Sunday, May 27, 2007

no, my first name ain't baby

Remember Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation (get the point? good. let’s dance). Straight up hard on civic issues, then she brings the beat back.

Today I spent the afternoon in the park, reading, people watching, counting marathon runners go by. Summers are always good in Ottawa, but today was the first time I’ve considered it could be home.

No coincidence these thoughts coming once the snow is gone, and particularly while I’m in the park. I could see the Hill over my left shoulder, open and accessible by foot, the national art gallery in front of me, boasting displays of Renoir, modernist photographs and the Governor General’s (our first black, female head of state!) picks. And to my right the steel and concrete gated fa├žade of the American Embassy, an architectural statement of everything our country is not.

Then a random man approached me. I guess during the winter he’d seen me reading at Chapters every week. He wanted to know if I’d like to join him this evening at a church concert. It seems my sister might have taken me to his congregation once when she was in town, cuz he thought he'd also spotted me in a pew.

He came across as courteous and respectful, but also possibly trying to flirt. Alas, I’m not born again, nor interested, so I didn’t take the bait.

Still, between the sun on my face, the political theory in my lap, the national icons in the distance, and the friendly courage of this man, I left at sundown with a renewed faith in the potential of the city, and good feelings about how great the country is overall.

It was like listening first to “people of the world unite/strength in numbers we can get it right/one time”, then skipping tracks to “as I was walkin’ by/saw you standin’ there with a smile.”

Looks like my girl Janet knew what she was talking about. (you might think i’m crazy but I’m serious. it’s better you know now.)

Friday, May 25, 2007


So I'm walking home yesterday after work and there's this skater dude following along the same path.

Next thing I know, he's shouting insults, obscenities, and finally WHITE POWER!!! WHITE POWER!!!

For a full block. was 31 degrees with humidity yesterday. could he not deduce that we don't need any more hot air?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

can governments still inspire?

My boss' father, who is from India, says that "the problem with Canada is that there are no problems."

Perhaps this is why government is less ambitious now than it was in the Trudeau Charter of Rights era...or even the Mulroney era of Free Trade.

With the exception of the disparities in income, health and education between First Nations communities and the rest of Canada, these days the most urgent social problems to be addressed are most often found overseas.

But what is the role of a national government in helping to solve the problems of people who don't live in the nation? How can we engage citizens in supporting foreign aid? And how can we offer foreign aid in a non-paternalistic fashion or without inappropriate strings regarding the recipient country's domestic policies?

National governments are hard pressed to focus on initiatives that won't score political points. But the political system - the way individual candidates are nominated, elected and keep their parties in power - isn't really built to focus attention outside the country. And once a government is in place, does it really have the tools to effect meaningful international change? Military action has been used as one piece of the puzzle, but the military isn't designed to cultivate grassroots support.

A few weeks ago I was at a Facebook party comprised of political staffers and bureaucrats where I met a feisty woman who is a lawyer with the feds on First Nations issues. She had been a political staffer for a cabinet minister before the Liberal government fell.

We spoke at length about how well government is equipped to improve the socioeconomic status of First Nations communities. She was pessimistic about the government's ability to be an effective catalyst on its own. But she was equally adamant that economic advancement in the absence of self-government, improved infrastructure, and social programs would do little as well.

If an insider sees such challenges in working to resolve a domestic policy issue, what kind of tactics are needed to generate support, mobilise resources, and partner with the private sector and civil society for initiatives overseas?

Aside from funding (and perhaps managing) existing social programs, infrastructure and healthcare - can national governments set (and achieve) loftier goals in the modern age?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

lessons learned, revisions made

After three days of reading, reflecting, dancing, and socialising, I have the following revisions to previous thoughts, musings, and posts I've published about a) effective activism & b) socially responsible lobbying.

This morning I read an article in the NY Times about the tactics behind the campaign to end partial birth abortions, and potentially many more types of abortions down the road. It seems that the activists appealed - not to rhetoric about morality, values or religious suasion - but rather to empirical data that they say shows abortions are not in the best interest of women in terms of physical or mental health.

I found this interesting as an example of how the pro-choice movement got outmanoeuvred. It used to be that when you (am I the only one?) thought of pro-choicers, you thought of feminist intellectuals, perhaps offering reasoned rationales for why the tough decision to have an abortion should be left to individual women, and not the state. And you maybe thought of pro-lifers as placard-waving protesters outside of health clinics.

Now, the roles have switched.

It's the pro-choicers who are the (impotent) protesters and the pro-lifers who are successfully changing law and potentially public policy through the traditional tactics of strategic lobby plans.

But having said that, I have an edit to my earlier assertion that more social cause activists should hire lobby firms (in addition to using our tactics). At the Make Poverty History meeting we talked about how having equal rules is not enough if there are discrepancies in resources between the players.

In the context of lobbying world, the issue is not precisely whether you can afford a blue chip firm like mine; it's that by virtue of being so big, my firm is better able to cultivate relationships with decision-makers.

When I call a political staffer or government official, I can call with the policy concerns of five clients, knock off multiple birds with one stone. Which makes it more (worth the official's time) efficient for the decision-maker to speak to me than to each individual social cause activist who might be pounding at their door.

As a result - I have more access. Which leads to an imbalance in the overall democratic objectives of the lobbying system. So. Potential solutions? Big firms should (be required) feel obligated to do pro bono work for resource-poor organisations.

