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Use the power of the people to challenge the people in power!

World Social Forum participants

Marching for democracy - the WSF in Tunis in 2013. Mehr Demokratie under a Creative Commons Licence

Despite the many gains in past decades in tackling global poverty, the world is at a moment where several crises meet. People across the world are seeing the one per cent pull away from the rest of us economically but close in on the rest of us politically. Global efforts to end poverty and marginalization, advance women’s rights, defend the environment, protect human rights, and promote fair and dignified employment are all being undermined as a consequence of the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. That the wealth of the 10 richest Africans now matches the wealth of half the continent is yet another brutal symbol of this divide.

What has the international NGO sector done to respond to this shift to date?  Bluntly, not enough. The New Internationalist has been at the forefront of criticizing NGOs for not providing enough edge. NGOs have been challenged by social movements for being too rooted in the rich world, too cosy with the establishment, and for looking for technical quick fix solutions. They’ve been criticized for not doing enough to support activism and to challenge power. And much of that criticism has been justified.

That’s why it’s exciting to see the leaders of five key development organizations unite in a call that so directly challenges the power the one per cent and goes to the heart of the systemic, structural crises which are threatening people and planet. On the eve of the World Social Forum, the leaders of the global NGOs ActionAid, Greenpeace and Oxfam, the civil society alliance Civicus and the feminist network The Association for Women’s Rights in Development have published a call to take on the ‘damaging power of the one per cent’ because of their impact on both the environment and global poverty. This very explicit stand has these NGOs firmly planting their flags with the 99 per cent and their movements. The statement explicitly addresses the power imbalances at the root of poverty and marginalization. As they note with unusual bluntness: ‘We cannot rely on technological fixes – there is no app for this; we cannot rely on the market – unchecked it will worsen inequality and climate change; and we cannot rely on the global elites – left alone they will continue to reinforce the structures and approaches that have led to where we are.’

The context of the World Social Forum happening in Tunis, birthplace of the Arab Spring and a city where, after last week's brutal violence, people have once again peacefully and courageously taken to the streets to denounce violence and demand a better world of justice, freedom and peaceful coexistence, highlights the importance of the people power of the streets over the lobby power of insider-change. It challenges all of civil society to reconnect with the roots of social mobilization; it challenges NGOs to be clear to social movements that they are on their side.

Why this declaration now? In part, it is a response driven by the current global economic and political concentration and imbalance. In more and more of the developing world, growth isn’t delivering for poor people; indeed, this seems the most decoupled we’ve seen growth from progress, as illustrated by the extractives boom that has sent many countries’ GDP rocketing but wrecked lives on the ground. The climate crisis has further exacerbated the costs of the current economic trajectory on the poorest people. In part too, the NGO call is a response to an unprecedented crackdown on civil society to protect corporate power. But I think it is also driven by a shift of leadership in key organizations. Notably, all of the NGO leaders in the group united in the joint call are themselves from developing countries. This is a historically unique moment when ActionAid, Greenpeace, Oxfam are led by a Brazilian, a South African and a Ugandan respectively, all of them from a background of social movements and struggle. That this moment echoes many of the debates about taking sides held in 1970s and 1980s in Latin America and South Africa is not a coincidence.

What will change? The new explicit commitment by these key organizations will not change everything overnight. But something big has started and this statement is a marker of that tectonic shift. Notably, this is about building from below – the organizations are not calling for ‘one summit to fix it’; they are not focusing on appeal to governments, but are setting out a strategy of strengthening the power of the people to challenge the people with power. They are taking sides, tackling inequality and climate change as part of a common struggle, and directly challenging the nexus of money and power.

It won’t be easy, as any firm stand to challenge power has always been resisted. But without challenging power there is no hope of changing the damaging course the world is now on. As German Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: ‘We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.’

Ben Phillips is Campaigns and Policy Director of ActionAid International.

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