We need more support for grassroots social movements, not scepticism

We need more support for grassroots social movements, not scepticism

Date: 20 December 2011

I often read Duncan Green’s, Oxfam’s Head of Research, thoughtful blog, From Poverty to Power. Sometimes I agree with his views, sometimes I don’t.

Though of course we are colleagues in international development, the World Development Movement’s views can occasionally diverge from that of Oxfam’s. We are far more cautious when it comes to the role of markets, for example, and our tactics towards achieving change are undoubtedly, shall we say, more bold. I can’t quite imagine Oxfam commissioning The Real George Osborne or driving a tank through the City of London. But these are healthy differences that in the end make for an exciting and diverse sector. 

Two blog posts in the last two days have given me cause for concern, though, and have inspired me to put pen to paper. The first was a post rounding up the massive events of 2011, most importantly the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. 

In Madrid, Washington, London and dozens of other cities, a rather more sedate protest movement raised the question of whether a single global movement is emerging. I’m sceptical, though certain themes – of inequality, greed and injustice – emerged in common. What was universal was “active citizenship” – people taking matters into their own hands – in many cases, with historic results.”

I’m not sure how historic results lead to scepticism, but I would certainly disagree that these movements are not connected. Our experience shows quite the opposite, perhaps because we’re more strongly connected ourselves to activist movements around the world.

We walked alongside those who formed the Spanish Indignados at WTO and G20 events, which eventually gave rise to actions across Europe and beyond. Our 6 Billion Ways event in March this year brought activists from Egypt alongside those who would later start up the Occupy movement in different cities in the UK. We worked with the Climate Justice movement in Cancun and Durban, with people from across the North and South, many of whom are expressing the same concerns – that corporations and other elites should not be dictating our policies on climate and energy, public services, food or health. The themes, the people and the movement are very much connected. One need only follow some of the key voices on Twitter to see that. 

The second of Duncan’s posts raised the debates between the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, and the WTO over the role of trade in food and is  sceptical about the concept of food sovereignty, something which the World Development Movement is fully in favour of.

“I still don’t buy the food sovereignty line about farmers in all countries having the ‘right to produce'”, he writes. Food sovereignty is the right of people to define their own food systems. It may not mean that trade is wholly rejected, but it does urge that local and national economies and markets and the rights of small holder farmers should be prioritised. Oxfam has long been an advocate of the rights based agenda, so how does food sovereignty go against that? 

Oxfam recently spearheaded a discussion with NGOs called “Finding Frames” where it argued that we need to remember we’re part of a wider social movement – not top-down charities, using celebrities as basically sales figures to get people to give more.

The report and discussion that has ensued has been a useful recognition of a wider trend in the international development sector, which has strayed away from its core purpose – ending poverty and challenging power. The Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and the food sovereignty movement are all about these same goals. It’s the responsibility of Oxfam and the rest of us in international development to make, consolidate and expand the links between these movements and with others challenging the power structures that keep people in poverty.

Only I’m not quite sure Oxfam has fully taken this on board.