Talyn Rahman-Figueroa is the founder of Grassroot Diplomat, and here she explains the significance of grassroot diplomacy
In protest to Tunisian President Ben Ali’s regime, fruit-vendor Mohamad Bouazizi set fire to himself on 4th January 2011. His death was not in vain as the uprising spurred by his extreme action triggered regime change. Given the extreme lengths that thousands of people around the world have gone to call for change, the extent to which this was successfully achieved in Tunisia makes it an isolated incident.
People all over the world, regardless of their system of government, struggle to be heard and struggle to influence social reform. Even in democracies, where newspapers are filled with headlines of people crying out for change, we see little development. The Occupy Wall Street movement saw thousands of people protest against the international capitalist system, whilst thousands of students in the UK took to the streets to protest against rising tuition fees and its effects on social mobility. From Syrian citizens to Sri Lanka’s Tamils, from American activists to China’s Tibetan monks, people in every corner of the world are crying out to be heard. With little relative change, it begs the question, is anyone listening? Does my voice matter?
There has been some recognition of the growing divide between government and their population, and concepts such as public diplomacy and civil diplomacy have sought to address this. These concepts point to government efforts to build stronger communication with the societies that elect them and to delegate greater responsibility in building positive international relations to civil society. But is this enough to bridge the disunity between civil society and political leaders?
Public diplomacy is the means by which a sovereign state communicates with foreign publics, or with publics of the state that have emigrated overseas. Not only does it provide a welcome vehicle of transparent relations between governments and people, but it also makes it easier for members of the electorate to be clued-up on the activities of its elected representatives. Nevertheless public diplomacy is increasingly becoming a buzzword that diplomats pay mere lip service to. For example, when asked if their embassy was active in public diplomacy, one diplomat answered, “Yes, we have a Twitter account”.
Citizen diplomacy differs. Ordinary citizens are given agency in building relations between different countries, and so do not have to rely on government efforts. It is described as the process whereby individual members of civil society serve as a representative overseas of the country from which they come.
The Obama administration has been very vocal about the importance of citizen diplomacy, providing citizens with valuable opportunities to champion foreign relations themselves. However, this too is a one-way process undertaken by citizens, and does not implicate foreign relations between governments where policy is actually made. Even though anyone can become a citizen diplomat, an ordinary citizen is unlikely to contribute to the strengthening of international ties.
‘Grassroot diplomacy’ is an innovation that seeks to address present diplomatic shortcomings. It is a new form of political engagement, one that opens up diplomatic dialogue to citizens at a grassroots level so that they can finally become champions of their own foreign policy.
With nations that are increasingly interconnected, economically, politically or culturally, national events almost always have international repercussions. Take the eurozone or the approach taken by our government to counteract Iran’s nuclear threat, as but a few examples. Citizens now have a much larger stake in their governments’ policies than ever before, and diplomacy needs to adapt to the globalised age in a way that acknowledges this. Grassroot diplomacy meets this need.
The Government works for us, and so we should expect to be heard. In the age of grassroots diplomacy, and with the help of diplomatic consultation groups like Grassroot Diplomat, you and I can access our governments, have a voice, and help be the change we want to see. No other form of diplomacy recognises our stake in the policies of our government, and there are no other avenues for making a case to policy-makers of what we think should be done and how we are to be affected otherwise.
Distinct from lobbying, grassroot diplomacy is reserved for members of society who lack the institutional means to press for policy change. This means that groups and individuals from the grassroots are able to promote a social good and have their policy projects recognised by members of the Government. In turn, political leaders and diplomats are able to strengthen relationships with ordinary people that they are meant to serve. As a result, grassroots diplomacy facilitates a closer mutual relationship between policy-makers and ordinary citizens and bridges the gap between civil society and political leaders. It is the new means of solving international problems that gives voice to the people who are most affected by them.