Grassroot Diplomacy in the Developing World

In an era where a Beninese woman farming and living in a village of just under five hundred people has two cell phones, one would assume communication inadequacies are wounds of the past. Throughout most of Africa, countries have skipped an entire technological step moving from word of mouth to mobile communication without even the installation of phone lines. Similarly, the global community has made significant leaps forward with connecting people in war-torn countries to Western societies over video-chat. However, even with these modernizations societies are still missing a critical linkage. With repeated headlines of elections failing due to protests, presidents being overthrown, and violations of human rights ever increasing, there still remains a clear gap in the communication system between political leaders, diplomats and their respective civil society members.

Why has someone not done something to help these influential individuals understand the struggles and interests of the public? The reality is that many citizens realize the obvious disconnection between their interests and what is actually carried to fruition from their elected officials, but few see any method to remedy the situation. Thus, the larger public becomes desensitized by the empty promises and discover abuses of power by their representatives.

Pioneered by Talyn Rahman-Figueroa, the concept of grassroot diplomacy welcomes the challenge of merging civil society with its political leaders and diplomats by creating linkages absent of political affiliations or ties to any governmental association. Grassroot diplomacy focuses on the real missing element in the political field – how to connect influential members of society to the ordinary citizen. In doing so, grassroot diplomacy allows individuals and
organizations with insufficient funds or influences a platform to converse with and to impact the policies and actions representatives enact upon their lives.

While unknown to the larger international bodies, many local leaders are striving every day in small villages to decrease poverty, widen opportunities, and develop their communities into self-sufficient entities. Despite their best efforts, limited resources and funding eventually play a role in the future of these grassroots organizations. The rural Beninese woman meets weekly under the coconut trees to gather the local women’s gardening group to provide vocational training for an income-generating program to help families send more of their children past primary education. Word of her charisma and ingenuity spreads to the neighbouring villages and soon a dozen women turns into nearly fifty. But without any infrastructure to train and without sufficient supplies to demonstrate the grassroots efforts of this empowering women dissipates and along with it, the educational opportunities of the children in her village.  

Advancements in the developing world have been significant with several countries having elections and creating constitutions allowing for freedom of speech and right to protest. Having the right to choose one’s representative and having the ability to state one’s disapproval may mean the public interest meets the ears of some officials, but it does not guarantee the action to follow. Grassroot diplomacy helps elected officials see the value in creating these relationships with their constituents to better represent and fulfil their duties as public servants. The concept has already been utilized in several humanitarian campaigns in Pakistan, Ghana, Canada, Bangladesh, and Haiti and has been used in trainings and assistance to organizations in countries ranging from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the United States of America.

Undoubtedly, influential leaders in societies are faced with numerous daily challenges and decisions to be made, but President Yayi Boni is unlikely to ever hear word of this woman in the small village of Mitro, who is merely three hours from his residence. This level of disconnectedness between the government and affected civilian population is not as difficult to resolve. What if these political leaders were introduced to the concept of grassroot diplomacy, understood the value of its results, and were supplied with consultants and trained individuals to establish and foster the relationship?

Imagine if that Beninese woman had been given the opportunity to speak with representatives and urge her leaders to provide more opportunities for micro-credit options or to financially reward individuals who are making a positive impact upon their communities. What affect could that have upon the women in her village and their children who fail to progress past primary school? By understanding how to network and connect with people of all levels, Ms Rahman-Figueroa has uncovered a mechanism for capitalizing upon the globalization of modes in communication to better serve the everyday citizen.

As the African proverb states, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, then you’ve never spent a night with a mosquito.”