Reinventing citizen action

Development Policy16 May 2011Frans Bieckmann

‘The biggest failure of civil society organizations is their complete lack of political imagination,’ says Rakesh Rajani. ‘NGOs are bankrupt. They do some workshops here and there that you have to pay to attend. NGOs are cut off from reality, they are not organic.’ Rajani is among the eight CDC Initiative members who attended the second brainstorming meeting near the Dutch town of Hilversum in May 2008.

Rajani echoes the thoughts of many others: just like bilateral and multilateral development cooperation, the NGO world is at an impasse. Both Western and local NGOs have lost touch with reality. In the real world, there is a continual political struggle, people organize themselves to address countless local problems and political debates are conducted in the media. Meanwhile, NGOs focus on specialized projects that are conceived and funded by well meaning professionals in the Western and Southern capitals. NGOs exist in a sort of parallel universe, controlled by a governing elite in global networks, with its own system of rules and order.

The notion that you can improve conditions in developing countries with ‘technical’ interventions (organizational assistance, training and advice) still dominates. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were founded on this principle. Very noble goals are imposed from outside to alleviate the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged in developing countries, while multilateral and bilateral donors, NGOs, consultants, charity organizations and an ever-expanding horde of well-intentioned amateurs provide useful advice, money, education and training, and sometimes also apply pressure on bad regimes in an attempt to make poor countries a little richer.

Meanwhile, for at least 20 years there has been a discussion about the nature of development – implicitly or explicitly – as a political process with human beings at its centre. It is not a political process in the sense of elections and politicians’ decisions, but a question of changing power relations. Feminist researchers made an important contribution to this shift in thinking by exposing power differences – not only in an abstract, general sense, but also between people and their individual qualities. The theories of economist Amartya Sen and the many publications that build on them – such as the Human Development Report, the 2003 report Human Security Now and the World Development Report 2000 – think of poverty in terms of a lack of access. The aim of human development is to create the freedom and the opportunities for people to develop themselves. But the conditions in which they can do it also have to be created, and that requires a very political programme.

These basic principles of human development are widely endorsed and are often referred to in speeches, but in practice mechanical aid reflexes that have the opposite effect – such as financial assistance and service delivery by external experts – continue to dominate. Furthermore, the state continues to be the focal point: we help developing countries, not the people who live in them. The donor community – not only bilateral donors, but also the multilateral organizations they finance and many NGOs – still thinks in terms of states and governments, of who should supply services to the poor and make markets work to supply jobs for them. Those NGOs and projects that focus on the people themselves often work on the basis of giving the poor something they lack – a school, medical treatment, advice on setting up a business – instead of helping them to find their own way.

According to the Indian grassroots activist Rajesh Tandon, this state-driven development thinking leads to ‘externally designed, expert driven, universal policies and programmes that expect passive consumption by ordinary folk. The poor (and other citizens) became “helpless beneficiaries”.’

CDC: What’s new?

It was a mixed group that came together for the first time in January at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. Each of the eight core members of the CDC Initiative comes from a different background, political tradition and school of thought, including history, futurism, democratization, (neo)liberal and critical theory, theology, feminism, complexity thinking and systems theory. It is not easy to get such a varied group to agree. So it was hardly surprising that, after a long day of exchanging ideas, people started frowning and walking impatiently around the room.

This wide variety of backgrounds is a major difference between this and other initiatives – and perhaps also its strength. In addition to their intellectual qualities, all members enjoy considerable support in their own countries or represent a viewpoint that many people share. They are public intellectuals who are operating on the cutting edge of science and activism, with broad international networks. Yet they also have a strong affinity with the reality of everyday problems and challenges facing people throughout the world. They are looking for fundamentally new perspectives on the struggle for social and political change in the world, seeking a coherent and well thought out alternative for the two globally prevalent views on development: one based on the state, the other on the market.

During the discussion and workshops something of a consensus gradually formed within the group, but significant differences of opinion remained. The eight members concluded that what made the initiative innovative was the way in which existing concepts, ideas and practices were redefined, and more especially linked together in new ways or articulated, as it is so neatly called in social-scientific jargon. The members decided they would each write an essay, ideally one that referred to the others in the group. The first drafts were discussed in May, by the core participants as well as a larger group of about 30 experts from around the world. Throughout the summer, the essays were feverishly modified and edited and, after initiators Fowler and Biekart had added an introduction and a concluding chapter, the full collection will be published in October on the ISS website and later in book form.

The collection of essays is only one step, a trigger for a debate that still has to gain momentum. Yet it is already possible to distil a number of concepts from the texts and the long discussions in the core group that could become part of a new narrative, a different view of change in the world, with self-determination by citizens at its core.

