Workshop 11: Civil disobedience or uncivic action?

Civic Action28 Jul 2009The Broker

Author: Jill van der Vlugt, Chair: Peter Konijn

Case: Both Ends – ‘Rightful resistance’: on protest in countries such as China and Vietnam

Presenter: Pieter Jansen


  • To support civic actions in states where there are autocratic regimes or only partially democratic systems
  • To make use of shifting opportunity structures
  • To ‘work’ a political system for the poor (and environment)- Using conferences to search for recommendations on how to proceed with monitoring an ongoing infrastructure project- exchange of experiences- knowledge building on ‘rightful resistance’
  • To follow the Asian Development Bank (ADB)
  • To improve the livelihoods of displaced persons and build contacts with them
  • To contact policy makers at various levels
  • To seek out and support CDC NGOs in Asia to help them counter the negative influence of the ADB as a consequence of criticizing the bank, as well as NGOs that have hosted politically sensitive events.


  • Exploring legal tactics
  • Building alliances within the government
  • Mixing with strategies of (collective) uncivic action
  • Using the language of policy makers
  • Using existing law and action within political structures

CDC angle

  • Supporting citizens who take high political risks despite uncertain results
  • In China and Vietnam there is a growing consciousness and a more contractual approach to politics
  • There seems to be more room for civic action to emerge.
  • Work together with displaced persons: cooperation.


  • Monitor the development of large infrastructure projects.
  • Political space is limited

Case selection

  • In Vietnam a large infrastructure project has been launched and supported by the Asian Development Bank (Hanoi–Kunming highway).
  • Many people have been displaced
  • Personal interest of Both Ends


  • What are the experiences in China?- There is resistance- There are no group with the same interests- There are no groups- People are put under house arrest when they show resistance- Policy makers are now including the environment in their programme planning- Difficult for outsiders to enter- One must know key people- Trust is a big issue; you must be trusted before you can meet key people at the core of the community.- The state does not let outsiders meddle in its businesses- One have to make a connection before starting locally
  • Complementary experiences?- Vietnam women’s union- People dealt with difficult issues together – Within the system- When necessary, they are willing to confront- confrontational and constructive/smooth tactics are complementary
  • Difficulties with confrontational tactics and support.- Cordaid does not support confrontational tactics because they provoke too much (negative) attention to the organization. Donors and other actors can draw conclusions from other actions, like not wanting to cooperate with Cordaid. That way one project may have consequences for all the others. A balance must be found between resistance and constructive tactics.
  • Civil disobedience is never un-civic, because you act as a citizen, but the law is sometimes ‘unlawful’. Civic is not just what the law allows.
  • Where does the boundary lie if we wish to go beyond the law but at the same time to establish positive things for citizens?
  • Big versus small interest groups, the state is very powerful.
  • Law as an instrument or as the basis for action?
  • The framework is always normative, how far do you stretch this?
  • How do you judge your own interventions?
  • What is the role of the outsider – a modest role, not neutral?
  • What means do you use to reach goal?

Lessons learned

  • There are many differences between the Netherlands and Vietnam. In the Netherlands there was a lot of support for CDC processes in Vietnam, but there people and politics work differently.
  • Standards and compulsory guidelines to be followed can be used as entry points to get closer to local people
  • There is limited space to connect with local people: the difficulties of entering a community and building trust need to be overcome before we can talk about politically sensitive subjects.
  • In these countries there is a lot of ambiguity over rules: sometimes they are applied, sometimes they are not.
  • One can use the same structure, but different people within the structure to establish things. Some give access to locals, others to government structures.
  • One often needs an ‘intermediary’ who can make contact with key people, but these people are not objective.
  • Choosing the means is important in reaching a goal.
  • Path-dependency in action: if one starts with violence, violence will continue. Choose your means carefully.
  • Civic–uncivic is normative
  • Obedience–disobedience is law-based
  • A balance is needed between harmonious and confrontational tactics