comments section below (see comments policy) – and encourage your innovative friends to read and participate. 

 

 

 

 

Getting Action: Citizens to Governments – Show me the Money!

One of the most fundamental things that governments do, in any country in the world, is take money from citizens through the tax system and then spend it through public budgets.  In between that two-step of raise and spend lie some of the most important choices a nation can make: Do we invest in schools or armies?  How do we address the needs of the poorest?  What kind of infrastructure do we want for the future?  And there are also massive opportunities for corruption as officials confuse public money for their own.

Citizen oversight and advocacy of public budgets has been an important part of the Democracy Center’s work since our establishment 20 years ago.  We founded a progressive analysis organization on budget issues in California, the California Budget Project.  We have also worked closely for more than a decade, across the world, with the International Budget Partnership, a global leader in open and participatory budgeting.  You can read more about the Democracy Center’s work on budget issues here.

We are honored to publish this article below by a friend who has been an essential patron and champion of citizen budget work for decades, Michael Lipsky.  As a program officer at the Ford Foundation in the 1990s Michael seeded not only our first work in California, but other projects across the U.S. and across continents.  In this article, originally published by the Huffington Post, Michael looks at the key role that citizen budget activism plays today in the twin fights against poverty and public corruption.  We know you will find it a valuable read.

Jim Shultz

The Democracy Center

 

 

 

Improving Governance Through Budget Transparency

by Michael Lipsky

A secondary result of the fiscal crises now spooling out in the United States and Europe will be greater scrutiny of the efficacy of public expenditures. Nowhere is this likely to have greater impact than in foreign aid and development assistance, as countries demand greater accountability for each dollar or euro spent. At the same time, citizens in many countries receiving assistance are also pressuring their governments for accountability.

Critical to both of these developments is the focus on public budgets. Whatever elected leaders say, when the last votes are cast and counted the critical question is how governments actually manage their funds to address problems of poverty, provide essential services such as education and health care, and make public investments to secure their future. The flip side of the question is how and in whose interest countries raise funds to fulfill their commitments. Do they use revenues raised from oil, gas, mining and other natural resource extractions for high national priorities? Or are these funds siphoned off for private enrichment? Do they make prudent use of development assistance from abroad?

Historically the purview of accountants and numbers-crunchers, public officials in the past showed little interest in making budgets more accessible. Nonetheless, citizen groups around the world have increasingly demanded access to budget information.

In a report issued on January 5, the U.K. House of Commons’ International Development Select Committee called for making aid to conflict ridden countries dependent on improved governance. The report highlighted the need to tie increased British aid to real commitments from recipients to greater transparency and accountability.

This is just the latest in a wave of government-led initiatives and people-led activism that is shifting the discussion about the openness and accountability of decisions that determine a country’s social and economic trajectory. The Arab Spring, the Occupy protests, and calls like that in the House of Commons to use foreign aid to increase the openness of other governments all point to a seismic shift in the democracy and governance paradigm.

The commitments and aspirations of many of these groups were on display in November when representatives of 58 countries came together in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to affirm the importance of opening budgets to public scrutiny. Their Declaration on Budget Transparency, Accountability and Participation holds that “participation in the decisions related to public budgets is a fundamental right… of all citizens.” The Dar Declaration calls on all governments to recognize the rights of citizens to know their governments’ spending and revenue-raising policies, and to have regular opportunities to comment on the priorities reflected in them.

But the Dar Declaration is not so much the start of a movement as a milestone. In the last 15 or 20 years, in country after country civil society groups have been organizing to hold their governments to account.

In India, the MKSS uses local knowledge and government budget commitments to take advantage of the country’s 2005 Right to Information law. The organization’s “social audit” enables villagers to verify official claims and hold government to account. Official budget reports may indicate that a school or a road was built, but local residents may have information, literally “before their eyes,” that such projects were never undertaken.

Similarly, the Uganda Debt Network has trained local monitors to insure that inputs in construction and other projects, as promised in budget documents, are actually delivered.

In over 40 U.S. states, groups like the California Budget Project and the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas regularly scrutinize budget and tax policies for their impact on low- and moderate-income people.

Twenty years ago hardly any organizations focused on budget transparency as a key to improving democratic accountability and improving outcomes for poor. Now, over 200 groups in at least 119 countries engage in such work, according to the International Budget Partnership, a global research and advocacy organization that collaborates with budget groups around the world.

