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Can a book fix a crisis in democracy?

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BuzzList_v_tagSam Daley-Harris started a grassroots campaign organization called RESULTS in 1980 because he wanted to help people defeat world hunger and poverty.

But to do that, he says he had to first show Americans that they can make a difference.

Daley-Harris says US citizens feel “cynical and impotent,” and suffer from a “hopelessness and a sense of alienation…” They don’t trust their government, and don’t see any point trying to change it.

So how do you transform apathetic, disillusioned citizens into empowered activists?

Daley-Harris describes how in his re-issued book Reclaiming Our Democracy. It’s about how to teach people that they can play a role in ending poverty, healing what he calls “the break between people and government,” and generating the “political will” to end world hunger.

Demonstrating on the streets of Miami in opposition to trade rules that disadvantage people in the poorest countries. Photo by Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America
Demonstrating on the streets of Miami in opposition to trade rules that disadvantage people in the poorest countries. Photo by Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America

What is ‘political will’ anyway?

Citing political will reminds me of the comment about the weather commonly attributed to Mark Twain: Everyone talks about it, but no one ever does anything about it. Our colleague Duncan Green once went so far as to say “demanding ‘political will’ is lazy and unproductive;” because citing its absence absolves us of the responsibility to understand what is blocking change–and addressing it.

Reclaiming our Democracy describes the methodology RESULTS uses for grassroots mobilization, and attempts to deconstruct the concept of political will, showing how to get our elected representatives to care about poverty and do something to eradicate it. The 20th anniversary edition coming out in September also has a chapter on the origin of a new organization called Citizen’s Climate Lobby (CCL), and how he advised its founder to use the same principles (13 of which are enumerated in the last chapter) to mobilize activists.

RESULTS now has 600 core activists and another 6,000 volunteers in their network operating out of 100 different areas of the US and six other countries. This book is a catalog of personal journeys many of them have taken, from inaction to advocating directly to their members of Congress. These narratives come in waves, sometimes five different people in a chapter, drowning the reader in awakened earnestness.  It’s impressive that Daley-Harris could amass all this testimony, but in this case more is not better.

The way we look at aid has changed over the last 30 years. The people we intend to help have a perspective we need to respect, but apart from a quotation from a Salvadoran woman describing the death of her children from disease (excerpted from a video), the people suffering in poverty in the US and other countries remain largely voiceless in this book. Despite an engaging account of the origins of the Grameen Bank, there are few suggestion that they can solve any problems on their own.

Power of the personal

Nevertheless, Reclaiming our Democracy is a hefty resource for anyone committed to building citizen activism. I found myself wanting to know more about how RESULTS and CCL are leveraging the internet in the era of Web 2.0. The book describes again and again how RESULTS members would lug TVs and VCR players into meetings with members of Congress back in the 1980s, but Daley-Harris is silent on the recent revolution of crucial communication channels like internet video.

Instead, the book stresses the power of “face-to-face interactions by articulate, passionate citizens,” and is very critical of the “mouse-click activism” Daley-Harris sees in early 21st century organizations: “…if you are truly passionate about an issue, once the mouse had been clicked, the Facebook friends alerted, and the action tweeted, there is often a feeling of some emptiness, a yearning for something deeper.”

Angélica Getahun, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and Tonopah Greenlee in a meeting at the Senators office in Nevada. Getahun and Greenlee are members of Oxfam America's Action Corps, a network of citizen activists in the US.
Angélica Getahun, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and Tonopah Greenlee in a meeting at the Senator’s office in Nevada. Getahun and Greenlee are members of Oxfam America’s Action Corps, a network of citizen activists in the US.

Daley-Harris and RESULTS have achieved some impressive results:  getting Congress to fund UNICEF’s immunization programs, the early efforts of the Grameen Bank, and other crucial legislation most people would have found easy to cut or overlook. Much of it was done by local people pitching editorials in local newspapers that their member of Congress could not miss. Building this kind of pressure in home districts is still a viable tactic, but are there additional ways to do this using the internet? In Daley-Harris’ world, activists and their journey of transformation are at the core of successful citizen activism, not the technology they use.

OxfamBuzzList is a blog series about the movies, books, articles, music, and more that have Oxfam staff and supporters talking. We welcome guest contributions.

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  1.  avatarSam Daley-Harris

    Chris, thanks so much for your comments on Reclaiming Our Democracy http://www.reclaimingourdemocracy.com In your last paragraph you say, ” Daley-Harris and RESULTS have achieved some impressive results: getting Congress to fund UNICEF’s immunization programs, the early efforts of the Grameen Bank, and other crucial legislation most people would have found easy to cut or overlook. Much of it was done by local people pitching editorials in local newspapers that their member of Congress could not miss. Building this kind of pressure in home districts is still a viable tactic, but are there additional ways to do this using the internet? In Daley-Harris’ world, activists and their journey of transformation are at the core of successful citizen activism, not the technology they use.”

    I’d be thrilled to hear others’ answers to your question “but are there additional ways to do this using the internet?”

    Just recently I learned that UNICEF will report that under-five mortality rates have gone from 41,000 a day when RESULTS started lobbying in 1984 to 18,000 a day in 2012. Couple that with the latest statistics on Citizens Climate Lobby’s volunteer output in the first 8 months of this year: 745 letters to the editor published, 141 op-eds published, and 602 meetings with members of Congress or their staff and I question whether the internet can pull that off. Organization have to provide more to their stakeholders and ask more from their stakeholders than just a click and a check.

    Your readers might enjoy the excerpt from the two new chapters found in this piece from the Tikkun Daily Blog:
    http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2013/09/11/working-to-heal-repair-and-transform-citizens-so-they-heal-the-world/

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