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Together we are POWERFUL

AJWS’s director of advocacy, Timi Gerson, talks about lobbying Congress, shifting the balance of power, and why Jewish values matter on the Hill.

Interview by Leah Kaplan Robins

AJWS supports grassroots organizations promoting human rights all over the world. How does AJWS’s domestic advocacy support their work?
It’s my job to look at U.S. policies and see how they help or hinder the work that our grantees are doing in their countries and communities. Do they create an enabling environment for sustainable development or not? On issues where changes in U.S. policies would further grantees’ work, we advocate for those changes. And when U.S. policy poses obstacles to their work or their communities’ survival, we try to remove them.

What are some of these obstacles?
Take the U.S. policy on biofuels. The subsidies that our government is granting for corn to produce ethanol have driven up the global price of corn. For people in the developing world who depend on corn as a staple of their diets and who are spending 50-80 percent of their income on food, a few cents a pound can make the difference between eating and starving.

Even though laws like this have a huge impact abroad, people in the Global South, for the most part, are shut out of the venues where these decisions get made. U.S. policies are enacted in our names and, when we are silent, with our complicity. That’s why we have a responsibility to hold our representatives accountable and advocate for changes that will impact so many people globally.

How do you go about it?
One tactic is lobbying. We figure out which members of Congress hold the deciding votes on the issues we care about, and then we meet with them to open dialogue. When we’re meeting with someone like-minded, we discuss strategy: how can we help them move things inside Congress, and how can they help us move the issue in the broader public? Sometimes we’re there to educate: legislators really rely on groups that specialize in these issues to bring them compelling information and stories that make the policies real and influence their decisions.

What have been some of AJWS’s recent advocacy successes?
AJWS collaborated with other groups to urge the U.S. government to use its influence with the IMF and Inter-American Development Bank to get much of Haiti’s debt forgiven. That was a significant win because we’ve been advocating for debt forgiveness in Haiti for many years, and after the earthquake, the absurdity of expecting a country to rebuild when it was saddled with such unfair and crushing debt became clear. We also successfully pushed for a billion dollars in aid for Haiti, which was an impressive feat given the budget climate in Washington.

What challenges are you working on now?
For several years, AJWS has been working to reform the way the United States distributes food aid. This is a main focus of our new Reverse Hunger campaign. Although the U.S. food aid program provides really critical aid in emergencies, it’s a band-aid solution: it feeds people in the present, but it can actually harm local agriculture, which prevents people from sustaining themselves in the future. That’s in part because the law requires that the majority of U.S. food aid be purchased from U.S. producers and shipped by U.S. carriers, instead of purchased from local farmers in regions near the crisis.

We saw the detriment of this approach after the earthquake, when a shipment of American rice was sent to Haiti just as the Haitian rice harvest came in—undercutting Haitian rice farmers. Since then, the Obama administration has demonstrated willingness to support local food procurement, but it can only do so much until the laws are changed by Congress.

How can we get this change to happen?
Some of the key policies regulating food aid and corn-based biofuels are in the U.S. Farm Bill, which is coming up for revision in 2012, giving us a great opportunity to advocate for reform. But the current laws are backed by powerful special interests like the shipping and agribusiness lobbies, and in order to shift the dynamics of power we’re going to have to demonstrate that there’s a counter base of constituents who want to see the laws changed.

How can individuals help?
Learn about this issue and then add your voice. People think that their phone call or e-mail won’t make a difference, but the truth is that it does. I’ve seen it. When I first started working in Washington, I remember being astounded watching a Congressperson switch his stated voting intentions on a bill because of 50 phone calls from voters in his district. By not speaking up, you’re actually letting those louder voices on the other side wield more than their share of the power.

What does Judaism have to do with advocacy?

Take Action with AJWS

Sign up for our advocacy list at www.ajws.org/advocacy so you can receive action alerts and add your voice to our campaigns.

As a Jewish organization and as part of a faith-based advocacy movement, AJWS serves a vital moral role. Religious advocacy represents the conscience of the country, urging our government to do what’s right because it’s right and not just because it serves our self-interest. Advocacy driven by our Jewish values is an expression of our historical experience of oppression and our biblical mandate to protect the stranger and seek justice. This is our unique Jewish contribution to the struggle for a better world.

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About AJWS

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

AJWS has received an “A” rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy since 2004 and a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for nine years. AJWS also meets all 20 of Better Business Bureau’s standards for charity accountability.


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