Jajja’s Kids and the Power of Kindness

October 3, 2017

I awoke yesterday to the horrible reports from Las Vegas but I decided to take a week to organize what I want to say, and deal with guns and Vegas next week. This week I want to tell a story about generosity.

For some of us, generosity is its own reward. Others need to be shown that it does some good, not only for others but for themselves. Take it either way. I don’t care to be judgmental but the consequences, both ways, are important. I want to illustrate that with Jajja’s Kids. Jajja means grandmother in Uganda but it’s an honorific, not confined to actual family relations. A lovely local woman, Diane Reiner, has taken on that role with Ronnie Sseruyange who has become like a son to her.

I have spoken about Jajja’s Kids before and WAMC’s Joe Donahue has interviewed the people who make it happen. But I was at a fundraiser for Jajja’s Kids and it’s message is important to ponder.

When his mother died, six-year-old Ronnie Sseruyange, had to fend for himself on the streets of Uganda, and was promptly welcome to the streets by an older child who broke his jaw. But at 16, Ronnie was taken in to a youth shelter, and he turned around to look after other street children, to feed, clothe, house and educate them, though he himself had no formal education. He became known as the Chairman of the Street Kids.

A few years later, Diane, a photographer from this area, went to Uganda for a workshop, and there she was introduced to Ronnie. Instinctively she wanted to help. They set up a charitable organization here and an NGO there so that Diane could raise money and Ronnie would have the wherewithal to provide for the children. Diane has been there repeatedly and brought back stories, letters and photographs that make clear their progress in feeding, clothing, housing and educating the street children in Ronnie’s care.

That brings me to a remark that Ronnie made at the gathering I attended, that the children he takes care of have said “God bless America,” to which Ronnie added that he has not heard that said about their own country.

I don’t want to be naïve about this. I suspect the song had something to do with the kids repeating that phrase. And generosity doesn’t solve all problems. Nor does it create an obligation to do whatever otherwise generous people want. But it does matter. It does create opportunity for children who would have none, for children who would be terrorized by older kids intent on impressing them with their power, what can euphemistically be called a rite of passage all too common in the ghettos of the world.

And American generosity is a form of diplomacy. Some call it soft-power. But it matters. The Peace Corps matters. Our Congressman, Paul Tonko, was at the gathering to lend his support because kindness matters. In this age when so many suffer from the what-about-me’s, it’s important to recognize the corrosive implications of thinking only of ourselves and the international reach of open hearts. The what-about-me’s are all about creating a jungle. The openness of kind hearts is all about creating civilization, and the wealth of kindness and productivity that cooperation make.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 3, 2017.

 

 

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Peace Corps and Legal Services

April 11, 2017

The Trump Administration hasn’t included the Peace Corps in its proposal for fiscal year 2018. It proposed cutting the international affairs budget by nearly a third.[1] It struck funding for the Legal Services Corporation which provides funds for poor people to defend what little they have. And, as we are all aware, it has advanced its war on truth by trying to cut the budget of National Public Radio. None of that will save much in the budget but it will damage the country and make life coarser and less secure for the people in it.

On Feb. 27, 2017 “retired three and four star flag and general officers from all branches of the armed services” wrote congressional leadership “to share our strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.”

These generals and admirals told Congress from their own experience “that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone – from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability” as well as “refugee flows that are threatening America’s strategic allies in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe.”

These military officers made it plain that “The military … needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism– lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.” From their experience, “The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.…”

The Trump Administration’s blueprint for FY2018 for 150 international affairs budget functions included no budget proposal for the Peace Corps. According to the Congressional Research Service, the nearly quarter of a million Peace Corps Volunteers who have served in 141 countries provide a form of “public diplomacy” for America, not to mention the “short-term … [postings for] emergency, humanitarian, and development assistance at the community level … including post-tsunami Thailand and Sri Lanka and post-earthquake Haiti.”. And they bring back with them and help the rest of us understand other parts of the world that few of us get to see. Both the specific attack on the Peace Corp and the general attack on diplomacy are part of the foolish short-sightedness of the current Administration.

