Nestled beneath the snowcapped mountains separating Italy and Switzerland lies the picturesque town of Bellagio. It is an unusual place for civil society activists to meet to discuss changing the world and confronting the rising poverty and inequality. Sitting on the serene, turquoise, mirrored tranquility of Lake Como, it is the playground of celebrity billionaires and gawking tourists. The lawns are manicured, the trees pruned to perfection and the waiters are impeccable. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with shops displaying gorgeous Italian cuisine and labels. There are the two types of people in this town, those who serve and those who are served.
We are at a Civicus-hosted meeting, at the Rockefeller Foundation retreat, which offers us a rare and incredible step into the world that we only see in Hollywood movies. And so it is no surprise that the 007 movie, Casino Royale, was shot along the shores of Lake Como. Or that in one of the towns close by, Mussolini, the ‘El Duce’ of fascism, was executed by partisan forces in 1945. But it also provides the space for thought leadership from the widest spectrum of political and social actors to discuss the pressing challenges of the world far from the trenches of hardship and suffering of half of humanity.
The broad spectrum of experience around the table in earnest conversation from morning till late at night brings together North and South, political scientists, street fighters from the most marginalised communities, techies who understand the shifting world and global policy makers and activists from civil society. We are here to discuss the shrinking political space for social activism, the political narrative of civil society and labour in the context of the ferment in the world that seems to be leaving leaders of civil society behind. It is a brutal conversation about the professionalisation and contestation across civil society that sees its leaders increasingly alienated from their grass roots.
The consensus is that civic space and voice is under attack by an incestuous nexus of predatory economic and political elites who are determined to capture state power in many of our countries. As one African activist said, “Our government is dysfunctional. In a country where the bulk of people are poor and the aging dictators cling to power, it means that our societies are dysfunctional. Democratic processes are subverted as elections are stolen and ‘Godfathers’ choose their successors who come from their corrupt circles and families.”
The same refrain continues.
“Our governments are the elephant in the room. We need greater transparency. We see the explosion of mobile telephony in Africa with more than 700 million phones. We are connected. Now we need to follow the money. We need tools that show us how government spends our money. And that will empower citizens to demand their rights to textbooks, desks, libraries in our schools; to know how much money is set aside for medicines in our local clinic and how ministers and state officials spend our money on their expense accounts. That is knowledge and it will give us power,” says Ashok Kumar Bharti, a leader of the Dalits in India.
“Our public systems are failing the most marginalised of the poor, the bottom billion. Resources are set aside for distribution through the public delivery system. We know that much of it does not reach the poorest of the poor because patronage and bureaucracy soaks it up,” he continues.
While there is much celebration on the improved health and poverty statistics arising out of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), social justice campaigners need to pose tough questions on disaggregating the data and measuring it against our standard.
Is the poverty indicator of $1,25 per day a justifiable measure? Are we buying into this hypothesis? Can some civil society leader who espouses this as a success spend six months raising his or her family on this pittance? Can we study the data and make conclusions about sub-Saharan Africa as separate from the data coming out of China? Are we prepared to debate the sustainability of the current resource driven growth trajectory and its implications for the environment?
Failing to understand the inter-connectedness of our struggles was identified as one of our biggest challenges. The silos of development, environment and labour have to be bridged. Women smallholder farmers who produce the bulk of our food in Asia and Africa don’t want to hear about carbon emissions or the Rio negotiations in the UNFCCC. They see the water drying up in the rivers and lakes, the fish dying, the impact of armed conflicts over competition on scarce grazing lands. They experience extreme weather and temperatures, prolonged droughts, rains that come late and that are torrential, that destroy their harvests and increase their household food insecurity. They want action in their community around their issues.
There was an explicit agreement that we cannot operate in silos any more. The struggles against poverty and inequality, for better health and education, for decisive action against the climate crisis and the rights of workers and social protection, are all interconnected. Joblessness and poverty are now a global phenomenon, not just a North and South issue. Citizens have common interests while their governments and markets will have differentiated interests. Civil society and social movements need their attention refocused towards the building of constituency power. Our representational role in multi-lateral high-level processes can only be legitimate if connected with the realities of the bread-and-butter issues that face the poor in our communities.
So what should be our political narrative?
Development is political. It is not linear, but complex, and we operate in a political minefield. It has to be to be seen through a prism of buildingsolidarity, justice, dignity and human rights. The facts of growing inequality and the burden of disease kill an innocent child every five seconds; a third of our mothers, sisters and daughters face violent abuse and rape daily; and a billion people will go to bed hungry every night. All this is political. To reduce this to a set of technical indicators, no matter how noble our intentions, is a false premise. We need relevant, useful, valid data and the technical tools and approaches to strength local struggles and build accountability from the ground upwards.
History has always demonstrated that meaningful transformative change only comes through the struggles of active citizens. Therefore a change strategy that keeps citizens as passive recipients and bystanders is doomed to failure. Civil society and social movements’ biggest fight should be to preserve their independence from the political capture of elites, intent on making them conveyor belts of corrupt sectarian interests and vote banks of the political elites at elections.
The role of global or national organisations is to defend this space, build the global best practice, cross-fertilise networks across the world and provide the aerial cover in terms of moral, political, social and material support needed at a national and community level. The most important voices in the global debate have to be local voices. It means a sea change in global leadership; understanding that the first step is learning to LISTEN.
We live at a time when the global multi-lateral system is under threat. From the Rio climate negotiations to the Doho talks on development in the WTO, the body of our commitment to a better, more equitable world lies in the intensive care unit. There should be no retreat from the commitments that global leaders made in the Millennium Declaration of 2000. As we begin intergovernmental negotiations towards a post-2015 framework, the only barrier separating our humanity from the promise of a better world for all is the power of citizens to hold their leaders to account.
The challenge is to go from the ivory towers of our global discussions to the trenches of suffering and hardship in our townships, slums, factories and villages, not just opposing oppression but fighting for solutions we have to the greatest predicament of human history – the survival of the human race and the only planet we have.
We must stand up and make our voices heard, starting now.
This piece was originally posted by The Daily Maverick.