The interest of civic organizations in public budgeting at national and subnational levels has been matched in recent years by “top down” efforts of international organizations and foundations. Every two years, the IBP’s Open Budget Index (OBI) evaluates countries’ budget processes by engaging independent local researchers to assess whether their country makes timely and useful budget information available to the public and provides opportunities for participation. Over the three rounds of the OBI, a dozen or so countries have made real strides toward greater openness — perhaps because their leaders now know that their budget practices are being scrutinized by leaders in other countries.

What about funds that don’t always show up in budgets — like those from natural resources? Revenue Watch, an international organization started in 2002 as a project of the Open Society Institute, seeks good governance by working with industry and civil society groups in countries rich in oil, gas and mineral reserves to ensure that funds from these resources are monitored and used productively.

For civic organizations and governments seeking to reform other governments, it seems that fiscal transparency’s time has come. The open budget movement and the energy behind it promise to shift, if ever so slightly at first, the grounds on which the nations interact with their citizens and their civic organizations, and with each other.

 

Michael Lipsky, a former professor of political science at M.I.T., is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, the American think tank based in New York.

 

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this piece in our comments section below. Our comments policy.

Getting Action: Welcome to 2012

Welcome back to our Blog, Getting Action. We wish all our friends and readers a very happy New Year and hope that 2012 will be a great year for each of you and for the work for social and environmental justice that each of you do. This week the Democracy Center team begins to reassemble itself from scattered visits to distant parts to see family and friends, and to actually have a life. So as we get newly organized for 2012, here is a review of what we will be up to, and what you can read about here, in the weeks and months ahead.

Advocacy Development Projects: Here, There and Everywhere

Next week I will be in Vietnam, to lead an advocacy development project on children’s rights with the staff of UNICEF there. This is part of a global partnership between the Democracy Center and UNICEF to strengthen the work of children’s rights advocates across the globe. In the past year we have done workshops with children’s rights advocates from more than three-dozen countries, work that has taken me to the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe, the U.S, and elsewhere. Later this year we’ll be doing more advocacy workshops across Africa.

We are also planning a series of workshops and events later this year across the U.S., especially with our friends on the front lines of the fight against corporate power and tackling the rough terrain of getting real action on climate change. We will keep you posted here on the Blog as our plans develop. Meanwhile, here is a library of some of the materials we use for these projects, including a slide show on advocacy strategy.

Climate Change: Reports from Bolivia, California, and a New Effort on Climate Change and Children

The crisis of global climate change will be at the center of our work in the coming year. Bolivia is one of the Earth’s unfortunate ‘ground zeros’ for climate change impact and Leny, Aldo and Shawn have been traveling across the country to document one of climate change’s most dire effects – its impacts on water and what that means for vulnerable communities. In the coming months we will be publishing a report, a video and multimedia presentations on how climate change is rearranging the planet’s fragile water system and what that means in the lives of real people. If you haven’t already seen it, be sure to check out our video on Bolivia’s melting glaciers.

In our effort to provoke a deeper discussion about strategic advocacy on climate issues, we will be releasing a case study on the lessons learned from the victory a year ago by environmental groups in California, who beat back a right-wing measure (Proposition 23) to repeal the state’s progressive climate law. We will also be working with our friends in UNICEF and other organizations on a project to put the spotlight on how climate change is one of the most fundamental children’s issues of our time. Maddy is planning a project interviewing young people in Europe and Bolivia and we will share their voices with you here. And our newest team member, Ben Brouwer, is working on a set of profiles of climate action groups we think you should get to know.

Corporate Power: Taking Action on Global Trade Courts

Those of you who have followed the Democracy Center’s work for a while were probably a part of the global campaign we helped lead that forced the Bechtel Corporation to drop its $50 million World Bank lawsuit against Bolivia following the Cochabamba Water Revolt. This year we will be joining with social justice organizations across the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa to launch a Day of Action aimed at the global trade rules that allow corporations like Bechtel, Phillip Morris, and others to wage legal war against people and nations that adopt policies to protect their economic and the public health. Stay tuned here for more on those plans as they develop and if you haven’t seen it, have a look at the new video produced by the Democracy Center and the Institute for Policy Studies on how these trade rules can make global corporations even more powerful than governments.

That’s what we’ll be up to in this New Year, as well as much more. So please keep reading, keep commenting, and good luck and best wishes to everyone in 2012!

 

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Getting Action: The Art of Advocacy

What does it take to change the world?

by Jim Shultz

Empowerment Sculpture, Lincoln, UK. Credit: yohanlincoln

 

I am writing from New York, at the tail end of a journey across four countries and two continents leading and supporting gatherings where citizens have come together to look at how to make a real difference. In Italy it was global staff from the UN Development Program planning their actions on climate change and sustainable development. In Brussels it was labor, trade and environmental activists from all corners of the world organizing to tackle corporate power. In London and here in New York I led workshops for UNICEF leaders campaigning for equal rights for the world’s most vulnerable children.

