Report from Rabat

Crowd of people

I find myself in Morocco meeting with young activists from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to provide training and mentoring in advocacy and democracy building in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Sponsored by Legacy International with a grant from the Department of State, the 5-day conference is focused on skills building, cultural exchange and brainstorming. It has been eye-opening.

Can you imagine undertaking the task of educating Libyan girls in camps for displaced persons when they have no money and no documents?  Fighting corruption in Tunisia?  Assessing the psychological impact of the political changes on Egypt's children?  Increasing youth engagement in politics and improving the job prospects of high school graduates who are not going to college?  Promoting health education in rural areas and slums in Morocco and Egypt?

These are just some of the projects that Legacy International’s Legislative Fellows are pursuing as agents of constructive change in their countries.  In listening to the Fellows explain how they designed and implemented their projects, it was a reminder that too many Americans take for granted our predominantly corruption-free interactions with government, our freedom of expression and our economic and political stability even in a time of growing political polarization.  But at the same time in talking with these fellows about democratic ideals I am reminded of the current state of dysfunction in Washington.

Each of these Fellows had chance last year to visit the U.S. and do internships in Washington, D.C.  We were pleased to host Fellows at the Campaign Legal Center and my colleague Paul Ryan has travelled to Egypt in a similar exchange last year.

Earlier this week as our current group met in beautiful and friendly Rabat, we started a conversation about what it takes to make change happen.  Faced with big ideas and big ideals, how do you devise a strategy and select tactics that move the ball forward, while understanding that failure is often the result?  Operationalizing ideas into programs and tasks and then testing them in the marketplace of ideas is an on-going process that is largely an iterative process.

We also discussed messaging -- translating complicated ideas into simpler messages for mass consumption.  Just as companies spend millions on advertising messages fashioned by Madison Avenue to sell consumer goods, change agents need to explore and find messages that can be tested in the political marketplace of ideas.  Nonprofits and fledgling democracies don’t have those millions to spend but nonetheless the messages must be tested and refined.  Sometimes the messages you think are the strongest turn out not to be so convincing to others.

The focus has moved on to skill building and has included a chance to visit the University of Rabat and have small group discussions on North Africa issues.  As usual, I am probably learning more from the Legacy Fellows than they are learning from me.  But in working with them I am reminded that to build a better democracy one can never shy away from hard work.