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Popular support for the New Citizens’ Movement is mixed at best. Some activists have criticized the movement’s nonaggressive approach to building a civil society as naïvely unrealistic, given the situation in China today. Be that as it may, the recent string of arrests and detentions epitomizes the unfolding struggle between private citizens and government authorities over the development of civil society in China. While the powers that be may pay lip service to the rule of law and constitutional government, their treatment of citizens who actually try to exercise their civil rights bespeaks a very different reality.
Paths to Responsive Government
Some time ago I had an opportunity to talk to Xiao Shu about his hopes for social activism in China. He explained his belief that the path to democracy lies not in pro-democracy protests like the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations or the Arab Spring but in focused efforts to resolve specific social problems.
Xiao also stressed the importance of profiting from the experience of citizens’ movements in Japan. He spoke fervently of his determination to learn more about the roles played by Japanese citizens’ groups and media organs in focus
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ing attention on such problems as industrial pollution and contaminated blood products.
Of course, a simple comparison between Japan and China may be misleading, given the differences between our countries’ political and social systems.
While Japanese civil society may appear highly developed from the perspective of Chinese activists facing harsh government repression, Japan, too, has many problems that remain unaddressed. Still, the basic questions facing Chinese activists today are universal issues, applicable to any society regardless of country, era, or political system: Can changes in people’s beliefs and behavior have a real impact on their country’s laws and systems? What forms of pressure should citizens bring to bear on their government to advance civil rights in various arenas? And can the power of the private sector be harnessed to build a healthy, reciprocal relationship between the government and the people? From this perspective, it seems to me that a closer examination of gongmin shehui in China can also raise important questions about the state of civil society in Japan.
As readers will have gathered from the emphasis of this article, my focus is on the role of private citizens in the formation of civil society. I believe that we can gain a better appreciation of the changes gradually overtaking Chinese society by shifting our focus from the party and the government to emerging trends in the civic sector. I am also hopeful that, at a time of deeply troubled relations between Tokyo and Beijing, approaching bilateral tiles from the perspective of civil society may open the door to deeper mutual understanding and new possibilities for cooperation.
November 1, 2013 Dispatches from Ghana (2) “We Are Not Here to Be Popular” Junko Tashiro In November 2012, Junko Tashiro traveled to Ghana under an Acumen Global Fellowship to help launch a social venture aimed at empowering smallholding rice farmers. In her second report, Tashiro describes the nearly overwhelming challenges she faced on her arrival and the life-changing experiences by which she learned to surmount them.
I awoke to the unfamiliar sight of a blank, white concrete ceiling. I ached all over and could barely move; my body felt like lead. My head throbbed, and my mind was in a fog. As I lowered my gaze, I noticed the IV tubing taped to my arm. Beyond my feet, I could see an open window with a green screen. There was no curtain, nor any hint of a breeze coming through it. Outside, it was dazzlingly bright; inside, the air was stifling. The smell of rubbing alcohol filled the small hospital room.
On the last Sunday in November, just 10 days after arriving in Ghana as an Acumen Global Fellow, I had been taken to the local hospital in the town of Sogakope, my post for the next nine months. It was a public hospital and fairly large for rural Ghana. But because it was the weekend, not a single doctor was on duty.
A nurse walked in. “Oh, you’re awake,” she said. “I’m afraid the doctors aren’t here today, so we can’t really examine you or provide treatment. But I’m going to give you an emergency injection of quinine 1 before it’s too late, in case Junko Tashiro Tokyo Foundation–Acumen Global Fellow for 2012–13. Has worked at McKinsey & Co. Received a BA in international relations from the University of Tokyo and an MPA in economic development and management from Columbia University.
Despite its sometimes serious side effects, quinine is still frequently used to treat severe falciparum malaria, which is common in Ghana and other parts of West Africa.
Severe falciparum malaria is a particularly lethal form of malaria that can worsen rapidly if not promptly diagnosed and treated.
you have malaria.” The nurse quickly produced a syringe, and I watched the glinting needle approach. Without thinking, I pushed her hand away.
The following morning I was transported to a modern clinic in Accra, where a blood test revealed that I was suffering not from malaria but from some unexplained systemic inflammation. The doctor assured me I would recover with a week of treatment and bed rest.
It was a miserable way to start my assignment. The more my colleagues worried over me, the more embarrassed I felt. This is what it means to feel like crawling into a hole, I thought.
woman suddenly entering their midst in the capacity of a senior manager.
Long after I had introduced myself, some of them remained under the impression that I was either an outside consultant or someone sent from Human Resources, or possibly a short-term intern dispatched by a GADCO investor.
I felt it was important to integrate myself into the local team, but I also felt pressured to get down to work as quickly as possible and prove myself through deliverables. This was not a case of pressure from my supervisors overseas; I simply felt that the best way to win the local team’s trust while building the support I would need to launch the new program successfully was to start accomplishing my mandate.
The naked truth, though, was that I knew next to nothing about the ins and outs of rice cultivation and the circumstances of smallholders in Ghana, not to mention GADCO’s nucleus farm operations and team dynamics. Moreover, I was struggling to adjust to the Ghanaian climate and establish my own living and working environment in Sogakope, where there was so little access to the goods and services that I had taken for granted all my life. And yet, it was obvious that nothing would happen unless I got to work visiting farms, talking to people, and gathering information.