Apparently the Administration doesn’t like poor people in the United States any more than abroad, as it made clear by trying to end the Legal Services Corporation. In commentary in the Times Union, Dean Alicia Ouellette of Albany Law School just stuck to the facts:

“People facing life-altering crises — parents losing custody of their children, families facing wrongful foreclosures, veterans wrongly denied benefits, the elderly scammed of life savings by fraudulent businesses, farmers struck by natural disaster — need the help of lawyers.”[2]

But for the Trump Administration, if you’re too poor to hire an attorney, you don’t deserve justice.  It’s not just the people who are deprived of their rights; it’s the public as well. According to a Massachusetts study, government funding of various types of legal representation showed returns of from two to five times the amount expended on counsel, depending on the area of legal services, not including the very significant benefits to state residents.[3] Those benefits can be very significant. Dean Ouellette cited a study by the New York City Bar Association showing savings to the city of more than half again the cost of providing legal help to people who can’t afford it in a variety of non-criminal matters. Other studies similarly show that the cost of erroneous convictions vastly exceeds the cost of providing counsel.[4]

For this president, no injury to the public or to the vulnerable is too great.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 11, 2017.

[1] Congressional Research Service, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21168.pdf.

[2] http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-opinion/article/Funding-legal-services-for-the-poor-benefits-all-11049978.php.

[3] INVESTING IN JUSTICE A ROADMAP TO COST-EFFECTIVE FUNDING OF CIVIL LEGAL AID IN MASSACHUSETTS, A REPORT OF THE BOSTON BAR ASSOCIATION STATEWIDE TASK FORCE TO EXPAND CIVIL LEGAL AID IN MASSACHUSETTS, at 19-24 (2014) available at http://www.bostonbar.org/docs/default-document-library/statewide-task-force-to-expand-civil-legal-aid-in-ma—investing-in-justice.pdf.

[4] James R. Acker, The Flipside Injustice Of Wrongful Convictions: When The Guilty Go Free, 76 ALB. L. REV. 1629, 1631-36, 1708-09 (2012/2013).


Iranian-American Diplomacy

June 15, 2015

My wife and I are back from a reunion of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who had served in Iran, and a conference with some of this country’s experts about Iran.

Our first plenary speaker, Bill Beeman of the University of Minnesota, is a very well-known scholar about Iran. He described the complexity of their system of manners and the ease with which foreigners misunderstand Iran. I asked about Iran experts in the State Department. Beeman explained that Secretary Kissinger attacked what he called clientitis, where experts sympathize with the country they study and resist what political leaders want to do. Following Kissinger, the foreign service routinely rotates diplomats to prevent too much specialization. That has advantages and disadvantages; dialogue between experts deeply steeped in a culture and generalists with other concerns is important.

Beeman added that many in Washington claim expertise about Iran, connected with think tanks with axes to grind. Scholars independent of ideological organizations can afford to see reality without coloring it with what they want to happen. Certainly independent scholars need to be heard.

I am convinced that Beeman’s message about the complexity of Iranian culture and the ease of misunderstanding it is accurate. All former Peace Corps Volunteers, and others who have immersed themselves in a foreign culture, can attest to the ways that cultural signals are easily misunderstood in both directions. In diplomacy that can spell disaster.

Our headline speaker was former Ambassador John Limbert, the last U.S. ambassador to Iran and a hostage for 444 days. Limbert now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I brought Beaman’s comments to Ambassador Limbert. He responded that the State Department has some knowledgeable people and a seasoned negotiator like Secretary Kerry can pick up a great deal by listening closely. I teach interviewing and I know the importance of active listening that seeks to understand without substituting one’s own assumptions. But I couldn’t shake concern that decades of detachment from Iran will handicap negotiators on both sides. It’s too easy to see each other as hostile and assume the worst, or to miss what is really important to them and misunderstand what they are actually offering. That’s especially difficult because so many people claim to know what Iran intends.

