Category Archives: Global Climate Change

Despite it all…

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For the first time in years, I actually bought one of those magazines at the check-out counter at the grocery store. You know the ones – they jostle in their gaudy colors, their provocative titles distracting (and generally irritating) overwhelmed shoppers like me. Yet for the first time ever, one of those better-known, thankfully non-gaudy magazines features (provocatively) a transgender girl on its cover – absent any subtext of outrage, disgust, or rejection. A girl, right there on that cover, just being herself. Whew…what a relief, and what a blessing.

Thank you, National Geographic.

Some upbeat news at the end of a very hard year is indeed a welcome Christmas present. And there is no pretending that 2016 has been OK; it hasn’t. For me this year has been marked by vulnerability, stigmatization, worry, financial insecurity, and exclusion. It’s been a year of first-hand encounters with ageism and transphobia, again and again and again. It’s sadly telling that this will be the first time in decades that I’m not sending out Christmas cards – it’s been that kind of a year. So yes, I’m glad to see 2016 go away, even if I’ve very little reason to hope that the coming year (the coming four years, really) will be any better for many, many people who are facing not only various emboldened forms of exclusion and stigma, but also the possibility of losing their health insurance, seeing their civil rights eroded, watching our country engage in bellicose and ill-judged international engagements, and standing aghast as our environmental protections go down the drain.

Somehow though, I’m feeling ready. Bring it on. I’ve made it this far, and there’s no stopping me now. And I sense I am not alone in that determination…

That simple magazine cover (and its well-written contents) reminded me of something that I sorely needed to be reminded of. There are good people “out there”, open to learning about and boldly – intentionally – embracing a new world of diversity in which people like me are accepted and even valued (my friends have been saying that consistently, but you know how a funky mood in a bad election year can shut down even the love and wisdom of terrific friends). But being around loving family and friends does make a huge difference, as does finding some income-generating work (and I have just found some, at least for a while), and maybe those Christmas carols and the cards I’ve received have also shone their rejuvenating light into the darkness. Whatever…I’m feeling more upbeat now than I have all year. Continue reading Despite it all…

Indignation and outrage – precious and necessary

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The position of President of the United States of America is intended for those whom we most esteem – people we hold up to our children as exemplars of all that is best about this beloved country. Just speaking aloud such names as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, or Franklin Roosevelt is to invoke respect and awe…these leaders and many others among our past presidents truly were transformational, and we honor them. Based on such exemplars, we now rightly expect anyone holding this highest office to model the virtues of wisdom and temperance, decency and compassion, empathy and judgment, patience and restraint, and unyielding respect for the human dignity of all persons. In their private lives, and in their business and public transactions, we expect them to be accountable to the core secular ethical standards that underpin the public trust: competence, civility, transparency, honesty, responsibility, consistency, and accountability. We look to their courage and fortitude, we depend on their reliability and honor. We delight if they are witty. They should be patriots in the best sense of that concept – dedicated to upholding the Constitution and being wholly committed to the pursuit of the common good…in which “common” means for everyone. No exceptions.

It is a very high standard, and historically no previous president has scored highly in all respects. Our presidents have not been saints, but their human foibles and modest limitations have made them people we could relate to. And yes, Donald Trump will soon ride to his electoral college victory by having cultivated that populist persona – a flawed man that ordinary folk could relate to. Those attributes are important, but not nearly good enough. At an absolute minimum, the President of the United States must be someone we can trust. Continue reading Indignation and outrage – precious and necessary

Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

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It’s Thanksgiving, and so far I have sat mute as numerous messages have reached me across the Internet from friends and family, effusive in their gratitude for the many blessings that characterize their lives and relationships. These are sincere, warm, caring messages, and it is wonderful that this holiday opens the door to such expressions. Throughout the rest of the year, none of us says “thank you” nearly enough.

This year, however, I have not found the words inside me to be warmly responsive to these sentiments. Maybe I am just in a funky place…which might be forgivable in my current circumstances. I’m still trying – without measurable success – to make any sense of the recent presidential election, as the American political landscape seems to have entered into a place of irrationality and deep division. While the world around me seems very insecure, my own personal world also has more than a fair share of insecurity.  I’ve been unemployed (not counting a few consulting assignments and some modestly-remunerated adjunct teaching) for the past two years, despite my monumental efforts to find a new job. Success in securing employment eludes me. My small savings long ago were depleted, and despite many job applications still “pending” my prospects continue to look bleak. So…I am finding myself blocked from that congenial space in which to muse upon my blessings. I might take some small satisfaction in laying some blame for my plight on ageism and transphobia, but placing blame won’t change a culture that excludes well-qualified people from employment opportunities simply because they are mature, experienced, and living authentically.

Still, I know all too well that I am blessed.

