Brian MacHarg is director of civic engagement at the Appalachian State University, where he focuses on how civic participation can promote democratic values and facilitate learning. He has led workshops on civic engagement, participation, and leadership across countries including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Cuba, Ukraine, Rwanda, Taiwan, Dominican Republic, Niger, Benin, and recently in Ethiopia. A couple of days ago, MacHarg spent time across places in Ethiopia and met with various group leaders of communities. He talked about a range of issues with the scope of civic engagement in which citizens taking civil actions in their respective communities rather than waiting for the government or nonprofit agencies to do what the people could do in their power to fix problems they are faced with. While in Ethiopia through an invitation by the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter sat down with MacHarg to learn more about civic engagement and his work in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Let us begin with the issue of civility in Ethiopia where volatility seems to be the norm of the day. I know you are here to talk about civil engagement. In that case, how do you expect to find access to the polarized space?
Brian MacHarg: I understand that Ethiopia is at crossroads. It is an exciting time and people are inspired. That’s super exciting. I have been talking about civic political engagement. But for the most part, it involves everyday ordinary citizens trying to address problems within their own communities. The problems might extend from local and national levels to global problems. At times, it does require a government to address various issues. But, I would suggest that we cannot all look to the government to solve our problems. There needs to be an active citizenry who looks at local problems and says I am going to be the one to solve these problems. Or say if not me, then my family could solve the problems. If not my family then my friends and neighbors; if not them then organizations that I have committed with or my religious organizations such as my church, mosque, synagogue will try find ways and if they couldn’t then I will try to turn to our government for solutions. Every individual takes responsibility for the problems that exist within a given society.
I have learnt that you have met and conversed with regional communities, activists, and media institutions. How did you find the audience?
I have been talking with a number of young people that includes young female leaders, former YALI and Mandela Washington Fellows and some groups comprised of very young participants. What I have found is that they care about their communities. They recognize there are wide range of problems, widespread poverty and perhaps corruption. One night a young female leader expressed her concern and disdain for men who urinate in the streets of Addis Ababa. What can we do about that? How can we change this becoming a custom? How can we stop men from peeing in the streets and how can we make communities better in this regard? But all of them, no matter the problem or age variations, they have deep-seated interest to tackle their issues. Some are just seeking a general sense of inspiration. We recognize that this work is hard. At times, this work is discouraging. But how can we move forward from this important point. What I am inspired by and pleased with is finding young people who really do want to make a positive difference in their communities.
How do you relate civic engagements with the works of civic organizations or civil societies? And could you see any better framework in this country? Have you met any person or group who says they do well in that regard here in Ethiopia?
It strikes me that there are a number of positive young leaders who are doing a wide variety of things in Ethiopia. Some of the women I met happen to be women leaders involved in a number of issues. Many of the others are women who are deeply concerned about gender issues. They raise issues of reducing sexual harassments, sexual assaults, and equal opportunities in the workplace. Certainly, the Mandela Washington Fellows whom I have met are already actively engaged in the works that they are doing. In terms of ordinary citizens, I would suggest that everyday people no matter who they are can connect with established NGOs. But, sometimes we might not need but perhaps sometimes we will need to do the leadership and involvement in that. For young kids in high school questions like how I can make a difference in my school is very important. In schools they might notice there are bit of a trash and it could be somebody’s job to clean that up. But there is no reason why few classmates can’t address that important issue. It starts with your school. You don’t need some nonprofit organizations to do that. But every person can work with their communities to try to improve them.
These activities might be lacking when it comes to politics. The political space seems to be overtaken by groups and interests. How do you see that affecting the lives of citizens?
I don’t know if I can speak of that authoritatively because I don’t know exactly what the political message has been regarding this. I can speak to what I know in the US. Here is what I would say. I do think it is the responsibility of every citizen to make a positive difference in her or his community. It does not matter how old you are or how rich or poor you are. My father recently told me a story of how he visited an extremely low income community in the mountainous village of Ecuador. He was with a gathering of people in a faith based community. The point is that an incredibly poor community took some time to take up some collection to help its very poor among them. It does not matter who you are, you always have to help somebody. You can always help to somebody. I am afraid I might not answer your question in the best way, but I would suggest that it is the responsibility of citizens to have a duty at times to serve their communities.
If you could take Ethiopia or East Africa, for instance, ethnicity is the basis for politics. As you know ethnics is a very strong interest group, so how do you envision civil engagement and mobilization around other agenda topics?
