The Esther Strategy

The Judeo-Christian tradition is filled with stories of individuals who have gained access to political leaders. Their advice to the powerful often secures the protection and wellbeing of marginalized people. Take the example of Queen Esther. She used her access to King Ahasuerus to protect the Jews from destruction. But Esther did not act alone. At every step of the way she relied on the advice of her cousin Mordecai who sat at the King’s gate protesting the policies of the King’s highest governor, Haman.

Progressive ecumenical movements advocating for social change have remained true to Esther’s example using the special access they may have to political power to further the objectives of the campaigners who sit outside White House gates proclaiming what the president, the United States, the Congress must do. These inside/outside strategies are the stuff that makes a movement. They in fact have influenced administrations to move – especially on international debt cancellation and in creating a U.S. response to the global AIDS crisis.

After the euphoria some experienced around the successes of the debt cancellation movement, the first weeks of the Bush administration were filled with questions. Would progressive advocates have the access to political leaders they had enjoyed during the Clinton administration. After September 11, 2001, the prospects of gaining access to Bush’s top staff were bleak. The Bush administration’s Faith Based Initiative offered a certain window of opportunity to some religious groups. But just how much true access and influence was available? And what can it teach us for a new administration?

The Glory Days of Jubilee 2000/USA

Almost anywhere in Washington where you run into former Clinton administration officials they will hold up the successes of the Jubilee campaign. White House staff came to work closely with members of the faith community who were integral actors in the Jubilee 2000/USA Campaign getting the work of debt cancellation done.

Like Esther, many in the Jubilee 2000/USA campaign would admit that the secret of their success was a coordinated inside/outside strategy. A small group of six to seven religious and quasi-religious organizations that formed the Jubilee 2000/USA policy committee coordinated a highly strategic lobbying campaign. While members of the policy committee had access to high level political leaders within the Clinton White House, they coordinated their efforts with the Jubilee campaigners who took to the streets in protests and acts of civil disobedience. Outside actions attracted media attention and created a popular sense that the United States had a moral obligation to address the consequences of indebtedness suffered by impoverished countries around the world.

One of Jubilee 2000/USA’s greatest allies was Gene Sperling, the National Economic Adviser to President Clinton and director of the National Economic Council from 1996 to 2000. Through Sperling, Jubilee 2000/USA policy committee members were able to meet with then-treasury secretary Larry Summers. At least one of the policy committee members had access to the president while a number of Jubilee 2000/USA policy campaigners were present when Clinton signed the act into law.

In the story of Esther, there came a time when she was afraid to respond to her cousin Mordecai’s request to go to the King and plead on behalf of her people. Esther pushed back saying she could not do what he’d asked, but Mordecai reminded her that with access came responsibility: “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

These kinds of tensions were present within the Jubilee 2000/USA campaign. Those with easier access to high level administration officials pushed more moderate reforms while religious and non-religious groups participated in the “outside strategy,” closely linked to grassroots movements in Africa, Latin America and Asia, were pushing for more stringent measures to be included in the bill. The struggle to reach compromise was long, drawn out, and painful for the coalition.

The resulting bill was viewed by members of Congress from across a wide political spectrum as affordable and doable. Though what passed provided limited bilateral debt cancellation, the campaign’s truer victory was that its successful inside/outside strategies forever changed the political debate, making debt cancellation “part of the standard discussion on development and aid.”

So Jubilee 2000/USA campaign proved that coordinating inside access with outside actions can shift the political debate. Today the Jubilee USA Network continues to work for deeper debt cancellation without harmful conditions. One of the challenges they face is a Washington attitude “we did that in 2000, isn’t it done?”

Bush’s Rocky Beginning

At one point in her story, Esther must persuade the King to intervene for her people. But reaching out to the King, rather than being called to his presence, is not only unacceptable by palace protocol, but punishable by death. She takes a risk and the King Ahasuerus does receive her. Esther’s experience demonstrates that reaching out is risky. Demanding too much before establishing a trusted relationship could mean sudden death the issue at hand.

Following in Esther’s footsteps, the faith community did reach out to the Bush administration in its early transition days to ask for deeper debt cancellation and a more comprehensive U.S. response to the AIDS pandemic. Early 2001 discussions between faith-based and AIDS-focused groups with Jendayi Fraser, a carryover from the Clinton administration who at the time worked with the president’s National Security Council, were cautiously optimistic. But the question loomed, just how much access and success in achieving their goals would such groups have in the future?

At the G7-G8 Summit in Okinawa July 2000 the G8 nations made a commitment to work in strengthened multilateral partnerships to deliver three critical UN targeted reductions by 2010: the number of HIV/AIDS-infected young people by 25%, TB deaths and the prevalence of the disease by 50%, and the burden of disease associated with malaria by 50%. G8 countries had planned to further discuss the establishment of a Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria at a UN General Assembly in June 2001 and to launch the fund at their Genoa meeting in July 2001.

But on May 11, 2001 President Bush jumped out in front of other nations announcing a U.S. commitment of $200 million as a founding contribution to the Global Fund. Advocates critiqued Bush for setting the bar so low with this initial U.S. contribution. It was a clear sign of little U.S. enthusiasm for the multilateral route.

PEPFAR Victory

The Advocacy Network for Africa (ADNA) – a long-established network of faith-based, human rights, development and groups – established the AIDS and Health Care working group in 1999. By 2001 this working group had become the convener of a broad range of advocacy groups that used an outside strategy to push the United States to radically strengthen its response to HIV and AIDS. ADNA working group advocates coordinated their actions with the Global Health Council’s Global AIDS Roundtable – a group of health care providers and advocates who used an inside strategy of diplomatic networking and educational outreach to achieve the same goals. While these efforts were underway, evangelically-based service providing organizations like World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse began to expand their messaging on HIV and AIDS. At the same time, the group DATA utilized celebrity status to influence leaders, like then-treasury secretary Paul O’Neil who traveled to Africa with Bono to witness the devastation of HIV and AIDS and to see development aid at work.

