Tuesday, April 21

Washington DC

Our week in DC coincided with the cherry blossom season, so the city was gorgeous and the weather lovely.  We met with a number of organizations -- Center for Global Development, the World Bank, and my favorite, the Global Fairness Initiative.  With this non-profit consulting group, I was particularly impressed by the comprehensive efforts to solve problems, such as garment manufacturing, by involving all the stakeholders.  By creating solutions that incorporate and serve everyone involved -- the government, citizens, the private sector, they are far more likely to be sustainable and effective.  

A large portion of our time was devoted to a day on Capitol Hill.  We spent one day preparing at the RESULTS office -- an organization designed to train and mobilize citizens to lobby in favor of hunger and poverty legislation that pertains both to domestic and international aid.  We went over procedural and persuasive methods for our meetings with reps the next day.  The plan was to ask House Representatives to sign a letter in favor of allocating foreign budget to microfinance, and to ask Senators to vote in favor of restoring the foreign aid budget to Obama's original request.  

The next day we did indeed go to Capitol Hill, dressed to impress and ready to meet with our representatives.   Between the fourteen students, we had a number of meetings with representatives from our districts and from any other states that had time to see us.  I met with aids in the offices of Barney Frank and John Kerry, both from Massachusetts, as well as Benjamin Lujan from New Mexico.  I was even fortunate to meet directly with a representative from New Jersey, Donald Payne, the first black representative from his state.  Just about everyone we met with readily agreed to at the very least sign the letter of support; as soon as they heard direct requests from constituents, they were willing to act.  They are, of course, ready to support things that citizens from their districts want, as they are responsible for electing reps.  

After meeting with Barney Frank's office

The Boston crew -- making a "B"

Each meeting lasted twenty to forty minutes.  Some aides were well-versed in microfinance and already supported those efforts, others needed detailed explanations of how it empowers the impoverished to earn their own income by supplying them with a very small seed loan that they are able to repay with very low interest.  We had very interesting conversations with all of them, and almost all of them revolved around the idea of sending money abroad, in this particularly poor economic time.  Many of them had humanitarian interests in mind, but admitted that the way they've got to pitch aid to constituents is in terms of self-interest.  National defense is the primary argument, using development money as a preventative measure against poverty that could lead to unrest and even terrorism.  That of course focuses money towards the middle east but leaves out Africa, which has not been much of a violent threat.  I can see how it is hard to tell Americans that their tax dollars are being sent out-of-country when jobs are being lost at home.  I'm not even necessarily sure if all international problems ought to be funded by developed countries' governments, but I do know the NGOs on the ground need money to continue their work.  More than 50 million people are expected to fall below the poverty line in the coming year due to the financial crisis.

The idea was for this to be an empowering experience, and it was.  I was surprised and impressed by how easy it was to have an influence on these seemingly allmighty representatives -- all it took was a quick meeting with good reasoning to support a request.  Yet at the same time, I had the sense that to make any substantive impact on an issue, you'd have to move to DC and schedule these sorts of meetings all day, every day.  Then I realized some people do do that -- from Marlboro and Monsanto.  And no one should be able to purchase political power in this democracy.  A theme I've seen over the year has been the need for campaign finance reform; it would address issues across the board, from agricultural subsidies to drug patenting to healthcare.  

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