I think civil dialogue is foundational to civic engagement. There seems to be a four step process if you really want to engage with the public. We have to see the problem first. We have to know what to do; we have to be willing to do something and then we have to follow through. The first step is we have to see the problem. I don’t want to imply that other people are always the problem; we have to see into each other. That is an avoidable first step in the civic engagement process. We have to expose ourselves to the problems in our communities. We have to come together and listen and talk to one another. But, we have to be very careful here. We should not demonize each other; we should not label each other as being inherently bad or evil. That doesn’t help to solve our problems. We have to figure out a way to talk with one another. Let me give you an example. Martin Luther King in 1955, after he got his PhD made a difficult decision to go to the South where he knew he and his family would face a personal trouble. He looked around the city of Montgomery where he later led Montgomery Bus Boycott, an important movement in the US. He took a look around in the city and said on the one hand black Americans and white Americans are living peacefully together in a sense that there is no violence; but he also said there is the absence of justice here. He has this quote: ‘I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other. And they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other’. He recognized that in Montgomery black folks and white folks need to begin the process of seeing one another; have conversations with one another; trying to understand one another and that is the first step. The very beginning of this process will be to listen to one another without judgment especially with regards to people who might be different from us across tribes, religions, and various kinds of orientations.
What does it tell you when governments lack the interest to let civil societies or organizations to advocate political or civil rights? From Ethiopia and Kenya to Uganda and Tanzania draconian laws against CSOs is detracting civil activism, how does that tell you about these countries?
I think if we completely depend on the government, we might find ourselves in a bit of a trouble. Hence, I would say two things to this. I am not suggesting the American way is the way to do things. But, we have a tendency in the US to think about problems and when we think about problems we start with the individual then go straight to the government. There are two major parties in the US political system and they have many differences but there is some degree of agreement between the two in the way of American life. If there is a problem that we face then the individual needs to address that problem. If the individual couldn’t do that then we turn to our family. If they couldn’t do it we turn to our neighbors and if that does not help, we turn to our civic organizations. At the end, we will go up to the government. Yes, if the government is not supporting local problems in the way it should, then maybe we can start with grassroots or at the lower level. I would also say that there are multiple ways in which citizens can get involved. There is a thing we use with the students at the university level called “The Social Change Will” which is developed by Minnesota Campus Compact. It talks about the multitude of ways in which an average citizen can get involved in solving social problems and one of which is political involvement and political activism. My students may say I want to wave a sign or do a protest at the government to really let them know how I felt. By all means that is absolutely necessary and important. But there are other ways of doing it and affecting positive social change. Getting involved in charitable voluntarism where I can give my time. For instance, I can give up an afternoon from playing football or other activities to help. I can promote social entrepreneurship in which I encourage the business sector to take responsibility to solve social problems. I can get involved with advocacy to help those who don’t have the voice and often get neglected by the society.
Strong civic activism can be construed as an existential threat to authoritarian regimes. The government might fear these movements create disturbances or cause embarrassment to it, so how do you see civic engagement flourish in undemocratic nations?
Technically, the government’s job is to support and advocate for its people. Practically, it doesn’t always work that way; so what is the alternative, to give up? No. We have to continue to hold our governments and leaders accountable. There are a number of tools at our disposal to accomplish that. One of the ways to hold governments accountable is the work of the free press; the press highlights issues and cause embarrassment and shame to folks who are not doing their jobs and/or are corrupt. The relationship between civic engagements and the media is that transparency is the point for the whole idea. The press can shine a light in what’s going on and help us see each other. In totalitarian states, civic engagement is certainly more challenging. Citizens engaged are absolutely a threat because totalitarian don’t like citizens talking to one another and they don’t want them point out problems. The regimes are the experts in solving all the issues. Hence, it absolutely becomes more challenging. Throughout history, we have seen regimes crumble in the face of active citizens. Go to South Africa, by all means, it was a totalitarian regime but failed to exist because of citizens involvement. Totalitarian regimes should be nervous about citizens coming together. That is a good thing. In democracies we encourage that. Any threat to totalitarian regime is okay by me.
In this era of digitized world, is civic engagement a destructive or constructive thing? Especially in a sense that hate speech on social media is becoming a common phenomenon?
There is good and bad in the social media. On the positive side, democratic nature of social media is helping particularly neglected and marginalized voices to be heard. In the US, for instance, there are groups who are racially oppressed and have been struggling for decades through the social media making their voices heard. There are the likes of the #metomovement in the US born out of the world of social media. It is about women victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Those movements I would suggest have tremendous impacts. But, it also has certain limits as well. We know that the dialogue that exists in social media can be anonymous. The common people could become judge, jury and executioner. We can begin to demonize and devalue the humanity of other people online. When those kinds of conversations begin to crop up, that is not the whole mark of civil discourse and that should not be propagated in the social media. Within Social media there has to be more grace and the ability to accommodate other voices.