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Why we need more Activists and fewer NGOs


TianasquareThis is an edited version of an article written for the CIVICUS Global State of Civil Society 2016 under the Title To Defend The World We must Defend Our Activists.The original article can be accessed here

 Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference-Robert Frost (1874–1963)

 This contribution to the 2016 CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report is an attempt to appreciate the work done by people who are at the forefront of confronting power-corporate, institutional or individual-in ways that  many in society appreciates, but would rather not try. They are not in our civil society conferences. They are not UN speakers or people who make “interventions” at “High Level Meetings”. These are people who, often with little or no resources or social backup, but with a strong conviction, go beyond engaging in activism, to shaping activism. They do not challenge society: they shape societies. They are driven not by motivations of career,funding or the need for some recognition or public profile, but by the passion and desire to see society take a different path,

Recognising activism

One of the most memorable cases in the history of activism, and considered the longest case in British history, is that of Helen Steel and Dave Morris, two British activists who took on the giant of McDonalds in a legal battle that left civil society and the world marvelling at what change can come from conviction and the personal sacrifice of a few. What begun as an ordinary case of environmental activism by a local, independent form of Greenpeace ended only when McDonalds learnt a powerful lesson: Might is not Right. The spark that begins the fire of democratic changes around the world is often lit and fuelled on the backs of individuals who, at great personal costs, have resisted attempts to herd society into a paddock controlled by the people in power. Activism is what moves society into territories that it is otherwise too cowardly or too comfortable to confront.

No room in the inn of professionalised civil society

We in CSOs are committed to representation, but often unwittingly acting in ways that make it difficult for activists to share their passion and pain without having to subscribe to some funded or formally structured institution. Standing up, often alone, is not new to activists, and for many their legitimacy rests not in how many people stand with them or how many organisations rally behind them. Activists seldom care to answer the first question many global south actors in development are asked: who funds you?

Activism, we have learnt, is a calling, rather than a career. They delight in standing up to authority and reminding people in power that theirs should be a social contract: that authorities owe their power to the public, and this is not just some democratic ideal, but is about respect for the collective destiny of citizenry. These are people like the lone Wang Weilin, who stood before a military tank in China’s Tianamen Square in 1989, or the young poor man, Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself ablaze in Tunisia in 2010, or Boniface Mwangi who almost lost his family,or the more than 10 Kenyan activists who the Africa Platform brought together  in late 2015 to encourage their South Sudan colleagues, only to end up leaving them in tears about  the lonely and costly path of activism in the global south. These are not people looking for recognition, or seeking any funding, and seldom will they fit within the organised, highly structured ways that the rest of us work.

Activists in Europe and North America were safe in thee past. But not anymore. They  are today at the centre of a concerted effort by right wing governments and political powers to protect special interests at whatever cost.

On 4 March 2016 the Turkish government forcibly took over the country’s largest media institution. Not only was entire Europe silent, but a day later The EU Council of Ministers  came out of a meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister  to celebrate a deal on managing refugees without making any reference to what Turkey had done the previous day.

Beyond Turkey, Europe is increasingly becoming hostile to the voice of its citizens. Thesecret negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade deal currently under discussion between the EU and the USA, revealed the darker side of Europe, one it has been hiding from the world: when its private interests are at stake, European governments will trample on the rights of anyone, including their own citizens. When farmers were violently repulsed in Brussels, and protestors similarly treated in Greece and Spain in 2015, it was made clear that it is not only the global south that is intolerant of dissent. The recent proposal by the UK government to deny funding to organisations that criticise it should be the much needed wake up call to European CSOs that they need more activism at homethan international projects abroad. The UK is not alone here. In the past year, several governments, the most vocal being the Netherlands, have adopted a new version of the much maligned 3D strategy, now branded the Coherence Strategy. Initially promoted as a strategy to deliver on development under one policy,  in practical cases such as Canada, Netherlands and now spreading to the rest of  Europe, the coherence strategy has turned out to be a means to control development actors  and make them  data collectors  for European governments, and extensions of  foreign and trade agenda of Europe.

In short, CSOs are at the mercy of seven OECD members whose aid is destroying the very social and political structures we are building, and two philanthropists accused of promoting private interests.

 Activism, not big development projects, our only remaining strength

What global south actors have learnt over the years is that development is politics, and it requires more than programmes and projects. It requires a mobilisation of concerned citizens ready to go beyond helping the poor among them earn a living, to setting themfree from the powers that confine them to poverty.It requires a presence and local understanding that cannot be cured by merely moving headquarters to the global south, having federal governance or working through ‘partners on the ground’. It cannot be solved by big international projects run by too big to fail organisations seen as too closeto their governments.

To defend ourselves, we must defend activists. To protect ourselves, we must protect our activists.

How to defend activism

Embrace, not label, activists

Soft activism has its place, but only if it is used to back up those still strong enough to confront power. Instead of asking our activists to tone down their aggression, we should see it as a leadership trait that seeks to remind us all that we should be angry enough to go beyond tweets, solidarity position papers, hashtags, and confront those robbing us of our future. Activists do not need a label, they need our embrace.

Shepherd, but do not organize 

Collective action is needed, and no one needs this action more than activists.

We have killed the passion of activists by herding them into formal institutions that leave them little room except to be structured like us, funded like us and behaving like us. When in 2015 the Government of India was on the verge of banning Greenpeace, an body of international CSOs (ICSOs) expressed frustration that large ICSOs with offices in the country declined to support Greenpeace ,on the grounds that it would jeopardise their continued work in the country.

 Recognise the contradictions facing activists

Activists battle with the internal contradictions they see in organised civil society. On the one hand, we champion the need for a principled engagement that protects our cause and does not cause harm to the people we serve. Yet on the other hand, we are funded and have close relationships with donors and corporations that are at the centre of defranchising the poor. It goes beyond this.

Build on activism, not on projects

Even in cases where we believe that development is about power and politics, we tend to focus on development as if it is a social problem.We raise funds using the faces of children whose hunger and suffering is a result of a failed political system, not a failed father or mother.We run projects in isolation, and we do not connect the dots, for example, between Ebola and a failed budgetary process in government.

Activists may believe that we truly believe in their cause. But they are not sure we are committed to follow that cause in deed.