Co-creating democracy

An important aspect of a new CDC narrative, which is referred to literally or implicitly in many of the essays, is ‘re-inventing politics’ or ‘deepening of democracy’. In his essay, Harry Boyte quotes Mamphela Ramphele, one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, as saying, ‘people have to become the agents of their own development’. This implies, according to Boyte, ‘a radical shift of meanings from “representative democracy” and “participatory democracy” to “developmental democracy”’. This entails a shift from the citizen as a rights-bearing individual whose highest act is voting and demanding government be held accountable, or a citizen who deliberates and participates in civil society, to the citizen as the co-creator of a democratic society and government as a catalyst.

Boyte presents his concept of ‘public work’, which he has elaborated on in several publications. ‘Developmental democracy focuses on [the work of growing capacities for] self-directed collective action across differences for problem solving and the creation of individual and common goods. It depends on citizen health workers, teachers, clergy, homemakers, cab drivers, trade unionists, business owners, civil servants and others who recognize the civic potentials of their fellow citizens and are themselves liberated by work with larger meaning and the increase in civic energies such work generates. It conceives of democracy as a society, promoting action across “state”, “civil society” and “markets”. It points towards institutional and cultural change’.

An important element in such a deepened democracy is ‘self direction’. People and communities act based on their own values and interests – not only to satisfy their material desires but collectively and for the common good. Because of this self-direction, intellectuals and external experts acquire a different role. Instead of advising and helping, they serve local communities, especially by acting as catalysts for CDC processes. And perhaps they promote horizontal exchange between all the local CDC activities that are already taking place.

Another aspect of deepened democracy is the construction of places and processes where differences engage rather than collide. Multi-stakeholder forums and mediated events are examples, as are the WSF and other regional and national social forums that try to advance radical, horizontal democracy. According to Teivo Teivainen, who was closely involved in organizing the WSF, ‘as compared to previous transnational alliances seeking radical change of the worldsystem, such as the early trade-union-based movements or communist-party-based internationals, many of today’s globalization protest movements seem to take more seriously the idea that democratic change needs to be generated through democratic forms of action. … Among today’s activists, especially but not only within movements considered autonomist or anarchist, Mahatma Gandhi’s claim that “we must be the change we want to see in the world” has gained renewed importance’.

Building alternatives

Strengthening civic power in relation to the state and the market is another important element in the evolving CDC narrative. Having absolute faith in the state as the best and sole supplier of services to the public is naïve. The state not only serves the public, but must respond to greater forces as well. It may sometimes be compelled by the global economic system or international power relations to act against the immediate interests of its citizens. Rajesh Tandon cites the example of the Marxist government of the Indian state of West Bengal, which gave the order to open fire on unarmed demonstrators in the city of Nandigram. The victims were members of a people’s committee that was opposed to the compulsory relocation of farmers to allow for the establishment of a Special Economic Zone. The zone offered large tax incentives and a minimum of protection for labour – the archetypical symbol of unbridled capitalism.

Strengthening civic power must however go further than just countervailing power, the power to challenge the established order; citizens have a responsibility to work together to come up with alternatives themselves, without relieving the state of its own responsibilities. ‘We have to go from saying no to saying yes’, says Paul Graham, director of IDASA in South Africa and one of the reviewers of the core group’s essays together with Kumi Naidoo, Lenka Setkova and Nijala Gopal Jayal. ‘We have to move from a culture of resistance to a culture of construction’.

That is also the crucial difference between anti-globalists and alter-globalists. The former owe their existence to a much more powerful opponent: the state, the global market, the elite, the multinationals. Until now, many success stories of civic action have been ‘narratives of protest and resistance’, writes Tandon. Much CDC takes the form of protest against the fact that ‘contemporary neoliberal and statist paradigms are perpetuating the forces of marginalization, exploitation and exclusion’.

By contrast, Tandon proposes that civic agency as such has its own intrinsic value for public good; the ‘primacy of civic driven change’ means the ‘co-creation’ of solutions for collective well-being which can’t or won’t be provided by the state or the market. CDC means believing in one’s own strength and building up joint power.

CDC is normative

Civic driven change has been compared to economist William Easterly’s plea for ‘seekers’ instead of ‘planners’. But Easterly scarcely elaborates the notion of ‘seeking’, leaving it to the free play of market forces and thereby degrading the individual to an economic animal primarily concerned with material gain. CDC is on the contrary ‘unashamedly normative’, in the words of Fowler and Biekart. The central concept in that normative process, to distinguish CDC from all kinds of ‘uncivic and undemocratic agency’, is ‘inclusion’.

In a sense this term is an extension of the radical democratic thinking that underpins CDC, because struggles for inclusion – for participation, equality, access – are being fought everywhere: in the state, the market, families, businesses, political parties, NGOs and civil society. Inclusion means respecting those who are different. It also means a concern for the ‘whole’ of society over time and at different scales of knowledge and action, from immediate and physically proximate to inter-generational and ecologically global.

