Laura Sullivan, originally from Galway, is ActionAid’s Regional Director for Europe and the Americas and is in Dublin today to speak at the Dóchas Conference 2017, entitled ‘Reclaiming the Story.’
The outpouring of peoples’ calls for radical changes in how politics are done – both from progressive and regressive ends of the spectrum – is creating shockwaves across the world.
These changes have in turn provoked a round of major reflection within non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work for social change . Should we be changing to adapt to a new world order? This is the right question to ask. But it is important to know that we are not starting from zero.
In recent years, a massive shift has been taking place internal to many NGOs. At the turn of the century, ActionAid decided that it was no longer possible to try to challenge power externally without challenging and shifting power structures internally. Soon after, a UK based charity with ownership of country programmes in the South transformed itself into a global federation of national entities led by local people and with a secretariat based in Johannesburg.
The shift of the headquarters was symbolically important. Moving to the Global South was a political decision. Johannesburg is furthermore a spiritual hub of activism, the home of the fight against apartheid. That mattered. But we also changed how decisions were made, devolving power and redesigning the organisation around national boards and general assemblies forming part of a larger international general assembly. And we became more explicitly glocal – linking local struggles across the world to opportunities – at local, national and international levels to bring about change. At a time when nationalism is still taking hold, that glocal status feels more important than ever.
When NGOs shift power back to the local level, they have to learn to listen better. To first understand local contexts and approaches and to support and link that knowledge and energy to other initiatives and ideas working towards change. Not all change can come at the local level and the real power that NGOs have is in connecting communities to movements and knowledge that can help them advance their own cause, at the national, regional, and international levels.
But more change needs to come. Trust levels in NGOs are low and demonstrate that we need to listen and reach out more to people to explain what NGOs are and why they should care and get involved. Politically these are the best and worst of times. On the one hand we have seen a revival of feminism, a rise of movements calling for alternatives to democratic elections (as per the Irish case), people remodelling their entire communities and seeking alternatives to how they live via Transition Towns, cooperative banks and Slow Food . But we have equally seen a dangerous backlash against rights, solidarity, internationalism, multilateralism, tolerance and the right of civil society to play its role as watchdog. This is a real burning issue of common cause in Europe, the US and the Global South and it is where NGOs have a role to play. A racist, nationalist narrative is resonating with people hit by the worst effects of globalisation. There is a role here for NGOs to build massive alliances of people who want to talk about real alternatives to globalisation, albeit whilst sticking to the values that let us live together.
We also need to spend less time on short-term advocacy agendas that are about incremental change and much more on real systemic issues that generate injustice, inequality and poverty. This might look like a long and difficult path (and it may well be), but it’s the only choice if we really want to see lasting progressive change.