An open letter to our fellow activists across the globe: Building from below and beyond borders

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Dear friend,

Six decades after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, creating a global covenant affirming the fact that ‘all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights,’ the vision lies in tatters, made worthless by the ever-increasing chasm between haves and have-nots.

Today our world is polarised into the 1% who control the world’s resources and the 99% who are on the receiving end of an unprecedented pillage of people’s labour, their lands and livelihoods. The confluence of disasters and crises (including climate change, poverty, inequality, wars) has brought our planet and the human species to the edge of a precipice.

Around the world, ordinary people are losing trust in the global governance system.  They have little faith in elected governments and public institutions. They do not believe that big corporations tell them the truth. They see the international intergovernmental system as irrelevant at best and ineffectual at worst.  They experience it as a system established to regulate the rules that are beholden to powerful predatory economic and political elites.

Yet still they dream of equality and rights.  Indeed, beyond dreaming, many actively fight for it in their daily lives.  Across all continents, people rise up on the streets, in slums and villages and towns and cities, in protest to demand jobs and decent education and health for their communities.

They have done so to end corruption, they have marched to demand participation in the decisions that affect their lives and they have risen to demand basic services like water and sanitation. At the very heart of their struggle lies their refusal to accept the glaring inequality that sits at the heart of the new world order.

Sadly, those of us who work in civil society organisations nationally and globally have come to be identified as part of the problem.  We are the poor cousins of the global jet set.  We exist to challenge the status quo, but we trade in incremental change.  Our actions are clearly not sufficient to address the mounting anger and demand for systemic political and economic transformation that we see in cities and communities around the world every day.

A new and increasingly connected generation of women and men activists across the globe question how much of our energy is trapped in the internal bureaucracy and the comfort of our brands and organisations.  They move quickly, often without the kinds of structures that slow us down.  In doing so, they challenge how much time we – you and I – spend in elite conferences and tracking policy cycles that have little or no outcomes for the poor.

They criticise how much we look up to those in power rather than see the world through the eyes of our own people. Many of them, sometimes rightfully, feel we have become just another layer of the system and development industry that perpetuates injustice.

We cannot ignore these questions any longer.

We need a meaningful commitment to a set of global organising principles and a model for the world we want. These must include:

  1. Insisting that the voices and actions of people are at the heart of our work.  Our primary accountability cannot be to donors.  Instead it must be to everyone that is or has been on the losing end of globalisation and inequality and to the generation that will inherit a catastrophic future.
  2. Consciously constructing our organisations around women and men of diverse ideological identities to fight corporatism within our own ranks.  This means re-balancing power dynamics towards the less resourced sections of civil society and away from large international civil society organisations.  It also means recognising the power and importance of informal networks and associations.  Our resources and might matter, but so too, does the wisdom of the street.
  3. Lay the foundations to build global people-to-people solidarity from below and a united front of active citizens. Without organised peoples’ movements’ support, the institutions we build will lack understanding of the very people we claim to serve. Without a radical re-think of the way we organise, global campaigns will be denied the support they require to consolidate the new societies that we all wish to build.
  4. Promote and protect media, civic and democratic space for citizens to self-organise, express themselves and take action.

This criticism of ourselves does not suggest that global civil society organisations and the people who work within them on a daily basis are not engaged in crucial and strategic work.  Nor are we suggesting that your work should replace the work of protesters.  We critique as people who respect the gains that have been won by global activists, and who also understand that our success has sometimes taken us away from listening to and understanding the needs of our core constituencies.

We offer this critique because we have watched with increasing anxiety as civil society has been co-opted by processes in which we are outwitted and out manoeuvred.

We critique because we recognise that we have less and less power within the international system that determines the rules of the development game. This means that when big meetings happen to discuss the future of our planet, they do so without any meaningful involvement of the voices of real people.

The UN focus towards 2015 on averting climate chaos, sustainable development goals and trade reform offers a global platform to consciously build people’s power from the bottom-up, and across borders. If we have the people’s will with us, we can build a broad united front of social movements, labour, faith-based and CSO alliances.  These frameworks matter because they determine the rules that affect our future generations.

In this context we invite you:

  • To reflect on the significance of this call for the organisations you serve. It means passing it on, discussing it with colleagues, partners, allies and friends, debating it, defending it or rejecting it, but engaging with it regardless.
  • Set the path for a radical re-haul of civil society in order to get back to our roots and organise to build people’s power and define a future based on local initiatives and organising.
  • Challenge the business as usual approach. Prioritise a local community meeting rather than the big glitzy conferences where outcomes are pre-determined. Demand diversity in these conferences if you attend.
  • Share your views on this statement at

In the days leading up to International Civil Society Week, 19-25 November 2014, hundreds of activists from around the world, including youth, from a wide range of backgrounds, will meet in South Africa to discuss these issues, build solidarity and design actions. A draft manifesto and programme of action will be presented to the delegates taking part in the CIVICUS World Assembly on 24 November 2014 and we hope to emerge with a popularly-accepted and pragmatic programme of action.

Together we can radically and pragmatically transform our policies, practices and relationships to match the imagination and expectation of the billions around the world that are currently voicing their discontent. To continue in the manner we have done thus far would be irresponsible and represent this generation’s lost opportunity.

We welcome a frank and brutally honest dialogue. Time is running out. The space that humanity finds itself in today requires us to stop patting ourselves on the back and to urgently do something to avert the impending long-term disaster. We need to tell the truth. We need to come up with solutions. And then, we need to act.

Yours Sincerely,

Signed, in a personal capacity, at Rustlers Valley, South Africa, 18 July 2014, by

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Irũngũ Houghton, Society for International Development
Jay Naidoo, Earthrise Trust
Jenny Hodgson, Global Fund for Community Foundations
Liv Tørres, Norwegian People’s Aid
Mark Heywood, Section27
Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, Greenpeace Africa
Siphokazi Mthati, Oxfam South Africa 

Endorsed, in a personal capacity, by
Adriano Campolina, ActionAid International
Anabel Cruz, CIVICUS Board of Directors
Anele Yawa, Treatment Action Campaign
Anselmo Lee, Asia Development Alliance (ADA)
Ashok Bharti, National Confederation of Dalit Organisations
Aya Chebbi, Voice of Women Initiative
Caroline Skinner, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International
Elisa Peter, CIVICUS Board of Directors
Ezra Mbogori, Akiba Uhaki
Feliciano Reyna Ganteaume, CIVICUS Board of Directors
Hadeel Ibrahim, Mo Ibrahim Foundation
Joanna Kerr, CIVICUS Board of Directors
Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International
Magnus Walan, Diakonia
Nabila Hamza, CIVICUS Board of Directors
Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International
Nnimmo Bassey, Health of Mother Earth Foundation
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Chair of CIVICUS Board of Directors
Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation
Sheela Patel, Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers
Uygar Özesmi, CIVICUS Board of Directors
Vuyiseka Dubula, Sonke Gender Justice
Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International
Ziad Abdel Samad, Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND)