Category Archives: International Development

Soon, the world might just be different

The world – at least its human population – has suddenly become remarkably different. The changes from the global pandemic are happening quietly and in solitude, as people shelter in place and renegotiate their patterns of life as best they can, seeking physical, economic, and even spiritual ways to stay healthy, secure, and buoyant. There are so many losses – tragic, painful, grueling, and mostly unmeasured losses – for those who contract the covid-19 virus, for those who care for and worry about them, and for those who depend upon them. We know this is a phase; there will be a time when this is over, when at least some of the accounting of suffering and loss can occur. We’ll mourn, we’ll find ways to heal, we’ll dust ourselves off, and we will move on.

But move on to what?

The invitation to imagine a future characterized by radically positive changes helps many of us make it through this deeply unsettling, troubling time. What we have endured (and still have yet to endure) from the pandemic has earned us at least that freedom to speculate. What if? Why not? Isn’t it long overdue? We find time to ponder what most about the past has failed us, and what simply must change. It’s a time to think big, and to seize an opportunity that may not come again for a very long time.

So here goes…

What if we demand that the patriarchal world order justifies itself? What if we insist that all who benefit most from patriarchal norms explain why we should not all give feminism a try? While patriarchy has many entrenched beneficiaries, the norms and power relations of patriarchy cause most of the planet’s population to be disadvantaged, diminished, disrespected, and exploited, now and since time immemorial. It need not be this way.

I can almost hear the scoffs, but I challenge you to read on…

Recently, I joined a small group of people on Zoom (yes, all women, although men had been invited) to discuss and constructively critique a thoughtful policy paper two of them had written and shared. Their paper dispassionately contemplated a feminist foreign policy for the United States; not as bizarre a notion as it might seem on first blush. Sweden, Mexico and Canada have variants of such policies in place now, and France, Luxembourg, and (if the Labor Party has its way) the United Kingdom are expressing promising intentions. But “feminism” is a fraught concept – a large proportion of women shy away from identifying as feminists, and arguably most men really haven’t bothered to learn even what feminism means. After all, they have seen no need to; presumably men have less frivolous things to think about and decide upon. Few women really expect men to engage on this topic; as women we’ve had good reasons to lower our expectations. Men have been almost entirely absent over the past four decades of advocacy for fundamental aspects of pursuing gender equality: ending domestic violence, stopping child marriages, shutting down sex trafficking, and granting women and girls equal legal status. Worse still, women have come to expect and even tolerate the absence of men in this important work.

If we cannot get individual men even to engage in serious discussions on the violence, exploitation, inequalities and marginalization faced by so many women and girls around the world – which men are at the center of perpetrating – what chance have we to find many men engaging on a feminist foreign policy for the world’s super power? The United States is unapologetically patriarchal; feminine values are relegated to a subordinate status and largely ignored. The United States exudes patriarchy in nearly all our political, cultural, religious, and governance institutions, and our foreign policy naturally follows this focus on power, dominance, strength, security, and wealth maximization. Yes, there are a few aberrations – for example the Peace Corps – but their modest budget has just been slashed again.

Why should our foreign policy be any different?

From the safety of your respective pandemic lock-down, hunker-down vantage points, I urge you to use this moment of global disarray and catastrophe to take a hard look at the system of moral values that underpins and sustains our world now. It’s a system that made a Trump presidency possible. It’s a system that is motivated by fierce competition, rigid hierarchies, “virtuous” self-interest, manipulation of others (persons, countries, genders) to serve the manipulator’s goals, accumulation of wealth and power with no “enough” point ever being defined, and security conceived primarily as the military and economic capacity to dominate (or at least intimidate) any perceived competitor or adversary. We measure our strength in weaponry, superbly trained and highly professional fighting forces, and wealth. Peace is seen only as a (temporary) lull in violent conflict. That system of moral values has a name – patriarchy – even if we are not encouraged to use that word.

In my own career in international development and human rights advocacy, my colleagues and I in this shared endeavor have been very poorly served by our existing American patriarchal foreign policy (although it is almost never referred to in such terms). Foreign aid and international development has no cabinet-level seat, and it rarely features in geopolitical strategizing. Those of us who work in this sector know that this isn’t a particularly lucrative or prestigious calling, but we don’t do it for the money. We do this work because we care. We want our efforts to make a meaningful difference in helping those who are marginalized, vulnerable, and largely ignored to overcome crushing poverty, to rise above lives of suffering, and to achieve freedoms and opportunities that most Americans simply (and rightly) take as a birthright. We want human dignity to be respected as an inviolable and universal threshold, and we commit our lives to this work.

For foreign policy, feminist demands are radical. We want economies everywhere to serve people; not the other way around. We want to see women and others who have been traditionally marginalized now have fair and reasonable access everywhere to genuine participation in decision-making and leadership. We want to see new norms, with room at the top of our “national self-interest” for making global such notions as justice, fairness, solidarity, collaboration, empathy, compassion, mercy, altruism, and long-term thinking. We want to measure our strength not only in our ability to defend ourselves, but also in the ways that we sustainably, creatively, and harmoniously live with each other and with our planet, in peace. We want leadership that inspires, motivates, and transforms – leadership that we now see in the countries that are doing the best in responding to and mitigating the pandemic – Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Norway. They are all led by women.

Mostly, what I and others of a similar mind (not all of whom are women) want is to be respected. We want to know why we all should simply be expected to default to patriarchal norms. We demand that the advocates of patriarchy make their case for its continuance. I’m not here to make an irrefutable case for feminism, or for a feminist foreign policy for the United States. Instead, I ask a different question: why should we not have a feminist foreign policy? That’s a discussion I am very prepared for, and I am not alone.

Getting an answer means that the men and women who support and benefit most from the overwhelming dominance of patriarchal norms would have to undertake a task that they have long ignored and neglected. They would need to learn what feminism means. Only then could they contemplate the implications of instituting a feminist foreign policy in lieu of the patriarchal status quo. Only then could they understand the patriarchy that surrounds them and that defines the world that we now experience. Once they have opened their eyes, they might not like what they see.

So yes, an almost unique opportunity is soon upon us to push the reset button. Those of us on the outer fringes of the current power structure – we who claim the “feminist” label without ambivalence or hesitation – know we can’t argue our way to get anywhere near to that reset button. The outer fringes offer no leverage; it’s not a place from which to make a compelling case, even if it is grounded in universal human dignity and is morally strong. So instead we turn the tables, and employ our democratic prerogatives to demand that the advocates for patriarchy explain why their system’s dominance in the norms, means, and goals of our international relations and in our foreign aid ought to continue as it now is. We have been patiently asking for this dialogue for decades, and consistently we’ve been ignored and waved aside. At best we are cast as an “irritation”; more frequently we’re subjected to far more pejorative or crudely sexualized labels. The arrogance of those who would wish for patriarchy to remain The System is most clearly seen in the condescending ways in which they reject taking any initiative to open their own minds to explore any alternatives, no matter the egregious cost the status quo has on others.

Feminists know that we cannot force them to do so, so why should the defenders of patriarchy bother?

They should bother because for human dignity to matter, it must be universal. If we want a world in which unnecessary suffering, violence, marginalization, inequality, and exploitation will no longer be “the way things are”, human dignity must be a defensible threshold for all. If we want a planet that is environmentally sustainable – one that avoids the impending climate catastrophe – we need different values and transformed leadership. If we want a world in which we no longer tolerate the rapidly growing inequalities between the few who are wealthy and the masses who are in poverty, we need to end patriarchy.

That dialogue has yet to happen. We are not even close right now, and the ravages of the current pandemic bear grim testimony to our dysfunction under patriarchy. It is time to rethink. It is time for the beneficiaries of patriarchy to deign to learn about feminism, and to realize what it offers.

Feminism isn’t a panacea. But a world moderated and influenced by feminism in a meaningful way, at scale, now, would offer such promise.

Find out why.

Catastrophe

Some tears were not meant to be repressed.

