Can't we all just get along?
Hope you guys aren't getting used to erudition.
This post was supposed to be about 'What We're Actually Lobbying For', but let me leave that for next time, if there is a next time!
Today, I'd like to reflect on Abdisa's comments about the ineffectiveness of existing Ethiopian-American organizations when it comes to mobilization and lobbying.
It's just my nature, but rather than start looking to create new and better organizations, I tend to first ask why things are the way they are. After all, what if these new organizations end up succumbing to the same problems?
Let me start with a few observations from my personal experience, and you tell me if this resonates with yours. In my time in the diaspora, I have seen few functioning and enduring Ethiopian organizations or collectives of any kind, let alone political organizations. Among those organizations that exist, I always hear the leadership complain about a 'lack of participation'. On the other hand, I hear those outside the organization complain that it is unwelcoming or inaccessible. I have seen people of good character, whose frames of reference and views on the subject matter at hand are virtually identical, end up getting in such a fight that it ends the life of their organization. I have seen whole organizations torn to shreds just because of one single 'troublemaker', leaving me to wonder how one person could break the collective spirit of many like-minded people. And I have seen these episodes repeated in various different contexts with different people.
This has led me to two conclusions, simplified as follows:
1. We have problems getting along.
2. We have problems expressing our collective will in a constructive and effective way. This explains much of the 'lack of participation'.
Though these problems are related, I'll only talk abut the second for now.
The second problem fascinates me. I like to relate it to teamwork in sports. Phil Jackson talks about something most of us who have been involved in sports intuitively know, and that is that the best teams are the ones with the best teamwork.
For good teamwork to occur, players must first fully understand that teamwork is the best way to maximize their individual returns: in sports, that would be winning, notoriety, money. Though this is a tautology, few players actually understand it. It usually takes an authoritative figure, armed with a history of success to serve as examples, to convince them.
Then, they have to understand that teamwork requires sacrifice in the form of becoming unselfish and other things. Short-term sacrifice, for long-term gain. But players are reluctant to sacrifice anything for three reasons: 1) they just want to be selfish! 2) they are still not convinced teamwork will pay off in the end, and 3) they are not sure if their teammates will make sacrifices.
Most of the time, we deal with reasons 2) and 3). And these occur most often because of the environment the players come from. They have never seen teamwork (except teamwork motivated by the most primal instincts of family and survival), let alone be part of it, so they find it hard to believe in it. Especially when it calls for immediate sacrifice, which, to them, is definitely a bad thing! And the players assume that their teammates are just like them and think in the same way, so they won't trust their teammates to carry their end of the bargain.
And so what happens is that the team never ends up running efficiently and achieving its full potential. The team remains vulnerable to other teams with much less individual talent but more teamwork. This frustrates the players, as they can't recognize why they are losing to less talented players. And even if they somehow become cognizant of this, they still have a hard time trusting each other.
So how does all this apply to Ethiopian civic groups or political organizations? Well, just as in the example above, people are reluctant to participate because participation means work - sacrifice. How can they sacrifice their time and energy when they are unsure whether the whole thing will pay off, and more importantly, when they don't trust their fellow countrymen, who have the same interests, to do the same?
This may seem like an intractable problem - the kind that requires one to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, but it is not. People do slowly learn from exposure, even people who have grown up in an environment devoid of teamwork. Various circumstances, such as the appearance of great leaders, or situations that force the issue and make it a matter of survival, can speed along this process. Like anything else, eventually, the population as a whole eventually passes some threshold of awareness.
So in the context of Ethiopian political organizations today, I think the key for those of us who have some awareness of these issues is to put our knowledge into practice and participate. I think it is obvious - it is obvious to me, at least - that a strong collective Ethiopian-American lobby would make a huge difference. Knowing this, the next step is to trust that fellow Ethiopians will make the necessary sacrifices to make this work. Even if, in the back of your mind, you don't think they will, you must go ahead anyway. That's the bootstrapping part of the solution. If everyone does the same, we'll have results.
Now, what will all this participation do to the inefficient nature of these organizations? The sheer number of committed stakeholders will automatically increase their efficiency.
Imagine if one of you joined
Now, what about forming new organizations? Well, let's look at it this way. Let's assume that when it comes to lobbying on the national stage, bigger is better, and so something like the Cuban-American National Foundation would be best. Once we have accepted that this is the best route, that is, once we have accepted that teamwork is the best route, then what we have to do is participate and trust that everyone else will.
I know I haven't discussed many of the variables that should be considered here, such as whether a small, quicker group may be more effective in the short term, or whether there are significant differences between our values and goals and those of existing organizations. Nevertheless, when it comes to Ethiopian civic and political movements, I favour working with existing organizations. From what I've seen, that's the best way to go.