That said, none of this could be done without help from the local team. I hesitated to ask for their support, as almost everyone was already extremely busy, working seven days a week (there are no weekends off for farmers!). My compunctions grew by the day until I was agonizing over every question or request, however small.
As the stress mounted, I found it more and more difficult to cope with my surroundings. The office was so cramped that if seven or eight people showed up, there was no more space. Each time the electricity went off, the temperature inside the ferroconcrete building soared, making it hard to think straight or work efficiently. Occasionally I saw col- Visitors to Sogakope are welcomed by Tigo, one of Ghaleagues collapsed at their desks. One of the biggest na’s three major cell phone challenges for me was the lack of sanitary facilities. carriers and the operator of As there was no running water in the office, one the country’s biggest mobile was obliged to do one’s business on the ground out- money system.
side the warehouse. For privacy, there were three panels of corrugated metal, about neck high, that left one’s back exposed to
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view. Overcoming my embarrassment, I brought this problem up with my supervisors overseas and some local team members. They all urged me to permit myself more flexibility in my work routine and do whatever I needed to do so I would be able to work effectively; after all, the mission was the most important thing. Noting that other team members also came and went, and that it was not the sort of work that demanded my presence in the office each day, I resolved after the first week to appear at the office only when I had a particular reason to go in. Preoccupied with getting things done, I put efficiency ahead of other important priorities.
Friction and Courageous Conversations
fell hard. Perhaps I simply did not have enough “muscle”. Or then again, perhaps I had pushed myself too hard too fast, approaching it as a sprint instead of a marathon. In any case, here I was in a hospital bed, with so much left to do.
During the week or so that I spent convalescing in Accra, I immersed myself in reports and studies to learn more about rice cultivation and Ghana’s rice industry. I also began reviewing the preliminary data I had gathered during my first field study and figuring out how the Copa Connect concept would function in practice. As soon as I was well enough to go out on my own, I hailed a taxi and began calling on nonprofits and other Accra-based organizations that had knowledge to share about smallholder sourcing programs. Most important of all, however, was the time I spent reconsidering my approach to interpersonal relations and resolving to make a fresh start.
I thought back to the Adaptive Leadership retreat I had attended during the second week of the Acumen Global Fellows fall training in New York. One of the key takeaways had been the importance of empathy. Adaptive leadership, we learned, involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes— understanding the circumstances and values underlying their attitudes and considering what those people stand to lose by interacting with you and agreeing to a shift in course or change in environment. With all of that in mind, you need to identify common long-term goals and hold “courageous conversations” regarding the means of achieving them together. In retrospect, these seem like obvious prerequisites for building sound relationships with anyone. But after analyzing the clash with my new colleague in that context, I came away with a new resolve to empathize more and understand others better, even while keeping my own emotions in check.
(In the end, that colleague later made an invaluable contribution to the implementation of the pilot as a key member of the Copa Connect team, spending several months working with me to improve the lives of smallholders in Ghana.)
This is not to suggest that the rest of my mission was free from friction. In fact, as in any process of substantive change, conflicting interests and values collided repeatedly. At various times I found myself at odds with my colleagues, the partner organizations and investors supporting the program, and senior government officials with vastly greater knowledge, experience, and influence— and sometimes even with the very farmers for whom the program was conceived. These conflicts also often played themselves out as internal struggles
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within me. In time I learned to focus on communicating and sharing my mission and goals with others by consciously entering into the process of “courageous conversation,” as we had been taught to do in New York.
One of the most frustrating obstacles I encountered while working in Ghana—and one I encountered a great deal—was the issue of “entitlement,” or entrenched privileges. In Ghanaian society it is hard to accomplish anything at all without an official title and its associated privileges. Actions that encroach on people’s vested interests will not be regarded in a positive light, even if the goal is correcting existing inequities. If an initiative in some domain bears fruit, the person whose title appears to give him jurisdiction over that domain insists on taking all the credit. The higher up the hierarchy one goes within a given community or organization, or within the academic community or society as a whole, the more conspicuous this trend becomes.
This happened when I was working to implement a pilot program with the cooperation of some small, independent farmers enlisted in one of the local irrigation schemes sponsored by the government. From the beginning, the manager who had been put in charge of this irrigation scheme was intent on securing his own interests by controlling the farmers’ access to Copa Connect. He insisted that the farmers enlisted in his scheme had no need of a program like Copa Connect because they already had sufficient resources and services—though in fact, we knew from previous interviews with the farmers that the scheme he managed was performing very poorly owing to major problems with water-supply management and market access, and that it was particularly remiss in providing services and assistance to farmers.
The scheme manager claimed that the farmers were under his jurisdiction, and that even if any of them did want to participate, the final decision lay with him. If Copa Connect wanted to deal directly with the farmers, we would first need to submit a contract for his approval. I tried repeatedly to establish a meaningful dialogue with this scheme manager, but he seemed incapable of getting beyond his own interests.
Ghanaian society is extremely hierarchical, far more so even than Japan’s. It places a high premium on seniority and has a pronounced tendency toward authority. With this in mind, I decided to see if we could get the negotiations
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