In describing the email messages she’d been receiving, she may not have wanted her loss of composure to become the video image being broadcast to the small and scattered universe of our local Quaker community, each at their respective homes behind their Zoom monitors, atomized but oddly together in the midst of the pandemic. But it didn’t matter; her tears flowed and with good reason. This woman works in international development. She, I, and others in our shared line of work have long struggled to reconcile our many personal, very human connections with friends and colleagues in the “Global South” (the countries of the developing world) with the impersonal, almost antiseptic development “industry” that has grown up over the past seventy years to provide global relief and development services. It’s a competitive industry driven by measured results and by indicators of efficiency and effectiveness. It’s characterized by its perpetual scarcity of funds in the face of immense challenges in countries least able to cope. Most of us have long since stopped asking why that scarcity exists among nations that are so wealthy; those who advocate here for the plight of the faraway disadvantaged find very little traction among the American public for extending moral boundaries beyond national boundaries. But we persist in our vocation. Why?

Many (perhaps most if you scratch the surface) who work within the relief and development industry of the “Global North” (the more developed, wealthy, and powerful countries) feel a genuine sense of mission and service, even if the industry provides no institutional structure, space, time, or priority in discussing such sensibilities. Instead of musing among ourselves about our values, we’re constantly reminded that we have work to do. Still, we know: no matter how hard we labor or how earnestly we care, it will never be enough to stanch the stream of suffering and need, or to quench the thirst for freedom and opportunity.

There are people on the other side of this equation. Sometimes called “beneficiaries”, or more disturbingly referred to as “target groups” or “key populations”, the people of the Global South are no longer content to be periodically visited by expatriate experts who typically jet in, work intensely in cultural environments they don’t have time to understand, move their collected data and trip reports into the cloud, and then leave before they’ve even adjusted to local time zones. Such beneficiaries are progressively claiming a bigger role in their own development decisions, but then they have their own ways and they don’t always want to be rushed. I am frequently moved to recall the words brightly painted on a local taxi van (matatu) in Nairobi, Kenya: “No hurry in Africa”. I first saw that back in the early 1980s when I lived in that city; then and now it reminds me of how wide the divide is between the core sensibilities of the Global North and the Global South. For those of us who serve as one of those “experts” in the expatriate development industry, time is fleeting, time is precious, and time is money. Measurable results demand focus, and budgets must be adhered to and accounted for in terms of billable hours. Once our “short term technical assistance” travel is completed, we come back to join with the home office staff to review and complete our evaluation of the data we’ve collected, trying in our small incremental ways to improve international relief and development outcomes. Once evaluated, the data we labored to collect and understand is unilaterally abstracted by the relevant institutions of the Global North into dense, fact-filled technical jargon in the form of spreadsheets, reports, PowerPoint slides, regression analyses, and statistical profiles. It’s important work and there’s no time to waste…until a catastrophe upends everything. Then suddenly, there is indeed a strong reason to hurry in Africa. And in Asia, and in the Middle East – indeed throughout the Global South. The Covid-19 pandemic sets its own time, and it is perishingly fast.

What had been an evolving, largely casual, almost tentative growth of direct interpersonal communication between “us” and “them”, a sideshow that made working in the expatriate relief and development industry more personal and interesting, is now something altogether different. The voices reaching out to us from the Global South via the Internet are no longer chatty. They are frightened, on the edge of panic.

They are demanding our attention.

Until just weeks ago, the short email messages coming out of the Global South typically were poignant with humanity, friendship, humor – but always tinged with legitimate need. Through the Internet, individuals in the Global South – people with names, faces, and stories to share – were making their presence known by breaking the unwritten rules, and leaping free of the political-economy frameworks that we in the Global North conveniently have contained them in up until now. These “beneficiaries” have exhorted us to read, listen to, or watch videos of their stories, to engage with compelling but seldom complaining accounts of what a “day in the life of…” is like. They couldn’t force us to engage – the power of the delete button remains ours to wield – but my tearful Quaker sister reads her incoming email and social media every day. So do I. These messages assert “I matter too” – not just in aggregate, not only in a cost-benefit table – but individually. It’s an assertion that we must respond to authentically; critical international relationships at every level will stand or fall depending on how we answer. Ultimately, the authors of each message have been subconsciously asserting two thoughts: they too are dignified human beings, and the principle of universal human dignity is at risk of being so comprehensively ignored that it will soon fall into permanent irrelevance.

