Citizens are the most powerful agents of change

Civic Action03 Oct 2011Manuela Monteiro

It is time to refocus our energy and place our trust in the power and creativity of the people, argues Manuela Monteiro.

What the international economic system needs is the creation of an inclusive economy with a social agenda governed by democratic institutions that empower responsible citizens. Public welfare can only be reached if mechanisms for social redistribution and environmental sustainability are in place. The current economic system fails to address human and environmental wellbeing and has led to inequality, poverty and environmental devastation. Economic growth has largely been based on non-sustainable production processes. Consumption patterns in rich countries have been maintained at the cost of low incomes in the South. Natural resource bases are being depleted leading to the destruction of ecosystems and habitats. But we already knew this, it just became clearer due to the financial crisis.

People, however, are capable of shaping their own futures if they are given the space and resources to do so. In the last decades, people around the world have developed and implemented sustainable economic activities that do not compromise the planet and the possibilities of future generations and integrate the social, economic and environmental aspects of development. Their work may involve fighting for more chain transparency and a fair trade system, for improved working conditions, stimulating environmentally sustainable production processes, and supporting the agency of small farmers. Civil society can also play a major role in pressuring governments to make provisions for those not benefiting from economic growth, to counterbalance short-term profit policies, and to struggle for long-term production policies that are socially and environmentally sound. Innovative ventures like Twaweza1 and the Tanzania Media Fund2 are frontrunners in a whole new generation of interventions that strike innovative partnerships across sectors to promote transparency and accountability. Working with media and technology, these programs find new ways to mobilize citizens to demand better basic services and fight corruption.

But while spaces for creation and contestation are abundant worldwide, they are disconnected and therefore incapable of challenging the dominant discourse. In many countries civil society is weak. And on a global level, civil society has not been able to structurally influence the economic system. But times are changing: citizens of the world are speaking out! The Arab Spring was followed by a summer of turbulent citizen action in countries ranging from Greece to India and Chile to the United Kingdom. Are we witnessing a new wave of social mobilization, fuelled by global crises and facilitated by social media?

What these events show us is that it is time to refocus our energy and place our trust in the power and creativity of the people. For too long we have placed our energy in first creating and then trying to change structures at ever higher levels, which were to guarantee regulation and a more just and sustainable distribution of the world’s resources and development opportunities. We believe that informed and motivated citizens are the most powerful agents of sustainable change. So let us put people (and the environment) back at the centre of our economic culture and define collective responsibilities for a sustainable economic system. Let’s talk about failing systems, but also about the people who are able to change them collectively. Because it is about time we get it right and truly work towards a fair, free and sustainable world.


  1. Twaweza means “we can make it happen” in Swahili. It is a ten year citizen-centered initiative, focusing on large-scale change in East Africa:
  2. Tanzania Media Fund is a fund that seeks to promote independence and quality in media, with a particular focus on public interest and investigative journalism: