A legacy for tomorrow

Posted in Democracy , Other | 01-Dec-08 | Author: Ambika Vishwanath

President-elect Barack Obama steps out of his vehicle before boarding a flight at Midway Airport in Chicago, Monday, Dec. 1, 2008.

Dear Mr. Obama,

I would like to begin this letter by congratulating you on your victory. I think I can comfortably speak for much of the youth in my country, that as a generation of people in our 20’s, we are glad that you will usher in a change in the coming decade. I write this letter to you as a citizen of the world, and hope to bring to your attention the issues that concern many of us today, beyond the big ticket items that are probably on your agenda; about a life we would like to live; about the legacy I would like to leave my children, perhaps even the legacy you would like to leave yours.

I have had the opportunity to spend 3 years of my life in your country, and I am grateful for the exposure I received. I entered America at a time when visas could be obtained by mailing in an application to the embassy, and waiting for my passport to be sent back through the mail. Today, due to unfortunate circumstances in your country, ordinary people like me have to stand in line for hours at an embassy near us; have everything down to our toes scrutinized at the airports; and constantly travel in fear that the colour of my skin will be my undoing one day. This is not the America I first experienced, and it is disturbing what a few bad decisions and lies can do to the image and credibility of a country, and the psyche of the world. It is time to bring America back to a place where it was once considered to be a nation others could look up to and emulate.

The fear that grips us today, Mr. Obama, is not a world I would like to live in, and especially not a world I would like to bring children into. I have had the opportunity to see much of your country and the world, and I have seized every chance that came my way, accepting all the openings that have given me the ability to live and experience different cultures. But at this point in time I cannot honestly promise my children the same, when they are ready to experience the world. While globalization is breaking barriers and making the world smaller, the forces of terrorism, religious divisions and ethnic differences are tearing us apart. There is no dignity in living a life of fear, as millions do today, be it in their own country or as visitors to another.

As the first African-American President of the United States, you already have a willing constituency, not only in your own country, but across the world. People rejoiced your victory everywhere, from the modern cities in Europe, to the average Arab student in the Middle East; from the liberal intellect in India to the tiny villages in Kenya. While there are leaders who might not completely agree with your politics, there are far more who are willing to embrace the change you have promised in hope of a better tomorrow. Even one of America’s constant foes, Iran and her quixotic President, has broken precedent and congratulated your victory. Though this move has garnered much backlash from hardliners in both Iran and your country, it is opportunity for new channels of diplomacy that must not be lost. It is time to bring together the different civilizations that have been torn apart by mistrust and hatred.

I hope that you effectively use this constituency you have, beyond the borders of America, so that my generation and the next can feel proud to live in a world lead by people like you. Much hope, trust and expectation are being placed upon you; and it is important to remember that the choices we make leave our mark upon humanity. While I understand and appreciate that your current president has left some serious problems for you to deal with, remember that other peoples enemies are not your own.

Fortunately or not, as the leader of the United States you have the overwhelming and heavy responsibility of leading the world, not only in matters of politics and economics, but in very real and potentially dangerous issues of the climate, the spread of disease, the scarcity of water and the persistent inequality of women, amongst others.

The 2007 UN Human Development Report plainly states that we have less than a decade to make concrete changes, for what we do to our planet now will last till 2108. This is the decade in which you will govern, alongside new leaders who are to be elected in Israel, India, Norway, Iran, Germany, the UK and elsewhere. The outcome of these elections are vital not only for their own citizens, but are bound to have ramifications around the world. Collectively, you and the new leaders of 2009 could have a serious and lasting impact at the Copenhagen Climate Council scheduled for December of next year. Evidently the Kyoto Protocol has failed to achieve what it set out to do, and this is a golden opportunity for you to lead the world’s efforts with a more effective treaty that caps global carbon dioxide emissions, and encourages nations to invest together in efficient ways to reduce global warming. I do not speak lightly when I say my children would be thankful for a world where the glaciers are not melting, and they can live in a coastal city without fear of a natural disaster that was caused by us.

I sincerely hope that while dealing with politicians and intellectuals, businessmen and actors, you do not forget your roots, the people who made you who you are. From the intractable conflict in Somalia, where a 13 year old girl wass stoned for being raped, to the crisis in Darfur; from the 22 million people living with HIV/AIDS to the 25% of the children who are severely underweight with little or no access to basic amenities. These are issues that have taken a back seat for too long, and need to be addressed. There is a certain excitement sweeping across Africa, which presents you with the rare opportunity to translate effusive sentiments from the past into mighty diplomatic capital.

When you come into office next year it will be close to a decade since Beijing+5, where numerous decisions were taken to improve the status of women; yet even today there is no dearth of news of honor killings in parts of the Middle East, female infanticide in South Asia, discrimination in the workplace in Europe. Till date the United States has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), putting it in the same bracket as Iran and North Korea. By ratifying this treaty, and placing the development of women as a separate issue on the world agenda, and not one that is lumped together with others, you could send a strong message to other nations that change is all encompassing.

The world is inextricably linked, the oil, the energy, the carbon, the economics, and the politics of it all; yet in a race to finish first, we might all be loosing. The problems are numerous and the task is long and arduous, but when people believe, and a machinery of billions can be mobilized with a common thread of humanity, then change is possible.

As John Donne wrote in 1623, "any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; for it tolls for thee".

I thank you for your patience and look forward to being a part of a legacy that the next generation will cherish.


Ambika Vishwanath