But now the messages have suddenly changed. The humor is gone and their exhortations to engage are taking on a sense of calling-in an obligation, something that has always just been assumed: that we genuinely care about their wellbeing. We are being directly challenged by the authors of these email and social media messages to make the words on our slick websites and stirring policy statements real. Words like “human rights”, and “universal human dignity”. We are being challenged to stand up and be accountable. Not only in monetary terms, although that too is important…the “beneficiaries” are holding us to moral accountability.

It’s a stretch. Our foreign aid, at best, uses human dignity as a rhetorical device, effectively making any notion of morally defending a universal threshold of human dignity – a threshold or secular “moral minimum” that we must all work with determination to defend so that no one falls below it – into a sham. Most of us don’t know that secular moral vocabulary, and anyway we’re not willing to shoulder our part of such a heavy burden. In the past we could get by this awkward accountability by burying it in the empirical reports and the dense jargon of international relief and development.

Now; not so easy.

They are right there on your monitor, looking you in the eye, and asking in real time some perfectly appropriate moral questions: what did I do to deserve this life of hardship, suffering, and indignity? Why aren’t our public health systems capable to help us survive this pandemic? Why is there no adequate safety net as our economies fall apart? Do notions of fairness, equality, and universal dignity hold any significance at all? As the pandemic explodes around the world, countries in the Global North search and often fail to find such answers for themselves; no one here has much of an answer for the urgent questions of the Global South. Our “beneficiary” friends are not naïve; most have grudgingly come to accept injustice and suffering as their lot, and long ago they have tempered their hope for improvements and parked such aspirations at the margins. But not now.

In just the past ten days, my Quaker sister and I (and no doubt many more people with friends in the Global South) have been receiving truly alarming emails. The messages in those emails are variations on the same theme: the situation for the poor and the marginalized who are now lock-downed due to the burgeoning pandemic – people with no reserves of food or money – is already beyond dire. Their prospects, and the plight of their dependent children, elderly, or disabled folk, is beyond bleak. And that’s before factoring in their vulnerability to infection from the novel coronavirus. Our 0.2 percent (and yes, that is two-tenths of one percent) of GNP funding that the United States allocates to foreign aid each year isn’t going to make a dent in this calamity.

Throughout most of the developing world, this is a perfect storm. Covid-19 has found the soft underbelly of the Global South, and it now is wasting no time in exploiting grossly inadequate public health systems, a lack of competent or caring governance by economically insulated elites, close-packing of ordinary people due to widespread poverty, rapidly increasing vulnerability arising from lock-down induced malnutrition, increasing violence and civic unrest, extremes of sexism and domestic violence, police brutality and lack of training, and no effective strategies to cope with a massive and deadly pandemic. Everyone in the Global South knows that little help from outside can be expected despite stalwart efforts by the WHO and similar under-funded international institutions; the more developed countries of the world are beset by our own deep challenges, chronic (and, in retrospect, inexcusable) lack of preparedness, and the exponential escalation in the spread of the virus right here at home. We have to prioritize our own needs, and…well…we have nothing to say in response to the alarming messages coming in.

Our hearts and prayers won’t cut it.   

This will all end, someday. Nothing will be the same; everywhere the death toll and devastation will be beyond reckoning. Whether we will learn anything from this, and begin to reconfigure our sensibilities, values, and plans remains highly questionable. Humanity has been on this journey before; the 1918 influenza pandemic caused by a variant of an H1N1 virus infected nearly one third of the planet’s population. We didn’t seem to change our ways much afterwards; apparently we mostly clamored to return quickly to the way things were before the flu. The consequences of our unwillingness to learn from that experience are all around us right now. 