I do indeed have much to be thankful for: my health, my family and friends, my Quaker faith community, my excellent education, my life’s narrative of so many international adventures, my growing and inspirational global community of LGBTI persons and allies. I should even be grateful for my cat…he’s a good cat.

Optimistic, idealistic do-gooders are generally not esteemed in society (cats or no cats), especially by those of a more hard-edged, pragmatic character. Still, I am grateful for my resilient idealism, despite the many knocks along the way. Among these ideals that mean the most to me are two: 1) that human dignity is universal, and 2) that ethical leadership makes all the difference in getting to a place where societies honor that dignity…for everyone. Continue reading Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

The fight for America’s soul

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Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

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I often (perhaps too often) post on social media about some urgent human rights, social inclusion, or justice issue that I’m feeling deeply moved by. Such concerns are a very prominent part of who I am and what I’m about, and how I strive in my own small ways to make this a better world. Yet I know that personal and family news always seems to score the highest number of “likes” on Facebook or Twitter postings. When I recently posted about my son Ian’s very positive interview to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (possibly in the West African, Francophone country of Benin) the response was overwhelming. I’ve never received so many “likes” on Facebook, from both Ian’s friends and mine.

While Ian and I await a decision on his application, I’m left to ponder what it is that makes the Peace Corps so special in the American psyche, and so respected by me and by so many people here and in developing countries. And perhaps not surprising for someone with over three decades working as an international development practitioner and activist, I can’t help but compare the Peace Corps model to the evolving and ever-consolidating modern American (and increasingly multinational) development “industry” of for-profit firms and NGOs, fiercely competing for each contract and grant in a tight and under-resourced market.

To be clear, the Peace Corps is not universally admired. It’s regularly criticized as a federal Agency without a clear mission: a development agency that isn’t all that good at sustainable development and one that doesn’t hold its development results or effectiveness abroad up to public scrutiny by hard-pressed American taxpayers. It is castigated as an organization that places Volunteers – many fresh out of college and largely innocent in the ways of the world – into situations that are potentially very dangerous, all for reasons that are not all that clear.  Others see it as yet another example of federal government overreach; a chrysalis of globalization or a taxpayer-sponsored development “boot camp” to forge the future leaders of American development firms and non-profits to be competitive in the international arena. Why should taxpayers carry the burden of transforming Volunteers into dirt-under-their-fingernails global citizens made world-weary by the complexities and impact of poverty, diverse cultural values, and faraway community dynamics? Still others see it as a government sponsored extended summer camp, where mostly young Volunteers go to exotic and remote locations to spend a great deal of time over two years interacting with other Volunteers. And then there are those who simply dismiss the Peace Corps as an idealistic experiment from a bye-gone era, barely relevant to the turbulent and hard-nosed international scene in 2016 – an Agency struggling to retain its aura at a time when President Kennedy, its founder back in 1961, is “ancient history” for most Americans born long afterwards.

That’s quite a blistering critique, but it hardly squares with the enthusiastic outpouring of warmth and support for my son’s application process. So quite clearly, there is another side to the Peace Corps.

I’ve seen that other side again and again in my own career. I’ve experienced it in the resilient enthusiasm and sheer gumption of the many Volunteers whom I used to host to Thanksgiving dinners every year at my home in Nairobi, Kenya during the decade that I worked as an architect there. I’ve seen it in the fond, almost dewy-eyed recollections of so many colleagues in international development as they recall with both pride and immense satisfaction those profoundly formative years from their own service as Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve also appreciated it being made manifest by the sensitive and wise assessments made by former Volunteers of America’s interactions with complicated foreign cultures, even on such charged and often conflicting values-based situations as women’s equality and the social inclusion of LGBTI persons.

I also recognize my own pride that I feel in my son’s choice. Whether selected or not to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m heartened by his commitment both to public service and to volunteerism. Indeed, I cherish his idealism, as I recall how very difficult it has been in my years of work in international development to find those types of conversations – those passions expressed – among my colleagues, even though it is clearly what motivated most of them into such careers.

We just don’t make space to talk about ideals, or values. But you’ve heard me say that before. Continue reading Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

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Where did 13 weeks go?

As an ethics professor at the end of a university term, I’m once again challenged by such metaphysical questions…but since I’ve been doing this adjunct gig for the past two decades I’m at least no longer surprised when it all suddenly wraps up. Along the way, I’ve taken great pleasure in the effervescent enthusiasm for learning that my students have contributed to our joint endeavor. Still, I’m troubled… after all these years the most important questions I pose each term remain largely unanswered.

I get it. I know that “ethics” is an uncomfortable word, redolent of images of accountants and lawyers with their ponderously thick books of regulations, accountability standards, codes of conduct, and threats of dire consequences for malfeasance. The type of ethics that I teach however isn’t situated in that dry (if necessary) world of disclosures and compliance obligations. Instead, my modest goal is to teach my public policy students to acquire and use a different vocabulary that has its origin in the moral language of secularism.

