Demanding justice

Civic Action,Development Policy16 Jan 2012Farah Karimi

It sounds almost as a cliché, but our present world is changing rapidly – and so is the role of NGOs. The emergence of new economic powers, speedy globalization, the power of social media – these are just some of the developments covered in our daily newspapers which are changing our world at an incredible pace. There is however one vital change that is incredibly important for our work and which doesn’t get the attention it should get: we live in a world of growing scarcity. And in the increasingly harsher fight for land, water, food, fuel and resources it will be the most vulnerable people that get the short end of the stick. It strikes me that the implications of this change for our work are largely ignored in this online debate on the future role of International NGOs. I am therefore pleased that I was asked to contribute to it.

Changing power relations, the emergence of new economic powers, the growing hunger for resources fed by growing wealth in industrialized and emerging economies, as well as ongoing climate change: all these developments contribute to an increasingly grim fight for access to food, water, land, fuel and other resources, within countries and between countries. This is not to say that I foresee a future of inevitable gloom and doom. I believe we can change our future. But we can only do so if we understand the character of the challenge ahead of us. Changing our future for the good, and working towards our mission of ending poverty and injustice, is more than ever a political battle – not one in terms of party politics, but one in terms of power relations. It is about changing the division of power, of access to and control of knowledge and resources. This is not new for Oxfam Novib, but the level of scarcity that threatens us is of a whole different level – as is the battle that is ahead of us.

Shrinking space

The challenge of this political battle is even bigger as a result of growing scarcity in a completely different area: political space. In an increasing number of countries, space for civil society organizations is shrinking. This is not just happening in dictatorial regimes and in developing countries, it is even happening in the Netherlands. International NGOs have a key role in helping to create space for civic driven change – a role that is being complicated and has become even more important by the fact that political space for NGOs is shrinking.

At the same time as space for civil society organizations is shrinking, we are witnessing how citizens in the Arab world have become more empowered and vocal. Clearly the developments in the Arab world are extremely fragile. But one thing is sure: by showing the power of demanding justice the Arab citizens are an inspiration to citizens all over the world.

Governance gap

There is a third challenge, besides increased scarcity and shrinking political space: the current governance gap. The old governance system dominated by Western industrialized countries is in decay, while a new system that reflects the new global power relations isn’t yet functioning. Of course the G20 has emerged– but key issues such as poverty, justice and sustainable development don’t really feature on the G20’s agenda. The power and impact of globally operating companies is growing, enhancing the need for global governance. But the G20 doesn’t at all succeed in addressing vital global challenges or guaranteeing global goods. And what is happening to the norms and values that dominated the ‘old’ system? Human rights are universally accepted norms and values, but it seems that some of the new global powers give their own meaning to these values. International NGOs and organizations in developing and emerging economies should work together to protect human rights and to help ensure global public goods.

Demanding justice

“Demanding Justice” is the title of Oxfam International’s current strategic plan. These words capture exactly the essence of our work. “Demanding” underlines the need for action, the movement that is vital to make justice happen. “Justice” reflects the core of the power struggle. Who has access to scarce resources? Who controls them? Who benefits from existing resources? These are the questions that NGOs should focus on. And when doing so, we should always stand by the disempowered, the marginalized, and the poor, and we should continuously challenge the powerful and the rich.

In an increasingly globalized world, and in a world of changing power relations, it doesn’t make any sense to think in terms of Northern and Southern NGOs. We should all be working as part of a global network of people and organizations joining forces to change power relations, to create space for civic movements, to ensure a fair distribution of resources, to help end poverty and injustice. This is how we can be a meaningful actor in change.