Human suffering at this massive scale strains our capacity to comprehend, much less to cope with it. The reality that it is the poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable who will suffer the most speaks volumes about our prevailing world of inequalities, lack of empathy, and highly competitive individualism. This intensity of misery and death condemns us for our short-sightedness, our bottom-line maximization, and the low value that we place on selecting political leaders of integrity and competence. Our democratic systems prioritize short-term gratification, not long-term reconfiguration of a scandalously inequitable world order and economies based on perverse, self-serving, “America First” values.

It shouldn’t take a global catastrophe of this scale to point us to the many flaws in our global patriarchal standards. We live in a world that classifies those values that are more aligned with feminine principles – empathy, altruism, compassion, public service, generosity, solidarity, and collaboration as being of a lower order – although curiously we suddenly stand in awe of the medical professionals who are valiantly and tirelessly living those caregiver, self-sacrificing values right now in our hospitals.

Those messages from the Global South demanding secular moral accountability aren’t going away, nor should they. More and more, they will be laying a very profound moral failure at the feet of those who have benefited most from our current inequitable world order.

Let the tears flow, but let’s start planning something new – and something very much better – for all of us. That’s right, all of us. It’s what universal human dignity – and the messages from the Global South – demand.

Madness

Photo: Honore-Daumier-Don-Quixote.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

 

Not too long ago, I took my daughter Audrey to a Washington DC production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of the play Man of La Mancha. It’s one of my favorite plays, and one that I first saw when I was her age. It is based on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in which an elderly gentleman is deluded into thinking that he is a valiant knight – Don Quixote de la Mancha – who is sworn to uphold the strict moral code of chivalry in a cynical, brutal, violent world that is devoid of such ideals. Although long past the time of armored knights on horseback, he and his faithful squire set out across the plains of La Mancha and the mountains of the Sierra Morena on a madman’s quest, the virtuous and indefatigable champion of a better world.

Madness?

Perhaps, but for many of us Don Quixote is heroic, even if comically soft in the head. Does one need to be certifiably insane to yearn for a world in which decency, honor, love, and bravery speak to a man’s best character? Granted, chivalry is a problematic moral premise, given its machismo ethos, its disdain for the peasantry, and its relegation of women as chaste objects of beauty and purity. Still, considering what values prevailed four hundred years ago when Cervantes wrote this epic novel, chivalry was a monumental step ahead in moral evolution.

My musings are not only literary.

Given the full house at that play’s production, and the fact that this play and the novel itself have such continuing appeal to so many of us, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assert that many people yearn for a less cynical, more principled, more compassionate world…a world, for instance, in which the destruction of the planet’s environment for the sake of short term economic gain (by the few) would be recognized as the starkest madness. Our own children and grandchildren will pay a dreadful price for this morally indefensible position, and it is harrowing to even imagine what we are bequeathing to generations further into the future – if we have such a future at all. We know enough however to imagine such a dire future very clearly – yet still we as a nation respond tentatively, if at all. Madness.

Moral principles are important to me. In my decades of work in less developed countries, I’ve been face-to-face with those who are beset by intense poverty – poverty so grinding and debilitating that it is very hard for Americans to imagine. Still, we have poverty here too, yet despite being an exceptionally wealthy country we watch powerlessly as the gap between rich and poor widens inexorably, while curiously so many poor citizens celebrate a new tax law that exacerbates this trend. Simultaneously, we cut back on foreign aid and humanitarian relief. Then we wonder why the rich get richer and the refugee numbers swell. Madness.

Human rights are important. Human rights describe and set the “bare-bones” threshold conditions for how human beings ought to live, and what governments ought to do to make this happen. Demanding that human rights be taken seriously is to demand governance that is about public service, justice, duty, and empathy – and being morally responsive to the “oughts”. Instead, we see our government unapologetically abuse the most vulnerable people of all – young children – by ripping them from the loving care of their parents, to “discourage” asylum seekers who are desperate for a place of safety – America – where they believed their human rights would be respected. Instead, and acting in our name, we see our government demonstrate astounding callousness, a total lack of empathy, and a disdain for human rights as they use the intense suffering of vulnerable children and their bereft parents to make a political point. This is morally repugnant. This is madness.