In the moral context, that qualifies as a foreign language for the vast majority of people. The language of “ought”, of demands for rational justifications for decisions taken and plans made (usually on behalf of others), and the phraseology of that complicated moral world of good, bad, right, wrong, caring and callous, virtuous and corrupt, and similar values can baffle any of us. When faced with unsolvable moral dilemmas and the weighing of unpleasant trade-offs, wouldn’t we really rather be doing something else, or have someone else (or their rules) telling us what to do? The moral dialogue can be hard; we’d much rather wriggle away from it or pretend it isn’t there.

And most of us do just that…and we get away with it.

Will you be surprised when I assert that ethics can also be a heroic space? Ethical leaders inspire profound transformations. Courageous truth-seekers blow the whistle on self-interested, exploitative, venal officials, or quietly but firmly take principled stands. Some people even choose not to be complacent, when being complacent is so much easier.

Just occasionally (when we’re drained of outrage and indignation) we actually stop long enough to notice those remarkable and often self-effacing people who consistently exemplify integrity and sacrifice. They may not constitute the silent majority, but they are there, all around us. Integrity isn’t a scarce resource, but who would know?

In this day and age, the prevailing ethos is anchored in efficiency, power, and profit. There are very few spaces in our institutions of governance (public or private) or corporate boardrooms where we consciously and regularly set aside time and effort to sharpen our sensibilities about the “greater good”, or to conjecture about the implications of what it might be like were our society marked by fairness, mutual respect, and caring. We seldom consider what it might mean were we to balance our society’s glorification of fierce (and usually “manly”) competitiveness with the sense that our best natures might shine the brightest through collaboration, partnership, reciprocity, and unapologetic idealism. Continue reading Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

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As someone trained in public policy whose life and career has been international, my end-of-year musings tend toward discerning global trends. Despite the recent flood of dystopian movies and television offerings in the United States, are things getting better and is progress being made? In the face of the rampant barbarity and media-hyped cruelty of movements such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and the Taliban, is civilization getting stronger? Contrary to the grisly death statistics of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, or at Garissa University in Kenya, or the many incidences of Boko Haram violence in Africa that the Western press largely ignores, is safety and security improving for most people on this planet? In the crumbling and almost forgotten remains of the Arab Spring, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and Egypt’s latest swing to authoritarianism, and the deepening polarization and distrust of politics in the United States, are democracies still thriving?

And what about respecting human rights and the recognition of human dignity? Do these terms mean much anymore? What of the plight of the most vulnerable among us? Women’s rights? The humane treatment of animals? The plight of the elderly? The human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons? Freedom of expression, movement, participation, conscience?

In short, what about us?

Is the grand experiment known as humanity getting any better? Are we moving slowly toward global peace, not just in the sense of an absence of violence but in the much deeper sense of what peace really entails? Are we “developing” in a moral sense? While most of us have our own intuition on these matters, there aren’t clear answers, and the distortions in our perceptions are legion. The media by its nature focuses on what sells: disasters, terrorism, wars, failures, disappointments, violence, corruption, crime, immorality, betrayal, or avarice. We hear or read very little about integrity, compassion, solidarity, sacrifice, teamwork, bravery, mercy, or humility. Enormously important words like wisdom, virtue, statesmanship, authenticity, and idealism slip from our vocabulary. Continue reading 2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

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For a non-Catholic, I’ll admit to a certain grudging admiration for Pope Francis.

Why grudging? Well, he’s the leader of a religious denomination of 1.2 billion persons, still exclusively led just by men. Any organization – even a small one – that limits its leadership to persons of one gender is poorly situated to understand the dynamic tapestry of humanity, or to draw upon the spiritual and worldly gifts that men and women, boys and girls, each uniquely offer. The Roman Catholic Church however isn’t a small organization, so sexism institutionalized on such a gargantuan scale leaves me profoundly uneasy (and to be clear, I’d be every bit as uneasy were this church led only by women).

Pope Francis seems unlikely to morph into the Angel of Gender Equity any time soon. This Pope has also said some very unflattering things about people who are transgender, such as comparing us with nuclear weapons! Perhaps I should be flattered with such a comparison – it is seldom that a transgender person is ever described as supremely powerful (even if in a destructive sense). Pope Francis however has taken the view that the world’s nuclear arsenals are to be equated with some of the world’s most disempowered and persecuted people – both standing accused of failing “to recognize the order of creation”. So while I lack the weight of a billion-plus congregation, I refute the Pope’s accusation, remaining convinced that the divine light shines equally in each and every one of us. That’s the “order of creation” that I feel most led to respond to, and to reach for.

