Clinton on Bahrain / Hip-Hop in Tajikistan / Civil Society and Democracy

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urges restraint in Bahrain. Egyptian Americans are hopeful about the future of their homeland. This March, the Kennedy Center will host Maximum India. The United States and China are growing relations through a new garden. American hip-hop dancers bring the beat to Tajikistan. And finally, what is civil society? This photo gallery has some answers.

U.S. Urges Restraint in Bahrain
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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton telephoned Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa to express U.S. concerns over violence by Bahraini security forces against anti-government protesters. Clinton says she had telephoned the foreign minister earlier in the day and “emphasized how important it was” that the Friday prayers and the funerals of the victims that will be held February 18 “not be marred by violence.”

Egyptians Americans are Hopeful
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Egyptian Americans, proud of the victory of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt, are looking to the future of their homeland with a mix of optimism, hope and a dash of realism.

Maximum India
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This March, the Kennedy Center in Washington will host the Maximum India festival, which will include performances, events and exhibitions by 500 artists in cooperation with the Indian Council for Cultural Resources. Maximum India marks the culmination of the Kennedy Center’s five-year exploration of the arts and cultures of the peoples along the legendary Silk Road, including Japan, China and the Middle East.

U.S., China Grow as Partners
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The United States and China have committed to construction of a classical Chinese garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington. “Today’s signing ceremony illustrates the commitment our two countries have to horticulture, science and the arts,” says Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a ceremony with China’s ambassador to the United States, Zhang Yesui.

Hip-Hop in Tajikistan 
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In 2010, the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe and the private cultural-exchange group American Voices arranged a series of dance workshops in Tajikistan led by two U.S. hip-hop dancers. The workshops highlighted the upbeat hip-hop sound that has had unexpectedly universal appeal worldwide, with a fast-growing fan base in Tajikistan.

Lech WalesaPhoto Gallery: Civil Society
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Civil society “is the conscience of our communities,” President Obama has said. Human progress, he said, has been shaped by individuals who can freely join forces and by nongovernmental organizations. But what is civil society, exactly? Why is it important? And what does it need to flourish? Explore this photo gallery about civil society around the world. In Poland, Lech Walesa, right, a shipyard electrician, was able to establish Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union. At its height, the union had some 10 million members and was instrumental in the downfall of communism in the country.

Clinton on Civil Society / World Food Prices / Color in Freedom

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calls for enhanced engagement between civil society groups and the United States. Food prices are up by 29% worldwide. President Obama’s Global Health Initiative will turn its focus to solutions for the poorest, most rural areas around the world. A top diplomat discusses President Obama’s Western Hemisphere policy. Some effortless fixes can reduce greenhouse gases. Finally, meet African-American artist Joseph Holston.

Clinton on Civil Society
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Speaking at the inaugural Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calls for more interaction between civil society groups and U.S. officials. At right, Clinton meets with Azeri civil society leaders in 2010 and emphasizes the importance of engaging with groups outside government that work to improve their countries.

Food Prices up 29% Worldwide
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The World Bank says global food prices have risen 29 percent from a year ago, driven by a combination of weather shocks and food export bans, which are forcing millions more people into extreme poverty. “This is (a) serious cause for concern,” says World Bank President Robert Zoellick.

Health Care for the World’s Most Needy
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President Obama’s Global Health Initiative will turn its focus to community-based approaches and health care solutions for the poorest, most rural areas around the world, says Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “That is our battleground, and I’m proud to say that is where USAID will try to lead the fight,” he says.

U.S. Western Hemisphere Policy “Informed,” “Optimistic”
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President Obama’s Western Hemisphere policy is “informed, engaged, dynamic, collaborative and optimistic,” says Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Energy Conservation Targets
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Energy efficiency programs target relatively inexpensive and effortless fixes that can have a big effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, many U.S. states are pushing ahead with energy-saving targets for power companies. Together, these states will help the United States reduce emissions in a significant way.

The final movement of Color in FreedomColor in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railroad
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Artist Joseph Holston creates art based on African-American subjects, saying he feels that African Americans should have “a voice through art.” His series Color in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railroad, which is currently touring the U.S., goes beyond the conventional understanding of the Underground Railroad as a historical episode and instead conveys a broader narrative about the African American experience. At right, the final movement of Color in Freedom shows the fruition of the struggle for freedom.

Civil Society and Social Media

The term “civil society” can seem almost as amorphous as the term “social media.”  Yet the two are becoming ever more powerfully linked to the promotion of democracy and human rights in the modern world.

Civil society can encompass any collection of nongovernmental activists, organizations, congregations, writers and/or reporters.  They bring a broad range of opinions to the marketplace of ideas and are considered critical to a vibrant, well-functioning democracy.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has described a free civil society as the third critical element to democracy – the other two being a representative government and a well-functioning market.

Social media consists of forms of electronic communication – typically using Internet- and mobile-based tools – which allow the creation of online communities to share information and ideas.

Pakistani University students use their mobile phones to record video of a protest condemning the killing of the governor of Punjab.