After teaching citizen advocacy like this for more than twenty-five years I have come to believe in two basic things about citizen action, one innocent and idealistic and the other Machiavellian. The first is that people really can change the world if they join together. The other is that the only way we can do this is to understand the realities of political power and root our actions in that understanding. It is not enough to simply have good intentions; we have to be smart.

Sometimes I begin workshops like these by holding up a note of the local currency and lighting a match under it. People everywhere have a strong reaction to the threat of burning perfectly good money (though I don’t actually burn it). Once I have their attention I explain that citizen action is a resource no less precious than cash, and in most ways more precious still. In a world with so many urgent problems to address none of us can afford to let our impulse to democratic action go up uselessly in smoke.

So now at the end of this long journey, as I get ready to head home to Bolivia, here are three important reflections about what it takes to change the world, inspired by the powerful actions and deeds of those I have worked with these past three weeks.

 

The Importance of Being Strategic

There are two ways to play the game of chess. One is to study the board carefully, analyze the various options before you based on a realistic reading of your position, and then make your best move. Another is to decide that you just really like moving your bishop – something about those big diagonal sweeps across the board – and so you move your bishop without much study and end up in checkmate two moves later.

Being strategic is fundamental to effective activism. It’s the difference between taking action with our eyes wide open rather than with a blindfold on. But all over the world I find people taking actions based on what feels most familiar. Analytic organizations put out reports. Protesters make signs and march. Lobbyists lobby. A wise friend of mine once called this the “if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” problem.

All these approaches to advocacy and activism are potentially powerful. What is essential it to take careful time before you act to think together about which combination of actions actually has the best chance of delivering the goods. In the workshops that I lead I never pretend to know what strategies people should use. What do I know about how to get the government to take action on children’s rights in Kosovo, or to protect worker rights in the Philippines?

But I do find in every country I work in that there are some universal questions that people need to ask themselves in order to think as strategically as possible. What do we want? Who has the authority to deliver it? What is the most effective way to talk about our demands? Who do we need with us? What are our options for action, from the moderate to the radical, and which ones are most likely to get the job done?

We’ve put a whole library of materials about how to work with these strategy questions on the Democracy Center Web site, from training handouts to a presentation.

 

The Difference Between Shifting the Political Winds and Harvesting Them

This morning I paid a visit to ‘ground zero’ of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Zuccotti Park. Much has been written about this movement (including by us) in the two months since it began in the physical heart of U.S. corporate power, and then spread to hundreds of other cities across the U.S. and abroad. And always, especially this week as New York’s Mayor has moved to shut down the OWS encampment, the questions remain: What are its aims? What are its concrete objectives? What will it achieve?

Citizen action is a coin with two sides not one. Sometimes what we need to do is not merely to make specific demands but to completely change the political winds. In the U.S. the winds of corporate power have been blowing hard in only one direction for a very long time, in favor of the most wealthy and powerful. Huge financial houses that took the nation’s savings and converted them into complex betting schemes were deemed ‘too big to fail’ and were bailed out with our tax dollars. Oil and energy conglomerates have been given near free reign over our natural resources and environment at huge cost to our children’s future. Three decades of economic policy have more than doubled the share of the annual income pie going to the nation’s most wealthy, and more than one in ten Americans is now out of work. In the face of all this, until just a few months ago, the U.S. seemed to believe that the main economic issue in the country was reducing the federal deficit.

Has Occupy Wall Street achieved even one concrete change in public policy or one clear change in the rules that let corporations control so much about our lives? No. But in the end, direct changes are probably not its purpose at all. In many ways OWS has already achieved its purpose, which is to shift the political winds. In the summer the economic crisis in the nation was about the national debt ceiling. Now it is about corporate power and economic inequalities. That is a huge, important change. But the question now is how to harvest that shift in the winds to deliver concrete change, and it is likely to be others – who are not camping out in lower Manhattan – who drive that.

On the 15th floor of UNICEF headquarters this week, staff at the UN’s organization for children’s rights were strategizing about how to use those winds to win concrete actions from governments to address the needs of the world’s poorest children. In Brussels two weeks ago the activists I gathered with were looking at how use the new winds to open up a new challenge to corporate-driven global trade rules (see our new video on those rules here).

Those who use protest and radical action to change the winds, and those who work in the world of concrete policy, are partners in ways they don’t fully recognize. Without those who toil in the details, the changing of the winds becomes a mere political show with no actual impact. Without the wind-changers in the streets, the advocates who work on policy change find the doors closed and get nowhere. At the Democracy Center we believe in and we work with both sides of the coin.

