An occasional Sunday around Central Park

Knowledge brokering22 Sep 2010

Last Sunday, my activities centred around Central Park. It was such a perfect day, sunny and warm. An Indian Summer. I started from the stiff and stuffy Upper East Side, where the only people you see during the week are cute little ‘Caucasian’ white boys and girls being pushed around in high-tech strollers by Latin nursemaids, their mothers probably very busy – maybe having their next botox shot?

I was glad to wander into the green of Central Park, even hearing that sound of crickets, familiar from Mediterranean holidays. I passed the joggers in the park, the ‘just married’ in their wedding dresses and suits, the chess players, the extravagant rollerskaters dancing to disco tunes. Life is good in and around Central Park. Crisis? What crisis? Not here. I thought I was heading west, but ended up on the south side of the park. I saw endlessly extended limos and bumped into convoys of large black cars with black windows, lining up in front of five-star hotels, all with park views. Scary muscled men in suits and sunglasses circled around delegates of this or that country, developing and developed – no differences when it comes to hotels. Security services are always developed. The diplomats were obviously taking a little rest in the sun, playing with their Blackberries, preparing for the summit. These are the people who will have to deliver in the coming days, I thought, full of hope. I had to run to make the gathering I was heading for, near the Lincoln Center on the west side of Central Park. I was going to what was announced as ‘Stand Up, Take Action, Make Noise for the MDGs’ – anti-poverty activists were going to raise their collective voice. I hoped for large crowds asking for real change, to put some pressure on the politicians at the summit. What I encountered was disappointing; 50 to 100 people sitting on chairs, listening to some speakers. I sat with them. I met some members of the Dutch delegation, taking a look at what was happening there. They might have been grateful for some noise, as their efforts to push forward the MDGs are quite powerless: the Netherlands has had no minister for development cooperation for the last six months!

The first speaker was Bill Easterly, who just before had Tweeted: ‘please come and boo’. But his speech wasn’t the usual provocation to the development mafia that I know him for. He said the right thing in three words: trade, not aid. If, to use his example, the US stops subsidizing cotton, Burkina Faso can sell its cotton all over the world, and raise enough money and create enough jobs to meet its MDGs. Change US for EU, and cotton for many other products, and a big part of Africa is fine too.

Then I listened to Anita Sharma, North American coordinator of the UN Millennium Campaign, and Sylvia Borren, co-chair from the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP). They also said the right things, in a few more words: it is a big scandal that poverty and inequity and child and maternal mortality, et cetera, still exist. Because they can be solved.

It sounded a bit of an exaggeration, both of them stating that 173 million people were behind this call for action. Of course, GCAP unites big organizations with millions of private donors. But why, then, weren’t the expected ‘thousands’ of activists there at Lincoln Center? At times, I have the idea that many of the big NGOs have lost contact with the streets, the neighbourhoods, the colleges, civil society. They (and many others, including me) are absorbed in deliberations with international organizations and lobby campaigns at varying capitals and headquarters. Very necessary and useful activities, but a distraction from day-to-day reality. Civil society has become an abstraction. I continued my wandering around Central Park. I headed north, to Columbia University, where I was going to meet John McArthur, CEO of the Millennium Promise. However, I took the wrong subway and ended up in Harlem. Which was great, because there was a real street party going on there: the African American Day Parade. Entire families sat beside the road, watching the parade pass by. At this corner, everybody moved to the rhythm of old-style James Brown tunes; on another corner, a group of cheerleaders danced to the sound of heavy drums. State troopers and police officers paraded, and were followed by local black imams, voodoo-like bush masters, Baptist ministers like Al Sharpton, even Cherokees. Banners for the African American Civil Service Organisations, the PUMA (Power Unity Multicultural Alliance) or the Harlem Resident Green Committee were carried around, but also pictures of black heroes, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X. And it was fun! Now we’re talking civil society. Again I had to run, to be in time for my meeting with John McArthur. He had to speak to 700 students at a Millennium Conference at Columbia University. 700 students that chose to use their free Sunday to listen to all kinds of interesting explanations about hunger, inequity, MDGs and development. John would Tweet after his speech: ‘Just spoke at @mcnpartners conference. What an amazing group of student leaders for the MDGs! #MCN2010’. Which was immediately replied to by Bill Easterly: ‘@mcarthur why didn’t your group attend Stand Up NYC?’ Although this was a nice example of internal New York infighting – competition between Columbia University (read Jeffrey Sachs) and New York University (read Easterly) – the latter posed the right question: why aren’t all these students out there in the streets, protesting? And who is to blame? The students, who proved to be much more idealistic than one would have thought, or the organizations that failed to get them to the rally? Why did the Columbia conference have much greater convening power than the Stand Up meeting? Maybe it is not about convening power. I remember some interesting conversations I had a few years ago with Harry Boyte (see also The Broker special report: Deep democracy), a well-known American community organizer, a type from the Harlem African American parade. Harry explained to me the difference between ‘mobilizing’ and ‘organizing’. Mobilizing is like convening: it is a top-down exercise, using people for a certain political goal; organizing starts from the needs and wishes of the people themselves, and tries to articulate them into political action.

Might it be an idea for NGOs to get back to this original meaning of civil society?

This post will be simultaneously published on The Broker MDG blog: Goal Posts – What Next for the MDGs?