Civil society increasingly relies on social media because it is accessible, fast, efficient and easy to use. Seeing how social media can buttress civil society, the Obama administration launched an initiative back in 2009 to help grassroots organizations around the world master and effectively use digital technology.

In some countries with repressive governments that control traditional print, radio and televised media, social media may be the only access people have to unfettered discussions of issues. Philip Howard, an associate professor and author of the soon-to-be released book called “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy,” says that for civil society in the 21st century, social media creates “a digital ‘safe harbor’ in which conversations can incubate.”

“Information infrastructure is politics,” Howard says.  “In many nations, it also is far more participatory than the prevailing traditional political culture. As a result, the new technology-based politics democratizes the old, elite-driven arrangements. Every time a citizen documents a human rights abuse with her mobile phone, uses a shared spreadsheet to track state expenditures, or pools information about official corruption, she strengthens civil society and strikes a blow for democracy.”

Social media, of course, is a double-edged sword:  it can be used for good as well as for ill.  The question is:  Will the good uses outweigh the bad?  What do you think?

Democracy Depends on Civil Society

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been putting greater emphasis on the critical importance of civil society to democracy.  What’s “civil society”?  Individuals like you and me.

Civil society, she said in a speech in July 2010 before a meeting of the Community of Democracies in Krakow, Poland, “undergirds both democratic governance and broad-based prosperity.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “whether the goal is better laws or lower crime or cleaner air or social justice or consumer protection or entrepreneurship and innovation, societies move forward when the citizens that make up these groups are empowered to transform common interests into common actions that serve the common good.”

In too many places, however, governments constrain civil society by forbidding individuals to meet and work together.  This is a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 20, which upholds the right to peaceful assembly and association.

The United States, Clinton said, is committed to doing more to defend freedom of association, via diplomatic pressure, providing protection to activists where possible, amplifying the voices of activists by having U.S. government officials meet with them publicly at home and abroad and cite their work.

“We can also provide technical training that will help activists make use of new technologies such as social networks,” Clinton said. “When possible, we should also work together to provide deserving organizations with financial support for their efforts.”

What do you think are the best ways to protect civil society and freedom of association?

Is Civil Society the Conscience of a Community?

In his speech last year to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama said that “civil society is the conscience of our communities.”

The dictionary defines conscience as “the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives.”  But can a society collectively have a conscience?  And, is civil society that collective conscience?

In his speech, President Obama also expressed confidence that the free flow of ideas is essential to personal freedom and, ultimately, democracy.  The assumption is that free societies will ultimately choose the right path.

Lech Walesa, once a humble electrician, led the Solidarity freedom movement in communist Poland.

Certainly there are plenty of examples of how the desire for personal and societal freedom continuously simmers under even the most repressive regimes.  Aung San Suu Kyi and fellow like-minded activists have endured decades of repression and yet remain steadfast in their support for a free and democratic Burma.  Liu Xiaobo is only the latest in a long line of individuals who have endured government harassment and imprisonment for speaking out for greater human rights in China.

But civil society does have the power to overcome repressive regimes and promote freedom.  One of the most notable in recent history was the trade union Solidarity’s ultimate success in instituting democratic reforms in what was then communist Poland.  In past weeks, the people in Tunisia have had tentative success in shaking off an undemocratic government.

What do you think?  Is civil society the conscience of our communities?

Learn more:

The Evolving Work of Democracy

Clinton in Kazakhstan / Climate Talks in Cancun / World AIDS Day

In Kazakhstan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the OSCE Summit and speaks about the role of civil society activism at a town hall meeting. After returning from Asia, Clinton will host foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan in Washington. Faith can be a force for healing among nations, says U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice. At the COP-16 talks in Cancun, countries strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, today is World AIDS Day; read how the United States is leading the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Clinton Urges Stronger OSCE
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to expand its role in promoting human rights, preventing regional conflicts and enhancing security across the continent. Speaking in Kazakhstan, Clinton also outlined U.S. priorities for the OSCE, the first of which is to increase the group’s role in supporting stability in Afghanistan.

The Role of Civil Society Activists
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says governments cannot build strong democracies, thriving economies or stable societies by themselves. “Governments hold so much of the future in their hands, but they are not the most powerful determinant. That is the people themselves, and particularly the organizations that bring people together in civil society,” said Clinton, speaking at a town hall meeting in Astana.

U.S. to Meet Allies on North Korea
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will host the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan in Washington for discussions concerning recent North Korean activities and their impact upon regional security.

Faith Among Nations
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice says faith can be a force for partnership and healing among nations.

Climate Talk at COP-16
Leaders from more than 190 countries are attending the COP-16 climate meeting in Mexico to try to build on commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions made during last year’s gathering in Copenhagen. Though a legally binding treaty remains elusive, some 140 countries have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, and more than 80 have submitted greenhouse gas reduction targets.

World AIDS Day
Increased U.S. support for antiretroviral treatments will help deliver life-saving drugs to more than 4 million people living with HIV around the world by 2013, the State Department says. “By investing in what we know works, we can save millions more in the future,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says in marking World AIDS Day.