Although there are a number of general criteria for what ‘civic behaviour’ entails, who determines at a more concrete level what is ‘civic’ and what is ‘uncivic’? That question is addressed by Nilda Bullain. In her essay, Bullain writes, ‘Civic action is not good in itself. Very often, civic action is based on values that are unacceptable in a democracy – racism, sexism, chauvinism, segregation, violence’. She has seen this herself in recent Eastern European and Balkan history.

Others in the CDC group may think action based on such values is uncivic, but on the other hand these are very real personal points of view that drive people and communities. Who determines what is right and wrong? Bullain cites a number of examples in which the value of political events is attributed differently by various observers.

Can or should international development set a standard for what is civic and what is uncivic? Bullain thinks so. ‘We all have a moral right to determine what we believe is good or bad for society… we should then, however, do away with the pretence of “respecting the local culture” and “not importing foreign models. … If we agree that people should decide by themselves what they see as an ideal way of development, why make any development interventions at all?’ Bullain concludes that, ‘any development intervention … will first need to define what it considers an ideal state and then define the exact values and principles that are the key motivators of that ideal state and which make it possible’.

Quite a dilemma, because this directly opposes the idea that people must decide for themselves, which is the essence of CDC. It also raises the question of when someone is considered a citizen. Is someone a citizen if his or her main political identity – instead of being associated with the national political system of his country – is based on ethnicity or religion, as is very often the case? How can such citizens perform ‘civic’ action? And, again, who determines what civic action is? Is demanding more autonomy for a specific group an expression of ‘civicness’, or is it exactly the opposite? The line between civic and uncivic is blurred, as many examples from around the world illustrate.

And are supposedly uncivic means, such as, according to Fowler and Biekart, ‘civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts or blockades, to attain more civic, equitable and inclusive outcomes’ always uncivic? The answer is somewhat unsatisfactory: it depends on the context. The more unjust the situation, the more ‘uncivic’ behaviour is legitimate. Altering power means conflict and, sometimes, breaking the law.

Starting from reality

‘Begin “where people are”, not where organizers think they should be’, write Biekart and Fowler, elaborating on a number of essays in the compilation. Bolivian communication specialist Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, who replaced Rajani halfway through the CDC process, says that ‘definitions of “development” are useless because what is relevant is their translation into practices that affect real lives of people. What we see is what we get’. Instead of allowing outside experts and idealists to determine what is good for people, the determination should be founded on their ‘lived reality’.

Individuals usually act on the basis of what concerns them in their personal lives and their immediate surroundings; broader ideals come later. And people’s search for solutions to their problems is largely determined by local circumstances, cultures and traditions. Kenyan theologian Philomena Njeri Mwaura points out that in most parts of the world, and certainly in Africa, religion remains a major factor, stating that ‘there can be no transformative change in the developing world unless the people themselves take the initiative from the perspective of their own beliefs, values and wisdom’’.

Even people who oppose religious institutions have to be aware that individuals consciously or unconsciously act according to religious norms and values. Religion (not only modern faiths but also animistic belief systems) is the lens through which many people view the world. It is also how they approach their natural surroundings. Tandon points out that Asiatic and European religious and secular traditions always contain elements of solidarity and include the moral and spiritual motivation to help each other. ‘We may have lost sight of it; the rise of individual consumerism and secular-intellectual discourse may have put a thick blanket over it. But it is still there, and with a sensitive touch, can be recovered and reclaimed by all human beings’.

Power mapping

One recurrent message in the essays is that ‘everyday politics’ are neglected. How do you get something done in the real world? In Teivianen’s words, ‘If civic-driven global initiatives shy away from tackling political and strategic questions, the changes they may desire are unlikely to take place. … Civic-driven democratization movements, like all others, should have a realist analysis of what is possible and what is not, and then make strategic prioritizations based on that analysis’. Especially because the focus of power is moving to a transnational level, a locally focused narrative such as CDC must provide an answer.

A first step in this endeavour is to map the powers in play and how they are being distributed and used. These powers are explained in the essays as more than formal powers in the political arena or parliament and elections. Power struggles are also fought in the fields of culture, family, community, media, knowledge supply and religion. Power expresses itself not only in formal positions but also in language and discourse. Take, for example, the current global conviction that, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘there is no alternative’ (to neo-liberalism) and the associated narrative of the End of History. This prevailing view is opposed by the much repeated call, ‘Another world is possible’.

A systematic power analysis is a condition for determining adequate strategies for CDC – for example, to detect ‘tipping points’, moments at which a certain change suddenly takes hold because of a specific constellation of circumstances. But also, emphasizes Shirin Rai, to be able to estimate the risks that certain actions may create for people at the bottom tier of society. Anyone who really wants to change power relations and challenge established interests is running a serious personal risk. These relations need to be researched at various levels: local, national and global.

Local global

CDC takes place at the local level. And it is also important that the ‘local sphere of public discourse and action is reclaimed’ by the people it concerns, according to Tandon. During one of the brainstorming sessions, the concept of ‘free spaces’ came up. In these spaces the original cultures of a neighbourhood or region and the ethnic or religious identities of the residents must be allowed to develop to their full potential as ‘co-creators’ of their own environment and future.

However, these local initiatives have to connect to the national and global levels, because those are the spaces in which political and economic processes increasingly take place and which, accordingly, influence the possibilities for change at the local level. CDC initiatives are not imaginary; they are already being performed, all over the world, by thousands of people. But the micro-level changes they bring about are hardly noticed outside their own communities, according to Tandon, who asks, ‘Is it because they do not have a systemic impact?’

Tandon and other authors endorse Rajani’s statement that ‘small is no longer beautiful, or effective, or meaningful’. Decisions are made increasingly at the supranational level. Global capital flows, multinationals and international institutions operate way beyond the reach of normal people. That is why local initiatives have to be linked horizontally in a national and even a global network, so that the great gap between local, national and global can be bridged. Otherwise all these initiatives have little impact.

But, Tandon asks, how can we imagine civic driven change as a global driver of deepening democracy without it necessarily operating at global level? And how can we identify this need for upscaling and power formation with the deepening of democracy? In his essay on the internal discussions and dilemmas in the WSF, Teivainen addresses such questions as how to remain democratic and not become entrapped in hierarchical structures? And especially, how should that be combined with the need to act strategically and become a serious power factor that brings us closer to an alternative world order?

The WSF was conceived, Teivainen writes, as something that is not a political party, not an NGO, and not a social movement. ‘One of the most important concepts that the initiators of the WSF process have used to describe it is “open space”’. This was the strength of the WSF, and its weakness. ‘This democratic co-existence in the open spaces created by the movements has been refreshing and empowering. At the same time, its relativistic undertones can become frustrating for the task of devising effective strategies to change the world’.

Difficult dilemmas, but what is clear is that they won’t be solved by copying old concepts of state-centred politics. It is not a matter of creating a ‘world government’ or global political parties. It is learning by doing; it is experimenting. There is an urgent need for alternative concepts. According to Teivianen, the formulation of ‘models of transnational, cosmopolitan or global democratic institutions of the future, can provide inspiration for those who might struggle for their realization. Such models are also important for the task of undermining the existing networks of power, because the legitimacy of the latter has been largely based on the there-is-no-alternative discourse’.

Biekart and Fowler describe in their concluding essay as a ‘guiding philosophy for CDC’ one where the ‘co-responsibilities for sustaining the global commons for everyone stand central’. This as an alternative for the current ‘over-reliance on economic growth that emphasizes accumulation over distribution and a moral and practical failure of (market-driven) partypolitics and democracy on many scales’ which feeds ‘instability and … disempowers citizens as agents in charge of their own development’.

Practical implications

Concrete strategies and instruments are needed to put CDC into practice. One important element, according to Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, is communication, which he distinguishes from information. Providing information is a one-way and top-down process. Communication, on the other hand, means that power will be shared. Communication enables citizens to take part in decision-making processes. Communication is also a crucial aspect in the translation of civic involvement into collective action for change. Instead of vertical flows of information, communication is about horizontal exchange and dialogue. Communication connects people and the hundreds of small CDC initiatives that take place at the local level, for example through the use of ICT but also through the active involvement of ‘communicators’: one of the roles NGOs can play.

Similarly, Harry Boyte reflects on the roles that NGOs and professionals can play by using the dichotomy between ‘mobilizing’ (top-down) and ‘organizing’ (horizontal). Mobilizing assumes the existence of an ‘enemy’ and a problem defined in advance against which activists try to persuade people to take action. Community organizing on the other hand means building up organizations and developing skills so that people can define their own problems – Boyte presents a lot of examples from the US in the 1930s and from South Africa in more recent times – and learn to analyze the power relations in their own environments.

‘What do we do on Monday morning’? is the very practical question Fowler and Biekart try to answer in their concluding essay, trying to define some concrete applications of these abstract ideas for private development organizations. Although they do provide some instruments and preliminary answers, it is much too early to draw any far-reaching conclusions from these main aspects that have emerged so far from the CDC Initiative. The essays and debates are intended only as a starting point for the discussion that will now hopefully develop. A first step was taken with the publication of the essays in October. The Broker calls on readers to respond. The debate will be followed up in the coming issues and on the website.

The author wishes to thank the following for their critical reviews of earlier drafts: Willemijn Verkoren, Ellen Lammers, Chris van der Borgh, Alan Fowler and Kees Biekart.

For more information visit the ISS website.