 

The Art of Staying Inspired

Working for political change is hard and it comes with no guarantees. Those who have disrupted their lives these past months to take to the streets, who have faced a mix of ridicule and arrest, have no assurances that their sacrifices will result in anything other than memories of participation in a historical footnote. The people who campaign year after year in defense of children’s rights may see only backwards steps by the governments they pressure. How do we sustain ourselves in such a fog of uncertainty about the value of our struggles?

Citizen action, like the democracy that is its foundation, is an act of faith. We mobilize because being immobile in the face of injustice is not an option. As we do so we have to take our inspiration from one another, and recognize the inspiration we ourselves have to offer. I and many others have been inspired by Occupy Wall Street. I have also been inspired anew by the people I have met along the way these three weeks – the young environmental campaigner from India organizing her people; the UNICEF advocates in London who are working to help the world understand that climate change is about our children; and many, many others. I know that many young people take inspiration from me and my work, astonished that a guy old enough to be their Dad is still doing the work of activism.

That inspiration that we give to one another is the bridge that carries us to the victories that sometime come out of the blue. Bechtel drops its $50 million case against Bolivia.  UNICEF in Canada gets world leaders to commit $6 billion to support maternal and child health in the poorest nations. A handful of public officials in Eastern Europe become champions of renewable energy.

Citizen action is not a science. It is an art in which the most effective path forward begins with a clear-eyed read of circumstance, a mix of wildly different approaches that blend together in unexpected ways, and a belief that you really can make a difference, but only if you give it your best shot.

 

Jim Shultz is the founder and Executive Director of the Democracy Center.

 

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Getting Action: From Wall St to…Where?

Harnessing the winds of change

OWS journal - marniejoyce

They come in sudden gusts when and where we least expect them. The Middle East seems mired in endless authoritarianism and a street vendor sets himself aflame and ignites a regional rebellion for democracy. The governments of Bolivia and Brazil send bulldozers to carve a highway through the Amazon rainforest, and are upended by a two-month-long march of indigenous people to the Bolivian capital. Public anger over the U.S. economic crisis gets diverted into a campaign against the national debt, and suddenly a youth movement springs up to Occupy Wall Street and shifts the country into a debate over corporate power.

These are the winds of political change that alter the landscape of nations, the actions of governments and corporations, and the hearts of the people that become a part of them. Some are big like these.  Others are smaller and more modest. But large or small, they are some of the most inspiring moments that democracy has to offer.

But what does it take to harness the winds of change? What can we do to make them more than something that inspires us in the moment, but then fades away? Activism and democracy come with no guarantees. Both will always be at least, in part, an act of faith. But we needn’t simply let the final results rest with fate. In between the passion these winds set loose and the results we hope they will deliver lies another ingredient – strategy.

So what’s the strategy of Occupy Wall Street?

What it all comes down to is that

I haven’t got it all figured out just yet.

 – Alanis Morristte

OWS protesters in Washington Square Park - getdarwin

There has been much debate among progressive pundits about whether the Occupy Wall Street rebels occupying parks and public spaces in New York and across the nation actually have any coherent goals and a plan to achieve them. Will the protest that has been so successful at winning attention actually deliver anything concrete, or will it be remembered later as simply protest theater, the left wing’s 2011 flameout to match the right’s “President Michelle Bachman?”

The OWS activists officially do have a nine point agenda for change and its ambitions are clear. They want corporations stripped of the legal personhood normally reserved to humans. They want the financial industry to be closely regulated. They want corporations kicked out of financing political campaigns and corporate lobbyists blocked from writing legislation. They want America’s wealthiest to pay their fair share of taxes.

So if the starting point of the OWS plan is the occupation of parks and the endpoint is a reversal of three decades of U.S. economic policy – what exactly is the path of action that moves the nation from one to the other? That’s sort of a long and complicated journey.  What’s the strategy?

In fact, it is completely reasonable that the OWS activists don’t have it all figured out just yet. What they are trying to do is hard and people with that kind of easy certainty about the world work for Fox News, not as movement organizers. What they are doing that is most important right now is fanning the political winds for change, progressive change – and with young people at the forefront.

Occupy Wall Street media center - Mat McDermott

Consider the fortunes of America’s current youth. Those that don’t go to college are looking at an economy where it will be a struggle just to earn enough income to move out of the parental home. Those that do go to university will graduate with huge student debts and miserable prospects of finding jobs to pay them back. Add in the glories of global climate change and their generation may also raise their children in a world that looks less and less like the one where they spent their own childhoods and more and more like the plot of a science fiction movie.

