NGOs must be seen not as a threat, but a partner, says Obama advisor Ben Rhodes

Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s advisor Ben Rhodes speaks to The Hindu

Updated - December 01, 2017 04:49 pm IST

Published - December 01, 2017 04:41 pm IST

Mr. Ben Rhodes

Mr. Ben Rhodes

Former US President Barack Obama is in Delhi to address a townhall of “youth leaders”. Speaking to The Hindu , Mr. Obama’s Chief International Advisor Ben Rhodes says it is important to spread democratic values, as well as raise the importance of NGOs, religious tolerance and LGBT issues.

What is the purpose of President Obama’s townhall in Delhi?

In the world today, a lot of young people feel disconnected from the forces that are shaping their lives. We see that leads to young people not becoming active citizens. Active citizenship doesn’t just mean running for office or going into politics, it means starting organisations that promote change or solve a problem, pursuing social good with economic success. This is not politically partisan, so we aren’t looking to promote people with certain views, it is an empowerment point, so the youth have agency over their lives.

You have just come here from China, so is there a difference in the purpose the Obama foundation is pursuing?

Inevitably. In China, you just don’t have the space for civil society and independent discourse and free media that you do in India. That’s why India’s success is so important as the world’s largest democracy. However, I must say there are many young people in China, and we have met many positive change-makers who want to give back to their system. Especially on the issues we want to take up like clean air and climate change, they want to be a part of the solution. We want India to be a focus, and the reason for this townhall here is that India has this unique mix of being a rising economy and a dynamic democracy in a world in which there is a lot of creeping authoritarianism.

Beyond the Townhall event that President Obama is addressing, what will the foundation do for these young leaders?

This year, we are listening and designing our programme for young people. We will have certain fellowships in the US, where young people can come and study at US universities and connect with the Obama Foundation work there. If you’re 25 or 30 and want to take that next step, we can help. We also want to convene hundreds of young leaders for opportunities for mentorship or to partner with each other, and we will build the network for them. Finally we want to build a digital platform, so that if for example you want to work on clean energy in India we can find someone in Vietnam or Brazil doing the same thing, and to tell all these stories, and give people positive stories. President Obama has a huge reach, with a 100 million followers on Twitter and Facebook and other platforms.

You mentioned climate change as an issue for President Obama, yet the new Trump Administration seems to have walked out of all the commitments President Obama made, including financing commitments to India. Is that frustrating?

Yes, obviously we would prefer that the United States would remain in the Paris agreement. Just to say firstly that formally, the U.S. doesn’t leave the climate change protocol till 2020, and there will be an election then, so who knows… More importantly, the targets in Paris can be reached even outside of the government. Automobile manufacturers are saying they will adhere to higher emission standards. Cities and States are saying they are going to keep their Paris commitments. That connects to young people, who need to put pressure on their leaders, and raise the awareness on climate change.

What about some of the contentious issues here. At the townhall, you have activists on LGBT gay rights issues, when homosexuality is still a criminal offence in India. Will President Obama raise the issue?

President Obama has been on the world stage for 10 years, and people know what he believes. He doesn’t single out individual countries and doesn’t say I believe in LGBT rights because I want to embarrass the political leadership in India. But in any country round the world, he is going to support progressive values, tolerance, inclusion, and rights for LGBT people. These are universal values he holds, not for any one country. When he was here in India last he said in a speech that he has deep respect for how important traditions are, and how important identity is, but that is not inconsistent with respecting others and being tolerant of them.

In that speech, he also spoke about religious tolerance, when he was in office, the U.S. Ambassador discussed concerns about strictures against NGOs in the past few years, and made a point about Ford Foundation, Compassion International that saw funding restrictions. Will he raise these issues during his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during this visit?

I can’t say specifically what issues are discussed, President Obama is not here as a government official. First of all, let me say the United States is not perfect, in terms of valuing a free press or tolerance or all types of political participation, we all have a distance to go. Here in India, the point we would make is that NGOs are necessary to help solve problems. They are often seen as political opposition, and some do have a political streak, but at the same time, when you speak about narrowing inequalities and promoting education, stopping sexual assault, governments can’t do these things on their own. NGOs should be seen not as a threat, but a partner, and play a role in the solution. What people admire about Prime Minister Modi is that he is an ambitious leader who is trying to elevate India economically and enlisting all Indians in that project will make it more successful.

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