Monday, October 29, 2012

‘We must remain awake’

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales - 'This is democracy' (photo by Jean Lowrie-Chin)
by Jean Lowrie-Chin
Jamaica Observer column | Monday 29 October 2012

After the passing of Hurricane Sandy, we should pause to commend the Office of Disaster Preparedness for their warnings and the network of volunteers islandwide who prepared shelters to protect at-risk citizens. There is a reason why ODPEM is one of Jamaica’s most efficiently run agencies – continuity. The head does not change every time there is a change of government.

Perhaps if the organisation did not have a volunteer network, it would have attracted more attention from the wrong people. The big-budget government ministries and agencies are the prize and so every time the government changes, the people’s business is disrupted. All the signage, stationery, business cards, brochures and posters produced with our hard-earned taxpayers’ money must now be dumped, personnel must be relocated to accommodate the party faithful, some of whom indulge in post-campaign bickering.

Civil society should insist that Government and Opposition get together and agree on basic ministries, adding special units where necessary, so we are not constantly subject to these wasteful changes.

As a group of Jamaican women leaders sat with our global colleagues listening to the courageous and inspiring presentations of new thinkers and achievers, we discerned that we do have the power to ensure that vain political whims are not entertained. We were attending a world leadership conference of the International Women’s Forum ( in San Francisco themed, “Ideas remaking the world in a new age of discovery”, at which Jamaica’s own Pat Ramsay was honoured as an outstanding leader.

We heard about the role of social media in the Tunisian revolution, the democratisation of information through Wikipedia, “a time of scrutiny” as described by Laura Garcia-Cannon who said that information technology has led to the “decentralisation and disaggregation of power”.

It was heady to be in the same room with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia which has long overtaken the most popular print encyclopedia, and is created by the global community. When Italy contemplated a law to ban Wikipedia, the Italian people called a strike and Wikipedia shut down the site for a day, giving information on how protest could be registered. In one day, over 10 million voters contacted their congress representatives to voice their support for Wikipedia. Commenting on this groundswell, Wales said the protesters were speaking for democracy. I have been a Wikipedian for several years and hope that more Jamaicans will participate in a community that gets 11 million views per hour.

We were fascinated by Ellen Miller’s inspiration to start the Sunlight Foundation based in Washington DC. Noting that the internet was enabling folks to do business online, in real time, she decided, why not apply this to government to promote accountability and expose the influence of big money on politics? She named her organisation “Sunlight” because, in her words, “sunlight is the best disinfectant …” We hope CAFFE will be inspired to follow suit.

A resolute Mehrizia Labidi spoke on “The abolition of hierarchy in a radically open world”. Ms Labidi, who is the deputy speaker of the Tunisian Legislative Assembly, is regarded as “the highest ranking female political figure in the Arab World”. She hailed “the force of social media”, and said the revolution in her country was motivated by a longing for freedom and dignity. According to Wikipedia, “The protests were sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010 and led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 28 days later on January 14, 2011, when he officially resigned after fleeing to Saudi Arabia, ending 23 years in power.”

Ms Labidi noted that the mother of Bouazizi said that what pushed her son to rebel was “not the lack of bread, but the lack of dignity”. She is engaged in the historic drafting of her country’s new constitution, and told us that there are 30 articles in the chapter on rights and liberties, declaring that there is “no going back on women’s rights and liberties”.
Journalist and blogger Quinn Norton reminded us that there are now two billion people using the internet and social media. She regards this as a “scaling point” in a world of failing institutions.

Even in our Jamaica, we should now be at 700,000 internet users and I am seeing a boldness on Twitter and Facebook as never before in Jamaica, with significant sharing. No inept or corrupt government will be given a pass as the numbers swell and the discontent grows.Some months ago my colleague Deacon Peter Espeut wrote a column headlined, “They have no shame”, pointing out an unsettling brazenness about the manner in which the nation’s business is being conducted. Rest assured, Peter, they will be named and shamed.

We were comforted by IWF President Deedee Corradini’s reminder that “we are on the cusp of change”. She said the new technology was empowering do-it-yourself citizens working for “a stronger world, a better life and better ethics”.

She quoted Dr Martin Luther King Jr, urging that “we must remain awake through a great revolution”. She called for sisterhood and brotherhood in this new neighbourhood we have made of the world, reminding us that we are bound together in “an inescapable network of mutuality”.

And so, we have come away from this conference, deeply aware of the power of the individual and the global neighbourhood. The call is for those of high ethics and strong values to use the sunlight of the internet as a powerful local and global disinfectant. The Arab spring has taught the world a good lesson, one that all genuine leaders will take to heart.

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