Back to the grassroots – a view from the Johannesburg International Civil Society Week

Last week CONCORD Communications Coordinator Daniel Puglisi attended the Civil Society Week in Johannesburg. I asked him for his personal impressions in this blog:

By Daniel Puglisi

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Photo: the birth of the Generation2030 movement.

Many of the large, globally recognized NGOs that today are household names across the world started out as small, ad hoc campaigns and movements, often at local level.

They often rallied around a specific cause or action, like a famine or a conflict. Volunteers and private donations made up the bulk of their resources.

Yes, once upon a time, they were all “grassroots” organisations. The real deal. Connected to “the street”. Authentic. Legitimate. Activists.

Yet the explosion of social movements in recent years, from the people’s uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East to the indignados in Spain, seems to have caught many NGOs by surprise. Caught between a policy paper and a protest.

There was no strategic plan “Arab Spring” 2011 document to follow. You could argue that during these events some NGOs were positioned closer to institutions and donors than to citizens.

Since then there’s been a bit of an identity crisis in some parts of the sector. A fall in funding for many NGOs has also promoted a re-think of their basic operations. Globally, political space for civil society in many parts of the world is also shrinking, according to the United Nations. Even within the European Union we are starting to see some crackdowns on NGOs.

From listening to talks at the International Civil Society Week, organized by CIVICUS in Johannesburg from 19-24 November, it seems many established civil society organisations now want to go full circle, back to their (grass) roots and reconnect with their original citizen base.

The first event I attended, organized by CONCORD’s DEEEP project, the ‘Global Citizens Conference‘, talked about the need to reach out to social movements and connect with grassroots organisations. All in the context of building a ‘global citizens movement’. A good summary of the event can be found here.

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2015 – a milestone year

Next year we could see a lot of new collaborations between established NGOs and grassroots movements under the umbrella of the Action/2015 campaign, which held its assembly in Johannesburg on 21 November.

CONCORD was represented at the assembly by Ana Alcalde from Spain, who explained that Action2015 will mainly concentrate on mobilization rather than advocacy like the Beyond2015 campaign.

Action2015 says it aims to focus on “large-scale mass-mobilisation campaigns to compel substantive political action at COP-UNFCCC and in the design of the post-2015 SDGs.”

Already several civil society organisations in Asia, Africa and Latin America are planning activities.

In Europe, NGOs will already be involved with the official European Year for Development and perhaps connections can be made.

The ‘Generation 2030 Movement’

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One of the most interesting ideas that came of the Action2015 assembly was to develop a new worldwide movement of young people, supported by their “intergenerational allies” (an alternative way to say older people).

While it’s still very much in development – I’m not sure if the name will stick – getting young people involved in discussions on their own future can only be a good thing.

At the same time I’ve often found campaigns on youth rather tokenistic, using ‘youth’ as an appealing brand for fundraising purposes. I’m sure this won’t be the case this time though.

Many of those moving this idea forward were youth activists themselves, such as Sebastian Vielmas from the Chilean students movement.

I definitely feel that empowering young people – there’s already a large disconnect between youth and political participation even in richer countries – to challenge global inequalities is where the power for change lies.

Let’s see if civil society organisations can see the opportunity here and not only go back to the grassroots but inspire the “youth bomb” to come.

Contact: dpuglisi@concordeurope.org