"Civil Society" – That's You!

Earlier this month, I attended a panel discussion called “Political Turmoil and Receding Reform: Democratic Governance in Uncertain Times.”  It was sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. and Freedom House, which monitors freedom, democracy and human rights around the world.  Every two years Freedom House puts out a report that takes a sampling of countries and examines government performance on civil liberties, rule of law, anticorruption and transparency.

This year’s report is Countries at the Crossroads 2010: An Analysis of Democratic Governance.  Briefly, the gloomy conclusion is that freedom throughout the world is actually decreasing, and many fledgling democracies are backsliding.

Jake Dizard, the managing editor of the report, said “the largest and broadest declines were in media freedom and civic engagement, both of which are intensely important for citizens who want to hold their governments accountable.”

Kevin Casas-Zamora, the senior fellow with Brookings’ Latin America Initiative, said “the most effective check on the exercise of power, arguably, comes from civil society.”

So what’s this powerful “civil society”?  You.  Me.  Individuals who voluntarily come together to form organizations and institutions that are the backbone of a free society.

Democracy and freedom depend on individuals, and it’s a theme “By the People” touches upon again and again.  Check out Getting People to Care: The Challenge of Activism, Women as the Builders of Democracy, Have You Got a Little Courage? and Be It Resolved: Get Involved.

What do you think keeps freedom-loving people from exercising their power as part of “civil society”?

Do Murders Increase when Trust in Government Declines?

I just finished reading a fascinating interview with Randolph Roth in the April 2010 edition of American History magazine.  Roth, a professor of history and sociology, has focused on trends in violence and homicide.  He argues that it is neither economic deprivation, nor lack of deterrence, nor the availability of guns that cause murder rates to rise; rather, it is a lack of public trust in government.

“I found a strong correlation from the 1640’s to the 1920s between low murder rates and an increase in the percentage of new counties in any decade that are named for national heroes,” Roth said in the interview. “It’s kind of an unconscious way to say we believe in our country, we believe in our national leaders, we believe in each other.”

Living free of violence is a basic human right.  Two of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights touch on that issue. Article 3 says everyone is entitled to “security of person” and Article 28 says everyone is entitled to “social and international order” which allow all other human rights to be realized.

Fighting violence is an ongoing challenge the world over, and citizens in a democracy must trust the government not to abridge their rights, but should a decline in trust necessarily result in an increase in murder?

Intern Week: “I Think the Neighborhood’s Changin’ a Little.”

[guest name="Anthony Crews" biography="Anthony Michael Crews has been writing off-and-on since his teens, when he wrote terrible satire for his high school newspaper. He received BA’s in history and creative writing. After beginning a career in the shipping industry, he decided to study diplomatic history in graduate school, which led him to spend this summer in Washington. Normally, he and his daughter live deep in the hills of Ohio."]

Young people from all over the United States (and the world!) come to Washington to gain valuable experience working for Congress, the federal government, law offices, lobbying firms, international organizations and non-profits. America.gov had its own group of summer interns, and we thought it would be fun to feature their thoughts on democracy here on By the People:

It’s easy to neglect iconic American films. Not that I object, but they are so ubiquitous that watching becomes an afterthought. Case in point: I like mob movies but (shamefully) have never seen The Godfather, though perhaps I could outline the plot. Last weekend, after watching the surprisingly well-reviewed Rocky Balboa, I shifted course and took in the original picture.

Watching the series backwards was revealing. Both center on old industrial Philadelphia—older and rather less industrial in the end. In Rocky, Philly has seen better days. Graffiti is everywhere; jobs are sparse. Yet the city is vibrant despite this. Young men fill the boxing club to capacity, others literally sing in the streets. By the time we get to Rocky Balboa, Sly comments: “I think the neighborhood’s changin’ a little.”

That’s clear when Rocky is approached by a “gangsta” girl who wants him to buy a round. He offers some unwelcome advice so she leaves screaming “you don’t know me!” This is an underclass calling card, and a panacea intended to purify perceived disrespect. If you’ve heard it, you know what I mean. It spews from folks who don’t quite know how to behave properly.

President Obama talks often about civil society, and it’s also a running theme in Rocky Balboa. Rocky stands before a committee, trying to get his boxing license back. Initially rejected, he returns with a final plea: “Yo, don’t I got some rights?…like in that official piece of paper they wrote down the street there?” He means the Bill of Rights. Rocky thinks the social contract is being broken, that he’s being denied the pursuit of happiness. The bookends of this series are both tales of the American Dream.

The dream is lost for gangsta girl. Presumably the education system has failed her, as many urban schools do, and the social contract is broken. She isn’t invested in the world around her, and operates in a community more akin to feudal honor systems than conventional civil society.

Here be dragons…the social decay that occurs between Rocky and Rocky Balboa puts us in uncharted waters. The United States has led the world in education for almost two centuries, but is now woefully behind. Continue on this route, and we make a prophet of H.L. Mencken, who derided the “collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” Even Rocky, throwing “hurtin’ bombs” recognized that threat.