Luckily, last year my firm provided pro bono services to Ashoka, an organisation that provides three years' salary to social entrpreneurs. Other offices/sister companies offered pro bono work to other orgs. Globally we gave away 3.4 million pounds and we have staff volunteer programs in each office to get individual employees engaged in the communities where they work. So. That's not bad.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

make poverty history

I've just come back from a meeting of the Make Poverty History campaign.

It was an inspiring mix of savvy policy advocates, idealistic grassroots activists, fresh faced international development types, newcomers to the city, and social justice campaigners from faith-based groups. It seems I've signed up to co-chair the campaign in my riding. (Thank god for Facebook.)

There were (only) two people who had been born outside of Canada - from Bosnia and from Colombia - both seasoned anti-poverty services workers. There were the requisite students, some middle aged folks, and lots of women who seemed to be like me*.

The purpose of the meeting was to develop strategies to put the Campaign's four anti-poverty goals into the election platforms of each political party in the next election campaign. The four goals are:

More and Better Aid (Reach the UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income by 2015 by committing to increase aid by 15% each year from now to 2010, then by 16% from 2010 to 2015.)

Trade Justice (Press for trade and investment rules that ensure governments and their citizens can choose the best solutions to end poverty and protect the environment, particularly in the agricultural sector.)

Debt Cancellation (Between 1970 and 2002, for example, the poorest African countries received $294 billion in loans, but paid back $298 billion in interest and principal. Yet they still owed more than $200 billion.)

End to Child Poverty in Canada (At the start of 2005, one million Canadian children - nearly one in six - were poor. First Nations children are disproportionately affected).

You can support the Make Poverty History Campaign online, by clicking here.

*but white. and not so much in the private sector. or in partisan politics. maybe not so much like me, so much as my age. ish.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

who da Man?

I've just discovered the Hip Hop Project, the "compelling story of Kazi, a formerly homeless teenager who inspired a group of New York City teens to transform their life stories into powerful works of art, using hip hop as a vehicle for self-development and personal discovery." The film opens May 11th and is produced by Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah.*

Coincidentally, I'm currently reading Rebel Sell - Why the Culture Can't be Jammed by Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter. The thesis of the book is that the counterculture movement has not only been unproductive, but has also helped to create the very consumer society that radicals oppose.

My favourite quote from the book so far?

"From the standpoint of social justice, the big gains that have been achieved in our society over the past half-century have all come from measured reform within the system. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement have both achieved tangible gains in the welfare of disadvantaged groups, while the social safety net provided by the welfare state has vastly improved the conditions of all citizens.

But these gains have not been achieved by "unplugging" people from the web of illusions that governs their lives. They have been achieved through the laborious process of democratic political action - through people making arguments, conducting studies, assembling coalitions and legislating change. We would like to see more of this.

Less fun, perhaps, but potentially much more useful."

God I agree. People ask me why I like working for a corporate lobby firm. (aka The Man) It's cuz I can't find a more efficient - or consistently effective - place to be an activist for hire. My job description is exactly this: to make arguments, commission studies, assemble coalitions, and push for politicians and government officials to legislate change.

I think social cause organisations should spend less time complaining about the success of professional lobby campaigns and actually hire us themselves.

I participated in the anti-war rallies when Bush first contemplated invading Iraq. And, sure, the tam tam playing and megaphone shouting was fun. But our boy George still went to war. I attended pro-choice rallies in undergrad, and yeah it was thrilling to stand up to riot police, see other supporters in the streets. But the current U.S. Supreme Court is still taking active steps to open the door to state by state abortion bans.

What is needed is not a critique of how repressive the State and Markets are. Buying alternative sneakers and beauty supplies does not shatter the Dow Jones. But how much more effective is the global access to essential medicines campaign with generic manufacturers available in India than with simple moral claims?

What is needed by social cause activists are coordinated, strategic offensives in support of specific policy goals. A desire to get out of Opposition, to assume the reins and lead. Less fun, more useful, indeed.

So what I like about the Hip Hop Project is the way that it leverages the cultural appeal of hip hop and the resonance of one guy's story to shine a light on a range of specific social ills. And then it provides a blueprint for how to bring disaffected youth together and to channel their discontent. And then it uses the power of (all types of) media to extend the story's reach. And it's not afraid to align itself with business, or the industry's elite.

When we watch the movie, we'll be touched by this guy's story. We'll start to see how a music project can change individuals' lives. And then we can buy the soundtrack, hear the characters' social commentary - and know that the net profits from the project will go to helping different youth organisations make a difference in some other kids' lives.

*the filmmakers are Matt Ruskin, Scott Rosenberg, and Ari Issler. They've been filming the project for the last four years.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

speaking of petards

So the Conservatives have been disturbingly effective lately at painting Dion and the Liberals as ivory tower talkers and the Harper/Baird crew as men of action.

Many a beer has been shared and a sparky debate initiated as good Liberals in the nation's capital critique and lament the Conservative attacks.

Today, some hope. A fellow former-staffer sent round the following link to a mock-site about the Conservative's environmental policy plan:

It's called "ecoFRAUD - Sounding Better. Doing Less", and is a direct rip off of the look and feel of the Conservative's real environmental site "ecoACTION - Using Less. Living Better".

Which is amusing...if slightly ivory tower. Because isn't "sounding better" the cornerstone of winning elections? Regardless of what the newly-elected government actual does?

NGOs, activists, academics and other civil society actors have a good case to make for being in perpetual opposition. Constant critique may or may not push a government to amend their policy approaches - but it can garner media attention and encourage coffee shop chat amongst voters.

Still, for the Liberals and our upcoming election point sneering - we need to sound better too, if we want to win.

Check out the Conservative environmental plan here.

And the mock ecoFRAUD site here.