Personal reflections on the USA’s 2016 election by Perry Maddox, interim CEO of Restless Development

A few hours after the election results from the US came in yesterday, I found myself speaking with a group of young leaders who will soon be leading teams of young people working in partnership with communities across Nepal, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, India and Zambia to create the transformative change and to build the leadership that young people are calling for. It turned out to be just the medicine I needed after a tough morning.

To be clear, Restless Development is a non-partisan agency; we work with governments around the world and do not align to any political party or faction. Personally, I am an American citizen and have chosen not to register as either Democrat, Republican or any other party.

With those disclaimers noted, the results from home came as a blow. Regardless of party or policy platform, an election campaign where sexism, racism and religious intolerance dominated the debate and were leveraged to gain support simply flies in the face of the values of social justice, respect and basic human rights that underpin the work that we do. More broadly, the interpretation in the media that this election shows a palatable American appetite for isolationism that has a parallel in Brexit. We read every day how angry people are, and we know that young people in the US and UK are likely to be the first to suffer decreasing quality of life compared to their parents.

Our global landscape has shifted, and no doubt there will be a scramble of academics and columnists to declare globalisation dead and an era of Western leadership debunked. Perhaps this is true, perhaps it is not. What we do know is that these trends are far from limited to the Western world. From Delhi to DC, we witness increasingly nationalist rhetoric. From Africa to Europe, the shrinking space for civil society has been well documented.

It is natural to cheer or to cry – depending on one’s political persuasions – to chant in celebration or to take solace in defiant quotes of resistance. To only do so risks missing the vital point; the conditions that led us to this point will not be solved by a vote or two. Division feels the reality of the day. With a small majority voting Brexit and a large minority selecting President elect Trump; the UK and USA are split down the middle. Whether this has been caused by globalisation, decreasing quality of life, political elites or any of numbers of targets for blame is up for debate, but the reality is that a few elections won’t resolve the root problems overnight. What will is a robust civil society that reaches out across the divides and the leadership of individuals committed to a better world.

And so I found myself explaining to these young leaders that their roles are among the most important in our agency. Their roles leading young people to unleash a wave of positive change – to work to ensure that all young people have a voice, a living, their rights protected and can take leadership in their lives – are vital. Their understanding – that dated transactional models of development must be replaced with transformative models of change wherein young people and communities are the protagonists, not the beneficiaries, of change – is essential to lead us all forward in this new world. We know that youth and community-led change can bridge the divide between policy, politics and plans on one side and the lived experiences of people on the other; we’ve seen it time and time again from the Ebola response to a young leader named Eva.

As we woke to a new world full of challenges and opportunities, I was thankful to spend half an hour with these young leaders. I was inspired by the change they will lead. I was reminded to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Regardless of how we view the US election or Brexit results, a desire for change is evident on all sides. That is why it is such an honour to work with young people who are working to lead real, lasting change every day across the world.

What do you think?

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