As an example of the complexity of our and Iran’s interests, Ambassador Limbert described the U.S. expectation after the Revolution that Iran would be hostile toward the Soviet Union. The Russians had treated Iran as part of its empire for a long time and there were good reasons for Iranian hostility. But Iran did its best to maintain friendly relations and trade with the USSR. Had they suddenly become pro-Soviet? Or were they defending themselves by trying to avoid incurring Soviet wrath. Limbert’s point was that we have to learn to see their actions through their eyes, not our own, to understand and respect their own Iranian nationalism just as they must respect ours.

We have many overlapping interests. But Iran also cares about the mistreatment of Shi’a populations in the Middle East. Iran sees that as defensive and about justice, not about conquest or aggression. It is easy for Iranians to see the US as supporting a ring of Sunni dynasties around Iran.

That doesn’t create any clear picture of what should happen. Limbert’s point is that diplomacy is both necessary and difficult. Seeing it simply as us against them misses the complexities and the opportunities. In other words, give diplomacy a chance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 16, 2015.


Israel, Iran and American Diplomacy

March 3, 2015

Some people are angry at Israel because they are against Israel. But some of us are angry because we care so much about its survival and think it is being stupid. Popular foreign policy here and everywhere is about waving swords and shooting anyone in their way. It’s a quick and simple solution. But depend too much on the sword and die by the sword.

I’ve been rethinking what’s been going on in the Middle East. Many of us have been assuming that the conflict between Israel and Palestine was central to Middle Eastern policy and events. I have come to realize that the Palestinians have been used mostly as pawns in a very different struggle and it’s very important to understand that.

Radical foreign fighters have shown themselves willing to flock to battles all over the Middle East, except Palestine. They’re in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Palestinians have been kicked out of much of the Middle East. Theirs is not a popular cause. So why does it keep coming up?

Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to reduce its isolation in the Sunni world. Iran has no significant beef with Israel. Ahmadinejah scored political points with inflammatory rhetoric but he and much of that rhetoric have been replaced. By seeming to make common cause with Sunnis, however, Iran hopes to make themselves harder to oppose or fight. And by directing aid to groups fighting Israel, it immunizes itself from the reaction to some Shiite forces deep in the Sunni world.

It is not in Iran’s interest to destroy Israel. Opposition to Israel is part of Iran’s foreign policy, protecting its bona fides in the Sunni Arab world. Destroy Israel and they’ll need something else. But let’s be clear – Iran can be a serious existential threat to a stupid Israel. By comparison other threats in their neighborhood are pinpricks.

Notice the opportunity that creates. The US, Iran and Israel all have things to give each other in a true, regional grand bargain. We could reduce Iran’s regional isolation because we have considerable influence with many of the regional players, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Iran could contribute to Israel’s safety by backing off its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And that could make a reliable peace in Palestine possible. Without external support, the Palestinians would not be nearly as threatening to Israel and a two state solution would really be possible.

I don’t mean to imply that it will be easy to get there. There’s a huge history of mistrust on both sides and both sides have good reason to mistrust the other. The nuclear negotiations, themselves difficult and sensitive, could build the mutual confidence necessary for a wider deal. Americans would have to give our leadership the support and confidence needed to work toward that goal, difficult in the face of Republican sabotage before we even know, let alone consider, whether our negotiators have proposed a constructive bargain.

The leadership of all three countries is skittish for ordinary political reasons. All three hold elections. No politician in either country wants to make a mistake on an issue like this. It would be a huge loss if fear of mistakes prevents the effort to reach a settlement of one of the big issues threatening us, Israel, the Palestinians and continually pulling the US into Middle Eastern conflicts.

I don’t have a pipeline to whatever the deal will look like. Nothing is automatic – a lot depends on our diplomacy and pressure. But major improvement is a possible outcome. So as John F. Kennedy famously told us, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2015.


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