What Happens When Politicians Get Creative
By Zuzia Whelan
Sure, politics can seem like little more than a popularity contest where participants frequently promise more than they can deliver. But in a world beset by life-or-death challenges ranging from COVID-19 and climate change to sectarian violence and hunger, some leaders are trying something different.
In today’s Daily Dose, we’re looking at the innovative steps political leaders around the world are taking to try to fundamentally reset the destinies of their nations — from a Caribbean prime minister who’s building a republic out of a former colony to a Kosovar mayor bridging ethnic tensions with language and culture.
You might not agree with everything they’re trying. And it’s likely not all of these initiatives will succeed. But the world needs bold, new ideas, and these officials are leading the way.
Seeds of Change
The island nation of Singapore brings in more than 90% of its food from abroad, and that’s not normally a problem. But the pandemic’s disruption of global supply chains forced the wealthy city-state to recognize the food insecurity it could face in future crises. Now, seeds of change are sprouting under an initiative led by the country’s National Parks Board and former Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee. Called Gardening With Edibles, the program involves sending out seeds to residents so they can grow fruits and vegetables on their tiny balconies. It’s part of the country’s wider “30 by 30” initiative: to meet 30% of its nutritional needs domestically by 2030. As of March, the initiative had sent out nearly half a million seed packets.
To make sure legions of new amateur gardeners aren’t left guessing, Singapore’s National Parks Board has released instructional videos on how to sow and harvest the produce. Those who sign up don’t get to choose their seeds, but the plants were selected to reflect the ingredients in traditional Singaporean dishes, like stir-fried cai xin and kangkong belacan. Part of the rollout also means doubling the number of community gardens by 2030, since growing vegetables on a windowsill or balcony can get cramped, and space on the island is at a premium. Additionally, Lee’s pushing an initiative aimed at getting developers of residential apartments to increase green spaces, like rooftop gardens and wall landscaping — providing the additional benefit of cooling ambient temperatures.
While still in its infancy as an independent nation, Bangladesh suffered a major famine in 1974, when an estimated 1.5 million people died. Today, the country that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once derisively dismissed as a “basket case” has emerged as a success story against food shortages. Between 2000 and 2015, it cut chronic hunger by half, though a sixth of the country’s population remains food insecure. Now, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is focusing on the next big threat to food supplies: antimicrobial resistance, (AMR), in which microbes, by evolving over time, no longer respond to medicine. She’s warning the world of the risk of future pandemics because of this phenomenon and the threat it poses to food security. Will richer nations listen before it’s too late?
Fishing for Nutrition
It’s not just about having enough food; it’s also about having the right nutrition. Hasina has been encouraging Bangladesh’s youth to take to fish farming. Not only is it an opportunity for self-employment, she has said, but it’s a way of locally shoring up her nation’s food supply. Her government is reportedly focusing on increasing fish production while providing food for farmers and fisherfolk to make sure they don’t fall into financial hardship, as well as organizing collateral-free loans for those looking to set up a fishing enterprise.
POLICY AND ECONOMY
The Crypto King
Creative? Yes. Effective? Only time will tell. El Salvador has made headlines after burgeoning authoritarian and down-with-the-kids President Nayib Bukele made Bitcoin legal tender in the Central American country. It’s been permitted since early September. But that doesn’t mean all businesses are obligated to accept it as payment. Bukele’s vision is a libertarian dream: He has argued that he wants citizens to have access to a market-governed currency instead of being reliant on the U.S. dollar, which is also legal tender. And at least in theory, it should be easier and safer to access money virtually.
But Bukele’s bold move hasn’t had the smoothest launch. Bitcoin initially took a beating in the markets soon after formally becoming legal tender on Sept. 7, before recovering. There’s also been significant pushback from Salvadorans, many of whom are concerned about Bitcoin’s volatility — it’s a fickle friend — and the potential for it to be used in money laundering. The state launched an official digital wallet, called Chivo, with $30 worth of bitcoin preloaded, but since its introduction, it’s been beset by glitches. Some users didn’t get the $30 and couldn’t use ATMs or even access their wallet. And now the president is urging Salvadorans to “buy the dips,” by joining him in currency speculation. Sink or swim, the outcome of this experiment could mean big changes for a country in which 70% of the population doesn’t have access to banking services.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle aren’t the only ones severing ties with the British monarchy. Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, elected in 2018, has announced her intention to remove the queen as the island nation’s head of state to make the country a republic by Nov. 30. Speaking to Vogue, Mottley described the decision as “accepting responsibility for who we are,” rather than any ill will toward the royal family. The next few months will see the crystallization of a new constitution, as current Governor-General Dame Sandra Mason is poised to become Barbados’ first local head of state as president.
Marriage Equality by Popular Vote
But Mottley’s a change-maker in more ways than one: She also has marriage equality in her sights. She’s spoken about how, as “A country that was forged in its modern incarnation in the experiment of racism and discrimination,” Barbados can’t now willingly discriminate against its own citizens. Her plan includes first making same-sex civil unions legal, then holding a referendum on same-sex marriage. LGBTQ groups and activists aren’t that confident, however, saying that building equality would take a lot more than civil unions and warning that it may be too early for a marriage referendum.
INTEGRATION AND EQUALITY
Breaking the Language Barrier
As an ethnic Albanian, Qëndron Kastrati, the mayor of Kamenica, Kosovo, doesn’t speak much Serbian. But along with a growing number of others in his area, he’s learning — thanks to language exchange classes his municipality set up to bridge ethnic and cultural tensions. The vast majority of Kosovars are Albanian, following violent conflict in the late 1990s that prompted many Serbs to leave. Those who remain live largely separate from Albanians, and language and culture barriers perpetuate historic rifts. The course includes visits to sites of religious and cultural importance for both sides. More than 100 people have joined the program, and Kastrati hopes to expand its reach, while other towns are borrowing his idea.
Taking on Teachers
But Kastrati’s ideas are also controversial. The first-time mayor has set out to reform education in his city, where some schools only had one pupil, and ordered 19 schools shut in 2019. Teachers and parents clapped back, pointedly attending the closed schools. Kastrati has nonetheless stood his ground. And last year, then-Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti — who had earlier criticized the Kamenica mayor — praised him for pushing for education reforms even as he urged him to seek a compromise with his critics.
Freedom Zone Activist
It takes guts to be an openly gay, atheist, feminist and pro-European politician in an increasingly conservative Poland ruled by the right-wing Law and Justice party. Yet it’s a stand that Robert Biedroń has been taking for years. A member of the European Parliament and a candidate in his nation’s 2020 presidential election, Biedroń advocated for a project to fight back against Poland’s proliferating “LGBTQ-free zones,” where local authorities have, since 2019, vowed to prevent pro-LGBTQ policies. Biedroń tabled a resolution before the European Parliament arguing that the bloc instead become an “LGBTQ freedom” zone. The resolution passed, though some regions have opted to lose their EU funding rather than comply.
In March, Biedroń appeared on one of Poland’s biggest current affairs TV shows with dyed tomato-red hair. “This is my manifesto” he said, explaining that it’s his sign of support for young people dealing with a lack of access to sex education. Poland’s social history is interwoven with a lack of sex education, leading to perpetuated stereotypes, homophobia, inequality for women and minorities — and increasingly, physical violence. Biedroń said that from that day and for the foreseeable future, he will have red hair in solidarity with “this great, goddamn injustice” that mostly affects children.
- Zuzia Whelan, OZY Author Contact Zuzia Whelan