So I have reasons to feel under-appreciated by this Pontiff…and “grudging” I will remain. Still, the Pope’s recent observation about the Christmas season that we’re entering upon left me deeply moved, if also deeply saddened. His words:

“we are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war…It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

I just set up my Nativity scene at home, and here in Maryland there are already Christmas lights. Yes – I have received invitations to parties, and I will be happy to attend. This morning I’ve spent time online trying to locate (affordable) tickets to take my children to the ballet (The Nutcracker, of course). “Black Friday” (a name that should be a warning) was yesterday, and the media has once again ramped itself up to its usual annual frenzy of commercialization, ever-increasing crassness, and rank consumerism.

What does any of the American Christmas Industry have to do with the celebration of the remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth in a humble stable? We no longer even ask. Continue reading A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

International development – A Voice at the Periphery

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It was remarkable. There was so much expertise, caring, and experience gathered together in that one room! The annual conference of the Washington DC chapter of the Society for International Development on May 27th brought together a dazzling cohort of more than 900 people who have committed their careers to caring about and doing something important, effective, and sustainable to overcome poverty. Isn’t it odd then that the larger world knows so little about this community of development practitioners, and so often stands in opposition to (or in tepid support of) the work that they do in foreign aid?

The development practitioners who come together for this yearly event have made enormous and well-documented strides to contribute to humanity’s well-being, and to make stewardship of this planet’s environment their focus. Human development is a complex notion, and in that room sat individuals whose daily routine is built around extremely diverse pursuits: agriculture, health, education, democracy strengthening, economic growth, energy, rule of law, entrepreneurship, gender equity, youth, infrastructure, the elderly, women’s empowerment, civil society, political processes and elections, global climate change, peacebuilding and conflict mitigation, natural resources management, human rights, public administration, to name but a few. Together these practitioners support and facilitate – in the most adverse situations imaginable around the globe – humanity’s universal aspirations for a life of dignity, health, and meaning, all set within a harmonious and healthy natural environment. Given the scale, complexity, and intensity of the challenges standing in the way of human development around the world, these earnest and competent practitioners are far too few, far too poorly resourced, and – as a result of how the aid industry’s procurement processes are structured – too divided by fierce internal competition to overcome poverty or be the catalyst for human well-being. They know this – we know this – but still we persist. It’s what we do, and the solidarity and energy that comes from gathering this community together from time to time was the reason I had arranged my own schedule to return from a consulting assignment in Jordan specifically not to miss this event.

Like any conference of international development experts, the daily fare was all about problem-solving. Plenary speakers, panelists, and members of the audience participated in weighty and often discouraging discussions about the forces arrayed against development, about the many problems and constraints we all contend with, and about the cumbersome bureaucracies that fund and deeply influence development’s goals and accomplishments. So much energy and intellect was directed at problems, issues, challenges (or “grand challenges” as USAID is prone to framing them), budgetary constraints, procurement minefields, and humanity’s many foibles and failures (weak states, failed states, greed, corruption, conflict).

In many ways, we forgot to talk about development as human flourishing, or what concepts such as “flourishing” or “human dignity” might mean. Continue reading International development – A Voice at the Periphery

Nile Basin: Big Men, Empowered Women, and a Threatened River

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On its independence from Sudan in 2011, there were so many hopes for the future of South Sudan, a key country in the larger eleven-country region known as the Nile Basin. Those hopes were deeply shaken in December of 2013 when what is effectively a civil war broke out between the two “Big Men” of that country, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. Since then there’ve been seven failed peace agreements, and the newest peace agreement is far from inspiring confidence. While these two big elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. Estimates of fatalities in the fighting – many of whom are women and children – exceed 10,000. A further 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, and almost half a million people have fled into neighboring countries. The women of South Sudan have tried in earnest to participate in the peace negotiations, but it would appear that they are not being listened to.

That’s nothing new. In 2008 I traveled again to Juba, South Sudan to meet with senior delegations from all ten states. The gathering was the wrap up a USAID-funded project that had invested no small amount of time and money in the strengthening of state governance. We met outdoors in a huge circle, and as my eyes took in the nearly 300 people assembled there, one observation undermined my cautious hope for the future of these state governments. I asked the man beside me where the women were. “State decisions are men’s work,” I was told. After I pressed him further on this, three South Sudanese women were brought in to join the circle. The men there thought that the situation was now resolved. Women were present, even if it was self-evident that they held virtually no power or influence.

This all comes back to me vividly, because in one week I’ll be joining with two other speakers and with African musicians from the Nile Project Collective at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland in nearby College Park to discuss the topic “Female Perspectives on the Nile.” My experience in the primary countries in this region extends back to 1982, including extensive time in South Sudan and in Uganda, as well as periodic visits to Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. I’ve spent a lot of time along the Nile, and have even swum with my children in its waters. I’d love to be able to share a hopeful vision. Continue reading Nile Basin: Big Men, Empowered Women, and a Threatened River