America’s president has walked away from our once-celebrated leadership in human rights, to petulantly demand that a vast and expensive border wall be constructed to keep out those persons whose asylum claims are morally sound, and whose hopes, dreams, and needs are very human. Were we instead to spend the wall money on strategically helping to solve the problems that drive people to seek asylum far from their homes, we might see positive changes and a steep decline in asylum seekers. Instead, Trump and his base insist on a wall for us all to hide behind, while the human beings on the other side of that wall unrelentingly suffer. “Not our problem!” Madness.

Gender equality and fairness (equity) is important to me. While Don Quixote would have been ethically challenged to imagine such a thing, we now know better. We are reminded by the example of courageous feminists – women and men – that the principle of human dignity is for all human beings, regardless of gender (or race, or ethnicity, or age, or disability status, or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or…). Yet we have a President who has excused his boasts of sexual assaulting women as “locker room”, a Vice President who is hostile to women’s rights, and an Attorney General who has a long record of opposition to fundamental rights for women. In short, our political leadership undercuts any moral position that would recognize the worth and full humanity of the female half of the country, and of others who are marginalized. Still, more than 51% of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Madness, yet again.

Yes, Don Quixote de la Mancha was almost certainly the victim of a form of insanity. Still, it was an insanity that epitomized humanity’s idealistic struggle for a better world, a world that “ought to be”. I’m more inclined to follow the example of Don Quixote, tilt at the windmills of greed, callousness, ignorance, fear, arrogance, lies, bigotry, hatred, and cynicism, than accept – much less politically celebrate – the feckless, morally bereft leadership that now prevails in our once proud country.

Hopefully the Democrats can find better leadership than a modern version of Don Quixote. Leaders with a clear and transformative moral vision, leaders with a commitment to democracy and public service, leaders who are environmentally intelligent and wise, leaders who actually possess empathy and decency and integrity. Leaders who are sane.

As the November mid-terms approach, as we confront the grim prospects of the nomination (by an illegitimate President) and the confirmation (by a morally spineless Senate majority) of yet another hard-right Supreme Court Justice, and the long-awaited revelations of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation (as Trump heads off to have his summit with Putin), I have to believe that clinging to idealism isn’t madness.

It’s the definition of sanity, and hope.

Distracted.

It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

A modest demand for male engagement

High angle view of a businessman standing amidst businesspeople

Looking on from the outside, the world of “gender studies” or related fields in gender-focused research, gender equality policy and programming, and the panoply of ethical questions regarding gender equity appear to take an almost ritualistic form: women talking to women about women.

Yes, there’s much to talk about, and such discourse is certainly not to be dismissed as superficial or trite – although that’s how our culture often casts women’s discourse. Our culture, and cultures around the world, predominantly reflect the values, priorities, and foibles of a “man’s world” framing. For those of us who hunger for an authentic place in which to be a person with full agency and opportunity, respect and resilience, it can be crushingly hard if we happen to be female or gender non-conforming. No surprise then that so many of us reach out for the healing, fortifying solidarity of women.

And men?

Where is men’s place in the gender discourse? They are seldom physically in such conversations, and probably many feel dissuaded or intimidated from participation given that such gatherings are so overwhelmingly “not male”.  Those men who consciously take on a formal role as a “gender advisor,” or some job-description variant thereof, are few – although generally much fêted by women.

For those of us who work on international human rights advocacy and international development, the dimension of “gender” has been kicked about for more than 40 years in a formal sense. As feminist thinking has evolved, and continues to do so, we’ve sought more effective ways to empower women to find our own pathways to lives of greater dignity, freedom, and choice. Throughout the Global South where traditional gendered social and economic roles are stubbornly resistant to change, and even in the more developed “progressive” societies of the Global North, the quest to break free from the glass ceilings, from objectification and commodification, and to push back firmly against misogyny and pervasively sexualized stereotypes continues with little fanfare. It’s what women and girls (and, more and more, those who are gender non-conforming) do. It’s “the way things are” for slightly more than half of humanity.