One of the most important moves that advocacy groups made was to align themselves around specific numbers that would respond to comprehensive, need-based funding to fight AIDS globally. Religious, anti-poverty and human rights NGOs from across the country called on the United States to contribute its fair share, about $2.5 billion annually. Working together with Partners in Health, an AIDS service delivery organization with inside access, they convinced the administration that AIDS treatments could be administered and monitored in resource-poor settings.

The result of these efforts was the historic State of the Union address where the compassionate conservative side of the president used a biblical reference to announce a five-year, $15 billion emergency plan to combat AIDS while his more hawkish side announced that the United States was moving toward war in Iraq. Congress moved quickly to appropriate resources for the program and on May 27, 2003, President Bush signed the legislative authorization for the Emergency Plan.

Advocates spent much of 2003 to 2005 pressing the administration for a more aggressive roll out of the PEPFAR program. Two years later, progressive NGOs, faith-based groups, and others had another inside shot at trying to convince the administration to increase its commitment to global health. PEPFAR’s increased programming revealed chronic brain drain and a vast need for strengthening health care systems particularly in Africa where health facilities languished after the ravages of structural adjustment programs, wars and the higher number of AIDS patients.

PEPFAR administrators and even administration officials visiting projects wondered whether volunteer networks set up by church organizations could be expanded to provide people with better care and treatment. A group of five advocates including representatives from the World Health Organization, Partners in Health, Health Gap, Physicians for Human Rights and Church World Service met with Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, whom a February 2006 New Yorker article credited as the White House protector of “compassionate conservatism.”

Gerson, it seemed, had hoped there could be some White House support for health system strengthening through a program that would provide small grants to some church and community-based volunteers – the foot soldiers of the AIDS response in Africa. But advocates pushed for further training of volunteers who could be slotted into referral networks that would need more trained doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Gerson listened intently. Those at the meeting wondered whether Gerson, a key player behind the PEPFAR commitment, would champion a new U.S. initiative to strengthen health care systems in Africa as a way to enhance Bush’s presidential legacy.

These questions went unanswered as Gerson announced his resignation the following month. Before leaving he referred the issue of heath care system strengthening to the First Lady’s office in the East Wing of the White House. Advocates met on various occasions with the First Lady’s staff supplying detailed best practices, cost, and treatment analyses. White House interest in the initiative seemed to fade as the sticker shock of “doing it right” set in just as the 2006 congressional elections were underway, and the administration was taking heat for the country’s deficit.

Evaluating the Faith Based Initiative

Early on there was great promise that the Bush administration would reach out to faith-based organizations. His campaign promise of “compassionate conservatism” was first put to work around mounting a faith-based initiative to try and leverage government funding for charitable works done by religious organizations at home and overseas. But as it unfolded, even fewer former insiders began to characterize it as more a political ploy to reap political benefits from the initiative’s beneficiaries.

As former White House Staff John Dilulio Jr. points out, the faith based initiative could have been done through bipartisan bill reviewing the implementation of the “charitable choice” law signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. But instead, the White House “winked at the most far-right House Republicans who, in turn, drafted a so-called faith bill (H.R. 7, the Community Solutions Act)…[which] bore few marks of ‘compassionate conservatism’ and was, as anybody could tell, an absolute political non-starter.”

Later that year, David Kuo, another defector from the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, revealed that the president did reach out to urban faith between 2002 and 2004. More than 15,000 white, Hispanic, and African-American religious and social service leaders attended free conferences on federal grant making. These meetings were coincidently held in battleground states.

Kuo underscores that these were not pep rallies for the president, but the conferences did send a political message to faith-oriented constituencies that the president cared about them. All the while, Kuo argues that very few people noticed how little funding was actually being made available through the Faith Based initiative. Kuo’s book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, is an expression of his disillusionment that “compassionate conservatism” morphed into a ploy to gain more political support for the president without ever actually achieving anything concrete. As a person of deep faith, Kuo also critiques his own seduction: at times he looked more closely at political gains than his own beliefs until ultimately he could not reconcile the two.

The administration’s Faith Based Initiative did award a number of grants to faith-based service providers as PEPFAR began working in the 16 focus countries. Though progressives tend to hear only about the ones that offer conservative prevention programs, PEPFAR officials began to recognize and seek partnerships with some of the long-standing work done by Catholic and mainline protestant missionaries. Prior to PEPFAR many of these programs found it impossible to offer AIDS treatment, but could do so with government grants.

Creating Movement

Progressive religious leaders have had less success with gaining access to the Bush administration, but of course, access to political leaders is not the final goal. It is one of many tools used to persuade the government to ensure the protection and well being of vulnerable people. In this regard, the progressive ecumenical community has had some successes during this administration.

Looking forward to the presidential elections, politicians will as usual court the religious community. Given that, it will be important for faith based groups and their coalition partners to make known their expectations of the new president. And, if members of the faith community are granted special access to political leaders, they should remember Esther who could not have met her goal without the advice and public witness of her cousin Mordechai. It’s what happens on the inside and the outside that creates movement.

Kathy McNeely is a Policy Analyst/Advocate for Church World Service and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). For more articles in the Religion and Foreign Policy strategic focus, visit http://www.fpif.org/fpifinfo/4590