Working to build democracy isn’t always a pretty picture — and most of the time there is no picture at all. The lack of compelling visuals may contribute to the difficulty that we as changemakers face in demonstrating what we do and how we do it.
If you look in my photo folder, you’ll see countless pictures of people standing in front of a flipchart in a dimly lit room (yawn) or sitting next to each other talking (double yawn). This is the manner in which activism, political party assistance, and civic advocacy happens. It’s through dialogue, small group discussions, planning, writing, reflection, collecting data, building lists, over and over again that democracy building happens (most likely in stuffy, windowless rooms, usually accompanied with dry cookies and bad coffee). Can you picture it? This is where the architecture of change is charted.
Which is why I was delighted that the work that Leah Kimothi (Episode 3) and Carla Chianese (Episode 2) did on behalf of IFES to interrupt violence was recognized recently. USAID highlighted eight photos that capture the essence of how partners with local change makers promote, protect and deepen democracy, human rights and governance around the globe. Kenya’s “White Ribbon” campaign was a finalist of the 2018 USAID/Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) photo contest, judged by a panel from USAID.
I love that Ms. Fanis Lisiagali, Director of Healthcare Assistance Kenya ,is pictured front and center marching her heart out. She is one of the long-standing grassroots leaders fighting against gender-based violence. I had the honor to work with her while overseeing and election and conflict program in Kenya in 2017. It’s a great photo that captures the spirit and perseverance of the women fighting for peace and justice.
And why is USAID trying to demonstrate their impact, anyway? Because most Americans don’t understand the value of democracy assistance. Most Americans are surprised to learn that foreign assistance is only about one percent of the total U.S. budget. Democracy assistance represents just 4 percent of foreign aid.
We need a PR campaign for democracy – stock full of photos and visual aids, and info graphics! It is only because of the work of citizens on the ground — through the development of global standards for civil society and governance, and by courageous leadership – that there are more open societies across the world compared to 30 years ago.
As Ken Wollack, longtime director of the National Democratic Institute, pointed out in recent Congressional testimony:
“When World War II ended, fewer than a dozen democracies stood as the Iron Curtain rose, military dictatorships proliferated, and colonialism sought to regain its footing. Major breakthroughs against those trends began with the so-called third wave of democratization which, since the 1970s, impacted more than 100 countries where people in every region of the world struggled against oppression and for government based on popular will.” He continued, “On the African continent, only four leaders since 1960 had retired voluntarily or left office after losing an election — that figure stands at nearly 50 since then. Democracy, freedom and dignity were not even part of the lexicon of the Middle East. And Soviet communism, which extended to the borders of Western Europe, seemed deeply embedded.”
So, we have much to celebrate when we take the long view….and a lot to be worried about considering the short -term changes and challenges to democracy. According to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World Report 2018”, political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom. The basic tenets of democracy are being challenged today —including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—even in long-standing liberal democracies.
These are tough days, and even more are ahead. There is no shortage of problems. Yet there is also an abundance of solutions. We just don’t see the solutions as clearly as the problems. And if you can’t picture the way out, it’s hard to actualize it.
Thanks USAID for your support of democracy development, especially in light of both the external and internal problems you face. And thanks for helping us picture it a little more by honoring the photos of the ground warriors in the fight for more open, just and inclusive societies. I will do my part by committing to capturing less flip chart training photos and more dynamic change agents in action!