Let the women gather and talk…where’s the harm in it?

And the men? What’s their stake in this discourse, and in the pent-up demand for change that it represents? To what extent are conversations among men focused on equity, on universal human rights and dignity, on civil and political rights, specifically in the context of also embracing that half of humanity who are women, girls, and those who are gender non-conforming? Continue reading A modest demand for male engagement

Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

Albright

The day could not have been better positioned for a loud, unrestrained, guttural howl of outrage and indignation. And while I did indeed hear words of anger, disappointment, and deep concern, there wasn’t a single howl. Not one. Disappointing…

It was just last Thursday, March 16th, and early that morning President Trump released his new “Make America Great” budget. It was a “skinny budget”, lacking the detail and policy weight of a comprehensive federal budget document, but it had the attention of everyone in that room.

“That room” was the Helene D. Gayle Global Development Symposium, hosted by the wonderful organization CARE, and held in the Reserve Officers Association building’s conference room. We were convened just across Constitution Avenue from the U.S. Senate offices – where the real budget battle will soon be fought. The audience gathered there was almost entirely women, which aligned with the topic: the plight of women and girls around the world. Still, the idealist might be excused if he or she presumed that the topic of women and girls – half the population of the world – might reasonably attract the attention and concern of men who are active in the international development community, but no. As happens so often, we were mostly women talking to women about women, ironically in a room resplendent of the patriarchy with somber pictures on the walls of distinguished (male) military icons staring down sternly at the impudent female speakers.

The weight of that just-published budget set the mood, despite the stalwart efforts of many speakers to be upbeat and positive. It felt to me that all of us were hunkered down in an attitude of resignation; self-made victims of a disempowering capitulation to “the way things are”. Many speakers spoke in pragmatic and occasionally wistful tones about the usual obstacles and successes, and how we might best find a way ahead for facilitating a type of development that would truly address and engage women and girls as full human beings. But there was no fire in their bellies, and there were no howls. Continue reading Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

cliff-edge-2

It’s existential.

There’s a word that’s overused, often at the center of hyperbole. After all, existential means of, relating to, or affirming existence. In other words, it’s about being – and “being” is where everything ultimately comes down to. That’s a very big notion.

Is being transgender existential? After all, every human being is more than our gender, sex, or gender identity. Some of us are short, athletic, graceful, coordinated, musical – there are nearly innumerable attributes that might define or describe very important aspects of who we are – but these are not existential attributes. Our core identity will not collapse if a late burst of growth in our teen years catapults us from short to tall. We won’t cease to be ourselves if we lose our athleticism through aging or disability. We may grow less graceful, coordinated, or even less musical, but we are still ourselves.

Many cisgender (non-transgender) persons incorrectly view the transgender journey as a path toward a chosen set of attributes – in effect, the intentional construction of an alternative (or radical, or fringe, or delusional, or irrational, or…) lifestyle. For similar reasons, many cisgender folk will question the centrality of any decision, or self-identification, that some persons adopt which places them outside the gender binary – a binary that has defined humanity since time immemorial. To them, being transgender or being outside the gender binary (which are not necessarily the same thing), are at best  harmless, silly, or inconvenient contrivances. At worst, it’s immoral, sinful, an abomination to be rejected.

Take it from me: it’s existential.

Or, if you would rather look for further validation, consider the appallingly high attempted suicide rate that afflicts so many transgender persons. Reliable data places the rate of attempted suicides among the general U.S. population at 4.6 percent, but among transgender or gender non-conforming people this rate soars to 41 percent. For many, many transgender persons, life in the wrong gender is unsustainable. We simply can’t go on another day like that. It’s traumatic, and it’s existential.

