Moving targets: notes on social movements

23 March 2010

Social movements cannot be built or engineered, but outside actors - such as aid agencies seeking to support transformative change - can play a constructive role in enabling an environment in which movements can flourish and expand their outreach.

Policy guidance for social movement support

  • As power migrates to supra-national levels and redefines executive power and institutions at national and local levels, social movements arechallenged to engage on all these levels

    Many social movements operate at domestic levels only. Yet, as globalisation advances, power moves to supra-national levels, redefining domestic spaces and their political relevance. Capacities to see and grasp opportunities at all these levels, including the forming of alliances,are of increasing importance for emancipatory movements of many kinds. This needs to be combined with insights on how local and domestic executive authority and accountability mechanisms are functioning and shaped in a globalised context.
  • Effective social movements’ lasting contributions emerge in a changed climate of ideas rather than in changed policies

    It can often make sense to see social movements as vessels or vehicles for ideas – that is, interms of belief systems, norms, means of framing and ranking issues. Their ideas almost never get a ‘free ride’; they evolve in competitive, and sometimes hostile, environments. Monitoring achievements and setbacks in these ‘battles of ideas’ is no simple task, since it must focus on intangible developments in diverse arenas through often unclear processes.
  • Some donor preferences and practices to support social movements can be disabling

    Because effective social movements usually require effective states, development approaches that weaken the state and public politics should be reversed. Yet approaches promoted by all official (bilateral and multilateral) donors since around 1980, persisting in somewhat softer versions up to the present moment, have not stopped the rot. Many international NGOs havegone along with the official mainstream, some of them participating actively in creating aid chains that by-pass the state.22 Those approaches and other policies have crippled public finance, promoted de-regulation and privatization and banked heavily on non-state actors, bothfor-profit and not-for-profit. As a result, in many countries the public sector and the rule of law are weaker, even to the point of collapse. That has often meant weaker incentives and protections for emancipatory social movements, with de-mobilizing effects. Thus a further challenge to outside agencies is to put an end to approaches pursued by their own collegial agencies, and by official back donors, whose ultimate effect is to de-mobilise people.
  • Direct support to social movements needs careful consideration.

    There are valid arguments to be cautious about the practice of direct, open-ended subsidies by funders who themselves are not part of social movements. There is need for sophistication, given the precautionary principle of ‘do no harm’. A guiding hypothesis is that social movements can flourish without direct outside subsidies. An enabling environment would be one with more and better ‘infrastructure’, such as independent public media and stronger political-legal mechanisms, to allow them to work. It would also be one with stronger and more transparent public processes of decision-making and accountability. There is evidence - such as from the shackdwellers’ movements in some African cities and major landless peoples alliances - that emancipatory social movements can make significant anti-poverty gains by engaging with local level authorities, not by merely denouncing them. Of course there are risks of official co-option and manipulation of citizen initiatives. Yet movements like the shackdwellers movement and the landless movement have preserved much of their autonomy and critical edge.

Published by HIVOS

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