Facing such a future, the choice is either to be ticked off or oblivious. The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, along with its brethren of protesters worldwide, tells us that large numbers of young people are opting for ticked off. Thank goodness. What young people are seeing and reacting to is an economic system that has been relentlessly rigged to make all the winners even bigger winners, at the expense of everyone else. During the lifetime of the current 30-year-old, America’s wealthiest one-percent have increased their share of the American paycheck from $9 of every $100 earned to $19. You don’t need an economics degree to notice that the guy across the table just took a second piece of pie before you even had your first.

Three Universal Questions

But as the activists in Zuccotti Park and around the rest of the country map out their next moves, there are three important questions about developing advocacy strategy that are basic and universal. How the OWS movement answers those questions will have a lot to do with whether it achieves something other than fond memories for those who joined it.

What do we try to change first?

Since you can’t change everything about U.S. economic policy all at once you need to pick which thing you will try to do first. Picking a first clear objective is tricky stuff, important to get right and easy to get wrong. The first concrete objective of any movement needs to be simultaneously big enough to inspire people and confined enough to deliver something real, not in five years but in one, tops. Otherwise people lose patience and move on to other things, most especially their actual lives. It also needs to set you up for the next and bigger battles by naming the right enemy, creating the right symbolism, and generating real momentum.

How do we broaden our base of support?

A conversation - felipe.cabrera

In a democracy, passion and creativity among a few can spark a movement, but to get the goods you need ‘the people’ in big numbers. That begins by stitching together alliances of the philosophically aligned, which OWS has already begun.  But then it is important to raid the other side and come up with some recruits. The more crazy diversity you can put together the better. The New York Times recently hosted a ‘summit’ between the caricatures of a barefoot and longhaired OWS protester on one side and a well-dressed, middle-aged broker on the other. If OWS can put together a duo like that, but joined on the same side, its power will start to stretch and grow.

How do we pick actions that leverage our power as far as we can?

David used a sling to slay Goliath. Chicago civil rights groups in the 1960s forced city officials to bargain by occupying the stalls in every public restroom at O’Hare International Airport (no law restricted how long one could take to comply with nature’s demands). Farmworkers staged boycotts. Seamstresses in Jessica McClintock’s Oakland dress factory took their protest to the front door of her San Francisco mansion. Every movement needs to figure out that special match between what its people can do and what will bring maximum pressure to bear on its targets. What can OWS do once it leaves the park that will make corporate America and its political minions feel real heat?

OWS Brooklyn Bridge protest - Mat McDermott

Economically and environmentally the world has seemed of late to be set on corporate-driven autopilot that we can’t shut down. As it turns out, real democracy – not just the kind where people get to vote for 12 hours every two years or so – still lies, like hidden embers, ready to rise into action if the right breezes blow. Regardless of what OWS does or does not accomplish in the months ahead, it has already established a mood of hope and inspiration where both seemed almost gone. It is a reminder that we as a people are indeed still free to decide our own fates. But we need to do that both as creatively and as strategically as we can.

Getting Action: The Democracy Center’s New Advocacy Blog!

Citizen advocacy is an art, a collection of skills that one does not learn in any school. Effective advocacy is a mix of the insight that experience brings and the creativity that the lack of experience inspires.

Click here to read more and download a copy of Beating Goliath

For two decades the Democracy Center has worked with thousands of citizen activists spread across five continents – health workers in South Africa, immigrants in California, children’s rights campaigners in the former USSR, water rights activists in Bolivia, and many others. Our purpose has always been to help each of these efforts be as strong as it can be. We have certainly learned as much as we have taught.

We have designed this new blog, ‘Getting Action’, as a virtual meeting place for our extended Democracy Center community. We’d like you to get to know and learn from one another. What you can expect to find here will vary a good deal, but will always strive to be interesting. That much we promise.

Sometimes we will post articles of our own, but much of the time we’ll be opening up this space to you, our friends and readers. We want to know more about your campaigns, your strategies, and what you are learning about the art of making real change happen. Next up, for example, we will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline from the Canadian tar sands, featuring an interview with Bill McKibben and contributions from other climate change activists.

We hope that you will join in these debates and discussions with your own views, in the comments section of the forum, and also send us your suggestions for topics and campaigns you’d like to see covered here. Write us any time at contact@democracyctr.org. We also invite you to make use of our library of free advocacy materials.

Meanwhile, to start things up please take a look at the following post for commentary from me on a current explosion of activism that has inspired the young people we work with deeply – Occupy Wall Street.

Jim Shultz

The Democracy Center