Yesterday I spent the day in Baltimore, Maryland at a gathering of faith leaders (clergy, and others who play a leadership role in communities of faith) organized by Transfaith to build community, solidarity and share each others wisdom and strength in the healing work of helping transgender persons overcome trauma. Nearly all of us who gathered there were self-identified as transgender and/or gender non-conforming, and we each had found our various ways to survive the journey across (or beyond) the gender boundaries that had been imposed upon us at birth. We had survived, through coping skills and grit and resilience, and we continue to exist…we’ve moved toward lives of existential authenticity. We’d found support and affirmation among our own faith communities – as I had among the Quakers. Some of us however had been forced to find new communities of faith, having grown up in faith traditions that have no tolerance for us. Continue reading Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

Wrapped in the flag

 

shredded-flag

Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.

There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.

There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.

Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak. Continue reading Wrapped in the flag

The fight for America’s soul

bench

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

A “dream career”?

proud-to-be-trans

I recently received an email from my son’s friend at college, a young woman who is a passionate campus ally in her activism on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity here in the United States. She made a passing reference to my own work on LGBTI issues international as a “dream career”.

Is it?

First, “career” is probably not the best noun to describe what many of us who are active in international LGBTI advocacy and development are about. There is almost no money to support such efforts in the Global South (the less developed countries in the world), or in other regions (Russia, Eastern Europe) where LGBTI lives are most at risk. There are also very few actual salaried jobs; very few organizations make such global concerns their priority. Instead, we do this work because we care about the plight of LGBTI people abroad, and we know that just a very modest amount of financial support would move mountains in terms of meeting their development aspirations.

As for “dream”, in reality the dream is more often a nightmare. What many LGBTI persons in the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe confront on a daily basis is beyond comprehension by most people in the United States. True, it is now widely reported that homosexuality is illegal in over 70 countries, yet the fact of such illegality is only a top-level indicator of astounding levels of ignorance and pernicious social values that frequently relegate LGBTI people to sub-human status, or otherwise demean, humiliate, persecute, exclude, reject, bully, isolate, scapegoat, assault, torture, or kill such LGBTI persons. In short, throughout much of the world, any discussion of social inclusion and human rights for LGBTI persons is a very tragic narrative indeed.

Behind this narrative are real persons. My “career” fills me with their names and faces, their big hearts and warm smiles, their gentle spirits and youthful exuberance, and their suffering. Some of these “real persons” whom I have come to know and care for are now dead, victimized by the homophobia and transphobia that is so rampant. I carry these “real persons” – the living and the dead – with me every day, but in the absence of much global concern and with so few resources available to help them, “carry them” is often the most that I can offer. It isn’t enough.

In many instances, the toxic attitudes and values that characterize homophobia and transphobia have their origins among faith-based groups and religious leaders – sometimes with the moral and financial support of religious zealots from the United States – although such support isn’t limited to some fringe streams of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, set grim standards for the abuse, torture, and killing of LGBTI persons, claiming that this is somehow justified by their religions. Around the world, it is relatively easy to distort or misinterpret religious values in all faith traditions to “justify” the hatred and persecution of LGBTI persons.

Aspiring politicians in much of the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe (and yes, many in Western Europe and North America too) are also often quick to realize the many advantages of blaming any number of societal ills on vulnerable sexual minorities, which spares them the trouble of actually working to solve genuine public policy issues, fight corruption, or pursue actual principles of justice and caring. Much of the world’s media also sees a lucrative market in exploiting bigotry, prejudice, and hatred directed at LGBTI persons and their organizations – one need look no further that the infamous “kill the gays” headline and list of 200 people alleged to be gay which appeared in Uganda’s Red Pepper tabloid on February 25th of 2014.

We are learning more all the time. LGBTI persons themselves – often with support from wonderful organizations such as Human Rights Watch – are making their voices heard more loudly and clearly each day, in videos, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Take a look at a recent video about the realities faced by transgender persons in Sri Lanka, listen to the podcasts of Nigerian LGBTI activists, see a news report of an LGBTI activist in Myanmar, or read English language news about LGBTI people and issues in Turkey. While we still lack adequate analytical data that is essential to move and to fund major policy initiatives or to support scholarly research, the growth in anecdotal data – narratives – is exponential.

We can no longer plead ignorance. Continue reading A “dream career”?